Audi A4 versus BMW 3 Series versus Mercedes-Benz C-Class: does motoring have another more predictable three-way head-to-head stoush? One stuck on repeat through the years, playing again and again with clockwork-like frequency almost any time one of Germany’s Big Three volume-sellers gets some update.
Perhaps not. And yet, despite the predictability of due course, this match-up almost always makes for interesting, if not downright exciting, competition.
Why? For a good many reasons, really, if mostly because the rivalry between them has long been so fierce as the stakes are so high.
Fact is, the A4 45, the 330i M-Sport and C300 sedans grouped together here embody – or attempt to embody – their makers’ key premium virtues at palatable pricepoints for the comfortably heeled everyman or everywoman.
They really are the bedrocks for their brands. Each of their makers could afford to stumble or misfire with a small entry-level model or an obscure high-end luxo-performer – even a big-selling SUV – but there’s a lot of hard-earned reputation riding on these stalwart executive four-doors. It’s a segment they can’t afford to stuff up, and this is reflected by the effort their makers invest.
But who’s put in the extra yards to produce the superior choice for the buyer?
The impetus for this three-way battle is the all-new, seventh-generation (G20 coded) 3 Series, here in 330i trim that, with its recent arrival Down Under, is the only petrol version currently available.
Given that the last-generation 330i took the win the last time these model nameplates faced off in 2016, the newest and most comprehensively revamped competitor of this trio enters as something of a favourite for the win…
During that last match-up, in 2016, it was the A4 that was all-new. Regardless, late last year Audi injected some subtle styling and naming freshness to maintain the lustre of the A4 in its 2019 model year, represented here in new ‘45’ nomenclature.
Not to be caught sitting on dating laurels, Mercedes-Benz fortuitously updated its C-Class range in the second half of 2018. And while this refreshed mid-sizer might appear largely unchanged in outward appearance, it’s claimed that around half of its make-up under the skin is essentially new for its MY19 designation, including something of a bold interior redesign.
Clearly, when one contender moves, its two nemeses counter to some degree or another. So it’s no surprise that constant evolution at play with all comers produces a lot of parity amongst the field, a least on paper.
And we’d expect separating them in assessment might take some deep digging.
All, too, subscribe to modern German premium executive ethos: increasingly powerful and economical, if downsized, turbo fours eschewing the old six-cylinder guard; a keenly struck balance of comfort and sportiness; and lavishly appointed new-school tech, safety and convenience features as proof of upmarket movement… If, in some cases, buyers want to splurge extra outlay.
Clocking in at $70,990 list, the 330i might currently be BMW’s only petrol ‘G20’ 3 Series on the market, but it’s ostensibly priced and positioned as a mid-range variant fitted with a ‘high-spec’ turbo four that will eventually nestle between future entry/low-spec four and sportier six-powered (M40i) variants. Ours is an M-Sport version, though a softer-edged Luxury Line package is a no-cost option.
Audi’s more mature A4 range pegs our ‘45’ quattro at a slightly thriftier $70,300 list, rungs above other 1.4 and low-power 2.0 front-driven stablemates, if below the six-cylinder S4 performance version than nudges $100K.
Meanwhile, the C300 is the priciest of the trio if, at $71,800, not by much. It nestles itself between the entry 1.5-powered C200 (circa $66K) and properly sporty C43 sixer ($108K plus) for petrol C-Class alternatives.
With less than a grand separating the trio, it’s fair to presume close to identical specification and equipment levels. On one hand, yes, each covers off what we’ll call ‘premium essentials’. On the other, value propositions change somewhat once you add what we’ll label ‘premium indulgences’.
Essentials here across the board include LED lighting front and rear, and 19-inch wheels with performance-grade braking hardware. Inside, each gets leather trim, sport-style electric seating, digital instrumentation, cruise, climate control, parking sensors and camera parking assistance, and elaborate infotainment systems with DAB, proprietary navigation and high-end audio.
But it’s with standard-fitted indulgences where the BMW appears the most generous. The 330i fits M-Sport features inside and out as standard, its headlights are adaptive, as is the multi-mode damper suspension spec, and it comes with a 360-degree camera system, head-up display, comfort access seating, adaptive cruise control and inductive phone charging without extra cost.
Its fulsome off-the-rack content reflects in the as-tested price of $77,400 before on-roads, its only options being metallic paint, glass roof, Sensatec dash top trim and an ambient lighting kit.
