German Compact Luxury Sedans
German Compact Luxury Sedans. Click image to enlarge
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Review by Peter Bleakney and Mike Schlee
Photos by David Johannesson

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German Luxury Car Comparison

2013 Audi A4 2.0T Quattro vs 2013 BMW 328i xDrive vs 2013 Mercedes-Benz C 300 4Matic (and 2013 Cadillac ATS)

Was it divine intervention or just dumb luck? Call it what you will, our Holy Trinity of Euro-luxury compact sport sedans came dressed all in white. And while white suggests purity and peace, there was nothing here to suggest these archrivals from the Fatherland would be playing nice.

Historically, the BMW 3 Series has ruled this segment. It’s BMW’s biggest seller worldwide. The 3 Series’ intangible cocktail of refinement, handling, sweet underhood mechanicals, driver involvement, and just plain “rightness” has endeared it to purchasers and pundits alike—and no doubt has sentenced it to the indignity of many a reverse-engineering teardown at competitors’ R&D departments.

The Mercedes C-Class has carried a more stoic front, coming at this less as an all-out sportster and more as a scaled down S-Class. Although this third generation C, now in its fifth year, shows a more athletic bent when launched and has seen myriad improvements through its life cycle.

German Compact Luxury Sedans
German Compact Luxury Sedans. Click image to enlarge

The Audi A4 with Quattro all-wheel drive in its back pocket has traditionally played the outsider. Not as mainstream as the BMW or Merc, it traditionally hasn’t enjoyed those sales numbers, but now that Audi is on a mission to trounce its Teutonic rivals on the world stage (and parent company Volkswagen to dominate global sales), the A4 has grown, literally and figuratively into a serious contender. Like the current M-B C-Class, this latest gen A4 has been with us since 2008.
So with an all-new 2013 BMW 3 Series let loose on the world, you’d expect it to be a runaway winner— a foregone conclusion if history is to be our guide. Uh, not so fast. BMW has thrown us an automotive curveball here. They moved the goalposts when no one as looking.

The new 3 is bigger. It’s a little softer. And while still a fabulous car, it doesn’t cut with the razor sharp edge of its predecessor—it doesn’t goad you into max-attack on every onramp. The sport-luxury equation has been re-jigged to read luxury-sport.
This whole thing is busted wide open.

So say hello to our contestants. We stipulated all-wheel drive, and with the Bimmer and Merc we kept away from the top-tier six-pots. The A4 only comes with a 2.0L direct-injection turbo-four rated (rather conservatively, we suspect) at 211 hp.

The BMW 328i xDrive sports a 2.0L direct-injection turbo-four [Is there an echo in here? –Ed.], putting out 241 ponies. Both the Audi and BMW have eight-speed auto boxes.

We snagged a Mercedes-Benz C 300 4Matic, which uses a new-for-2013 detuned version of the 3.5L V6 found in the C 350. It produces 248 hp and 251 lb-ft and is hooked up to a seven-speed auto. And get this, the V6 Merc’s as-tested price undercuts its admittedly better-equipped four-banger rivals by at least five grand.
Let the battle for German luxury sedan supremacy begin. –PB

Third Place: 2013 BMW 328i xDrive

2013 BMW 328i xDrive
2013 BMW 328i xDrive. Click image to enlarge

Based purely on its merits, the 328i xDrive was not the worst vehicle in this comparison. Actually, using the word ‘worst’ isn’t really fair; all testers agreed that any of these three vehicles could easily find a home in their driveways. When the scores were tallied, the BMW was ranked just ahead of the Benz. However, once price adjustments were factored in, the much cheaper Mercedes-Benz pulled out a second-place victory.

So how did the BMW 3 Series, the grandmaster of the compact luxury segment for so many years, fall to third place?  There is no simple answer to that, but a good place to start is with the chassis. The 3 Series is famous the world over for its driving dynamics and driver engagement; to say this compact BMW has its share of fanatics is an understatement. But, as we mentioned earlier, the focus of the 328i seems to have shifted more towards luxury. During our driving loop, all three testers commented that the BMW doesn’t drive like BMWs of old. The Audi was the clear-cut driver’s car of the trio and, even with the smaller rims, the Mercedes felt like it gripped better in the corners than the BMW. The 328i felt softer, more isolated, and was prone to the most body roll during moderate cornering.

