The BMW 3-Series and Mercedes-Benz C-Class have something in common--a badge that's among the most respected in the car world. But which one's a better car to buy and drive?
That's a tough question to answer, since both models are available in different body styles, with different powertrains, and have a distinct appeal to drivers. In our most recent test drives, we've become more enamored with one of them, thanks to a beautiful new shape and compelling performance--and that's the Mercedes C-Class.
While the 3-Series and C-Class at one time were converging on the same sport-sedan target, they now take much different paths, most noticeably in styling. The new C-Class, which was one of our Best Car To Buy Nominees for 2015, borrows just enough from the S-Class flagship to be striking and exclusive; we think that its look and materials all speak a language that’s typically reserved for luxury flagships. We like everything from the shapely sheetmetal, oversize cues, and abundant brightwork to the way it works textures and colors inside.
Meanwhile, the 3-Series looks, well, just as you might expect a 3-Series to look if you’ve ever owned or even noticed this model before. The 3-Series is trim and athletic, with classic sport-sedan proportions and a rising beltline toward the back that helps visually lower the roofline. It’s a look that’s quite formal; and that theme continues inside, with a businesslike look centered around a horizontal dash layout and iDrive controller at the center console. What keeps the BMW from feeling too stark are some attractive trims and materials; although to most eyes it will be a notch behind the C-Class, even if you appreciate the less flamboyant sheetmetal outside.
Both cars come in coupe form; BMW's two-door is the 4-Series, while the new C-Class coupe arrives for the 2017 model year. The 3-Series also comes in a hatchback Gran Turismo body.
Both of these models are now powered by fuel-efficient, responsive turbocharged engines, with turbo four-cylinder engines at the base level and twin-turbo sixes in upper-trim models, as well as a pretty tantalizing four-cylinder turbodiesel option for the 3-Series. The C300 gets a 241-hp base engine that really boasts great drivability and pep; it’s our favorite over the 240-hp four in the 328i (also a 2.0-liter) or its detuned cousin the 320i.
For 2016, BMW's upgraded the 335i to become the 340i; it's rated at 320 hp, up 20 from the prior model. The mid-level C450 AMG Sport has a thundering 362 hp and a seven-speed automatic, good for sub-five-seconds times to 60 mph. It's as engaging as any C-Class ever has been, and has a more straightforward, less digital driving feel than the midrange BMWs. Between the two, it's also a clear favorite.
Both cars have offered turbodiesel models, and while the 3-Series comes as a hybrid, the C-Class will soon offer a plug-in hybrid model.
The big surprise in the new C-Class is its handling, its well-weighted steering and confidence-inspiring grip. For everyday driving we prefer the base C-Class to BMW entry-level 3er. The C450 AMG Sport is on par with BMW's best efforts, even in its more relaxed Comfort settings. Of course, both come in fearsome top models, M3 and C63 AMG, and there too we've found the AMG making a substantial leap beyond the 3er's current state. Its ride quality breaks what might otherwise be a tie for everyday comfort and functionality.
The C-Class has gained nearly four inches of length, and nearly that much wheelbase, compared to the prior model. Yet it’s gained no real-world advantage over the 3-Series for back-seat space; neither of these models are great for comfort if backseat occupants are part of the mix. Both cars excel in front, with great seats and a driving position that has enough adjustability to be relaxed or commanding. The trunk in the C-Class is vast for a car of this size, and rear seatbacks flip forward very easily with a lever at the side of the trunk. In both cars, base materials aren’t anything to write home about, but if you’re willing to add a few thousand to the price tag it’ll pay off in frequent compliments.
In safety, the 3-Series has a fairly major blemish on an otherwise good record. It’s earned some great IIHS ratings, but a ‘marginal’ small-overlap rating keeps it from the top tier. It does however impress with its list of features like wide-angle and birds-eye cameras. Mercedes has put an even more impressive suite of active-safety systems into the C-Class—everything from automatic braking and pedestrian detection to a system that warns you if you might be distracted or drowsy, or yet another that will actually steer to keep you in your lane before giving you a stern warning. We’re still waiting for complete crash-test results on the new C-Class.
On the technology front, both the C-Class and 3-Series offer some impressive innovations, including telematics services, voice controls, and navigation/infotainment systems. Both models finally include Bluetooth hands-free calling and audio streaming as a standard feature (actually not true just a couple of years ago), and both iDrive in the BMW and COMAND in the Mercedes-Benz have matured into more intuitive menu-based systems. We actually prefer the latest version of iDrive somewhat, but it really depends on which of our editors you ask; consider the excellent pad that lets you trace out letters, the Siri Eyes Free support, and the standalone screen that’s more in the line of sight, and we’ll give the C-Class an edge in this department.
The tide has turned. With the introduction of a new C-Class, the BMW feels no less competent, but it does seem more austere when compared against the warm, flamboyant Mercedes-Benz. For those looking for lean performance and a stronger enthusiast pedigree, we still recommend the BMW 3-Series. But if you want something a little more expressive, and want to feel pampered--and thrilled, with AMG power and handling--we think you’ll end up favoring the model with the three-pointed star.
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