Optioned as reviewed, both the Audi and Benz are over 10-grand pricier than the BMW!
Our A4 sits at a whopping $89,680 list with options fitted. This near-$20K premium includes the paint/roof/lighting extras as per the 330i, but the Nappa leather, seat heating and privacy glass are optional.
To match the BMW, our Audi needs an ‘Assistance pack tour’ that adds adaptive cruise, a ‘parking pack’ for the 360-degree camera, a Technik pack for the head-up display, and wants extra for the S Line sports addenda, though these bundles do add goodies such as LED Matrix headlights and B&O 3D sound. However, you’re stuck with passive suspension – adaptive isn’t even on Audi’s options menu for the ‘45’.
At a cool $90,781 list, our somewhat loaded-up C300 is pricier still. It matches the fruity BMW in fitting adaptive suspension and cruise control as well as leather trim, but extra charges include optional gear such as AMG Line (that incorporates nice AMG-spec leather) plus Luxury Seating and Seat Comfort packs, a Vision Package for the 360 camera, COMAND Online, the Energising Comfort fragrance feature, Dynamic Body Control suspension tweaks, and an extra charge (ahem) for inductive phone charging.
Sure, there’s tit for tat in the features minutiae too exhaustive to cover off here in detail – exclusives include BMW wireless phone mirroring, Audi’s space-saver spare wheel, Benz’s powered tailgate, for instance – and the 330i price heads north if you fancy, say, Laser Headlights or Harman/Kardon sound.
But for sheer features count, it’s the BMW that looks the best value pitch when capping pricing anywhere near this trio’s circa-$70K tip-in point.
Ranking the trio’s occupancy is tricky business. Obviously, individual buyer tastes will inevitably favour one marque’s approach over the others, not just with preferences in styling and materials, but, crucially, how friendly their cabins interface with the user.
The BMW has had a cautious if refreshingly simpler and neater cabin makeover that mostly sticks true to the marque’s ‘classic vibe’ preferences, with a bit of chunky sportiness ambience complete with low-slung front seating and satisfying driver ergonomics. It’s perhaps less dramatic than the recent C-Class revamp that adopts Benz’s push for modern slickness and flash, which has added a noticeable lift in colour and metallic brightwork in conspicuous areas.
Meanwhile, Audi’s A4 got its most recent makeover a few years back and the 45, though new in name, sticks to a familiar, stoically Teutonic design that’s light and airy, if a little unsurprising and one that many punters are quite fond of.
None of the cabin designs drop far from their family trees, then, and in typically German manner, each ‘design language’ at play is far from naturally intuitive without a fair degree of familiarisation – which, depending on the feature you want to use/change, can range from mildly irritating to downright confounding. Not one of this trio is immune.
For me, the user format of BMW’s updated Operating System 7.0 in its 10.25-inch infotainment system is an absolute breeze to control and navigate, and the screen display is clear and razor sharp. But the 12.3-inch digital driver’s instrumentation is an over-stylised mess that’s confusing to pick information from at a glare, let alone a glance. That its design alters in tandem with drive modes doesn’t help legibility matters one iota.
The C300 is quite the opposite: the countersunk 12.3-inch screen’s classic circular dial display is pleasingly straightforward, and more welcoming than the silly double-screen floating screen found in other Benz lines – if paired with 10.25-inch infotainment that, despite benefitting from a ($1769) COMAND Online upgrade, is finicky to use with all of the submenu chasing, even despite the handy ‘codpiece’ console controller.
You do get those nifty thumb controllers on the steering wheel, though there is a tendency to nudge them, knocking around your settings (radio station presets, for instance) during steering manoeuvres.
It also lacks much of the more cutting-edge MBUX functionality found in the A-Class. It takes some digging to change the driver’s screen display, say, and downright impossible to find the lane-keep assistance defeat. Or to turn off the overspeed warning that flashes distractingly in the head-up display, forcing you to turn off the system completely.
Audi’s Virtual Cockpit was a bit of a segment pioneer for digital driver’s screens and remains the funkiest, if in a ‘like it or lump it’ sort of manner. Its two main views are easily switchable on the fly, but either lacks a bit of quick-glance friendliness and the ‘look’ is ageing a little these days.
