It’s been quite some time since the Bavarian Motoren Werke (BMW) propeller badge has been able to consistently guarantee a superior driving experience.
In its quest for plugging market niches and achieving technological domination, BMW began to lose touch with the dynamic purity that made its cars great. And that’s what the new-generation G20 3 Series is here to address.
Built on an entirely new platform, while carrying over BMW’s (already excellent) drivetrains, the new Three aims to inject some fun back into driving. But its task is a whole lot more complex than that. Providing the driver with a greater sense of engagement and poise is one thing; making sure everyone else is also satisfied is entirely another. And it’s that level of consistency – exemplified by Audi’s B9-generation A4 – that the new 3-Series needs to master.
Since it emerged on the world stage four years ago, it’s the Audi that has set the benchmark among its German friends in this current generation. After decades of threatening to produce a truly excellent premium sedan, the B9 A4 is the Ingolstadt brand’s ‘breakthrough’ model – in particular the 45 TFSI quattro (nee 2.0TFSI quattro). And it’s that iconic model that we’re putting up against BMW’s finest mainstream 3-Series variant, the 330i.
Last but not least, the current W205 C-Class has been a resounding sales success for Mercedes-Benz in Australia since it launched in 2014, and last year’s comprehensive mid-life update – including 6500 new or modified parts – will only solidify that popularity. But is the new C300 version of the three-pointed-star’s mainstay worthy of such adulation?
How do they compare on price?
Our three premium German sedans each start around the $70K mark, but all end up costing 90 grand or more once you tally the wealth of (tempting) options lavished on each.
The A4 45 TFSI quattro (the former 2.0TFSI quattro in rebranded form, though without its forthcoming mid-life nip-and-tuck) is the most affordable of the three, starting life at $70,300 on paper but leaving Audi’s production facility fully dressed for $89,680 (not including on-road costs).
Fleshing out the A4’s already comprehensive cache of standard equipment is an S-Line sport package ($1300 – AudiSport 19-inch five-arm alloy wheels in matte-titanium, black dashboard and headlining, perforated-leather gearknob, brushed-aluminium inlays, stainless-steel pedals, sports front seats in leather/Alcantara with variable headrests, and an S-Line steering wheel), an Assistance tour package ($2470 – adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go and traffic-jam assist, active lane-assist, collision-avoidance assist, Audi Pre-Sense front, high-beam assist and turn assist), a Parking assistance package ($1235 – 360-degree camera and auto-park assist), and a must-have Technik package ($5600 – Matrix LED headlights, a stunning Bang & Olufsen 3D surround-sound system, and a head-up display). Those packages are joined by optional metallic paint ($1950), fine Nappa leather trim ($1950), an interior lighting package ($520), privacy glass ($1105) and an electric glass sunroof ($2470).
The BMW 330i starts at $70,900, complete with standard M Sport package in Australia (though with a curiously unsatisfying ‘Luxury Line’ package available as a no-cost alternative). Like the Audi, that $71K base price comes surprisingly jam-packed with standard equipment, headlined by adaptive LED headlights, a head-up display, three-zone climate control, a 12.3-inch digital instrument display, electric sports seats, M Sport brakes, wireless phone charging and a 10-speaker hi-fi sound system.
Run-of-the-mill options fitted to our white 330i include metallic paint ($2000), an electric glass sunroof ($2900), aluminium mesh-effect interior finishes ($300), electric driver and passenger lumbar adjustment ($600), ambient lighting ($700), an electric bootlid ($900) and an M Sport differential ($2400). But this poster child for BMW’s M Performance options on the G20 3-Series includes over 17 grand’s worth of bits – led by black 20-inch Y-spoke alloys ($8019), a matte-black front splitter ($1745), a carbon fibre rear diffuser ($2139) and a carbon fibre bootlid spoiler ($1479). The grand total? $97,906.
