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Not long ago the BMW 320i and Mercedes-Benz C200 would have had their model designation badges removed before their starting-out business executive owner even left the showroom.
Behind the allure of tri-star and propeller badges were the reality of wheezy base engines and specification that often left execs cranking window winders. That’s no longer the case, however, and with Benz you can even get the swoopy CLA-Class as a less expensive four-door alternative to these traditional sedans.
Having already tested the circa-$70K middle-grade 328i and C250 models against their rivals following the launch of the all-new C-Class last month, we thought we’d lower the barrier by around 10-large for this test.
For this inter-Deutschland battle between Munich and Stuttgart we’ve also brought in CarAdvice’s own CEO Andrew Beecher and associate publisher James Ward. Between them both have owned 3 Series and C-Class models over the years and are therefore ideally placed to assess the latest iterations.
Today’s 320i and C200 start from within a whisker of each other – $60,500 and $60,900 plus on-road costs respectively – and these days are handsomely equipped.
Each model comes with 18-inch alloy wheels, dual-zone climate control, cruise control, push-button keyless start and satellite navigation with USB, AUX-in and Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity. You can even power up or down any one of the four windows.
Also standard in both are front and rear parking sensors, a system that can notify you if someone’s driving in your blind spot, and technology that can detect the size of a parking spot, know if your executive sedan will fit into it, then with you modulating the throttle automatically steer itself into the spot.
In the BMW you get a surround-view camera, where in the Benz you only get vision of the rear of the vehicle shown on the central display.
With your key in your suit jacket pocket, for example, you can go up to the door handle of the 3 Series and a sensor will know you’re there and automatically unlock the car; that system is also optional in its rival.
The C-Class counters exclusively with a digital radio, the ability to first warn you if a collision is imminent then apply the brakes should the driver fail to do so, and nine airbags, adding rear-side and driver’s knee protection to the dual-front, front-side and full-length curtain cover in the 3 Series.
Slide into the driver’s seat and the Mercedes-Benz immediately reflects that it is the newer car, out this year almost three years after the latest-generation BMW.
There are many colours of trim and dashboard textures available in the C-Class, but our silver/piano black example kept things standard and simple, allowing the S-Class-alike design to shine.
The standard plastics are neatly matched, even if you don’t go for the stitched-leather-look upper surfacing.
Five circular air vents across the dash all rotate smoothly, and the climate controls below them can be accessed intuitively and look classy with an analogue clock between them.
The deep and supportive seats (trimmed in Artico, or ‘artificial cow’, or pleather, though it does a good job of imitating the real thing) are matched by lushly padded armrests with softly damped door handles and power window switches straight from the S limousine.
By contrast, where BMW’s 7 Series limo shares much of its design with the 5 Series large sedan, this 3 Series instead borrows cues from the cheaper 1 Series.
That’s evident in the harder and darker plastics, thinner front seats and more basic instrumentation.
For example there’s a monochromatic trip computer display between the speedometer and tachometer of the 3 Series, where in the C-Class you get a larger colour display.
There’s also a shallow console storage box in the BMW and no extra tray beneath the climate controls, where Benz provides a big storage box with a sideways-split-opening lid and covered, secondary storage area.
CEO Beecher finds the BMW interior very homely, in a good way, noting the classic orange gauges as a nod to many generations of previous 3 Series.
The iDrive infotainment system also works with greater ease than its rival equivalent, dubbed Comand.
In 320i guise the 6.5-inch colour display is half an inch down on the C200, and housed in a fixed, but floating-look panel that clearly appears designed for the wider 8.8-inch screen optionally available.
However in the Benz you need to option the proper Comand system for $2300 as fitted to our test car, which also brings an 8.0-inch display, voice control, internet access and 10Gb music register. It replaces the standard, aftermarket-looking Becker sat-nav unit, and the upgrade is worth every cent.
Even the optional Comand system struggles to fully match iDrive, though.
Both get a rotary dial positioned on the centre console, but in the Benz there’s a ‘hood’ that wraps over the dial and features home, back and options buttons. It is a bit clumsy to get your hand around, so therefore can’t beat the ergonomics of its rival, though the large touchpad atop the dial is extremely handy to finger-in letters and numbers and goes some way to being a match for user friendliness.
The BMW rotary dial is flanked by radio, media, telephone and nav shortcut buttons in addition to home, back and options, which makes flicking between functions faster and easier.
The 320i has some other advantages, such as a traditional gearshift lever versus a gearshift stalk beside the steering wheel that all testers found less intuitive to use.
Above: Mercedes-Benz C200.
Its rear-seat backrest splits 40:20:40 to allow load-through of long but skinny objects while the outboard rear passengers remain seated, though both contenders here have similarly wide boot cavities, each claiming 480-litre volume.
The C200 has slightly more rear legroom than its rival, particularly in the centre position, but headroom is inferior, partially due to the panoramic sunroof fitted to our test car.
