There was time when the Audi A4 had the BMW 3 Series and Mercedes-Benz C-Class, the gold standard bearers of mid-sized premium goodness, in its crosshairs from a sniper-like distance. But the four- and five-doors from Ingolstadt have made the long and patiently crawl closer to point where, today, the recently launched, ninth-generation A4 marks the enemy at point blank range.
Conspicuously, Audi has pushed the ‘modernisation’ and ‘tech’ barrows to create distance from A4’s age-old reputation as the also-ran. But truth is, the sedan and even fresher-faced Avant have lifted their game across the board in all facets that improve the breed. Not only does this new range face-off against BMW and Mercedes-Benz on even ground, it seeks to move the medium sedan game forward and become the benchmarker.
Early signs are that the new A4 sedan is good – a rapturous, nine-out-of-ten good, as was our verdict of the four-variant range back at its February launch this year. With “new engines, class-leading refinement and materials and a host of advanced on-board technology” we surmised that Audi had “hit the ball out of the park.”
The intent is clear: the A4 is gunning to be Europe’s medium-sized leading light. And what fitter variant with which to measure the heft of the new sedans’ swing than the flagship 2.0 TFSI quattro S tronic version.
We weren’t to leave the status quo from Stuttgart and Munich sat idle on the sidelines watching Audi’s ball soar for long without reply. Lining up neatly against the king heap A4 in this comparison test are BMW’s 330i and Mercedes-Benz’s C250.
Unlike the 2.0 TFSI quattro, the tree-topper of four A4s currently on sale, the 330i and C250 are both middleweight offerings in their respectively broader (seven-variant 3 Series) and (six-variant C-Class) four-door model ranges. While that might seem biased towards the newcomer, all three mid-sized premium Germans align with one another more or less evenly on turbocharged four-cylinder motivation, luxury-infused aspiration, base pricing and general specification.
So what of the status quo’s track record? The 330i faced off against the C250 in a four-way test back in December last year, the recently mid-life-updated ‘LCI’ BMW (scoring a 9.0) taking a slim victory over the Benz (an 8.5 from ten), with both dispatching Jaguar’s XE and Lexus’s IS200T in the process. While the “Bimmer remains the absolute benchmark for balancing ‘sport’ and ‘premium’,” the win, we decided, wasn’t exactly a walkover. “Were (this) a test of different spec levels (between the BMW and Benz), the result may well have been different.”
It so happens that the segment so used to asking good money for essentials then charging like a wounded bull for niceties has become sensitive to the value quotient. The protagonists are now competing more fiercely on standard equipment and becoming more cagey with their options pitches. BMW’s gotten aggressive with value in its ageing 3 Series against a C-Class that, as a sales leader, hasn’t had to, which pretty much tipped the win Munich’s way last time out.
As we’re about to see, ‘spec levels’ in this segment is portal with a very large, very black hole situated on the other side…
Pricing and specification
Both the Audi A4 2.0 TFSI quattro S tronic and BMW 330i list for $69,900 apiece before on-roads. The Mercedes-Benz C250, at $68,900 before on-roads, is more affordable, if only by a measure less than the cost of ticking metallic paint option boxes on either the A4 ($1420) or the BMW ($1840). However, none of our test cars are standard. Far from it.
If options are nice, German premium options are both very nice and quite pricey. Start ticking boxes and you’re thrust promptly into the dark side of that portal…
As they sit on the screen before you, our A4 is $92,791, the 330i is $81,864 and the C250 is $77,561, before on-roads. Call it around $85k for the Benz, nearly $90k for the Bimmer, and you’re nudging six figures for the Audi on the road fitted with goodies as tested. Suddenly the $1090 price disparity of this trio has ballooned out to a $15k or so, which hardly makes for a closely matched fight…
In order to compare them, then, we’re forced to attempt to trim some fat. Our tactic: to cut the optional indulgences easily ignored with a blind eye, but retain any options that unavoidably impact the review process. Starting with the portly Audi, with its 12 different fitted extras…
Let’s start with the A4’s S Line Sport package ($3200). Its specific 19-inch wheels, sporty seating and steering wheel intrinsically impact the driving experience, as does the adaptive ‘sport’ suspension ($1100). The Technik package of virtual cockpit digital instrumentation with head-up display ($2100) cannot be easily ignored in review, nor can Parking Assistance package’s 360-degree camera system ($950, includes self-steering when parking).
In the bin? Beyond the metallic paint ($1420), we’d lose the Nappa leather ($1500), the tricky Matrix LED headlights ($1700), cabin mood lighting ($400), privacy glass ($850), sunroof ($1950) and Bang & Olufsen sound ($1500).