The Mercedes-Benz C300’s stock sticker is $71,800, though our test car finished up costing $90,781 (before on-road costs). Besides an AMG Line package with black leather upholstery ($2461) and ‘designo’ Diamond White metallic paint ($2154), the C300 also copped a Comand package ($1769), a Luxury Seat package ($1385), Energising Comfort Control ($1769), Seat Comfort Package ($692), a Vision Package ($4846), Dynamic Body Control ($1077), and wireless phone charging ($308). Mercedes-Benz also separately quotes $3520 in luxury car tax.
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2019 BMW 330i M Sport
2019 BMW 330i Luxury Line
2019 Audi A4 35 TFSI
2019 Audi A4 40 TFSI
2019 Audi A4 40 TFSI
2019 Audi A4 45 TFSI
2019 Mercedes-Benz C300
2019 Mercedes-Benz C300
2019 Mercedes-Benz C300
2019 Mercedes-Benz C300
What are they like inside?
If familiarity breeds contempt, then clearly I haven’t spent enough time in B9-generation A4s because this circa-2015 premium sedan continues to set the cabin benchmark in a multitude of ways.
Firstly, it has the most space of this group, the best storage, and the best seat comfort of any medium sedan we can think of. Our test A4’s sports front seats not only provide a massive range of (fully electric) adjustment, they’re perfectly located – delivering an excellent driving position. And the roomy rear bench provides an expansive view and great seat support. The A4 is also beautifully trimmed in (optional) high-quality Nappa leather, giving it a significant tactile advantage.
Secondly, the A4 continues to set the interior design standard. Even though the dashboard is now essentially middle-aged, there’s a visual lightness to its lack of vertical bulk and its minimalist symmetry, which enhances the A4’s feeling of airiness. It’s such a right-sized kind of car, and the superb packaging and material quality of its interior means it continues to set the global benchmark for versatility and overall design excellence.
The new-gen 3-Series tries hard but ultimately fails to achieve the Audi’s visual class or packaging prowess. The G20 330i’s cabin environment is a more interesting environment than its predecessors, with lovely textured-metal inlays offered in M Sport models and ergonomic new centre-console switchgear that makes life even easier, plus cordless Apple CarPlay for its superb central touchscreen (though in old-school iDrive fashion, the tone settings for the BMW’s speakers are buried at least four layers deep). Terrific seats too, including the rear bench, even though the 330i’s second row isn’t as cleverly ordered as the A4’s.
But in comparison to the lithe Audi, the BMW’s dashboard appears needlessly bulky, its steering-wheel rim similarly super-sized in girth, and much of its switchgear can’t match the Audi’s high-quality feel. And while the 3-Series matches the A4 in boot capacity (at 480 litres), it does so without making room for a spare wheel.
The C300’s rejigged interior has taken a significant leap towards the new reality of the latest A-Class’s widescreen vastness, without altering its architectural fundamentals. There’s an easy, breezy feel to the Benz’s cabin that makes it simple to operate, and the centre console’s new 10.25-inch widescreen tablet seems to fit that vibe neatly. Superb new steering wheel too, with thumb-touch control pads that quickly become effortlessly intuitive.
But the C300 falls well short of its rivals’ seating comfort. The front buckets are fine in isolation, though you do notice the lack of adequate under-thigh adjustment (and the ill-fitting seatback ‘shells’ on our test car), whereas the rear bench is uncomfortably compromised for anyone approaching or at full-grown size. The cushion is short and flat, the backrest too far reclined, and the panoramic sunroof intrudes beyond an acceptable limit for adults. If there was ever a reason to upgrade to an E-Class, this is it.
Which is the safest car?
You’ll be nitpicking trying to promote the safety of one of these sedans over the others because they’re all at the upper end for passive-safety excellence, active-safety features and crash strength.
The current C-Class and A4 each receive a five-star crash-test rating from Euro NCAP. The G20 3 Series is yet to be tested, but the previous F30-generation received five stars … and if the G20 doesn’t, then you’ll hear jaws drop in Munich from the toilets at Bunnings Eastgardens.
How much do they cost to maintain?
BMW offers two types of capped-price service coverage for the 330i – a Basic package for $1565 and a Plus package for $4110. Each of these service packages cover you for five years or 80,000km. Both include all fluids, filters and spark-plug replacement, but the Plus package also incorporates the cost of replacement front and rear brake discs and pads, and windscreen wiper-blade rubbers.
