The Automobile Journalists Association of Canada’s TestFest event is a great chance for writers from across the country to drive all or most of the vehicles in a class at the same time. For some it’s the first time in each one, for others it’s a return to an old acquaintance. Sometimes a fondly remembered one, sometimes otherwise. This year’s small premium car class is, well, a small one. Which is the reality of a market where cars are going away and the crossover segment is flourishing into ever-more diverse offerings. That doesn’t make these cars any less premium, though, especially since automakers need to fight harder to get a piece of a shrinking pie. So here are the three entrants in the category this year, ranked from bottom to top, the way our team of journalists sees it.
Note: Official category results will be revealed at the Montreal Auto Show in January and final results for Canadian Car of the Year and Canadian Utility Vehicle of the Year will be revealed at the Canadian International Auto Show in February. The following picks are our personal favourites.
Third: Acura ILX
Acura’s compact ILX has been around since 2012, but the brand has given its smallest car a few upgrades over the years. This time it’s gotten the Superman grille that’s been on the TSX, MDX, and the rest of the lineup for some time now.
The ILX is basically a fancy version of the last-generation Honda Civic Si, but if you think that’s a slight on the car you’re mistaken. It means the rorty, strong 2.4L four from that car that makes 201 hp and 180 lb-ft of torque. The engine will make you work to get all that power, but the eight-speed dual-clutch box is happy to swap cogs and let you use all of the revs you’ll need. And it happens to sound great as you run it to redline. The A-Spec version, which is the sportiest one, can be had with a set of gorgeous red leather seats that both make this car look more expensive than it is and hold you in place remarkably well.
However, despite being based on the extremely roomy Civic, this one’s tiny inside. Even drivers of average height will find this snug, making it difficult to find a proper driving position. The back seat’s not any better, and while yes this is the Premium Small Car Class, this one is too big on the outside to be this small inside. It’s also let down on the premium part. Acura made the infotainment system faster this year, but it’s still the same dated-looking interface and it’s surrounded by hard plastic that feels far from premium. If you can fit inside, you’ll love the powertrain, but in a class this competitive this one falls a bit short.
Second: Jaguar XE
The XE is another vehicle that’s been around for a few years but received a refresh for this one. Powering the XE is two versions of a sharp turbo-four, one with 247 hp and the other with 296. If you’re checking boot lids, that’s P250 and P300, with the former only on the base XE and the latter on the R-Dynamic trim. Like most of the rest of Jag’s lineup, this is one sweet-sounding engine that provides loads of power. But it’s stuck with an eight-speed gearbox that’s more of a housecat in a sunny spot than it is a hunter on the prowl.
The XE is small but it’s wide, which means that it feels massive inside. Sure rear knee room’s still tight, but driver and front passenger won’t be jockeying for elbow position. And in that centre console, Jaguar’s loaded what looks to be about a thousand screens. Ok, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but there are two large ones for infotainment and climate control and each temperature dial is a screen as well. It looks cool, and it works well. Especially the multi-function temperature control/fan speed adjustment.
The XE has all the right moves, but compared with the top choice in the segment, the styling’s a little dull and the ride’s a little soft.
First: Mercedes-Benz A-Class
The A-Class offers something that’s a little bit unusual in this class: You can get it as a hatch. At least you can in Canada, though you won’t see one in the US. This isn’t the first Merc effort in this segment, but it’s the first time we’ve seen it in North America. And is it ever a good one. The sedan gets a 188 hp turbo-four, badged the A220, and the hatch has a 221 hp version of the same.
Inside, this could be a new C or E-Class, just smaller. That means some very premium appointments and loads of comfort. Like the rest of the current Benz lineup, this one feels special. Which might be the most important thing in this class. With a fully digital dash and infotainment panel on the options list, and the “Hey Mercedes” digital assistant, this has all the tech you could want. And some, like the augmented reality navigation system, that you didn’t even know you wanted.
The gearbox is a seven-speed dual-clutch unit that’s very well mannered, and the car delivers the throttle response you’d expect from Mercedes. While it doesn’t offer an adaptive suspension, the conventional dampers are tuned for a balanced steer with appropriately flat cornering but plenty of compliance over our horrible roads. All-in, it’s a package that makes this the best of the class this year.