The combination of decent interior space and strong, frugal engines gives the ideal combination of performance and parsimony.
Such is the intense competition in this sector that three of these cars are new (BMW, Vauxhall and Volkswagen), one is in run-out (Mercedes-Benz) and another (Audi) gets a facelift next year.
It therefore makes it important for fleet managers to know where they stand in this fast-moving environment, especially as user-choosers often like to have the latest and the greatest.
In fleet, the new Astra and Golf are key entrants and have been set up to deliver everything a fleet manager should need from a running cost perspective. They are also pretty complete cars when it comes to the driving experience.
However, the status quo could be well and truly upset by the arrival of the BMW 1-series. BMW has dabbled in lower-medium hatchbacks before with the 3-series Compact but it never truly convinced. The new car, however, is the real deal and will no doubt be popular. Will our panel put it top of the table on its first appearance?
Alfa Romeo 147 1.9 JTD Multijet Lusso 5dr
P11D price £17,977
2004 CO2 BIK tax bill (22%/40%) £791/£1,438
2004 VED bill £135
LeasePlan Fleetline £409.33
Lex Vehicle Leasing £373.46
Custom Fleet £384.53
Lloyds TSB autolease £381.91
Audi A3 1.9 TDi SE
P11D price £18,730
2004 CO2 BIK tax bill (22%/40%) £630/£1,145
2004 VED bill £115
LeasePlan Fleetline £355.99
Lex Vehicle Leasing £362.25
Custom Fleet £344.61
Lloyds TSB autolease £354.79
P11D price £18,677
2004 CO2 BIK tax bill (22%/40%) £657/£1,195
2004 VED bill £135
LeasePlan Fleetline £356.86
Lex Vehicle Leasing £367.77
Custom Fleet £340.73
Lloyds TSB autolease £358.38
Mercedes-Benz A170 CDI Avantgarde ACS
P11D price £18,062
2004 CO2 BIK tax bill (22%/40%) £715/£1,300
2004 VED bill £115
LeasePlan Fleetline £403.74
Lex Vehicle Leasing £397.58
Custom Fleet £390.61
Lloyds TSB autolease £386.07
Vauxhall Astra 1.9 CDTi SRi 150
P11D price £17,022
2004 CO2 BIK tax bill (22%/40%) £637/£1,157
2004 VED bill £135
LeasePlan Fleetline £386.27
Lex Vehicle Leasing £351.70
Custom Fleet £377.12
Lloyds TSB autolease £383.16
Volkswagen Golf 2.0 GT TDI
P11D price £18,357
2004 CO2 BIK tax bill (22%/40%) £646/£1,175
2004 VED bill £135
LeasePlan Fleetline £343.77
Lex Vehicle Leasing £352.85
Custom Fleet £348.76
Lloyds TSB autolease £362.94
Head of LeasePlan Fleetline
This sector of the fleet market is ever increasing as drivers are looking for better quality and more tax-efficient vehicles.
The Golf, the leader of this sector since it was first produced, has found its superiority under threat in recent years with the introduction of the Audi A3 and Mercedes-Benz A-class.
BMW has finally entered the market with the 1-series and early reports suggest this will be the car to beat with typical BMW quality and refinement.
The Audi A3, Volkswagen Golf and Vauxhall Astra have all undergone complete facelifts recently to increase their appeal while the Mercedes-Benz A-class is due for refreshment next year.
With strong residuals, low CO2 emissions and competitive rentals, the BMW 1-series, Audi A3 and VW Golf will always be the choice of those looking for credibility and lower running costs.
Pricing manager, Lloyds TSB autolease
The latest Golf GT TDI looks the business from the outside but unfortunately is let down by a plain interior. However, the VW brand has good residual values and low running costs which mean competitive rentals.
Two of the best-looking vehicles in this category are the Vauxhall Astra 1.9 CDTi and Alfa 147. The Astra’s engine provides SRi performance with good fuel economy and a low BIK rating.
The Alfa looks great but has reliability concerns.
The BMW 120d is a handsome alternative to the compact and the Mercedes-Benz A170 CDi now represents good value for money.
The best vehicle in this class is the Audi A3 1.9TDi SE. It boasts excellent all round build quality and a design that should ensure the A3 stays top of its class.