Breezy access to the sky is part of the optional ($3454) Vision package, which also includes a colour head-up display and full LED headlights with auto high-beam.
Above: BMW 320i.
Meanwhile it’s a surprise these days to find the model designation badges actually reflect the size of the engine as they used to – both the 320i and C200 utilise 2.0-litre four-cylinders, but these days they are turbocharged to boost outputs.
Both make an identical 135kW of power, but the Benz trumps the Bimmer for torque, 300Nm versus 270Nm. In either case, though, thanks to an efficient turbo that latter figure is lathered over the rev range from as low as 1200rpm in the C200 and 1250rpm in the 320i.
Although the C200 is more fully figured, it also has a fuller figure to contend with, tipping the scales at 1465 kilograms versus 1420kg for its rival. It also gets a seven-speed automatic transmission, one down on its foe.
Claimed fuel usage for both is 6.0 litres of premium unleaded per 100 kilometres, and each lists an identical 7.3-second 0-100km/h. It really is that close.
The Benz feels faster on the road, however, particularly during rolling acceleration on the move.
The C200 engine sounds raunchier and more refined, which is surprising given the (albeit synthetic) note of the 328i sounds good where this 320i can sound strained and feel stressed.
The ace up the BMW’s sleeve is its eight-speed automatic, which is flawless in the way it picks its gears and amazingly fast to swap between them whether stirred via the paddleshifters, tipshifter or placed in Sport mode. The Benz seven-speeder is more hesitant and slightly slower on the uptake.
Our big boss (who is currently driving a 428i Gran Coupe) concurs with Wardy and I that the extra 45kW/80Nm you get moving from 320i to 328i (with which the 428i shares its engine) makes the higher-grade specification level worth every cent extra.
By contrast, the extra 20kW/50Nm available in the C250 over the C200 is barely felt in reality.
Our recent test between the 328i and C250 placed the former marginally ahead for performance and dynamics, but the latter in front for interior ambience.
Both of those models came with each manufacturer’s optional multi-mode suspension, BMW Adapative M Suspension ($2200) and Mercedes-Benz Airmatic ($2490), and each proved outstanding in their own way.
Here, we’ve gone for a 320i and C200 on standard wheels and suspension to test their abilities unoptioned.
On our test loop which comprised leaving the Melbourne CBD, and out on the Monash freeway towards the country roads of the Mornington peninsula, the C200 immediately started to impress.
This new-generation Benz is a quiet car, and that’s evident whether on fresh tar or when lots of little rocks are glued together out near the vineyards that these models may often visit. Only a faint whistle around the door mirror upsets the silence.
That isn’t evident on the BMW, but there is noticeably more road roar in addition to engine intrusion.
Where the C250 on mandatory 15mm-lower suspension with low-profile 19-inch wheels can be harsh and lumpy, the 18s of the C200 take the edge off bigger impacts.
It still can’t provide the silken ride of the two-mode (Comfort and Sport) optional Airmatic suspension, but it presents a decent compromise between those two modes.
The 320i skims over freeway expansion joints and is more settled than its rival on smooth roads. Likewise on reasonably even, loping country roads where there’s just a hint of floatiness but outstanding compliance given the 18-inch wheels.
It’s when undulations start to rise then fall that the standard BMW suspension struggles to keep tight control of its body.
On one back-to-back section of standard 100km/h country road around Flinders, hitting a particular bump sent the 320i crashing into its bump stops then floating enough at the rear to activate its stability control.
Over the same road and on the same bump, the C200 proved far more disciplined and also wobbled my big-boss front passenger less over wavy, broken bitumen.
The BMW 3 Series has always been touted as the sports sedan of the executive class, and on smooth roads the dynamics of even this 320i are exemplary. There’s quick turn-in from steering, and its rear-wheel-drive chassis feels light and beautifully balanced.
The C-Class feels heavier and it isn’t quite as agile, though there is less bodyroll from its firmer suspension and it inspires more confidence in its driver over all road surfaces. Even the slower, but more mid-weighted steering response of the Benz reflects its more measured approach.
Busily snapping each car cornering, Wardy was surprised to see the 320i roll more than the C200, while Beecher was equally amazed that the usually more luxurious intentions of a typical Mercedes-Benz could also feel more dynamic.
At their core, both the latest-generation C-Class and 3 Series are better all-round propositions than they have ever been, with a blend of performance, economy, right-sized cabins and technology that means even in base form they deserve to keep their 320i and C200 badges affixed.
Our on-hand executives concur, however, that only one of these cars feels premium enough that you don’t need to dabble with the options list or choose a higher-grade engine to feel like you’ve got your money’s worth.
Ultimately at the low price point of the Benz Airmatic suspension option we would suggest this is still the way to go if you want the ultimate ride, but with its superior interior, stronger performance and greater refinement, even the standard C200 wins this contest comfortably.
Photography by James Ward. Special thanks to Montalto Vineyard & Olive Grove.