That pegs the price back to $77,250 plus on-roads (and a small LCT penalty) for our tangible A4 test experience…if you opt out of the active safety and convenience niceties of the ($1900) Assistance package (more of this shortly).
Crucially, the BMW’s aforementioned value pitch means that the 330i gets adaptive M suspension, head-up display and surround-view 360-degree-type camera system as standard, all of which are optional extras on the Audi menu. Not that our Estoril Blue example has dodged the Options Fairy.
Unavoidable in our seat-of-the-pants appraisal are the 330i’s M Sport package ($2600) with its specific 19-inch wheels, seats and steering wheel (among various other addenda); the variable sport steering ($400); front seat lumber adjustment ($640); and ConnectDrive Freedom’s sat-nav real-time traffic assistance ($429). Easy to ignore in appraisal of its 11 options are the metallic paint ($1840), glass roof ($2920), upgraded loudspeaker system ($700), adaptive LED headlights ($940), high-beam assist ($320), extended smartphone connectivity ($500) and Parking Assistant ($675).
‘As tested,’ so to speak, our 3 Series test car becomes $73,969 plus on-roads and LCT.
Our C250 gets just four options, though only the Vision pack ($3454), with its glass roof and active/adaptive LED headlight trickery, could feasibly be ignored in review. It’s high-end Comand package’s ($2300) HDD navigation, Airmatic Agility adaptive suspension ($1915), and seat comfort ($992) compliment creates a $74,107 plus on-roads prospect that’s downright penny-pinching in its present company.
While our Benz tester lacks AMG line accouterments – sports seats and steering wheel, among other various spruce-ups – the Airmatic Agility suspension suite does, however, ‘unlock’ the promise of sporting chassis dynamics. And given holistic drive modes can be dialled up to a Sport+ setting, the C250 won’t be viewed as lacking sporting aspiration against its S Line and M Sport fettled rivals.
Standard equipment for all three is reasonably comprehensive, with each offering leather trim, satellite-navigation, rear-view cameras and sensors, climate control, cruise control, Bluetooth/USA/Aux connectivity, keyless entry, push-button start, auto LED headlights and auto wipers. The same goes for core safety features, with the 330i and C250 covering off the A4 quattro’s solid suite that includes active collision mitigation with autonomous braking (AEB), blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert systems. (For full specification lists, click the links for A4, 3 Series and C-Class.)
Each offers expanded safety for added cost, the Audi’s ($1900) Assistance package bundling lane-keep, turning and collision avoidance assists with niceties such as high-beam assist and a nifty adaptive cruise control that’ll modulate progress in stop-start traffic. Thing is, the C250 gets adaptive Distronic Plus with Steer Control and Stop and Go Pilot as standard. And that head-up display you stumped for in the Technik package comes at no extra cost in the 330i.
When cross-shopping on spec, this segment can be confronting and complicated. Especially for buyers cherry-picking preferred specific features. Choice can present confusion. For instance, the A4 range offers four different suspension configurations – comfort or sport in either passive or adaptive formats – so it’s tough, at times, to even know what you might want. It’s buyer beware when it comes to weighing up features, options and value. And our advice is to do your homework if you’re particular about spec, leverage your dealer to work through it, and check out dealer-specified bundles that might offer more equipment for a sharper-than-options-list pricing.
Both the A4 quattro and 330i subscribe to a ‘if premium is nice, sports-premium is nicer’ ethos. Each looks muscular, well resolved and has plenty of devil in the details but, of course, want extra cost for S line and M Sport stylisms outside and in. Opt out of either car’s enhancements packages results in a blander take on the A4 or 3 Series aesthetic, impacting their vibe and appeal.
Despite not having anything like ‘sports’ pretension, the Benz got the nod as ‘most likely to impress your neighbours’ according consensus around the CarAdvice office. While the C250 isn’t necessarily more stylized than its rivals, but the lack of overt sportisms does bring about a little added sophistication. Preference, however, is in the eye of the buyer, and each is handsome and suitably premium in exterior presentation.
The Audi cabin’s revamped, techy and angular design (as seen above) has the freshest and more elaborate appearance. Between the dual digital screens – virtual cockpit for driver, central infotainment screen for everyone – and broad array of controls and buttons conspire to an effect that’s both richly upmarket and overwrought. Gone is the predictable, by-the-numbers Audi interior design of old, and lovers of this revised approach to cabin design outnumber the dislikers by a long measure. For material tactility and a sense of richness achieved by blending combinations of finishes and textures, the Audi tops its two German rivals.
