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3 Series vs A4 vs C-Class vs S60 - Gunning for glory

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How things change in five years. I distinctly remember the navy blue 325i presser, a car that I had the privilege of spending considerable time in. It steered beautifully, the straight-six tunes were just what a newbie like me was longing to hear and the runflats were to ‘run away from'. The suspension was stiffer than a 60 ml shot of Talisker’s finest downed in a gulp, but it was just such a riot up the hill that everything was forgiven. Or so I thought. Over the years, the E90 3 Series, the fifth in a line of successive models, went through a series of changes. Facelifts came through, the rear suspension was made softer, more powerful engines came in, yet it was stiffer than its competition and the rear seat was always a bit short on space. It was always the car whose keys we ran for, but rarely the car we wanted to be a passenger in.

It seems then, the new 3 Series has listened to our complaints. And yours. And all those folks around the world who have spent time in one. It has solved them in a manner that makes it more comfortable, rounded and easier to live with, without losing its fun-to-drive factor. That should then make it the best of the pack, but it’s not so easy. The facelifted Mercedes-Benz C-Class is more than just a facelift. Mercedes has made alterations, significant enough to make it a cut above the original number. And Audi hasn’t left any stone unturned either with the A4, a car that has been the ‘original’ all-rounder. The Volvo S60 isn’t here to play second fiddle as we realised soon enough, it could play with the big boys too. There is a lot at stake here, not just in India, but globally. Audi is closing in on BMW for the number one spot in the premium segment. Mercedes-Benz has lost ground, but vows to catch up by the turn of the decade. And Volvo with its new parentage is looking to make life a bit tougher for the German trio. Change is inevitable they say, but is it too much for BMW’s newest?

 

I’VE SET MY EYES ON YOU

Traditionally, BMW designs have used the face as a powerful tool. That explains a lot about the kidney grille, the corona rings and so on, elements that make it a BMW. Never has the kidney grille fused itself into the headlamps the way it does in the new 3 Series and this is a new direction for BMW design going forward. The ‘brows’ on the headlamps run LED strips while the ‘angel eyes’ haven’t lost any of their character in the process. Srini calls the overall treatment the ‘eye crud’ effect, though in all honesty the 3 does attract attention, especially in a brighter paint shade. The clamshell bonnet doesn’t hide the power bulge on the bonnet, so it’s as clean as it’s poetic. In profile, it’s hard not to miss the slightly longer proportions, especially the wheelbase, while the kidney grille can be seen even here, something that wasn’t true for earlier designs. But it’s still a 3 Series for all its worth, especially the long bonnet and stubby boot not being done in by practical requirements. At the rear, the tail lamps seem more of an evolution of the 5 Series, but they do round off the whole design quite well.

The Mercedes-Benz though, does draw a lot of attention. This, the C250 CDI AMG kit really lends itself quite well and makes an otherwise mundane C-Class look even more stunning. The facelift has done wonders, but the kit alone does give it the extra point to edge past being just good. Like the 3 Series, there is a lot of focus on the front-end to lend it some aggression and that’s also been the focus of the rest of the competition. It may be five years old, but the Merc clearly doesn’t seem to feel it.

The A4’s mid-life facelift, like the C-Class, is a more recent phenomenon. Its new headlamp treatment is in keeping with the current A6 and A8’s continuous LED setup and though it does give it some youthfulness, it also seems to age quicker than one would expect. There are tweaks to the bumpers and tail lamps as well, but you can’t help but wonder why Audi’s current lot seem to be gaining wrinkles quicker than its competition.

If you want something that truly stands out and is a wholesome design, look no further than the S60. It’s a quantum leap for a company whose designs were ‘interesting’ but not ‘pathbreaking’ for a long time. That has changed with Volvo’s compact premium exec. The broad shoulder lines, the classic bonnet bump and those beautifully designed tail lamps really add to the initial impact it creates. In the three days I drove one around Mumbai, it attracted more attention than the new 3 and that’s says something about a car that’s been on sale for over a year. Exclusivity by accident rather than ‘design', then?

