YOU have to feel a tinge of sympathy for Mercedes-Benz. Perennially, its compact-executive sedan has lagged behind its rival from Bavaria in terms of sales success and its inability to garner overwhelmingly positive reviews from the motoring press.

In an attempt to bridge the sales gap, Benz decided to move the C-Class closer to the 3 Series in spirit; from the W203-generation, the Three-pointed Star cars became more dynamically styled and set up, eschewing the company’s traditionally conservative approach to chassis engineering and design.

This approach culminated in the outgoing W204 C-Class, a vehicle that looked more dynamic (yet aged really well) and drove wonderfully. It was firm, yet compliant, and showed up the E90 3 Series’s harsh ride quality (in no way aided by the standard fitment of first-generation run-flat technology) and too-derivative design.

And yet, on balance, the BMW was still the more poised, rounded offering. The buying public agreed, regularly placing the Bavarian on the bestsellers’ list in South Africa.

Fast-forward to 2011 and the launch of the current-generation F30. Its brilliance left the W204 floundering, even after the latter underwent a significant facelift earlier that year. The 3 Series had taken such a bold leap forward that no other car in its class stood a chance. It’s twice been crowned Best Compact Executive in the CAR Top 12 Best Buys, and deservedly so.

And then international reviews of the W205 you see on these pages started trickling in... It seemed Benz had finally managed what seemed an impossible feat – build a better 3 Series than BMW is able to.

Associate editor Ian McLaren drove the C in May and concluded his driving impression with the following sage words: “...don’t be surprised if the Benz is named the Best Compact Executive, trumping the 3 Series in the process”.

We decided to pre-empt voting for the 2015 Top 12 Best Buys and assemble a group of the best compact-executive sedans in the market (we would have liked an Audi A4, but the firm could not supply one in time).

It would be a tough test for the Benz. First, in C200 form, it would square up against what we consider the best 3 Series model (bar the M3), the 320i, as well as a dark horse with a strong following in the CAR team, Lexus’s lovely IS350.

Benz was kind enough to supply a second C-Class, a C220 BlueTEC, and that has an equally trying task on page 64 as it battles the newest addition to the class, the tech-laden and value-led Infiniti Q50 2,2d. Right, enough dilly-dallying. Is the Benz better than the BMW, or will history repeat itself?

Design and packaging

In terms of static appeal, the C-Class functions on a different plane than the 3 Series and IS. Kitted out in the AMG Line option packs (R24 000 for the exterior; R19 000 for the cabin), the Benz looks expensive, svelte and thoroughly modern.

The 3 Series, by contrast, is a study in simplicity, but there’s little doubt the M Sport package (R30 500) flatters the looks. It’s aged well, but the 4 Series and its Gran Coupé offshoot have shown there’s more dynamism to be had in the Bavarian line-up.

The Lexus, younger than the BMW, conversely is starting to show signs of age. The fussy double-decker front lamps continue to be divisive, while we remain unconvinced of the visual quality of the rear clusters that dip deeply into the flanks. At least the IS doesn’t require an expensive factory-fitted body kit to get heads swivelling.

Sitting on the longest wheelbase at 2 840 mm, the C-Class has the most comfortable rear seat (we would advise against speccing the vertically intrusive dual-sunroof option if headroom aft is a priority) and configurable driving position. Rear ingress, however, isn’t stellar due to wheelarch intrusion, but once seated it’s an airy space.

The BMW makes it easier for occupants to access the bench thanks to a larger door opening, but the sill is higher, so care needs to be taken when exiting the vehicle, and foot room is at a premium when the front seats are in a low position.

Passengers in the Lexus will pray for short trips or sweet release. Head- and legroom are compromised, and the door opening is tight. What you lose in the cabin you gain in the boot, however; the IS has the biggest luggage capacity, and is the only one with foldable rear seats as standard. Cheekily, it’s a R3 100 option on the 3 Series, while C-Class owners will have to fork out R4 000 for a through-load feature that enlarges the smallest boot in this test.

Specification

Open one of the Benz’s lightweight doors and you’re greeted by a cabin of such lustre (at least when the piano-black trim isn’t smudged in fingerprints, as it so often is) that it can initially appear crass. But look past the overwrought S-Class-derived switches, abundance of brightwork and configurable lighting (another option) and it’s actually a straightforward interior to use that also happens to be beautifully built and trimmed. It comes as a relief after the rattly cabins of the smaller Benzes.

We have few gripes, and they’re minor ones: the new track pad with haptic feedback is an inconvenience more than a boon if you’re right-handed (we understand this was developed predominantly for the Eastern markets, where character entry has been simplified with the touch pad), and we remain unconvinced the protruding infotainment screen is an ele-gant solution. Some testers also commented that the wide centre console could render occupants feeling a touch claustrophobic. Otherwise, this is undoubtedly the best interior in this segment.

