BMW's new 320d has been the car to beat since its launch last year. Impressive both from behind the wheel and the back seat, the 3-series ticks all the must-have luxury car boxes. Audi’s attractive looking and recently updated A4 is doing well too. Smooth, refined and easy to drive, it combines effortless performance and fantastic build quality in a single package. Until now, however, the Audi A4 2.0 TDI had one major shortcoming – while the BMW 320d produces a respectable 181bhp, the Audi only managed 141bhp. Now Audi has finally addressed this issue and the new engine in the A4 now puts out a much healthier 174bhp. No Audi versus BMW tussle can ever be complete without a Mercedes joining in, so we decided to pull the 201bhp version of the C-class, the C 250 CDI, into the ring as well. At the moment, the 250 CDI is being phased out and Mercedes is offering only the less powerful 220 CDI, but there are a few left in stock, so speak to your dealer about its availability. So which of these three Germans has the best combination of driver thrills, luxury frills and rear seat comfort? Big question indeed.
What are they like to drive?
The Mercedes C250 CDI is the most powerful car here and has the largest engine too, displacing 2.1 litres, compared to the 2.0-litre engines of the other two. But while the Mercedes employs a seven-speed automatic gearbox, the BMW uses an eight-speed gearbox and the Audi, a CVT gearbox.
The Audi delivers its power in the most spike-free manner of the three cars here. The smooth-shifting gearbox, near-silent engine and almost lag-free acceleration all work towards making it as pleasant to drive as a petrol car. And because it is the most free-spinning engine of the lot, you don’t need too much throttle to get going in this car. So, in a nutshell, the Audi is the most comfortable and stress-free car here. However, it lacks is the outright punch of the Mercedes or the brisk acceleration of the BMW.
The Mercedes clearly has the most punch and shoots forward aggressively when you flatten the throttle. The twin-turbo engine produces a significant 50 percent more pulling power than the other two and that makes a big difference. Also, the C-class is the only one here to feature gearshift paddles, which lend it a sporty character. But these paddles aren’t as obedient as we’d have liked and the car tends to override your commands often. Overall, the Mercedes is a strong performer in the city and a terrific one on the highway, where the higher gears give it a chance to
utilise its big serving of pulling power.
But it’s the BMW that’s the real sporty one here. Its broad spread of power makes it entertaining to drive regardless of the engine speed, and the immediate throttle response makes it easy to dart into gaps. The quick-shifting, eight-speed gearbox responds intelligently to your throttle inputs. Flat out, this brisk saloon breaches the 100kph mark in just 7.83 seconds (the Mercedes is a tenth of a second behind, while the Audi lags behind by a whole second). In tiptronic mode (manual gear selection), the ’box is quite obedient and responds to your inputs mostly positively.
In terms of refinement, the Audi immediately impresses with its smooth and silent engine. In fact, the refinement is so good, you could fool your friends into believing it’s a petrol car; not something you can do with the other two, as both have a distinctively gravelly engine note that tends to get a bit intrusive after 3,000rpm. Between the two, the BMW’s engine is a bit more refined, but the car lets in a fair amount of road noise. On the other hand, the Merc has better overall cabin insulation and, while it keeps away most of the road and wind noise, the engine noise is a bit intrusive – especially when pushed hard.
Ride & handling
In the city, at low speeds, the Audi A4’s softer ride feels the most comfortable. But, this doesn’t hold true at highway speeds where some unwelcome vertical movements can be felt. Also, sharp bumps sometimes result in a loud ‘whack’ from the suspension. On the other hand, the BMW 3-series shows better overall poise and composure than the mildly nervous Audi. The 3-series feels the more absorbent of the two and once at speed feels the more stable and confidence inspiring. In fact thanks to the well-balanced suspension setup, the 320d feels almost as absorbent as the A4 in the
city but feels very stable on the highway. Similarly, the C-class has fine road manners and stays mostly unruffled. However, while the low slung ride height may look sporty, it dents practicality, especially on Indian roads. It wasn’t uncommon for the Mercedes to scrape its belly over speed breakers of moderate size.Tackling them diagonally pretty much becomes a habit quite soon. And large bumps managed to rattle the suspension as well.
As for the handling, there’s a clear winner here – the BMW. The steering is a bit heavier than the other two and that is a bit of a penalty at city speeds, but otherwise it feels perfectly weighted. If you love driving, this car is clearly the most rewarding. The precise and quick nature of the steering wheel provides the driver with an engaging driving experience that is second to none. The 3-series feels well poised in corners and the car always feels ready to take the corner faster.
The C-class is fun too, but not to the same extent. The steering is quite precise and it exhibits good body control in the twisty bits. But, the slightly inert steering wheel just doesn’t offer the same feedback as the BMW’s. The A4 on the other hand focusses more on comfort rather than sporty dynamics. The steering is exceptionally light and so are all the other controls such as the brakes, accelerator and even the gear lever too and that is this car’s USP. So it’s tireless to drive in the city.
What are the Luxury Saloons like on the inside?
At this price point, the quality of the interiors becomes a crucial part of the package and could be a deal breaker. Thankfully, none of the three cars has shabby or low-quality cabins. Being the only light-coloured interior here, the Audi’s dual-tone beige cabin feels the brightest and broadest here. And, apart from a few poor-fitting shiny black plastic bits, the overall quality is exceptional and the large dials are the easiest to read. Audi’s MMI interface employs the best graphics and isn’t hard to use either. Overall, the airy cabin reflects the relaxed nature of the saloon and it would be safe to say the A4 has the plushest cabin, with the best design, quality, fit and finish. However, at the rear, the A4 lacks thigh support and knee room is clearly less than either of the others.
