The BMW 3-Series has been a sport-sedan benchmark for decades. The Audi A4 is one of a thriving pack of challengers that now handily beat the Bimmer on a variety of fronts.
Is the A4 one of those sport-luxury sedans with the whole package--a BMW-beating set of road manners, equipment, safety, and styling?
We rate the 3-Series higher than the A4, but there's a caveat. We've driven the new-for-2017 A4 extensively, but haven't yet tried out BMW's new base turbo-4 engine or rated it under our new scoring system.
For now, we're leaving these results with a mix of 2016 BMW and 2017 Audi scores, until we've given BMW's new base engine a fair shot. Our revised scores have trended lower than in previous years, so this one seems likely to be an upset. (Read more about how we rate cars.)
Also note that, while the 3-Series comes in wagon and hatchback forms, and the A4 as the new Allroad wagon, we're really getting down to four-door sedan nuts and bolts here.
For now we'll compare the new A4 with the 2016 3-Series, and in that light, the Audi fares well. It doesn't quite offer the wide range of powertrains that BMW does, in the aftermath of the diesel scandal at VW. Under the hood, the base A4 uses a 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder, in 190-hp and 252-hp tune, with a dual-clutch 7-speed or a rare 6-speed manual. We've been duly impressed with the higher-output engine's gutsy feel and the dual-clutch's swift gearchanges.
BMW offers a low-output version turbo-4, dubbed the 320i; there's a higher-output 240-hp 328i that's by far more common in 2016 BMW 3-Series cars. BMW also offers the 335i, with a turbocharged inline-6 good for 300 horsepower and 300 pound-feet of torque. There's also a 328d, with 181 horsepower from a turbodiesel 4-cylinder engine. Finally, a plug-in hybrid 330e is available in sedan form. It's a dizzying array of powertrains, but the two higher-horsepower gas offerings reinforce BMW's reputation for building excellent powertrains, and its okay-by-the-EPA diesel is a reasonable alternative.
The 3-Series still has a dynamic edge, though the A4 has closed a lot of the gap. Unlike the 3-Series, the A4 is a front-drive-based sedan, with quattro all-wheel drive available in higher-trim models. While this bias--and its frontward weight bias--ultimately brings it up somewhat short of the 3-Series' ultimate dynamics, the available quattro system makes the A4 as competent as any luxury sedan in foul weather. BMW's xDrive system is available in the 3-Series, but only in a limited number of models.
When it comes to ride quality and handling, both cars err a bit toward the sporty side, showing occasional harshness over rougher surfaces. Some will call it the price they pay for their sharper handling, but others will find the Mercedes-Benz C-Class's more plush ride preferable to either. BMW's steering tracks much more cleanly than the A4, but Audi's available adaptive suspension does a remarkable job of handling a wide range of road surfaces. What used to be a clear BMW advantage in performance is now almost a wash.
2016 BMW 3-Series 4-door Sedan 328i RWD Angular Front Exterior ViewEnlarge Photo
2016 BMW 3-Series 4-door Sedan 328i RWD Side Exterior ViewEnlarge Photo
2016 BMW 3-Series 4-door Sedan 328i RWD Steering WheelEnlarge Photo
2016 BMW 3-Series 4-door Sedan 328i RWD Angular Rear Exterior ViewEnlarge Photo
With both models growing larger, the comfort and quality equation is close to a draw, too. Front seats are spacious and comfortable in both the 3-Series and the A4, and at last, the rear seats in both are commodious enough for adults to take longer trips. They're a lot larger than the back benches in cars like the ATS and the Jaguar XE.
Quality, fit, and finish are very good in both cars. BMW's cockpit has improved, though some touches can seem out of character--like the optional nav screen that perches on top of the dash, instead of integrating into it. The A4 is a more seamless piece, with a lush new dash-topping LCD screen that renders Google Earth and Street View maps in gorgeous detail. For most, it will come down to a matter of taste: where the BMW is sometimes drab, sometimes busy, the Audi is sleek and polished, uncluttered and largely intuitive.
Both cars also offer a host of advanced technology, with iDrive powering the 3-Series' infotainment and MMI behind Audi's. While both systems are advanced and capable, MMI is slightly more intuitive to most. Both of these cars now have Bluetooth standard across the model line. The 3-Series also offers an excellent head-up display (HUD) that's just become available on the A4, tying speed, navigation, and other information into a display projected onto the windshield. Audi also has in-car wireless Internet with Audi Connect, which in turn feeds data to that exceptional nav system.
Finally, the matter of safety. The BMW 3-Series has been rated five stars overall by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), but the IIHS gives it a Marginal score for small-overlap protection. The A4 is a Top Safety Pick+, though the NHTSA hasn't weighed in just yet.
With the wide range of models and body styles tucked under either nameplate, both the BMW 3-Series and Audi A4 have something to appeal to most luxury buyers. The BMW still has the performance edge that adrenaline junkies seek out consistently, though the Audi S-cars aren't far off. But when high-tech gadgets and a purer design are the better lure, it's the Audi lineup that wins.