We pit three compact German executive sedans against one another: Audi A4 2,0T FSI Sport S tronic vs. BMW 320i Steptronic vs. Mercedes-Benz C200 7G-tronic…
Eight years. In automotive terms, it’s the equivalent of several eons, but that’s how long the previous-generation Audi A4 spent taking on Mercedes-Benz’s C-Class and the BMW 3 Series. So it’s little wonder that, towards the end, as its rivals whipped the covers off slick-looking new models, the A4 – for all its solid build and quiet competence – had almost slipped from the public’s conscience whenever the subject of German compact executives was brought up.
But now the Ingolstadt firm has leapt back into the limelight, joining the fray with a new A4. Will the return of the quietly confident Bavarian upset the apple cart; or, will it be left in the shadows while the distinctive C-Class and impressively balanced 3 Series continue their long-running fight for compact-executive supremacy?
Let’s be frank, even before the new A4 was unveiled at last year’s Frankfurt Motor Show, we knew it was never going to take the design-based quantum leap that Benz made with the C-Class. While the A4 is an all-new car, its appearance is largely a case of honing the Audi sedan blueprint, sharpening elements such as the sheetmetal creases, head- and taillamp arrays, and tweaking the grille and the bumpers. It’s suitably Bauhaus in its execution – solid, purposeful, upmarket – and, as we later found out during the drive, all about attending to its business with an air of quiet assuredness.
But if the A4’s styling is on the safe side, the BMW’s facelift is low-key almost to the point of stealth. The headlamps contain a couple of new elements – LED daytime-running lights that trace the twin lenses crowned by LED eyebrow indicators – and the rest largely falls within the standard facelift subset of revised bumpers, brakelamp elements and some new alloy rims. To the untrained eye, it’d be fairly difficult to discern this model from the pre-facelift one.
The extrovert of this piece has to be the C. With its billowing sheetmetal, raked coupé-like roofline and angry slits of LED daytime-running lights flowing towards a louvred grille with, in the case of our Avantgarde-spec test unit, that coveted Tri-star planted boldly up front, it commands attention. Its resemblance to the S-Class lends it further visual clout, albeit possibly to the chagrin of those piloting Benz’s halo saloon.
Audi’s interiors have long held the distinction of being both an exercise in elegant simplicity and a yardstick for perceived quality. In these respects, the new A4’s cabin largely delivers. The dashboard’s traditional, strong horizontal lines are now punctuated by such new elements as the louvred expanse on the passenger’s side and, probably the highlight in an otherwise conservative cabin, the optional Virtual Cockpit display. In lieu of analogue dials, this pin-sharp, binnacled TFT screen serves up a combination of onboard computer, sat-nav and media readouts within the driver’s usual field of sight.
But, while it’s another case of an Audi cabin that’s hewn from dense, solid plastics and beautifully finished, you do get the impression that it wants for a sense of occasion. Think of the A3; it contains a facia that’s a visual and tactile delight and contrasts neatly with its somewhat conservative shell. Perhaps Audi missed an opportunity to inject some character into its safely styled new A4.
To its credit, though, the cabin’s ergonomics are great. The driving position, with its highly adjustable, flat-cushioned but supportive seats, along with a wide range of steering adjustment, remains pretty much spot-on for long stints behind the wheel. Despite returning the most modest rear-kneeroom measurements, there’s still enough head-, leg- and shoulder-room for a brace of six-footers. The boot is also fairly capacious, matching that of the BMW and marginally eclipsing the C’s. It makes up for its slightly shallow depth with a long luggage bed and the standard fitment of split-folding rear seatbacks; an option on the BMW and Benz costing R3 250 and R4 100, respectively.
The material and elements of build quality in the pre-facelift 3’s cabin came in for some criticism, so the application of sportier-looking trim strips on the facia and more upmarket plastics on the centre hang-down section in the updated car is a welcome step in the right direction. Although looking a bit long in the tooth by comparison, the 3’s cabin with its low-slung driving position, well-bolstered seats in M Sport guise and darker trim that sits in stark contrast to the A4’s airier-looking hues, remains the sportiest of the trio. Although more snug-looking than those of its peers, the rear quarters are quite commodious. NVH suppression is good, but a hint of wind flutter around the wing mirrors sees it playing third fiddle to its rivals in this respect.
Much like its bold exterior, it’s the C’s cabin that really stands out for its sheer sense of occasion. The gap in terms of perceived quality between the standard-setting A4 and C is narrow – NVH suppression is at least on par with that of the Ingolstadt car – but its plastics and finish, although impressive, sit level with the BMW and concede palpable ground to the Audi’s vault-like innards.
Like most Mercedes sedans, the C’s ergonomics are geared towards comfort and it works a treat, rendering it one of those cars you can comfortably pilot for hours and emerge fresh on the other side. If there were black marks against the spacious rear accommodation, they would lie with ingress that’s rendered a bit narrow owing to some wheelarch intrusion and a short squab that doesn’t offer the same thigh support as the A4’s deeper bench.
Ride and comfort
Where the Audi has perennially set the trim-finish bar in its segment, the 3 has consistently delighted with its near-perfect balance between comfort and involvement, and with the updated car that arrangement hasn’t changed. Whether it’s the chassis’ poise and the alertness of its satisfyingly weighty steering, or the ride, which even on our car’s optional M Sport 19-inch rims proved the firmest but most consistent setup in terms of its damping over a variety of surfaces, the 3 remains exemplary in its ability to seamlessly switch from entertainer to business express.