Ditto the so-called MMI infotainment system, with its slightly grainier 8.3-inch display that’s noticeably smaller than its rivals’ 10.25 screens.
The controller’s touchpad lid is pretty useful for navigation inputs, but accessing drive modes through its up-down switch system is clunkier than the roller dial in the Benz or one-button convenience found in the BMW.
There are key differences everywhere you look or touch. For instance, with seating, the Audi has the most supple leather and most sport-focussed shape, while the Benz features front pews with the most relaxed form, if lacking a little support and contour.
The BMW has a neat luxo-sport blend and the most elaborate and upmarket appearance, down to fancy stitching, though as we discovered at its local launch, they’re not quite as long-haul comfy as the model’s Luxury Line seating.
Be it design, infotainment, seating or whatnot, the three are all decent, all different, and the ideal fit for a buyer will largely come down to personal preference. Or, perhaps, some frustrating characteristics some may find to be deal-breakers.
The silly pedal stagger of the Audi, the weirdo dash and overly chunky wheel of the BMW, or the clunky column-mounted transmission controller and handbrake mechanism of the Benz are the kinds of areas that’ll send potential buyers packing towards respective rivals. The advice here is to spend decent time in the cabins of all three in order to eliminate things that might drive you crazy in long-term ownership.
The 330i has the roominess and best second row, with the comfiest seating, easily the best headroom, the most comprehensive rear air-con controllability, and most convenience in a pair of USB ports and a 12V outlet. The only markdown is the door aperture making entry and egress slightly awkward.
The C300’s cosier than the BMW, but it has the tightest headroom of the trio, while the Audi has more natural dimensions, though is noticeably the smallest second row of the bunch. Meanwhile, the A4 gets a single 12V outlet (no USB) with temperature controls by the rear vents, whereas the Benz’s only notable feature is the off dial for the air vents.
Academically, both the Audi and BMW offer 480L of boot space apiece against the lower 455L volume for the Benz. But they’re ostensibly very similar for useable space and, without spare wheels fitted, the 330i and C300 offer decent-sized cavities under their floors for handy bits of extra stowage. All three feature 40:20:40 split-fold rear seating for handy load-through capability.
In terms of extras, notables include the Audi’s elasticised cargo net for keeping small objects secured in the boot, while the Benz also comes with a novel collapsible crate for your groceries that stows neatly under the floor.
Bar the C-Class’s recent move from a seven-speed conventional automatic to a nine-speeder, there’s not a lot new amongst these competitors in the powertrain department.
All three feature high-output versions of their respective 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol four engines, the BMW adopting an eight-speed auto through the rear wheels, while the Audi uses a seven-speed dual-clutch – an increasingly rarer choice for high-end and performance German four- and five-doors – via, of course, the brand’s proprietary all-wheel drive.
At 190kW, the BMW and Benz hold a 5kW advantage over the Audi, though with differences in everything from kerb weight to driveline format between them, call that power discrepancy academic. The 330i does, at 400Nm, ply a substantial 30Nm torque advantage over its rivals, though officially acceleration claims for the BMW and Audi are an identical 5.8 seconds.
Mercedes-Benz is cagey about advertising the C300’s performance potential, though an online skirmish reveals a best estimate of 5.9.
None are firebrands, nor in fairness purport to be. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a clear pecking order in the driving assessment. Indeed, when it comes to blending drivability, response, vibe, refinement and – importantly – fuel economy in the context of the complete powertrain, one competitor is head and shoulders above its peers. And that’s the BMW.
The 330i’s engine is whisper quiet at idle, keen in response in any drive mode, and once you sink the right foot it harnesses its 30Nm advantage from just 1550rpm for a noticeable extra kick in the lower mid-range.
On the march, the BMW’s engine is the only one of the three with a satisfying on-tap rort to the soundtrack, and it pulls cleanly and assertively through to its 6500rpm power peak, the highest in the field.
Two things are quite evident in the BMW powertrain: firstly, its maker obviously put effort into character beyond the number crunching; and further, because of this there’s befittingly premium vibe and polish.
The Audi’s combination of turbo-four motivation and dual-clutch/quattro motion return what is, perhaps surprisingly, the smoothest and most refined powertrain, be it tooling around the ’burbs or when it gets its game on. This alone will surely placate a great many primo-sedan buyers.
