It’s untrue to say more Australians are buying premium cars than ever before, at least when talking about the traditional compact sedan segment that consists of the Audi A4, BMW 3 Series, Mercedes-Benz C-Class, Lexus IS and Volvo S60.
Comparing July 2004 with July 2014 year-to-date sales, those models are up 18 per cent in a new car market that is up by exactly the same number. While they are steady performers, however, the in-fighting between the German brands is almost as fierce as the attacks from outside their nation, fuelled by another new contender in the form of the Infiniti Q50.
So we’ve decided on a three-round knockout battle to mark the introduction of the all-new, fourth-generation Mercedes-Benz C-Class – one of the most anticipated new arrivals this year.
Round two will be the alternatives: to see if the all-new Infiniti Q50 can outmanoeuvre its fellow Japanese rival the Lexus IS, with Swedish contender the Volvo S60 attempting to make the finals an all-Euro affair. Stay tuned for this second round, which will be followed by a final showdown with the C-Class shortly after.
We’ve chosen circa-$65,000 middle-grade petrol automatic sedans as our base, including the $57,900 A4 2.0T Ambition, $69,400 BMW 328i, $67,900 Infiniti Q50 Hybrid, $65,330 Lexus IS350 Luxury, $68,990 Mercedes-Benz C250 and $59,890 Volvo S60. For now, though, it’s the first two up first in the battle of ze Chermans…
Both the Audi A4 2.0T Ambition and BMW 328i utilise 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engines. The latter car is more powerful, delivering 180kW of power and 350Nm of torque compared with 165kW but the same torque for its rival.
The Audi also has one less gear inside its automatic dual-clutch transmission’s housing compared with the eight-speed torque converter auto found in its foe.
Expectedly, performance times reflect the differences, with the 328i claiming a standstill to 100km/h run in 5.9 seconds – or fully 0.6sec quicker.
Yet less isn’t more in terms of economy. In lab conditions meant to mimic combined driving conditions, the A4 claims to use 7.0 litres per 100 kilometres versus 6.3L/100km.
You may, however, find one contender faster than the other in wet or dirt road driving, or if you’re heading to the snowy mountains this winter. That’s because Audi quattro is standard on the A4 2.0T where you may well be on the side of the road fitting snowchains to the rear-wheel-drive 328i.
The extra traction benefits of sending drive to all four wheels are clear, but they add enough weight to be the probable cause of the efficiency deficit, with body mass the only area where the A4 2.0T has more of something than its rival – a kerb weight of 1570kg is 115kg heavier.
In terms of pricing, however, the A4 2.0T Ambition asks for less, though that is matched by a lesser level of included equipment.
To combat the new C-Class, Audi lopped $8700 off the price of our tested model, while BMW retained its pricing structure but added a standard High Line equipment packaged said to add $6000 worth of extra value.
Pretty much all of the new 328i kit is optional in its rival, such as (A4 options prices in brackets): keyless auto-entry (plus $1250), auto-dipping rear-view mirror ($550), blind-spot monitor ($1100), lane-change warning (bundled with adaptive cruise control for $1690), and front parking sensors with rear-view camera ($1650).
Both score electrically adjustable driver’s seats, but only Audi asks an extra $850 for power adjustment on the other side. The BMW’s standard 8.8-inch centre navigation screen isn’t matched by its rival’s 7.0-inch display size, but you can match its standard Google 3D view for another $800, though that’s bundled with wi-fi that asks another $200 on the Bimmer.
The 328i gets a nine-speaker, 205-watt sound system, where you’ll need another $600 to change the A4’s six-speaker audio to a 10-speaker, 180W unit.
And it continues, because there are also features not available at all on the Audi that are standard on the BMW, including semi-automatic reverse parking, surround-view cameras, Intelligent Emergency Call (automatically calls emergency assistance in an accident), TeleServices (auto transfer of service data to your local dealer) and a head-up display.
To be fair, adaptive cruise is a $1600 stand-alone option on the 328i, while the A4 exclusively gets standard tri-zone climate control (not available on BM) and xenon headlights ($940 on BM), versus dual-zone and bi-xenons otherwise standard.
Balance the equipment equation, and the difference between a similarly equipped A4 2.0T Ambition and a 328i is $6600 still in the Audi’s favour – though about enough of a difference to warrant all the equipment only standard in the BMW and which can’t be optioned in its rival.
Our test 328i is equipped with one under-the-skin feature that should be standard in Australia – adaptive suspension. It costs $2200 and is the best investment a 3 Series buyer could make, transforming the woefully soft suspension of the standard car by providing Comfort and Sport settings that are way more comfortable and controlled.
The A4 2.0T Ambition has no such problems with its standard suspension, but the A4 2.0T S Line that costs $67,800 and more closely resembles the exterior styling of the 328i Sport Line tested, certainly does – its sports suspension combined with 19-inch alloy wheels create an unruly ride.
So what we’ve brought together here is the best 3 Series and A4 for what is shaping up to be a closely fought battle.
The Audi is the oldest car of the wider six-car test, having launched here in 2008, with only a minor visual facelift having arrived in 2012. So it’s all the greater testimony that its interior is superior in several ways to the new generation of BMW 3 Series that launched in the same year as its facelift model.
