BMW 3 Series vs rivals

Is the all-new BMW 3 Series still the compact exec class leader? We bring it together with the revised Audi A4 and Mercedes C-Class to reveal all

BMW 3 Series vs rivals

Three really is the magic number for BMW. Ever since the original 3 Series debuted more than 35 years ago, the sporty saloon has been the car to beat in the compact executive class. So the arrival of an all-new model is big news.

On paper, the latest 3 Series has what it takes to continue its reign at the top. It’s bigger than before, meaning there’s more space for passengers and luggage, while a lower kerbweight ensures it’s also faster and more efficient than ever.

As always, the diesel-powered 320d is expected to be the biggest seller. We’re testing it in new-for-2012 Sport trim, which costs £29,080.

Filling the BMW’s mirrors is a pair of familiar foes: the Audi A4 and Mercedes C-Class. Both have recently been updated in the hope of knocking the 3 Series off the top step of the podium once and for all.

Our Audi is a range-topping £30,130 S line with the punchy 175bhp 2.0-litre diesel, while the Mercedes is a racy £31,380 C220 CDI Sport model.

So which of our desirable trio will emerge from this high-stakes encounter on top?

Verdict

Let's do away with the suspense – the new BMW 3 Series is the best compact executive saloon that money can buy. The old car was our class champ and the new model maintains the status quo by improving on it pretty much across the board.

Second place goes to the revised Audi A4, which is more appealing than ever. Its 2.0-litre diesel throws the BMW’s biggest shortcoming into sharp focus; not only is the engine quieter at low revs than the 320d’s, its stop-start system is smoother – if only the A4’s suspension wasn’t so firm. It still doesn’t match the 3 Series for driver appeal and the BMW is better in all other respects: its strong performance, superb refinement and engaging driving experience all impress.

And the Mercedes C-Class? It’s still a fine executive saloon in its own right, yet it trails behind its rivals in every area, so it finishes third. Make no mistake, these are the three best compact execs on the market. But the BMW gets closest to perfection, so it takes a deserved win.

Winner BMW 3 Series ★★★★★

It's always difficult to improve on a car that’s already the best in its class, but BMW has done just that with the new 3 Series. If you want the finest all-rounder in the compact executive market, look no further. There’s more cabin space than before, an attractive interior and cleaner engines, yet it’s as good to drive as ever.

2nd Audi A4 ★★★★

The revised A4 pushes the new 3 Series hard. It’s a hugely desirable saloon, but in S line trim it’s let down by stodgy steering and stiff suspension. We think SE models show the Audi in a far better light, but the appeal of its upmarket interior and smooth engine is obvious in any spec.

3rd Mercedes C-Class ★★★★

Third place is hard on the Mercedes, but it lags behind its rivals. Its cabin is dated and cramped, it’s not as quick and its gearshift is terrible by modern standards. It’s also not as efficient as the BMW or Audi. That’s a pity as, in Sport trim, the C-Class is arguably the best-looking model here.

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