That said, the engine just lacks any sort of character outside of demure and polite that’s out of kilter with the 45’s sporty S-Line accoutrements, and its pulling power tends to nod off a little in the higher rev range. It’s a one-dimensional powertrain compared with the more multifaceted BMW’s.
“Is that a diesel,” asks one observer of the Benz’s noticeably coarse idle clatter. And despite the introduction of the new nine-speed auto, the C300’s powertrain really fails to steal the march against its rivals in any measure of goodness.
It’s good: sanguine at a cruise, untasked around town, but the C300’s engine itself lacks response. The auto is slightly laggy and hunts around the ratios a little too much, and never really quite plucking the right sweet spot from the turbo four.
It’s a powertrain that easily caught snoozing, and feels and sounds wrung out when tasked with any command outside of leisurely left-lane cruising.
To be fair, 80 per cent of buyers may find the C300’s engine and transmission combination perfectly adequate for 80 per cent of the driving experience. But it’s just not premium enough in execution for a $70K executive wearing a tri-star badge, let alone one that nudges $90K before on-roads.
To be even fairer, Benz makes some suitably, well, ‘Benz’ engines these days – the new electro-enhanced straight-six comes immediately to mind – but this 2.0-litre four in this tune tied to this automatic really doesn’t cut it.
The Benz’s ambivalent and nigh on lazy demeanor might be forgiven via superior frugality, but on test – 30 per cent urban, 70 per cent highway and country driving – it returned a respectable if unremarkable mid-seven consumption.
Meanwhile, the Audi tended to sit right on the 7.0-litre mark across what would eventually be around 1000km of mixed driving, but the real standout was again the BMW. The Munich machine’s 6.1L figure certainly raised a few eyebrows amongst the CarAdvice crew.
To recap, BMW fits adaptively damped suspension as standard to the 330i, while Benz and Audi don’t.
However, our C300 is optionally fitted with AMG Line (an extra $2461) that loads in a Sport level of suspension tune together with Sport Direct-Steer – or variable-ratio steering – plus there’s an added Dynamic Body Control extra ($1077) that adds continuously variable damping in three different ‘general’ tune levels: Comfort, Sport and Sport+.
Meanwhile, the BMW gets a generally more focused M Adaptive tune in our test car’s M-Sport-themed guise, rather than the more softly set calibration you’d find on the 3 Series’s Luxury Line specification.
The Audi gets none of this. It receives passive 20mm-lowered sports-tuned suspenders. The dual-mode adaptive dampers standard in the S4 aren’t even offered optionally in the A4.
So it came with some surprise to discover that in blending ride comfort and handling prowess, the Audi’s one default suspension mode was deemed superior to all of the BMW modes bar one (Comfort) and all of the settings on the Benz.
The A4 has an almost uncanny ability to isolate bumps from the chassis and control wheel movement, be it over speed bumps where it settles quickly and cleanly in rebound, or when you’re bombing along the countryside over fierce road acne, where there’s surprisingly low impact vibration or noise.
And yet, you go and stick the Audi into a corner and the chassis remains crisp-edged and taut with ample body control and response to return supreme lightness and agility.
I wouldn’t be the first to suggest that the linear and direct steering system could do with a little extra communication and feedback at times, but you really don’t have to dig too hard into the A4’s dynamics to find a properly sporty character – if one augmented by the kind of grip and control nice compliant suspension provides over lumps and bumps in the mid corner.
Bravo Audi. Top stuff.
The BMW, too, is excellent in Comfort, which is actually as taut as you’d expect from a ‘sport’ level of tuning. As I discovered at the local 3 Series launch, there’s a wonderfully balanced and responsive chassis that reveals itself once you push on in the Bimmer, and the Comfort tune seems perfectly calibrated to it at anything like legal road pace and anywhere short of nine-tenths.
If there’s a markdown here, it’s that its more casual suspension tune is prone to fizzy vibration in primary ride, be it at around-town pace or getting up to speed out in the sticks.
The 330i’s Sport mode amplifies the chassis’s purpose a touch, if perhaps unnecessarily so. Whatever vibe this adds it simply robs in ride fatigue, especially for a car that really has no place going near a racetrack where this firmer mode might – and I stress might – pay further dynamic dividends, because the BMW tends to run out of grip well before its chassis relinquishes its impressive poise and balance.
Despite two layers of cost-optional enhancement and three different modes of adaptive tune to choose from, the Benz really doesn’t steal the march in either ride or handling anytime or anywhere.