2013 BMW 328i xDrive
2013 BMW 328i xDrive
2013 BMW 328i xDrive. Click image to enlarge

Noise, vibration, and harshness (NVH) was also ranked worst in test, mostly due to the 2.0L turbocharged four-cylinder engine. Although the engine is powerful, it is rough and noisy. It is not a good noisy, but rather a coarse, thrashy sound. Suffice to say it is not the sonorous growl of BMW straight-six engines of old. The start-stop is rough and slow to react and it is not hard to catch the engine still in its start-up procedure while depressing the accelerator to go. This results in a jerky departure from a stop and caused some of us to disable the feature during the test.

But don’t think this is a dump-fest on the BMW. The 328i xDrive Sedan is still a very good vehicle and has many redeeming attributes. The eight-speed automatic is great and almost equals the Audi’s. Shifts are quick, smooth, and seamless. The exterior of the BMW is also attractive, and although it was ranked third place in looks, that is like coming third in the Miss America Pageant; still ‘pretty’ good. The 328i also featured the nicest paint job, by far, with a deep pearl white paint, and second best when it came to exterior frills like accent lighting and wheel design.

But where the 328i really shines is inside. Besides a great interior design, we all appreciated that a bit of colour had been added to the interior, a departure from the all-black BMW interiors of old. Compared to the basically monotone interiors of the Mercedes and Audi, the BMW cabin looked fresh and welcoming, although some found there were too many materials used: wood, metal, brown leather, black leather, brown plastic etc.

It is true that the BMW appears to now be more focused on coddling its occupants rather than on all-out performance. If your priorities align this way, than the 328i is for you; and yes, it does feel weird saying that about a BMW 3-series. –MS

Pricing: 2013 BMW 328i xDrive Sedan
Base price: $46,200
Options: $3,500 (Premium Package), $850 (BMW Assist with Extended Bluetooth Package), $800 (Driver Assistance Package), $300 (BMW Apps Package), $250 (Heated Steering Wheel), $600 (Heated Rear Seats), $450 (Satellite Radio)
Freight & PDI: $2,095
A/C tax: $100
Price as tested: $55,145

Second Place: 2013 Mercedes-Benz C 300 4Matic

2013 Mercedes-Benz C 300 4Matic
2013 Mercedes-Benz C 300 4Matic
2013 Mercedes-Benz C 300 4Matic. Click image to enlarge

The Mercedes-Benz C 300 4Matic entered this test as the value option. It arrived nearly $6,000 cheaper than the Audi A4 and more than $7,000 cheaper than the BMW 328i. This is an aggressive pricing strategy by Mercedes, but it also meant the C 300 was missing some features that the other two had. The C 300 had to make do with halogen lights (as opposed to HIDs), flat white paint, no satellite radio, a seven-speed automatic and no reverse parking sensors or camera.

Conversely, the Mercedes-Benz was the only vehicle to feature a V6 engine, a newly introduced detuned version of the 3.5L V6 from the C 350. It produces 248 hp, which puts it basically on par with the BMW, and ahead of the Audi’s claimed output. The V6 engine and seven-speed automatic transmission work well together and provide smooth, effortless propulsion down the road. The car really wafts on the highway yet handles surprisingly well thanks to the Sport package; it felt more planted than the 328i, but not up to the levels of the A4.

Thanks to the V6 engine, Mercedes-Benz’ start-stop function is far more transparent than that of the BMW and the C 300 does not get caught out on quick starts. The downside, as can be expected from a far larger engine, is poorer fuel efficiency. The BMW and Audi nearly tied each other in fuel consumption while the Mercedes was 11 percent more thirsty than its German counterparts.

2013 Mercedes-Benz C 300 4Matic
2013 Mercedes-Benz C 300 4Matic. Click image to enlarge

Although the Mercedes-Benz looks elegant on the outside, it is still missing some of the visual oomph the other two vehicles had, but again, it is a price to pay for being by far the cheapest vehicle in the test. If more style is what you are looking for, Mercedes-Benz will gladly sell you various option packages to dress up the C-Class.

So what kept the bargain C-Class out of first place? Well, besides lacking the driving dynamics of the A4, it was let down by its interior. Inside the C 300 features a mix of good and bad interior materials. Fit and finish was back of the pack, but still decent enough; this is a Mercedes-Benz after all. The front seats were not that comfortable and two out of three testers rated them lowest of the group.

The interior did have some upsides: the controls were found to be very easy to use and it had the most spacious rear seat for either two or three passengers. But, despite being a very pleasant car overall, the Mercedes-Benz C 300 just could not match the Audi’s blend of luxury, performance, and style, and managed to only succeed in being the runner-up. –MS

Pricing: 2013 Mercedes-Benz C 300 4Matic
Base price: $39,990
Options: $1,200 (Sport Package), $2,250 (Comand Navigation Package), $2,350 (Premium Package)
Freight & PDI: $1,895
A/C tax: $100
Price as tested: $47,785

First Place: 2013 Audi A4 2.0T Quattro

2013 Audi A4 2.0T Quattro
2013 Audi A4 2.0T Quattro. Click image to enlarge

We’ve reviewed the 2013 A4 a few times on and have always come away impressed by it. We fully expected it to be a strong candidate in this competition, but did not anticipate it running away with the crown like it did.

