September 2016 was quite a long time ago. That’s when this latest generation of Audi A4 was launched in India, and it was on sale all the way until February 2017 without a diesel engine. That might have been alright on its own, but the sole 1.4-litre petrol engine available in the A4 was the weakest link in an otherwise excellent chain. Audi seems to have more than made amends with the new diesel version – there’s no downsizing here, and in fact, the new 2.0-litre ‘35 TDI’ engine is more powerful than the old one.
And, like a dog that’s just heard a noise in the distance, the BMW 3-series and Mercedes-Benz C-class have pricked up their ears and come running over to see what all the fuss is about. While the A4 simply seemed outgunned in petrol guise, with an oil-burner under the hood, it really has the potential to rise to the top.
It’s also worth noting the spec we’ve chosen for these three. The Audi is in its top-spec trim with all the bells and whistles, sporting a 2.0-litre diesel engine that makes 190hp and 400Nm of torque. The BMW is in the mid-level Sport Line trim – not the full-on M-Sport variant – so while it loses out on the sporty add-ons and launch control, we feel this one is better value. Besides, you get the same engine across the range – a 2.0-litre diesel making 190hp and 400Nm, just like the Audi. As for the C-class, it’s the top-of-the-line 250d – although it costs a bit more than the other two, its 204hp, 500Nm twin-turbo motor should be a better performance match than the lower-powered 220d. At Rs 42.7 lakh, Rs 43.3 lakh and Rs 45.6 lakh for the BMW, Audi and Merc respectively, we think potential owners won’t be pinching pennies and will be happy to extend their budget if they see good value.
These three compact luxury sedans sport distinct looks, all quite characteristic of their makers, and all have a certain appeal. The Audi is sharp, business-like, the Mercedes is flowing, elegant and regal, and the BMW is hunkered down and overtly sporty.
Similarly, on the inside, they follow their family templates and here’s where things get a bit more interesting. The A4 dons the latest Audi theme set forth by the Q7,
and though its design may be restrained, it just reeks of quality. It’s hard to find a poorly made bit in here. The dashboard has a clear ‘horizontal’ theme, framed by the continuous air con vent and the rich-looking slab of wood beneath it, both of which run the width ofthe dashboard. The ‘metal’ spokes in the steering wheel, the Virtual Cockpit digital dials (a big draw with customers) and the haptic control buttons, all make it feel very high-tech. Even the free-standing screen for the MMI system fits in perfectly with this aesthetic, unlike in the Mercedes, where it looks out of place against the more traditional dashboard.
And speaking of the C-class, there’s really nothing that can match its cabin for sheer wow factor at this price. Flowing slates of polished wood, brushed ‘metal’ inserts separating large expanses of leather and even metal switches and knobs. In terms of design, it’s the opposite of the A4, opting for more traditional round shapes and flowing curves. And thanks to the massive panoramic sunroof, the cabin is superbly lit and feels more spacious than it actually is. Previously, we could hardly fault the Merc’s build quality, but it’s only after spending time in the new Audi that you realise, though it’s all very pretty, some plastics in the C-class just could have been better. Similarly with the instrument cluster; the analogue dials, although sporty, look a bit ordinary and out of place with the C’s regal interior, and are certainly a far cry from Audi’s digital cluster. The BMW has analogue dials too, but they do at least suit the car a bit better.
Though it may have been given a mid-life refresh in early 2016, the 3-series is, generationally, the oldest of the trio, and that’s starting to show in the cabin. It definitely feels solidly built, but you don’t get that last degree of finesse its newer rivals give you. The design itself is starting to look a bit dated and the materials just don’t feel quite as rich as in the other two. Another thing to note is that our test car is a Sport Line with black leather and red interior accents. For a more traditional luxury feel, we’d recommend the Luxury Line, which for the same price gets you beige leather, brown wood and silver accents instead. Still, like the outside, the interior has a sporty bent, with the dash curved a bit towards the driver, and a chunky steering wheel.
Sticking with the sporty theme, the 3-series really lets you feel it from the driver’s seat, which is set low (some might say a bit too low) to keep your centre of gravity down and make you feel at one with the car. It’s a nice, snug seat too that holds you in place firmly. That low-set theme continues in the back, where BMW has used the car’s length, not height, to maximise space. And it has worked. This could very well be the best back seat of this trio, with great space as well as back and thigh support. The only caveat is that low positioning; it makes getting in a little tricky, as you have to climb down and across the thick side bolster to get in.
