BMW 3 Series vs Mercedes C-Class

30 Jan, 2013 3:15pm

The big-selling BMW 3 Series is an Auto Express favourite, but how does it stack up against the Mercedes C-Class?

Compact executive saloons are big business - both the BMW 3 Series and Mercedes C-Class achieved top 10 finishes in the UK new car sales chart in 2012 – but which is the best?

Style-wise there’s not much between them. The 3 Series apes the larger 5 Series, is a younger design and looks athletic, while the older C-Class still looks fresh, modern and stylish. With its prominent star badge on the grille and low-slung stance, the Mercedes looks every bit as sporty as the BMW.

Inside it’s a different story because the BMW is our clear favourite when it comes to interior quality and space. There is much more room available in the cabin of the 3 Series and trim quality is higher, too. The initially daunting but ultimately faster and more intuitive iDrive control system also shows the Mercedes COMAND set-up how it should be done. Its rotary controller and menu system has evolved into an impressive and powerful way of navigating your way around the car’s various functions. Climb into the Mercedes after a spell in the BMW and the interior feels cramped and dated in comparison.

Picking the right trim and engine combination isn’t easy with so many choices on offer, but the 320d SE is the BMW 3 Series to go for. Its diesel engine marries 181bhp performance to fuel economy of 62.8mpg and tax efficient CO2 emissions of 120g/km. Company car drivers should give the ED model a closer look as its extra fuel-saving features barely compromise the driving experience and cut emissions to 109g/km.

That puts the 3 Series on a par with the Mercedes C-Class as the C220 CDI produces CO2 emissions of 109g/km when fitted with its standard 16-inch alloy wheels. With such cost effective output and a higher standard kit count in SE executive spec, the C-Class is the car your accountant would tell you to buy. In SE trim the BMW comes with alloys, Bluetooth connectivity, cruise and climate control, rear parking sensors and a large colour central display. But the Mercedes SE Executive includes all of this kit, plus LED daytime running lights and artico artificial leather upholstery.

If you’re worried that buying a saloon limits practicality, split-folding rear seats are optional extras on both models, so bear this in mind when you’re pricing up your next company car. Only five litres separates them when it comes to luggage space, but if you need to carry passengers in the back, the BMW is the one to go for as it promises more comfort for rear passengers. Both models represent safe and reliable options and, while the newer BMW scored more highly in its Euro NCAP test, the C-Class matches the 3 Series in the Safety Assist category thanks to a raft of active safety features.

The BMW also leads the way for driver appeal, with more precise steering combined with a more alert and talented chassis. The Mercedes isn’t as nimble or fast, and its engine isn’t as refined as the BMW’s on the move, but its adaptive dampers do ensure a comfortable ride. Its big weakness is a slack manual gearshift and numb clutch pedal, which makes the more costly automatic model a better bet.

In the end, picking between the two will come down to one of two things; which brand you like most and how much you like driving. On paper the Mercedes makes financial sense but models higher up the range are not such good value and the BMW is bigger, faster, more fun to drive and refined. And you can now even opt for a four-wheel-drive 3 Series. All of which means, the BMW gets our vote.

BMW 320d SE Mercedes C220 CDI Executive SE
Price £28,080 £28,660
Engine 2.0-litre 4cyl 2.1-litre 4cyl
Power 181bhp 168bhp
Transmission Six-speed manual Six-speed manual
 0-62mph 7.5secs 8.4secs
Top speed 146mph 144mph
Economy 62.8mpg 68.9mpg
CO2 120g/km 109g/km
Equipment Alloys, Bluetooth, Climate Control, Cruise Control, ESP, BMW Auto Start-Stop Alloys, Bluetooth, Climate Control, Cruise Control, ESP, Adaptive Damping, LED daytime running lights, ECO Start/Stop
Boot capacity 480 litres 475 litres
Insurance group 31 32
Road tax bracket C B
Warranty 3yrs unlimited mileage 3yrs unlimited mileage
Driver Power rating N/A 42nd

Disqus - noscript

After having test driven both recently, your interior quality evaluation can't be farther from the truth. The "stuck on" ipad appearance is more aesthetically pleasing? Come on...Sit in the C and you know you are in a luxury car. Can't say the same about BMW. Driving wise I will agree...but they did an awful job with the updated interior IMO

I agree with Obie - the C-Class is superb, loads nicer than the BMW inside... I love it, the BMW doesn't even come close... Mine is 'just' a 1.6 C180 but it does 140mph, clears 60mpg in eight seconds and achieves 60mpg... how on earth do they squeeze that performance and economy from such a modest engine?!?

this latest 3 is one fugly car!

Agree with most of the comments here, I'll not mention the "typical BMW driver" pushy oik image as they often drive Audis now but HONESTLY - What is it with motoring writers orgasming over every single aspect of every single BMW model - there must be a heck of a lot of Emperors new clothes about :(

Small petrol engines are really fast & really economical these days - technology has really moved on, and it's difficult to know why people are still buying diesel. Merc claim 0-62 in 8.5 secs for your car, which is ok, but nothing special these days for a petrol - you'll be left behind by many regular, similarly priced or cheaper petrol cars with even smaller engines. At least you'll beat the diesels away from the lights though, which is worth doing to ensure you don't get that dreadful puff of smoke in your windscreen as they hammer it for all they've got! Incidentally, the 320D (180 bhp) performance figures above are severely over rated. 0-60 in 7.5 down hill with the wind behind it no doubt! BMW has a very bad habit of over stating their figures these days in an attempt to keep the performance "image" alive, and gearing their cars to achieve the 0-60 time as quickly as they possibly can, which gives a false illusion. This illusion isn't helped by seemingly every BMW driver feeling the need to floor it at the lights!... when all the other drivers are thinking instead about shopping! Wow, look at my fast car.. I've left everyone else behind! Once it gets going, it gets over taken (if they'd move over!) by cars that it's 0-60 time is supposed to be quicker than! All rear wheel drive cars are helped with their off the line acceleration at the lights due to the push from behind, but once in motion that advantage is gone, then most of these cars will find themselves very quickly looking down the tail pipes of smaller front wheel drive petrol cars. By far the best measurement of performance are in gear times, and looking at the power to weight ratio.

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