This SE diesel model is hard to beat for economy and refinement.
Dean woodward, consultancy manager,
DaimlerChrysler Services Fleet Management
This sector is extremely popular because it is renowned for efficiency under the CO2-based tax regime.
However, the majority of the vehicles featured are in the upper level of their model range so their P11d value goes against them.
Increasing numbers of manufacturers are entering this sector to offer drivers a compact vehicle with an executive feel. Most of the vehicles are either new model entrants or have a young product lifecycle.
The exception is the current A-class, which is currently on run-out.
The German marques have strong residuals mainly due to their perceived quality and engineering and the desire to aspire. The new BMW 1-series provides an entry-level variant into BMW ownership, sporting unusual bodylines and posture. The Golf has some 30 years of heritage and is well established in the market with a loyal following.
The A3 and A-class have the most fuel-efficient engines and make good economical sense for those suffering directly from increased fuel costs. The Alfa 147 is marred by perceived unreliability and high maintenance costs.
Trade services manager, Custom Fleet
The out-standing new BMW 1- series looks a winner on every front. The strongest residual value in class and lowest maintenance costs combine to produce the most competitive monthly rentals, despite having the highest front-end price in this group.
It’s a stylish and good-looking car that will be an excellent performer on the used market and its outstanding 2.0-litre diesel Euro-IV 161bhp powertrain makes it more than a match in the power stakes.
The closest rival is the Audi A3, while the Golf 2.0 GT TDI is reliable, dependable and worthy of third place in this company.
The new Astra 1.9CDTi has an excellent Euro IV-compliant low-emission engine and, although its residual value performance isn’t the most robust, it is still a very good car. The A-class looks expensive in this company and, while the car does nothing badly, it is in need of the planned overhaul. Our candidate for the ‘must do better’ award is the Alfa 147, which attracts the poorest residuals. It’s also the only one without a Euro IV-compliant engine, virtually unforgivable these days.
Pricing manager, Lex Vehicle Leasing
Whether or not you like its looks, BMW’s new 1-series has plenty of positives. Driving position, cockpit design, handling and road-holding are all class-leading, and styling looks far less harsh in the metal.
In base spec, you’ll have to compromise equipment in exchange for the superb 2.0d engine, but contract hire rentals should be very similar for base, SE and Sport models. The A3 is more conservative, although soon to receive the new corporate grille, A6-style. Build quality is superb but the 1.9 TDi engine is out of its depth against the BMW. Standard ECC and cruise control are welcome editions.
At this price, there’s no equivalent Mercedes-Benz C-class coupe, which is a shame because A-class is much more utilitarian, albeit well bolted together and with good spec. Once you’re out of the prestige badges, the choice becomes more difficult. Alfa’s 147 and new Astra 1.9 CDTi share a common-rail engine with excellent power delivery. Golf GT TDI is a bit of a bridesmaid while we wait for the grand entrance of the 160bhp GTI PD model early next year.
How the panel voted
1. THE A3 fights off tough competition from BMW to take top spot. None of the panel ranked it lower than second, thanks to solid running costs, good looks and an element of practicality. It doesn’t do anything wrong at all in the eyes of the contract hire industry.
2. Despite a strong showing, the 120d loses out to the A3 because some of the panel didn’t like the way it looked and felt it was let down on practicality. However, it has excellent running costs and superb residual values and is the best to drive.
3. A solid third for the Golf behind the two premium brands illustrates just how popular the car is with leasing companies. It’s also a very popular secondhand buy – residuals are up there with the BMW and Audi. CO2 emissions are the highest, though.
4. ALTHOUGH the BMW and Audi would be the first to turn the user-chooser’s head, the Astra ranked a pretty close fourth and is worth a look, thanks to an excellent new engine and good kit levels. It is more expensive to lease due to weaker RVs.
5. Ageing and not half as much fun to drive, the A170’s fifth place was a long way behind the Astra’s fourth. The best bet would be to wait for the new model next spring, which looks better, has better interior quality and is a much more agile to drive.
6. Beautiful looks and bags of character are not enough to save the 147 from being ranked a distant sixth. Terrible RVs and high maintenance costs make it an illogical choice for fleets. It’s also the most expensive for tax.