Audi, interestingly, has done something similar with the new A4, it has moved the rear seat further back for more stretching room. Like the BMW, this means climbing around the C-pillar to get in, but once you’re in place, this could also be the best back seat in this test; yes, it’s that close. There’s great support and good legroom too, although some might find the backrest a tad upright. Bonus fact: the Audi is the only one with a separate climate zone for rear passengers. At the front, the A4 offers superb visibility from its comfy and supportive driver’s seat, quite different from the cocooned feeling you get in the 320d.
The Mercedes’ front seats are the largest and best suited to bigger frames. You stare down into a large instrument cowl, but despite this you can adjust the seat for good visibility. Our only grouse is the absence of a memory function for the electric seats. The back seat, just like the rest of the cabin, gives you a special feeling thanks to the materials used and that second sunroof, but then you notice that the seat itself is not that great. Yes, legroom is good, as is back support, but the seat squab is just too short to give adequate thigh support, and the thick frame for that sunroof, ironically, cuts a few precious millimetres out of the headroom.
All three cars have big boots, but in another lesson apparently learnt from the other two, Audi has made sure to pack its space-saver spare into a proper recess under the floor, so it doesn’t eat into the cargo area at all. The 3-series and C-class still carry their spare tyres strapped down inside the boot area, which can be an inconvenience on a long road trip out of town, where you will need both the space and the tyre.
GRUNT OF THE LITTER
This 2.0-litre ‘35 TDI’ diesel engine was something we’ve been anticipating since the A4’s launch last year, but unfortunately Audi had to spend the time retrograding this Euro-IV engine to work with our poor-quality BS-IV diesel. Amazingly, they’ve done it without any loss in power or torque, and the global figures of 190hp and 400Nm remain intact. The other thing that’s stayed unchanged is that refined nature of the VW Group’s latest EA288 diesel engine. Sure, there’s a grumble at startup and a gruffness if you open it up all the way, but at idle and regular cruising speeds, it’s freakishly silent.
Despite an improvement with the new engine, the BMW is still quite noisy, but it never feels too gruff. That’s probably because it is quite a pleasing growl, one that you’ll want to hear as you rev the daylights out of it; all part of that sporty appeal. But it is a mark down on the luxury quotient nonetheless.
The C-class’ noise is a bit more clattery, and it’s the one that lingers in your head long after you’ve stopped driving. Apart from the noise though, this is an incredibly smooth powertrain. The 204hp, 2.1-litre motor just whooshes its way across its rev band, pinning you back with one constant surge of 500Nm across the rev range. No step in power, no sudden punch in the guts and very little turbo lag, and that’s largely down to the superb new nine-speed automatic, which just shifts its way around the sluggish zones. You’d think, with so many ratios, you could catch it off guard, but that’s very rare. It’s so smooth and seamless that you can barely tell it’s shifting.
The BMW uses the ‘old faithful’ ZF eight-speed auto, and while it’s still one of the best in the business, it seems this iteration can’t quite match Merc’s 9G-Tronic for outright smoothness. Still, that does, again, suit the 320d’s sporty character better. It’s still very clever and intuitive, it’s just that you’re more aware of the shifts, and there is that characteristic spiky punch when you kick down for an overtake. The Bimmer’s motor just loves to rev out, almost like a petrol engine, especially in Sport+ mode, encouraging you to pin your foot down at every opportunity. The best part is it doesn’t sacrifice drivability, and in Comfort or Eco Pro modes, it’s as docile and manageable as you expect in a luxury sedan. And while on the topic of the modes, the BMW doesn’t get a customisable Individual mode like the others, but then each of its available modes feels distinctly different; in the other two, the differences aren’t as stark.
Mercifully, Audi has finally let go of its Multitronic CVT gearbox for this generation of A4, moving to its superb S-tronic seven-speed double-clutch auto instead. The new motor is typical of the VW Group in more ways than refinement, though, and it’s the one that displays some lag when you want to get going in a hurry. When you don’t, however, it’s smooth and unobtrusive, and you’ll never notice it working away. Like the BMW, it too gives you a solid ‘whump’ in the chest when you kick down hard, as it hikes up its skirts and surges ahead.