Mercedes-Benz recommends servicing every 12 months or 25,000km for the C300, and charges a flat $2000 for the first three services if you pay upfront (though that doesn’t include brake discs or pads, or wiper-blade inserts).
Audi Australia launched new service programs in March, covering up to five years or 75,000km. For the turbo-petrol A4, the capped-price cost is $1710 for three years or $2700 for five.
According to The Red Book, the 330i will have the rosiest residual worth after three years, commanding 55.5 per cent of its original value. The C300 isn’t quite as strong at 51.0 per cent, while the A4 is expected to retain 49.0 per cent.
What do they have under the bonnet?
The G20 330i’s drivetrain is essentially carried over from the previous F30 model (with calibration improvements), though that’s hardly a criticism. This relatively new modular four-cylinder ‘Twin-Power’ engine (with a twin-scroll turbocharger) is at its most impressive in 330i form, punching out an effortless 190kW from 5000-6500rpm and a class-best 400Nm from 1550-4400rpm. And it’s that breadth of flexibility – excelling at both top-end sizzle and low-end muscle – that defines this superb powerplant.
Tied to a revised ZF eight-speed automatic that’s almost uncanny in the perfection of its shift mapping and overall smoothness, there’s so much to love about the way the 330i performs. More than just the numbers – 5.8 seconds from 0-100km/h according to BMW – it’s the 330i drivetrain’s unfailing support of all driving situations that makes it such a superb companion. It feels as happy trundling in top gear with barely any revs on board as it does kissing 7000rpm and playing ‘four cylinder feels – and sounds – like six’ games. If only it didn’t take on an artificially synthesised induction sound in ‘Sport’ drive mode because it simply doesn’t need it.
If it weren’t for the excellence of the BMW’s drivetrain, we’d be shouting from the rooftops praising Audi’s similarly impressive oily bits. The A4’s 2.0-litre turbo-petrol four-cylinder is closely related to the same powertrain in the iconic Golf GTI, though turned lengthways and producing 185kW at 5000-6000rpm and a solid 370Nm from 1600-4500rpm in this all-wheel-drive application. And it’s a lovely thing.
Transferring power through a seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox, the A4 45 TFSI is a match for the BMW’s acceleration (5.8 seconds to 100km/h) and comes incredibly close to channelling its rival’s suaveness and sporting flair. It also has arguably the world’s finest-to-access Sport mode (a simple gearlever pulse away) and a wonderfully tactile gearknob, though where your opinions stand on those things is probably best kept to yourself.
The C300 is smack-bang in its rivals’ ballpark for engine outputs – 190kW and 370Nm from yet another 2.0-litre turbo-petrol four – and it has more gear ratios than any of them thanks to a new ‘9G-tronic’ nine-speed automatic transmission. Even though the C300 ultimately cedes a whiff of accelerative urge to the 330i and A4 (it’s 0-100km/h claim is 5.9 seconds), it feels really strong off-the-line and certainly isn’t lacking in performance. What it doesn’t have, however, is the BMW’s silkiness at higher rpm – the C300 sounding relatively agricultural as it whirrs its way through its gear set.
Which is the most economical car?
On the official ADR81/02 government combined cycle, it’s the BMW that drinks least at 6.4L/100km, followed by the Audi on 6.5L/100km and the Mercedes-Benz on 7.0L/100km. And that’s the order it plays out in the real world.
On test, the 330i averaged 8.9L/100km versus 9.1L/100km for the A4 and 10.0L/100km for the C300. All three require a minimum of 95-octane premium unleaded.
Which is the best car to drive?
After the disappointment of the previous F30-generation 3 Series, it’s sweet relief to discover the 330i M Sport is a fantastic sports sedan.
From the moment you start to add some steering lock, there’s an instant sense of connection that was missing from the old car, and it only takes one corner to raise a smile over the 330i’s delightful handling poise. It’s the most confidence-inspiring of the three to drive quickly, as well as the most encouraging, and it’s this level of engagement that marks this new-gen BMW’s return to driving form – ably supported by its superb drivetrain.
