BMW 3-series Touring vs Audi A4 Avant vs Mercedes C-class Estate (2013)

By Ben Barry (photography by GF Williams)

CAR Features

11 July 2013 13:00

Is the new BMW 3-series Touring worthy of its predecessor’s ‘all the car you’ll ever need’ tag? It should be practical, desirable, enjoyable to drive, comfortable and efficient – and better in every discipline than the Audi A4 Avant and Mercedes C-class Estate, if it’s to take the crown. Read on for the comprehensive CAR verdict.

Sometimes it's the small details that really swing it, the stuff we don’t even notice in the dealership because we’re too busy swooning over those whizzy LED lights or being won over by some syrupy sales patter. It’s the stuff that makes a car fit more easily into our lives, makes us realise how carefully its creators have really thought about how we’ll use it. These things endure far beyond that new-car smell. The way, for instance, that you can open up just the glass hatch in the 3-series Touring’s tailgate rather than the entire boot, so you can drop in small bags without hoiking up a dirty hunk of metal; or that the Merc C-class estate’s parcel shelf tips forward when you fold down the rear seats, instantly creating a cavernous load area; or that the BMW and the Audi A4 Avant’s load covers slide up the inside of their C-pillars to cover a larger cargo and prevent if from flying forwards in the event of a heavy stop.

And that’s what this group test is about: crawling all over the latest BMW 320d Touring, Audi A4 Avant 2.0 TDI and Mercedes C220 CDI, and telling you which is most worthy of that all-the-car-you’ll-ever-need tag. It’s the 320d Touring that’s the new face here, squaring up against refreshed competitors from Mercedes and Audi. They all cost a little over £30k before options.

What does the new BMW 320d Touring bring to the party?

The BMW bounds back onto the battlefield with much to report, sir: an all-new, stiffer chassis with wider front and rear tracks; electro-mechanical steering that saves fuel by eliminating power-steering loads on the engine; an optional eight-speed auto; and standard stop/start tech, which cuts the engine at traffic lights. There’s also Drive Performance Control, which lets/forces you to toggle through four driving modes, from Eco Pro to Sport Plus – it tweaks the steering weighting, throttle response, traction control and optional adaptive suspension – and there are three new trim levels: Modern, Sport and Luxury. Prices go up by around £200 versus the old model.

The new 3-series is 97mm longer than before – there’s 9mm more headroom and 35 extra litres of luggage space – while the wheelbase is stretched by 50mm, unlocking 17mm of extra rear kneeroom. Yet it’s now 40kg lighter.

If you’re going to judge books by their covers, then the 3-series steals an early march on its rivals. Considering it’s become such a ubiquitous choice, the BMW looks ridiculously special and desirable with its flat headlights and aggressively sloping bonnet that evoke the Z4 sports car and set the scene for the athletic, poised stance that continues throughout. The Audi and Merc – special in isolation – only serve as foils while the BMW luxuriates in the limelight.

Is the BMW a clear victor on the numbers front?

The rivals have closed the gap where it really matters in this tax-sensitive market. A few years back, BMW raced so far ahead with its Efficient Dynamics wizardry – more power, more mpg, less CO2 – that we wondered if Red Bull’s Adrian Newey might in fact be moonlighting in Munich, but that lead has ebbed away. The 320d puts out 181bhp and 280lb ft while promising 58.9mpg and 125g/km. The Audi does 176bhp, 280lb ft, 58.9mpg and 126g/km; the Merc (with a comparable manual gearbox, though our car has a less efficient auto) 168bhp, 295lb ft, 60.1mpg and 124g/km. There’s nothing in it.

What’s life like inside the Audi A4 Avant?

The interior of our Audi has that trademark Ingolstadt crispness and build quality, but the scattergun button- positioning is a fag when you’re trying to keep eyes on the road and it’s more austere than the others – we’ll cut it some slack, though, because the Audi has the fewest options here, with £550 of the £1425 total being taken up by DAB radio and iPod connectivity. The Merc, in comparison, benefits from £7k of goodies; the BMW almost £10k’s worth.

But you still feel at home in the Audi: you sit quite low on supportive seats with part-leather bolsters and technical fabric centres that hold you well, while the gearknob and steering wheel are wrapped in tactile, dimpled leather. It adds up to a driver-focussed kind of feel.

You can get your A4 2.0 TDI with four-wheel drive, but this one’s a front-driver, and the compromises that entails are fairly easy to detect: there’s a bit of scrappy wheelspin in first gear if you try to exit a damp junction in a hurry, there’s torque steer too, and a reasonable appetite for understeer on damp roundabouts. That said, I’d stick with the cheaper, lighter front-driver and simply drive around these traits, and you’ll forgive the front tyres for struggling with the torque because the engine’s so good: it pulls from nothing, properly gets a shake on from 1400rpm and doesn’t run out of enthusiasm until you’re sailing up to the redline at 4400rpm. It’s not a petrol-broad powerband, but it serves up all the real-world thrust you’ll need.