The Mercedes does better here. The softly cushioned seats are quite comfortable, legroom is adequate and visibility is good too. But the low hip point may make ingress and egress a bit difficult for older folk. The C-class is, however, solidly built – every moveable part, such as the air-con controls and the hinged storage compartment covers, has a nice well-damped feel to it. Most impressive though is the manner in which the doors shut. It is a solid and positive sound that reassures you that the company hasn’t skimped on quality. Aesthetically too, the C-class feels like a special place to be. The layered door pads, sporty steering wheel and soft-touch dashboard materials assure you your money has been well spent. But the low-resolution multimedia screen looks like it’s a decade old and lacks the crisp graphics found on the other two saloons here. Also, the steering-mounted controls feel a bit flimsy at this price. You may also find the mass of buttons on the centre console a bit distracting and confusing.
The winner for the best rear seat is the BMW. The seats provide adequate support, the backrest angle is good and, even with a tall driver in the front, it has the most knee room at the rear. In the Sport trim that we tested, the BMW’s cabin initially gives an impression of too much black. The chunky leather steering wheel features red stitching and a strip of matte red trim (instead of artificial wood or brushed aluminium) divides the dashboard. These unabashed red accents may not be to everyone’s taste, but they do add a lot of dynamic appeal if you like a sporty cabin; and you can choose a more conventional Luxury spec instead. Continuing its sporty theme, the front seats are by far the best bolstered and hold you snugly in place; they’re also the most comfortable. The driving position is spot on too and in true BMW tradition, the centre console is tilted towards the driver, announcing the car’s driver-focussed nature. The iDrive infotainment system, with its neatly organised sub-menus, is quite user friendly on the move and the crisp large screen is easy to read. That said, the BMW feels the least luxuriously appointed of these three from the inside.
It is important to remember that all three cars are best treated as four-seaters, and the narrow cabins coupled with high transmission tunnels and rear AC vents make a fifth passenger quite unwelcome.
In terms of luggage space, all three have properly large boots. Also, since the BMW wears run-flat tyres, there’s no spare tyre taking up space in the boot. The Audi, on the other hand, gives you a smaller space-saver spare. Only the Mercedes offers a full-size spare, which is a big plus if
you are likely to make plenty of long-distance journeys.
Equipment & safety
The Audi A4 2.0 TDI is available in four variants, with prices starting at Rs 28.58 lakh for the Standard variant. The car we’ve tested is the 2.0-litre TDI Premium Plus with 174bhp. For the money (Rs 33.48 lakh), you’ll get 17-inch alloys, Xenon headlamps, front fogs, rain-sensing wipers, a leather-covered multi-function steering wheel, an audio system with Bluetooth and CD player compatibility, rear parking sensors, 3-zone climate control, dual airbags and rear side airbags. There’s also a sunroof, electrically adjustable wing mirrors with memory function, electrically adjustable front seats with memory, an MID screen, cruise control, Audi’s Drive Select and leather upholstery.
The BMW 320d’s prices start at Rs 30.40 lakh for the base variant. The car we tested, the SportLine
(Rs 34.50 lakh), comes quite well equipped with features like front fog lights, rain-sensing wipers and automatic Xenon headlights, dual-zone climate control, leather-wrapped steering wheel, steering-mounted audio controls, powered seat adjustment with memory, keyless go, BMW’s iDrive controller with a 6.5inch color display, rear parking sensors, BMW’s start/stop function, 8 airbags, dynamic traction control, runflat tyres and 17-inch alloys. There’s also a sunroof, a front grille finished in high-gloss, tailpipe finished in black chrome and a leather steering wheel with red stitching, among others. You also get electrically adjusted sport seats for the driver and front passenger, Bluetooth and USB connectivity and three colour options for the upholstery in Dakota leather.
Coming to the Mercedes-Benz C-class, the car we got was the C 250 CDI. It gets electrically adjustable wing mirrors, a full size spare wheel, cruise control, steering-mounted audio controls, keyless go, rear air-con vents, rain-sensing wipers and a 4.4-inch color display. In terms of safety,
it gets Merc’s Attention Assist system that alerts you if you get drowsy while driving at speeds between 80-180kph, and six airbags. There’s also a panoramic sunroof, 17-inch AMG wheels, leather upholstery, automatic climate control, electrically adjustable front seats with memory, adaptive headlights, a Harman Kardon audio system with a 6 CD changer and Bluetooth capability.
The Audi A4, with its extra power, smooth free-revving engine and light controls is the best to drive in the city. The interiors are beautifully designed and quality, fit and finish are unbeatable too. So it has a lot going for it, but space at the rear is quite tight and it is still the least fun to drive.
The Mercedes-Benz C 250 CDI has a really punchy engine, an absorbent ride and classy interiors that are solidly built. It is nice to drive in the city, even more accomplished on the highway and has a good back seat as well. But at over Rs 41 lakh on road, it is hard to justify the Rs 2 lakh premium over the BMW.
The BMW 3-series wins because it delivers the best performance both as an owner and chauffeur-driven car. The back seat comfort and ride quality are generally better and it is faster and much
more accomplished at speed. The sharp and precise steering coupled with a fantastic chassis make it just so involving to drive, and it even tackles bad roads really well. While the interiors may not be to everyone’s taste, this car scores better in every other area. It is the one we’d sign on the dotted line for.