The C250 (above) is more subdued inside, its S-Class-inspired design not quite as daisy fresh as when it debuted just two years ago. It’s neat and contemporary, and satisfying in the details, be it the metal hand rest of the console’s Comand controller or the slick precision of switchgear that satisfies more than Audi’s plasticky button arrangement.
That said, Benz’s leather trim isn’t as supple as the Audi’s, though, given the A4’s $1500-optional Nappa trim upgrade, nor would it be expected to be. There’s enough fanfare in the metal effects and brushed alloys to lift the mostly grey and piano black aesthetic out of the stoic doldrums. In short, the Benz feels more ‘quality’ than ‘special’.
By contrast, the BMW cabin is, strangely, fussy (general look and quantity of finishes) and plain (design details, vents and buttons). It’s the most ‘classic’ in general ambience, though it certainly doesn’t feel cheaper or lack in appeal compared with the Audi or Benz. There are plenty of slickness and ample modern touches, such as the thoroughly contemporary ‘M’ paddle-shifter steering wheel.
The ‘sportiness’ equals ‘chunkiness’ vibe of the 330i won’t appeal to everyone’s tastes, but there’s certainly a masculine charm to thick-rimmed wheel and the fatness of the seat bolsters that weld your torso into place. Despite the light ivory and blue accented coloured scheme, the BMW is a slightly more claustrophobic and snug than the airier Audi and Benz accommodation, but such is effect of its low-slung, driver centric layout offering excellent ergonomics.
I found the BMW the easiest to adjust to my liking and the most comfortable for long-haul travelling, though the front M Sport seats don’t balance comfort and purpose quite as well as the superb Audi S line pews. If you have long legs, you do have to raise the A4 seats a fair bit for ample under-thigh support and the left foot dead-pedal is set too deep in the footwell. The Benz, with its patently more relaxed front seating, doesn’t quite offer the same all-round support, and I found it required the most adjustment to arrive at a decent driving position.
In the second row, the Audi’s seats are flatter and firmer than the more sculpted BMW arrangement, though all three adopt an almost two-plus-two effect with pronounced hump in the central seating position. The Benz has shortest seat back and squab and seems better sized for youngsters than full-sized adults.
In terms of overall cabin space, both the newly enlarged A4 and the 330i are equally roomy in both rows, whereas the Benz has a notably tighter second row, especially for headroom, which is impacted greatly by the glass roof. The C250 also has noticeably less knee and shoulder room in the rear, too. So while all three sedans could practicably haul four adults for extended periods, it’s really the more spacious Audi and BMW that realistically offer genuine flexibility to fit a fifth adult in the centre-rear position while providing proper long-haul comfort.
Each has all the requisite fixture points for child seats in the rear, though it’s the Audi that offers the most comprehensive rear airflow system, with a full suite of rear passenger climate controls, including temperature adjustment, in a proper three-zone arrangement. Meanwhile, the BMW allows rear occupants to adjust fan speed and temperature separately, while the Benz makes do with a simple On/Off airflow arrangement.
Comparing infotainment system is a little unfair given our Benz has ($2300 of Comand) upgrades and its rivals don’t though, as outlined, the 330i gets high-spec Navigation System Professional as standard. BMW’s iDrive has long rated in review as more streamlined and intuitive design, but I’ve spent more time with the Benz system and, well, none of these systems, including Audi’s MMI, are tough to acclimatize to.
Some find the Benz’s ‘cod piece’ console controller clunky to use, but it’s no less intuitive than the Audi method – with its unusual ‘side buttons’ – and the BMW rotary dial with its cluster of short-cut buttons. The C250’s control is also hewn in metal and feels exquisite to touch…right until the point where you’ve left the Benz in sun all day, when it becomes blisteringly hot and takes forever to cool down.
Of the three, the Benz has the clearest sat-nav display and tends to label more street names than the rival systems, though the BMW’s system remains the pick of the bunch mainly because the real-time traffic display is thoroughly well sorted.
For parking assistance, the Audi’s (optional) armada of camera views – 360-degree top view, front view, front and rear corner view, all switchable in screen – is the most comprehensive and complete. The standard-fit BMW system, though, isn’t far off the Audi, though lacks a little clarity and sheer visual information. The Benz, again, is hardly class leading, though it is the only car here with the clever rear parking sensor strip light located over the rear windscreen to aid conventional, peer-over-the-shoulder reverse-parking manoeuvres.