Like its exterior, the shortcomings of the 3 Series’s cabin have been brought under the spotlight by that of the C-Class. Quality is fine throughout and it’s simple and straightforward, but it lacks design flair and some plastics along the centre console feel slightly cheap.

If you thought the Lexus’s exterior design was contentious, wait until you climb aboard. One tester likened the layout to that of a 1980s high-end home entertainment system due to the coppery plastic trim and slickly operating volume and tuning knobs. We like the touch-and-slide ventilation controls and applaud Lexus for finally ditching the mouse-like control pad in favour of an iDrive-like knob (though we wonder from which budget parts bin it came), while the seats are very comfortable and the instruments classy and clear. Perceived quality, likewise, is good.

Drivetrains

In terms of drivetrain configurations, the Benz and BMW couldn’t be closer. Both feature 2,0-litre direct-injection turbo-petrol engines connected to automatic transmissions (seven gears for the C, eight for the 3) that send power to the rear wheels. They even match each other for power (135 kW), while the 320i has marginally less torque (270 plays 300 N.m).

Given the latter aspect, we expected the C200 to be slightly quicker in-gear and was from 40 to 80 km/h. Thereafter, the 320i gained the lead. Sprinting from standstill produced similar; initially in favour of the Benz before the BMW strode ahead.

How they deliver that performance is vastly different, though. The 320i remains smooth throughout the rev range (only sounding a touch tappety at idle) and its eight-speed ZF-supplied transmission hooks the right gear at the right time without fail.

The C200, on the other hand, sounds gruff at most engine speeds and the transmission doesn’t change gears as smoothly as it should (isn’t it time the carmaker stopped developing its own transmissions and started commissioning other companies to develop them?). Thankfully, excellent sound-deadening means the powertrain never becomes overly intrusive.

The Lexus provides a vastly different experience, which is key to its appeal. Eschewing the trend for downsizing and forced induction, the IS boasts a lusty 3,5-litre V6 that delivers no less than 228 kW in a vocal, rambunctious manner that’s deeply endearing … until you gaze at the fuel readout on the trip computer and realise why large-capacity naturally aspirated engines are endangered.

On that note, the Benz and BMW were equally frugal on our set 150 km fuel route, using a mere 6,9 litres/100 km. By contrast, the Lexus gulped 9,6.

Ride and comfort

If you are interested in finding out how a C-Class can ride, turn to the next part of this test. The diesel model had air suspension and the comfort-tuning option; this silver C-Class sat on steel springs lowered by 15 mm. In no way aided by the low-profile tyres that come with the AMG pack, the ride is firm to the point of becoming a touch uncomfortable on broken tarmac. The upside is excellent body control and a level demeanour on challenging black top. The C-Class’s steering is equally excellent, while the brakes are strong and fade free.

The Lexus is equally dynamic in the twisty bits without subjecting its occupants to blows to their kidneys. Only a slightly vague steering setup hinders it from garnering an “excellent” grading in this section.

As a study in which to illustrate how to make a vehicle fun to drive without compromising it for daily use, nothing can match the 3 Series. Even on the optional 19-inch wheels of the test car (encased in sliver-thin 35-profile tyres), the ride remains beautifully damped. But, when you select sport and tackle a mountain pass, the 3 Series feels alert and immediate in its responses. The only black mark remains too much wind noise generated by the side mirrors.

Test Summary

The Lexus never really stood a chance of winning this first part of the comparative test. As fun as it is to drive, and as much as it offers great value for money for its spec and performance, it’s an anachronism and the cabin is too cramped. But we adore it nonetheless – it oozes charisma.

Picking a winner between the BMW and Benz is far harder, which should come as a disappointment for the latter. The C-Class is beautiful to behold, and its cabin is the best we’ve seen in this class (let’s see how Audi responds with next year’s A4), but look beyond the static elements and the package starts to disappoint. The engine is good at best and sometimes mediocre, while the ride on the AMG-specced version is compromised.

If you can accept that the BMW feels inferior to touch, prod and look at, the 320i remains the best petrol-powered compact executive. BMW has been doing this for years, and doing it in a consistently exemplary fashion, and it shows.

Road Test Scores

BMW 320i Sports Steptronic: 81/100
Lexus IS350 E: 77/100
Mercedes-Benz C200 7G-tronic: 79/100



TEST SUMMARY

We pit the BMW 320i Sports Steptronic, the Lexus IS350 E and the Mercedes-Benz C200 7G-tronic against each other in this Compact Exec test.