 

FROM ECONOMY TO BUSINESS

No one ever complained about the look, feel and quality of the last 3’s innards. It was, and still is, relevant in this day and age, but evolution is the by-product that one can’t escape from and so here is the new 3, resplendent with a cleaner, sharper interior that vows to follow the mould. It’s evolutionary in some bits, revolutionary in others. You get the same sort of controls and the same angled centre console. The new bits include a sharper display for the i-Drive that has a thinner cover rather than being slotted in a nacelle, refreshing use of colours for the dash and the slashes and textures. The centre console has new buttons and functions, à la the 5 Series while thankfully it’s also the only car here that offers GPS and social network connectivity, though the latter’s usefulness is questionable. It feels all high quality and yet, in some places the dash is not as well rounded off, with some of the buttons a bit cheap to feel. Even the black plastic shroud (designed to mimic leather) behind the gear lever is hard to touch.

The C-Class in contrast keeps a nice blend of colours and shades going. Piano black interiors are supplemented by some interesting play of colours for the instruments and the Comand too. Combined with the three-spoke AC louvres that are becoming standard across the Merc range and you will appreciate the fact that it’s metal and cold to touch. It’s the only one of the quartet to get an electrically adjustable steering and paddle shifters, so more brownie points here. Overall feel combined with the beautifully stitched leather makes this the kind of car someone with more mature tastes would appreciate. Though the big problem is the Comand system itself. It’s old, clunky and offers very little by way of features. Yes, the C250 CDI does come with a panoramic sunroof, but it could do with a few more value-adds that cars like the 3 and A4 offer.

You will find the A4’s MMI system more intuitive than the i-Drive on the 3. It’s friendlier and what has become better is the overall functionality as well as repositioning the controls. Our big crib with the pre-facelift A4 was that its interiors felt a bit cheap and it seems it has been resolved. I’d dare to say that the interiors are a smidgeon better finished than its rivals on the whole. Surfaces and textures feel nice and don’t have the rough or plasticky feel of some of its rivals. The new steering does let you know that some effort has been made to change things. Like the 3 Series and the C-Class, it comes with auto start-stop as well.

Volvo’s take on the interiors are Ikea-esque. Simplistically designed, it’s hard to fault the overall quality. In some places it actually feels more solid than the German trio, especially the way the doors close with a vault-like thunk. Nice textures and the all-black interiors are not in the same Aryan mould and the buttons are large enough to be glove friendly, a story many are well aware of by now. What it may not have is the spunk and flash-n-dash of its rivals and that puts it at some sort of disadvantage. The stereo system is good but takes some getting used to if you’ve just stepped out of any of the others. The heavy black theme could be overwhelming for some though it’s more practical.

 

WITH INCHES TO SPARE

None of these cars have the most comfortable back seats, which is why for some, their larger siblings actually do better numbers. This explains the ‘sport sedan’ positioning. Because the 3 Series has a 50 mm longer wheelbase, you can actually see the benefit of it all. Gone is the tighter than usual rear seat for something that lets you breathe some more and see (out) a bit more. There is more cabin room to be had, not just knee and leg room, though it still isn’t a three-seater. Contortionists can’t have a field day anymore and with improved seat squab there is more to play with too. Yet the under thigh support is a bit short and the seat belt, whether seated front or rear tends to cut into your neck. But it’s all an improvement nevertheless that takes it quite ahead of its competition.

The facelifts haven’t changed the comfort levels of the other two. The C-Class continues to be a bit tight on space at the rear and the under thigh support isn’t as good as the 3 either, but the seat position is higher and the arm rest falls better to hand. Visibility on the outside is good too and that does rescue it somewhat. Yet you can’t help but wonder what a few extra cm of space could have done to its fortunes.

Generally regarded as the more comfortable one, until now the A4 too is a strict two-seater at the rear. The central tunnel robs it of some much wanted space, though the seat squab is better and so is the under-thigh support than the other two. Visibility on the outside isn’t bad either, though shorter people could complain a trifle.

The best seats in the business though are reserved for the Volvo. Softer and well-designed, they hug your body well, whether at the front or rear and under thigh support at the rear is the best. The car, however, isn’t the most spacious and knee room is a bit short despite the recesses in the front seat. It’s also the only car you could take five persons in at a pinch, though long journeys may still be a bit of a no-no.