Each car locates its controls for drive selection and active assistance activation/deactivation differently, too, and even Benz’s preference for steering column-mounted transmission controller and door-mounted seat controls are love or loathe affairs. As is, for that matter, the Audi dual-screen virtual cockpit, which many adore but I find presents information overload.
Engine and driveline
All three offer 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol four-cylinder motivation through quite different drivetrains: the rear-driven Benz and BMW use seven- and eight-speed conventional automatics, while Audi adopts a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission feeding torque through all four wheels.
The Audi tops the output heap with 185kW at 5000-6000rpm and 370Nm – the highest torque figure here – from 1600 through to 4500rpm. The BMW matches the A4’s peak power, though higher in the rev range (6500rpm), while it produces 20Nm fewer Newton metres, though it does so in a broader 1450-4800rpm band. Meanwhile, the Benz makes the lowest power here, 155kW at 5500rpm, though the engine matches the BMW’s 350Nm between 1200-4000rpm.
We’ve praised the 330i’s engine in the past for its punchy low-end delivery, robust mid-range and characterful sonic satisfaction, and indeed our test car has a soulfulness and urgency befitting a proper driver’s car. The eight-speed auto is intuitive when self-shifting, responsive when manualised either using the paddleshifters or the correctly oriented (back-for-upshift, forward for downshift) console shifter. In operation and refinement, it’s almost unflappable, though the powertrain has some occasional hesitation in the middle of cornering at a cruise.
The BMW is equally happy tooling around or being pushed and there’s a noticeable corresponding change in character between its comfort- and sport-oriented drive modes. At 5.8 seconds for the 0-100km/h sprint, it’s plenty quick when it wants to be.
The A4 matches the 330i’s acceleration claim, and it feels it by the seat of the pants, too. Audi continues to iron out the low-speed, stop-start rough edges of the dual-clutch gearbox design and this seven-speed is very good, if not infallible, and can, like the BMW, be caught snoozing, particularly off the mark. That said, on the move, shifts are utterly seamless and, in its most sporting drive modes, the Audi powertrain is impressively refined can be both precise on control and urgent in delivery.
Like the 330i, the A4’s 2.0-litre engine has convincing aural character, though actual volume might be a little too tempered for some tastes. And both cars offer tap-for-sport, allowing the driver quick, momentary bursts of heightened powertrain response without having to change actual drive modes, a feature the Benz doesn’t offer…
The C250 feels nothing like as gusty, responsive and characterful as its Audi and BMW rivals. It’s not nearly as swift to march, and its 6.8sec 0-100km/h ability is a full second off its rivals’ pace. The powertrain feels slightly lethargic, workmanlike in character and not terribly ‘premium’. Dial up Dynamic mode and, while acceleration is keener, the engine feels strained and sounds gruff. It’s not a car that gets sweeter than harder it’s pushed.
That the C250 is the least capable pulse-raiser in a straight line won’t deter some buyers. But it’s not quite as effortless as its rivals across the balance of normal driving, and there’s a fair argument that effortlessness in itself goes some way to reinforcing a premium vibe. And so it would prove in the consumption figures, the Benz’s 8.5L/100km combined cycle consumption on test about a half-litre thristier than the Audi or the BMW.
On its optional adaptive air suspension, the Benz soaks up poor road surfaces with aplomb in its softer settings, its ride quality the most sanguine across small road imperfections and expansion joins. It is, though, slightly wallowy and over speed humps the compression stroke is slow and the chassis takes a long moment to settle.
The 330i, with its standard-issue sport adaptive suspension, lacks the Benz’s outright compliance but the trade-off is a markedly more confident ride-handling blend: it floats less, settles more quickly in rebound, has tighter body control and generally communicates a little more clearly.
Across the broad spectrum of driving situations, the Audi shines brighter still. In its comfortable setting, the cost-optional adaptive sport suspension’s bump control is superb without impacting core handling. Meanwhile, set to its firmest setting, the Audi feels crisp and engaging without becoming over firm or crashy.
All three cars are very quiet at a cruise when it comes to wind noise and sound penetration, though each exhibits tyre roar from their 19-inch rolling stock over coarse surfaces (both rear drivers use 225mm/255mm front/rear rubber, the Audi adopts 245s all round and is the only car here with a space-saver spare). Across one particularly nasty speed hump along our ‘ride loop’, each revealed a thud or clank from the suspension system.
Yes, many buyers in this segment don’t want nor care for driving enjoyment and spirited dynamics. But when asking north – in our test cars’ case, well north – of $70K for a mid-sized four-cylinder sedan, the quality of the all-round driving experience should rightly transcend ‘acceptable’ and land right in ‘impressive’ territory. Each should shine as much in handling as it should in ride comfort.