Plastics quality and tactility of controls are typically Audi first-rate. By contrast the BMW is based on the design of the 1 Series, and its rubbery black plastics and basic controls feel at least two classes below the level set by its big brother 5 Series, which borrows its cues from the 7 Series.
There are ergonomic flaws in the 3 Series, too, such as the lack of a sync button for the dual-zone climate controls, so the driver has to manually adjust two temperature dials to keep the same cabin temperature if travelling without passengers.
Meanwhile, the top of the steering wheel blocks the lower line of the trip computer display below the speedometer and tachometer when adjusted correctly for most testers, and the centre cupholders get a detatchable lid over them, so if you want to use them you have to store the lid somewhere. Fine, except the centre console storage box is too shallow to house it.
At least the centre display is large and high in resolution. BMW’s iDrive remains ironically enough the ergonomic benchmark and most clearly exposes the age of its rival. The system is accessed these days not only via a rotary dial on the centre console flanked by menu shortcut buttons, but there’s also a touchpad on top of the dial to input numbers and letters with a swirl of your finger.
In addition to the ability to automatically use your synced phone to call emergency services in an accident, you can also option the internet ($200), real time traffic information ($250), a snap-in power adaptor specific to your phone ($940).
There are also packages available including, for $690, ConnectedDrive Services (with news, weather, Google search and other apps) and Remote Services (send-to-car unlocking and ventilation activation from other location). Or, for $1200, you can combine those two with 24/7 concierge services and traffic info.
Above: Audi A4.
The A4’s system is basic, the highlight being the optional Google street-view and birds eye mapping and wi-fi hot-spot, though the Audi MMI buttons are almost as intuitive and its ergonomics otherwise spot on.
While both are similarly roomy up front, if you’re an executive with kids to move, they’ll likely be happier in the rear of the Audi. It has a smaller transmission tunnel and more legroom, though both usefully include rear-seat air vents. The A4’s bench is wider, too where the BMW has thick side bolsters that push outboard occupants inward, placing a premium on shoulder room for a centre rider.
At least in the 3 Series you can have two occupants on either side while feeding longer objects through from the boot in between them, because it comes standard with a 40:20:40 split-fold backrest.
Above: BMW 3 Series.
The A4 only has a 60:40 split backrest, forcing two rear riders to snuggle up closely if you need to carry objects that won’t fully fit in its 480-litre boot (which is the same size as its rival’s).
From looking at boots to giving these rivals the bootful, and it’s a tale of the sporty and smooth operators.
The Audi 2.0-litre engine is the refined and cultured pick, where the same-size BMW engine is louder but raunchier, keener and more responsive.
The 328i feels as quick as its performance time suggests, and the turbo engine is mated to a slick yet quick automatic that works fluently in normal mode, is alert in Sport and super-quick reacting to the steering wheel-mounted paddleshifters.
Surprisingly, since dual-clutch gearboxes are renowned for being a quicker kind of automatic, the A4’s is slower to shift and sometimes has a delay between a press of the throttle and slurring to a lower gear.
That said, it comes more alive in Sport and manual mode, but still not to the same degree as the BMW.
Another surprise is the Audi’s steering, which is more immediate in its response just off the centre position than the BMW’s. When lock is wound on, though, they swap places, with the 3 Series response from the tiller proving more consistent in either its lighter (Comfort) or heavier (Sport) mode.
Unfortunately, however, you need to take the weightier steering mode if you select the preferable Sport damping system.
In Comfort the suspension is cushy to the point of feeling a bit floaty, where the firmer setting just ties it down enough to feel planted on a backroad while still being soothing enough around town.
On any road, the single A4 suspension setting has tighter control of its body movements than the 3 Series, but the downside is more jiggles and vibrations through that body when cruising or driving at low speeds.
When we arrive at the twisty roads, it’s raining. The A4 has plenty of grip from its Pirelli Cinturato tyres, then because it sends only 60 per cent of power to the rear wheels you can plant your right foot early in a corner and get from point to point quickly.
The Audi is also quieter on coarse-chip road surfaces than its raucous rival.
The rear-wheel-drive 3 Series is far more excitable, however. It may not have the wet-weather pace of its rival, but it offers a supreme level of driver enjoyment at any speed.
In fact, there are many sports cars that don’t feel as sharp as the BMW 3 Series.
Its front-end feels incredibly light, pointing into corners with a delicacy missing from its flat-footed rival. When it starts to lean hard on its nose, you simply apply throttle pressure and watch the car tighten its line. Or, if you really get on the throttle and have the stability control in its less restrictive mode, transition into beautiful, clean oversteer.
It’s true that these are compact luxury sedans, but the 3 Series has always been billed as the driver’s choice and – provided you choose adaptive suspension – it remains the only car here with a depth of talent that is one of two final blows for the A4; the other one being that the BMW recorded 8.4 litres per 100 kilometres on-test compared with 10.6L/100km for the Audi.
The Audi A4 2.0T Ambition is in some ways a more consistent performer.
It’s cheaper, roomier, has a solid suspension setting and is grippier on the road. Choose it with confidence, though also remember that there’s an all-new generation expected to debut next year.
While its cabin design and finish isn’t special, though, the BMW 328i certainly is in the way it drives.
Its stronger yet more efficient engine, smoother yet faster transmission, and unrivalled level of ride and handling leaves it as the compatriot with the best chance of taking on the C-Class.
Photography by James Ward. Click the ‘Photos’ tab above for more photos.