Let’s start with the positives: its Comfort suspension tune is the softest of all three cars and some buyers are going to love it. Or at least love being driven serenely around town or on the highway, where the Benz simply wafts along. Grumbles surface, though, over speed humps or driveway entries at low speed, where the chassis bobs about like a dinghy in a storm – at one point the chassis’s front end actually bottomed out.
Hit undulations at speed and the chassis responds with wavy, loping compressions that take time to settle. And no matter what driving situation, there’s a faint and annoying wobble in body roll. Too damn soft then.
Progressing to Sport firms up the ride somewhat, but does little to improve the flaccid body control that produces irritating ride characteristics and does nothing to instill confidence in dynamic capability. There’s just a fundamental lack of genuine connection between the driver and the road.
Confusingly, Sport+ doesn’t seem to add much further other than a little bit of brittleness. What’s perhaps most surprising is that the suspension is somewhat nosier than either of the C300’s rivals in any driving situation.
Look, by general motoring terms, the C300 leverages impressive plushness as its luxury-experience trump card. It’s just very singular in execution and lacks depth and well-roundedness, or at least by measures demonstrated by its rivals. Again, it’s not really befitting of a premium passenger car – at this pricepoint, in this segment – wearing Mercedes-Benz credentials.
In terms of safety and conveniences, all three have comprehensive 360-degree camera systems (optionally fitted to the Audi and Benz, mind you) with large, clear, decent frame-rate displays on screens superior to any non-premium vehicle I’ve driven in a long while. This includes more user-switchable camera angles, including a handy front view, than you’ll ever have time to use parking at the local supermarket.
The ghosted ‘proximity panels’ of the BMW give that system the slight edge, and for what it’s worth, none of the faked overhead angles are of much real-world use in any of the trio.
Similarly, the reliability and usability of their active cruise-control systems are all highly effective, though the active lane-keeping features spread amongst the group were hit and miss if you feel the lazy compulsion to use them.
Here, the BMW was most faithful and natural in tracking centrally inside the lane, though it did steer assertively left twice after misreading the road surface. The Audi didn’t pick up incorrect road lines, but did have a habit of meandering too much within the lane. And, lastly, the Benz’s tendency to weave off course, then automatically brake in punishment, was alarming enough to convince me to leave the system turned off entirely.
As tested, each car is loaded with broad suites of warning and prevention features that are, for the most part, difficult to test in the real world without specifically initiating the onset of an accident. Positively, though, none of the trio was prone to false-positive safety system activation during our week of testing.
Germany’s Big Three persist with small three-year standard warranties, whereas five years is becoming something of an industry standard. That said, there are no kilometre caps for any of the trio for their basic, slim, 36-month sureties.
These days, all three importers offer servicing plans. The A4 is on 12-month/15,000km servicing intervals with Audi offering a three-year ($1710) or five-year ($2700) program. Meanwhile, the 330i’s most basic package covers five years and 80,000km for $1495, which can be upgraded to a ‘Plus’ package (covering brakes, wipers, et cetera) for an added premium. The Benz has the long per-year mileage (25,000km) with its 12-month schedule, and its basic package of $2000 upfront covering the first three years/75,000km.
In short, the BMW 330i romped it in for the win. BMW Australia made a bit of a song and dance about value in goodies and equipment bundled into the petrol 3 Series at its local launch, but it really took throwing it up against its two key rivals to reveal just how fulsome the package is. This alone would’ve made the mid-sizer Bimmer a potential victor, even if its accommodation and on-road behavior were found to be a little lacking.
Instead, so much of the 3 Series’s burgeoning features set works, and works really well. And it not only leads the pack for roominess, it has a certifiable driver’s vibe from behind the wheel that augments the quality in refinement and comfort.
Speaking of which, its slightly stiff-riding nature wasn’t enough to negatively impact what’s a fine on-road showing however it’s being driven, and it’s backed by the best powertrain of the pack, the lustiest performance, and the most impressive fuel economy.
Bundle all of these positives together and you get the most convincingly premium package of the trio, and almost certainly of its segment.
That said, not a whole lot separated this trio in the experience. It’s just telling that neither of the BMW’s rivals could topple the Munich machine despite nigh on $20K of options apiece that, frankly, few buyers will likely splurge on.
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