Somewhat setting the bar around town, the Audi just gets better the further afield you go and the harder you push it. Grippy, surefooted, responsive, it’s a veritable RennSport-lite experience that instills huge driver confidence and one that can cover the twistiest ground with eye-opening pace.
Ultimately, the 330i is the more playful and responsive of the two, and offers higher ‘on the throttle’ enjoyment for reasons seemingly beyond its rear-driven format. There’s fun factor in the 3 Series’ DNA, and chassis engineers seem to have grab that ball a bolted with it.
The Audi is more benign – it just sits and grips and is less responsive to throttle input tomfoolery. But that doesn’t make for less joy. Our heavily fettled A4 quattro is a clearer communicator, with slightly better steering feel – despite the 330i being fitted with Variable Sport steering ($400) – and front-end point. In short, the Audi gets tighter when pushed to point where the BMW gets looser.
Neither is necessarily the better driver’s car, just different. And neither takes its dynamic character and deviates much from its forebears. Horses for courses, perhaps, but both are talented and satisfying driver’s device, if anchoring appeal in quite different way.
The Benz is not without talent. It points confidently and holds its trajectory through a sweeping corner at a great rate of knots. It’s just not as focused, as playful, as keen to change direction nor quite as cooperative to the driver’s whims. In its firmer settings, the body control isn’t quite as tight, and its handling isn’t as agile, as its Adaptive Agility namesake suggests. It’s good, but not properly sporting. Perhaps the addition of AMG Line, with its Sport Direct-Steer enhancement, might have altered some of this situation somewhat against its S line- and M Sport-advantaged rivals.
The three Germans sedans come with three-year/unlimited-kilometre warrantees, with each marque offering free road-side assistance.
BMW and Mercedes-Benz both have 12 month/25,000km servicing plans, the 3 Series capped at $1340 over five years. The C-Class has servicing schedules of up to five years at $396 per service ($1980 total). Audi’s servicing program is $1620, though is only for three years with 12 months and shorter 15,000kms intervals.
Audi has done a fine job propelling the A4 evolution, this new generation a more comprehensively resolved car than the last-gen sedan and one asserting authority in a segment where, for a long time, the nameplate played third fiddle. Its cabin, long the benchmark for material quality, now finally looks fresh and forward thinking in design. Despite my personal reservations about the virtual cockpit clutter (in A4 application), there’s enough goodness at play to perhaps force the hand of BMW and Mercedes-Benz to lift the game.
But virtual cockpit, like the A4 quattro’s superior suspension tunings, the class-leading 360-degree camera work, the superb seating, those cleverdick LED Matrix headlights, the most sumptuous Nappa leather and even the outstanding Bang & Olufsen three-dimensional sound all come at tremendous extra cost that stacks up against the Audi’s value pitch, not to mention amounting to something of an unfair competitive advantage here amongst these three particular test cars.
Would I take this particular Audi over its two rival in review? Yes I would.
But would I pay a $15k premium over the C250 sedan in order to do so? No I wouldn’t. And is this particular A4 ten-grand fitter than the 330i? No it isn’t. Blind Freddy could see that had the Benz benefitted with its own 12 options (including sporty AMG line) and the Audi fitted with just four, comparative appraisal might well be quite different. And yet we’d still be no closer to a definitive verdict of the finest and fittest mid-sized German sedan.
If costly options cloud the result of this review, pity the prospective buyer sat in the showroom faced with a lengthy list probables as options.
Still, even ignoring what’s around $23K of upgraded distraction layered onto our A4 quattro, there are core qualities that aren’t masked by bells and whistles. The Audi has a gutsier, more fittingly upmarket power train than the Benz. And it’s roomier inside, with a touch more holistic richness throughout. And where each car on test is fitted with adaptive suspension, the Ingolstadt car proved to have the most comprehensively impressive ride and handling package of the two.
The 330i, though, has the new A4 covered everywhere you look. That said, the “absolute benchmark for balancing ‘sport’ and ‘premium'” isn’t anything like as absolute in measure any more. The fresh-faced Audi stands tyre to tyre with the ageing BMW for traits with with the Munich car is so very renown, while waving around its more contemporary ‘newer car smell’ for extra insult.
Thing is, with its adaptive M suspension, head-up display, high-end navigation and surround-view parking camera goodies all fitted standard, the car never renown for leveraging value makes its four-door rival from Ingolstadt look a little under-equipped and over-priced.
For sheer completeness, then, the BMW edges ahead of the impressive newcomer.
Click on the Photos tab for more images by Christian Barbeitos