Having previously tested Cs equipped with the overly firm AMG Sport and languidly wafty air-sprung suspension setups, it was an interesting exercise to sample a largely standard (read lowered by 15 mm as part of the Avantgarde package) steel-sprung model on 18-inch rims. In this configuration, the Mercedes didn’t disappoint, proving impressively damped against all but the very worst road scars, but still capable enough of keeping body-roll in check and allowing the driver to enjoy the car’s rear-wheel-driven dynamics, albeit to a lesser extent than in the BMW, thanks to a reasonably feelsome tiller. While all of the gathered cars are comfy in their own rights, the C’s ability to comfortably ferry its occupants over long distances and decant them at their destination fresh and relaxed is a big draw card.
On the ride and handling fronts, the A4 remains a capable package. A heavy-handed approach unearths typical FWD traits of a well-sorted compact-executive sedan: noticeable but manageable body-roll and good nose-end grip that gradually defaults to understeer. It’s not the most engaging car here, but there’s still a good deal of satisfaction to be had from its “fire-and-forget” ease of use. It feels planted and assured at highway speeds, and even wieldier than the previous car, courtesy of a kerb weight that’s 70 to 100 kg lighter than its rivals and dainty, responsive, if not overly communicative, power steering. Possessed of a pliant and well-damped suspension setup, the A4’s supple ride bridges a neat gap between the softer C-Class and the stiffer 3 Series.
Audi has done away with the previous A4’s 1,8-litre turbopetrol in favour of an updated version of the VW Group’s long-serving EA888 engine. Wearing the “Ultra” label, this unit features a Millerised combustion cycle that incorporates variable valve lift along with higher boost and compression ratio. Developing 140 kW and 320 N.m of torque, the 2,0-litre turbopetrol is a punchy performer that outguns both cars off the mark and bests its rivals in in-gear acceleration from 80 km/h upwards.
It’s generally very smooth and refined, but its marriage with the seven-speed dual-clutch transmission is a mixed bag. There’s a slight hesitance and shudder from the powertrain at pull-away that mars town driving but, once up to pace, the transmission shifts smoothly and reacts quickly to paddle-shift inputs.
The A4’s transmission isn’t alone in being slightly flawed, though. Under most driving scenarios, the C’s seven-speed ‘box performs well, but it baulks from time to time when shifting under hard acceleration. Thankfully, Mercedes will eventually phase in its more resolved nine-speed unit.
The C’s 2,0-litre turbopetrol feels strong at the lower end, its 40-60 and 60-80 km/h in-gear figures being the best of the three, but thereafter the others stride ahead. Although by no means unrefined, in this company the C’s engine sounds a bit gruff under hard acceleration. To Benz’s credit, though, there’s plenty of sound-deadening material and at constant speeds, the powertrain settles down to a distant thrum.
The 3’s engine is a new unit that forms part of BMW’s latest family of modular-architecture engines. With only a 20 N.m increase over the previous 2,0-litre powerplant, however, it doesn’t represent a huge departure in terms of performance. A couple of tenths have been shaved off the 0-100 km/h sprint and in-gear acceleration is marginally better than before, sitting bang in the middle of its rivals’ times.
On the mixed-route fuel run it, perplexingly, returned 7,9 L/100 km, placing it behind the A4’s 7,4 and the C’s 6,9. Even so, it’s a cracking engine with a smooth pickup and a satisfying rasp when pushed, while the versatile eight-speed ZF ‘box to which it’s coupled is a study in how automatics should be applied to premium-placed cars.
Value for money
This particular section of the compact-executive market occupies an unusual space where their aspirational nature stands on level pegging with value for money.
While the Mercedes-Benz and BMW feature optional sports styling packages, mostly comprising larger alloys and purposeful-looking body skirting, Audi has instead sewn its sporting addenda into this car’s Sport designation (one of three trim grades per engine option). This goes some way to explaining the A4’s higher sticker price. Outfitting the BMW and Mercedes in this manner, though, essentially erases the on-paper price gap.
There’s precious little to separate the three in the standard-features front with the likes of auto lights (xenon items in the A4) and wipers, cruise control, partial leather upholstery (full-leather in the BMW; the Benz’s seats have part-electric adjustment), climate control, Bluetooth-enabled audio system, keyless ignition (A4 and BMW), tyre-pressure monitoring and 17-inch alloys (16-inch in 320i) all accounted for. The only area where a marked difference is evident is the duration of their maintenance plans, the Audi and BMW featuring a five-year/100 000 km plan as standard compared with Mercedes’ plan spanning an additional year.
Looking at the overall scores, this test came perilously close to being a horses-for-courses outcome. We could feel justified in wholeheartedly recommending any of these cars to someone in the market for a compact-executive sedan, but a winner had to emerge. Both the A4 and C are impressively polished, each competently going about its business with its own distinct character, and their joint second placing largely came down to a couple of drivetrain quirks that scuffed their sheen.
By virtue of its ability to cosset and entertain, not to mention welcome material improvements and palatable price, victory goes to the BMW.
*From the May 2016 issue of CAR magazine.