The A4 began its quest for domination on the outside. All testers loved the A4’s stunning good looks, with the beautiful LED light treatment and S-Line wheels adding a sporty touch to the A4’s sophisticated appearance. Some fault Audi for never really deviating from the A4’s core design, but why fix what ain’t broke?
The Audi was also the most fun to drive amongst this threesome and was bested in driving dynamics only by an interloper that crashed the party; but more on that later. At the heart of the A4’s driving experience is Audi’s 2.0L turbocharged four-cylinder engine. Rated at 211 hp, this engine felt more powerful than the BMW or the Mercedes even though those two are officially rated higher. The Audi’s eight-speed automatic also received much praise for its quick reacting shifts during spirited driving as well as the ability to transform into a smooth operator when highway cruising was preferred.

2013 Audi A4 2.0T Quattro
2013 Audi A4 2.0T Quattro
2013 Audi A4 2.0T Quattro. Click image to enlarge

The suspension is not the smoothest and was rated roughest of group. This doesn’t mean it is unlivable, but even in comfort mode the suspension is firmer than the other two; those looking for a buttery ride look elsewhere. Of course, the firm suspension pays off in excellent handling that was more confidence inspiring and neutral than the other two, but once again was bettered by that mystery guest. Steering feel was also tops in the category as both the BMW and Mercedes made the driver feel less connected to the road when driving.

But the A4 was not perfect; no car ever is. The interior received mixed reviews in several areas. Some found the fit and finish to be merely on par with the cheaper C 300 while others found it to be best in test. Some found the front seat too flat around the upper torso while others found it to be very comfortable. The infotainment interface and controls were yet another area that received both praise and criticism. Everyone could agree on rear seat space, though; for two people it was accommodating and nearly matched the Mercedes for best in test. However, the middle rear seat sits the highest and is rock hard, making it horribly uncomfortable, which is too bad as legroom and shoulder room are both decent.

In the end, the Audi proved to offer the best blend of everything shoppers in the compact luxury segment are looking for. It was more aesthetically pleasing than the 328i, more inviting for passengers than the C 300 and sportier than either to drive. The A4 is just one of those cars that seems to excel at everything it does. In this trio of Germans, it was enough to claim victory, and now, it will set its sights on the best the world has to offer. –MS

Pricing: 2013 Audi A4 Premium Plus
Base price: $47,400
Options: $3,400 (S Line Sport Select Package), $750 (Glacier White Metallic)
Freight & PDI: $1,995
A/C tax: $100
Price as tested: $53,645

Honourable Mention: 2013 Cadillac ATS 3.6L Premium

2013 Cadillac ATS 3.6L Premium
2013 Cadillac ATS 3.6L Premium
2013 Cadillac ATS 3.6L Premium. Click image to enlarge

And from the darkness it came.

You didn’t think we’d do a Holy Trinity comparo without throwing the Detroit Diablo into the mix, did you? If there is one car that can get these Germans’ lederhosen in a knot, it will be the all-new Cadillac ATS, fresh from its Best New Luxury Car win at AJAC’s TestFest.

Ideally, we would have liked the $44,160 ATS 2.0L Turbo Luxury AWD for this contest, but all GM had in its press fleet was a top-shelf 3.6L Premium model in rear-wheel drive. Our comprehensively equipped tester carried a $50,725 list, and with a few extras ($1,395 sunroof, $630 polished aluminum wheels, $1,295 black diamond tri-coat paint) it rang in at a very competitive $54,245 before destination charge.

It gets power from GM’s ubiquitous St. Catharines–built direct-injection, naturally aspirated 3.6L V6, here kicking out a healthy 321 hp and 275 lb-ft at 4,800 rpm. The engine is hooked to a six-speed auto, and this model gets standard Brembo front brakes, head-up display (HUD), GM’s brilliant Magnetic Ride Control (adopted by Ferrari, no less…), and staggered performance rubber (P22540R18 front and P25535R18 rear).

The fact that it puts the other three here on the trailer when it comes to power, feature content, and track-ready go-fast bits suggests this wasn’t really a fair fight on the performance front.