All three are in the same ballpark getting to 100kph from rest, the Audi doing it in 8.08sec, the Mercedes in 7.89sec and the BMW, clearly the quickest, in 7.25sec. However, these 320d times were tested on the M-Sport version with launch control, so we wouldn’t be surprised if this standard car ends up being closer to the Merc’s time. It also explains why both the others are over half a second ahead at 150kph. Interestingly, it’s the Audi that’s the quickest in kickdown acceleration by around 1sec, when compared to the other two, so don’t be quick to label it a slouch.
A MATTER OF RIDE
This particular segment of luxury sedans calls for a balance of comfort and dynamics that’s not as important in the higher segments, where outright luxury is more important. So, of course, the 320d comes to mind right away. BMW’s witchcraft is at play once again, somehow letting the 3-series handle like a sports car half a size smaller. The way it clings to the road, keeps roll and body movements under tight wraps, and how the steering – though a touch on the heavy side – just feeds you with all the information you need from the nose. This one is still the driver’s choice, make no mistake of that. And yet, the ride doesn’t suffer for it. At slow to medium speeds, it’s really comfortable and doesn’t get unsettled easily. It’s only really sharp bumps that will make a noisy entry into the cabin when you hit them, but that’s still at a forgivable level.
The new A4 laughs in the face of Indian roads. The same bump that thunked through in the BMW barely registered as we drove over it in the Audi. It just cruises silently and smoothly over everything, with a ride quality that’s truly remarkable. The flip side is that you do get quite a lot of floaty movement at high speeds and on undulating roads, the soft setup induces it to pitch quite a bit, but luxury buyers would take that over crashy low-speed behaviour any day. The other place you pay the price, of course is handling; this is nowhere near the BMW on this front. The steering still feels disconnected from the road, and the added weight in Dynamic mode doesn’t do much to change that; this at least make it super easy to manoeuvre at low speeds. Then there’s the body roll, which just puts you off cornering the A4 hard, and with all that power going only through the front wheels, it’s prone to both understeer and torque steer. While that sounds a bit harsh, the A4 should still prove quite agreeable to drive for most; it’s just that it’s not as good as its rear-wheel-drive opponents.
Which brings us to the C-class, and it is quite a surprise. Mercs are traditionally all about the comfort, but this one is quite a lot of fun to drive. The steering might not be the most feelsome, but it’s not as bad as the Audi’s and it is super quick, meaning the slightest flick will get the nose moving. You could view the C 250d’s relative lack of grip as a bad thing, but up a mountain road, the slight chirp from the tyres might actually goad you to go faster. Lord knows if you turn the ESC off and floor it, all of that 500Nm will make itself felt. It’s even got good body control – which is easily a match for the BMW – and that’s because of the stiff suspension which also gives it a super flat ride on the highway, but of course, there is another side to this coin. The C-class feels distinctly stiff-kneed on poor surfaces, nudging you around quite a bit in your seat. It crashes hard through bumps and what doesn’t help is that you hear a lot of the road in the cabin too. It’s quite unlike Mercedes to make the stiffest riding car in the class, but alas, with this C-class, that’s what it’s turned out to be.
There’s no doubt that this, as with any time these three step in the ring together, is a serious grudge match. Each time a new version of any of these cars comes along, it targets the other two’s weaknesses with vicious precision, and it’s no different this time around.
The BMW is still a car we have a particular soft spot for, mostly because of how nice it is to drive, and if you drive yourself, we’d still recommend it highly. Despite this, it still has its luxury car fundamentals intact, with a great back seat, good ride comfort and a strong engine. However, its age is starting to show, especially inside the cabin, where things just don’t look and feel as special as the other two, and it is still the noisiest car in this test.
The C-class is just a baby S-class, and we mean that in a good way. It’s got that regal charm on the outside and in, with all its tech buried underneath the plush veneer. The flair of its interior just can’t be beaten and that smooth, powerful motor just adds to that feeling of effortless luxury. However, two key areas that hurt its standing are the back seat and the ride quality, and they prevent it from being the best luxury car here. Plus, its clunky infotainment system just feels half a generation behind the slick interfaces of the other two.
So it seems then that Audi has done its homework with the new A4, studying its two rivals and attacking them where it hurts. It’s not perfect, of course. It’s not the most engaging to drive and its ride can get a bit unsettled at high speeds. But these faults are not deal-breakers. There’s enough entertainment for most, and the outstanding ride at all other speeds makes up for the float. Plus, it scores super high in every other area, with the latest tech, the best refinement, and a superb cabin altogether. It pushes all the right luxury buttons, and that’s why it’s our winner.