Thing is, the A4 isn’t too far behind the 330i for driver appeal. Perhaps it isn’t quite as finessed at the outer edges of its handling envelope but it’s still a really strong and responsive car to drive. Having rear-biased ‘quattro’ all-wheel drive definitely adds a dimension to its handling that elevates it well beyond the C300, yet there’s also enough chassis poise and turn-in response for the A4 to challenge the 330i’s excellence.
Despite all that tautness of body control and keenness to change direction, both the 330i and A4 still ride well. The BMW is the firmer (and quieter) of the two, though both manage to glide over bumps that affect the C300 significantly. In a tit for tat face-off, we’d give the nod to the BMW for its combination of road-noise refinement, damping finesse and all-round control – especially given the fact it’s riding on 20-inch wheels with run-flat tyres – though we can totally understand why someone might prefer the Audi’s all-weather surety and slightly more level ride.
Then there’s the C300. It handles neutrally and confidently but even with the ‘direct-steer’ set-up that’s part of the optional sports suspension tune, it doesn’t have the BMW’s immediacy or panache. There’s more tyre noise than its rivals and its suspension will bottom out over large bumps and potholes that fail to rattle the BMW and Audi. There’s also some lateral shifting and unsettling body movement on lumpy country roads – all of which undermines the cachet of its three-pointed-star badge.
In this guise, without (optional) air-sprung ‘Air Body Control’ suspension or the C200’s smaller 18-inch wheels, the C300 falls short of the C-Class at its best.
Any problems I should look out for?
Given the prince of darkness in high-tech modern vehicles is usually electronics, it’s worth noting that the trip computer on the test 330i (activated via the BCC button on the end of a column stalk) went on hiatus for a while.
It froze the right display screen in the digital instruments, and thereby locked out the ability to reset the trip meter, check the average fuel consumption and the like. It wasn’t until the BMW was locked, unlocked and restarted several times that the trip computer revived itself and worked perfectly for the rest of its time with us.
If we were being brutally honest, it’s likely the BMW’s ZF auto and Mercedes-Benz’s ‘9G-tronic’ torque-converter automatics will have a longer shelf life than the S-tronic dual-clutch gearbox in the Audi, though the A4’s latest-generation transmission is far more robust than some of its forebears.
And there’s probably a chance that something electronic will go bung at some point in the future –hopefully well into the future, but when there’s still a fix available.
Which one should I buy?
Perhaps this test is a little unfair on the Mercedes-Benz. In C300 guise, fitted with the AMG-Line package that so many Aussie buyers include, it simply isn’t a C-Class variant that we’d choose – one that unfortunately competes against the sweet spot in each of its rivals’ ranges.
Decent as it is in isolation, the C300 lacks the refinement of the cheaper mild-hybrid C200 – especially when optioned with Air Body Control suspension – and the excitement of the AMG models further up the chain. Instead, the C300 sedan exists in a sort of C-Class no man’s land, where its only reason for being is to pack more performance and carry greater badge swagger than a C200. We’d choose the C200’s superior drivetrain and more absorbent ride over the C300 in a heartbeat, though that doesn’t solve the W205 C-Class’s sub-standard rear seat comfort and sub-benchmark cabin quality.
Some distance ahead of the C300 sits the A4 45 TFSI quattro and 330i M Sport. They’re both terrific cars – nailing the sports-sedan brief while also proving surprisingly comfortable – and they feel classy enough to support the near-six-figure sticker price charged by each.
The Audi remains the finest all-rounder – untainted by age while still setting the standard for interior packaging, seat comfort and build quality – though the BMW runs it pretty close. And the new-gen BMW reclaims the driver’s car guernsey, though what’s even more astounding is the fact that the Audi still feels so damn fresh and fighting fit.
Ultimately, it’s the 330i’s seductive spirit and refined sporting character that wins out, though we should all remain standing for the cracking runner up that is the A4 45 TFSI quattro.
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