Turned out to be the case. At TestFest I drove this 328i xDrive and ATS back-to-back on the track and the Caddy completely ate the Bimmer’s lunch. No great surprise, as the BMW weighed 127 kg more than the ATS, wasn’t wearing performance tires, and, more tellingly, this new 3 Series doesn’t seem to care all that much about macho track stuff anyway.

2013 Cadillac ATS 3.6L Premium
2013 Cadillac ATS 3.6L Premium
2013 Cadillac ATS 3.6L Premium. Click image to enlarge

If you didn’t already know, Cadillac had the previous generation BMW 3 Series firmly in its sights when developing the ATS. So much so that it is almost dimensionally identical. Cadillac’s all-new rear-drive/all-wheel-drive platform is strong, light and uses MacPherson struts up front and a five-link independent rear setup. They tuned it on the Nurburgring. They gave it a near 50:50 weight distribution. They installed a pretty decent ZF electric steering rack. They did everything to hit BMW right where it hurts.

Then those crafty Germans moved the goalposts. The new 3 is bigger, softer, more luxurious, and has actual rear seat room. It’s a slick, smooth, and conservative package that is not primarily aimed at hot-shoe apex strafers. I suspect the Chinese market had some influence on this latest generation 3 Series.

So imagine a boxer (ATS) who has been training furiously or years, studying videos of the Champ, preparing for the fight of his life. Then he gets in the ring and Champ says, “Meh. Knock yourself out kid. I’m going for a schnapps and a strudel.”

So yes, the Cadillac ATS so equipped is the dynamic champion. The magnetically charged dampers do a marvelous job of removing impact harshness yet when pressing on body roll is barely detectable and the chassis’ nearly neutral disposition doesn’t get ragged at the limits. The brakes are stellar. Very easy to drive this car quickly.
The steering feels a bit light on centre but loads up nicely in the corners. The V6 gets strong and snarly in the upper reaches and the transmission, while down on gears compared to the competition, responds pretty well to paddle shifter prompts.

This being the smallest car in the group, the cabin feels intimate. Not a problem up front, but back seat room was lacking compared to the Germans, especially the BMW and Audi. The front leather chairs are firm and supportive and the driving position and relationship to the controls spot on.

Compared to the restrained and elegant interiors of the Germans, this Caddy is bordering on gaudy with its riot of chrome accents fighting the engraved aluminum trim for attention. That said, the gauge cluster is beautifully backlit and the ancillary digital readouts are a visual treat. When firing up, the needles do that cool sweeping thing and the graphics dance about a bit before settling in.

2013 Cadillac ATS 3.6L Premium
2013 Cadillac ATS 3.6L Premium
2013 Cadillac ATS 3.6L Premium. Click image to enlarge

Which brings us to CUE (Cadillac User Experience), which is GM’s attempt at designing an all-singing all-dancing touchscreen interface in the mould of an iPad-like tablet that gives intuitive access to the sedan’s functions. Generally, it succeeds, but one key to CUE is setting up your radio presets on the finger-swipe scroll bar because it is a pain to manually find stations on the fly.

A proximity sensor brings up submenu icons when your hand approaches the screen, keeping the view generally uncluttered. Haptic technology on the screen and the controls below bumps back at your finger, letting you know the message has been received. Problem is, you still have to take your eyes off the road to see where to prod your digit [at least until you develop an intuitive feel for the controls over several months; I suspect the only way to prove that is a long-term test… hint, hint, GM –Ed.].

Like the rest of the ATS, the sound system is tight and punchy. The best of the bunch.

All this talk of performance does not mean the ATS is lacking when in cruise mode. On the highway, the tach shows a relaxed 2,100 rpm at 120 km/h and it tracks like a laser beam—better even than the BMW.

The irony here is that Cadillac has arguably built a better BMW, while the iconic 3 Series has adopted some of the traits traditionally associated with Cadillac.
That is not to say the ATS is a home run. To this reviewer, the interior is chintzy, and if you go for the lesser engine options, the bloom falls off the rose. The naturally aspirated 202-hp 2.5L four is fairly pedestrian and the 272-hp 2.0L Turbo doesn’t feel as smooth or alive as BMW’s 2.0L TwinPower Turbo four, getting buzzy above 4,000 rpm.

It’s no mystery as to why GM sent this particular ATS to do battle at TestFest. It puts this stellar chassis in its best light.

And good news for future Cadillacs—this architecture will be underpinning many, if not all, upcoming models. –PB

2013 Cadillac ATS 3.6L Premium
Base price: $50,725
Optional equipment: $1,395 (sunroof), $630 (polished aluminum wheels), $1,295 (black diamond tri-coat paint)
Freight & PDI: $1,595
A/C tax: $100
Price as tested: $55,740

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