Is the Audi any good to drive?

The Audi’s steering is so light at car park speeds that you could be twirling Maggie Simpson’s dummy wheel, and you’re aware of the assistance being artificially increased and decreased as speed rises and falls on the road, but it’s not a bad rack at all, and the general driving experience is pretty dynamic: the A4 feels well tied down and eager to indulge a spot of corner scythery.

How does the Mercedes compare to the sporty Audi and BMW?

The Merc, in comparison, instantly feels more laid-back: there’s an optional seven-speed auto with refined gear- changes, steering that’s quite slow and remote, and there’s more body-roll to contend with. On this example’s 16-inch rims – 18s for the others – the ride is very comfort-focussed, which could be exactly what you’re after, but it’s the least likely of our triumvirate to please thrill-seekers. The 2.2-litre turbodiesel is a flexible, eager little four-pot, though, and because it’s rear-wheel drive there’s none of the scrabble under heavy acceleration at low speeds that afflicts the Audi.

Inside, the six-year-old C-class benefits from the changes that were wrought two years back: the integrated sat-nav screen, and the flashes of silver trim on the steering wheel and centre console. The seats are flat but comfortable, and the optional Comand multi-media system (an über £1995 upgrade) remains my favourite, most intuitive system.

But surely the newer BMW feels more special inside?

Now, we’ve already got the caveat out of the way about the BMW packing £10k of extras – £2k for the multi-media interface, £800 for a head-up display, £750 for adaptive suspension – but even when you mentally strip all that stuff away, it’s still the most visually satisfying dash to run eyes and hands over – it has flair without being overly flashy. And the driving position is absolutely spot on: you can drop the seat so low it’s like being Alice in Wonderland after a sip of her shrinking potion. The seats are comfortable, though less supportive than the Audi’s for enthusiastic driving.

Usually with German cars that have multi-faceted driving modes it’s preferable to leave them in their default Comfort setting, simply because the sportier modes introduce crashy suspension characteristics and leaden steering resistance. But the 3-series actually feels better in Sport, more urgent and responsive without morphing into a yappy little dog – the dead spot at the top of the steering, for instance, disappears, and the throttle response sharpens. It’s like a perky little shot of espresso.

The optional adaptive suspension helps the 3-series strike the best balance here between dynamism and comfort:there is a bit of patter and some body-roll, but it’s a good compromise. It feels very secure at speed but never nervous, where the Audi is so thoroughly tied down that it can start to become agitated over a bumpier road, ultimately leaving you with less control. It means you get into more of a flow with the BMW, and when you start working that short, stubby gearstick and calling on the punchy engine’s torque reserves to haul you out of corners, well, it’s a very satisfying experience indeed.

Let’s talk practicality…

Really, though, you’re paying a £1k premium for an estate because you need the additional space, and that’s where the BMW scores again: its extra rear legroom is a notable boon compared with the tighter confines of its rivals. It wins the luggage space war less convincingly with 495 litres of luggage space rear-seats-up and 1500 litres with the seats down, compared with 485/1500 litres for the Merc, and 490/1430 litres for the Audi, but it still wins.

You get an electrically operated tailgate as standard with the BMW, the handy pop-out rear screen and the load cover that extends up the C-pillar, plus 40/20/40 split-folding rear seats and some secret compartments under the boot floor that will suit drug-smugglers or people wanting to stop a couple of medium-sized bags of shopping from rolling around the boot’s open expanses – because of this, though, there isn’t even a space-saver rear rim, just a can of foam. The wheelarches also intrude into the load area a little.

The Merc gets the standard powered tailgate and features 60/40 split seats plus that clever parcel shelf that drops to the deck when you fold the rear seats flat – and they do lay noticeably flatter than the BMW’s and Audi’s. You also get an actual space-saver rear wheel – our expectations are so low these days! – and a little rail that you can use to segment the boot, but the parcel shelf won’t slide up the C-pillar to cover larger loads as in the BMW and Audi.

The Audi, meanwhile, gets a manual tailgate, but the sides of the boot are flush – no wheelarch intrusion here – and the load cover does slide up the C-pillar.

Verdict

Decision time then. Ultimately there isn’t a bad car here, but the BMW stands as the clear winner: on a functional level, rear seat passengers get more space and the boot can either match or surpass everything its rivals can throw at it, save for the Merc’s clever parcel shelf. Then there’s the fact that it looks so much more appealing, both inside and out, and that its rivals can’t beat its performance or mpg and CO2 credentials – though props to them for matching them.

What really seals it, though, is the drive: the Mercedes might feel comfort-focussed, the Audi quite dynamic, but the BMW proves you can have your cake and eat it, because it’s as comfortable as the C220 CDI and more refined than the Audi, but at the same time it’s more rewarding to blast over a favourite road than either of them.

Every car you’ll ever need? That’ll be the 320d Touring.