 

CRANK UP THE VOLUME

It’s the same recipe – a frugal diesel engine, a six, seven or eight speed auto-box, strong torque and decent performance numbers. Yet the characteristics of them all are different.

The 2.0-litre diesel on the 3 Series isn’t new. It’s a tried-and-tested formula that the rest have always tried to beat and despite little changes, it’s still a stellar motor. With 184 bhp and a pretty potent 38.4 kgm from 1750 rpm to 2750 rpm, it simply outclasses itself before it even troubles its competition. Big new additions include Start-Stop tech that makes it more fuel efficient and a new eight-speed, single clutch gearbox that really does take the 320d a notch higher. On crank up the 320d continues to be clattery and at full chat too, it’s pretty noisy for what is a ` 30 odd-lakh diesel car. Though once you pin the throttle, a lot of it is forgiven. From a standing start, the 320d simply hits 100 kph in 7.98 seconds, much quicker than its predecessor. You can potentially see a top speed of 220 kph, but that’s not where the story lies. The power delivery is linear, the wide torque band in the meat of the rpm range simply helps the 3 plough its way through slow-moving traffic with serious gusto. Top-end performance is strong for a diesel and there seems to be no let up at any point. But the hero of this story is the eight-speed automatic. It just helps keep the car on the boil without playing spoilsport. Neither does it get confused by throttle inputs nor does it hamper fuel economy, delivering nearly 15 plus kpl on the highway in the process and 11.5 kpl in town.

For the Mercedes, the 2148cc, four-cylinder motor is even stronger in the output department. Putting out a muscular 201 bhp and a ‘six-cylinder like’ 50.5 kgm of peak torque at a rather low 1600 rpm, you would think it’s about to smash the performance charts. Yes and no. It’s quicker to 100 kph by two-tenths of a second, but is marginally slower to 60 than the BMW. What you can’t take away from the car is its herculean torque and in the mid-range it has enough to put some larger, more powerful cars to shame. The seven-speed gearbox though is the weak link. Too throttle dependent, it’s easy to confuse it and then it finds itself at sea once you’ve done that. It’s also a bit slow on the upshifts and doesn’t tend to stay in the gear you want it to. Yet, strangely enough it’s the only car in its class with paddle shifters, so that’s always a plus.

Audi’s 2.0 TDI motor has always been known for its refinement and economy Nothing much has changed here either. With torque in the 30s and the horsepower figure nudging 140 bhp, it’s the least powerful of the lot here. That does reflect on the performance charts as well. It can manage just 10.78 seconds to 100 kph and just about enters the 200 kph zone. The lower power and torque figures are clearly the culprit here and it’s strange to see why Audi is reluctant to bring in a more powerful, four-cylinder diesel under the hood of the A4. Its saviour is the gearbox that’s quick to shift despite being a CVT. Fuel economy is decent, but not the best despite all those claims, so one wonders if it has all really worked in favour of the A4.

Volvo’s idea to smash the German party is a five-cylinder diesel instead of a four. At 161 bhp it’s not going to set records, but it isn’t all that slow either. That’s thanks to the fact that it produces nearly 41 kgm of torque, just three kgm lower than the more powerful D5 on the S80. Pin the throttle and you are greeted by a snarling motor that seems more straight-six than an inline-four in character. While you are at it, 100 kph comes up in under 10 seconds while top speed just about nudges 200 kph as it seems to run out of steam at the higher reaches of the rev range. The S60 has the best NVH though, with little wind roar or road noise coming through. Fuel economy is in the same ballpark as the A4 which isn’t bad given that it doesn’t boast of Start-Stop tech.

 

BARREL ROLLS AND SOME MORE

What has made the 3 Series a class leader throughout its existence has been a strong dynamic package that lets consumers get as close as they can get to a two-door sports coupé without losing out on four-door practicality. No difference here too. Okay, enthusiasts may term the shift from a hydraulic steering to an electric setup as sacrilege, but that doesn’t seem to show in the overall ratings. Driving up a hill is the true test of all the four cars and that’s exactly what we did with them. The 3 Series just turned out to be the sharpest of the lot, but the others too had some strong points, so let’s get going.

Yes, I did say that the new electric steering is quite good. It’s easily among the best setups on any car in the world for it does transmit feel and weighs up nicely. Agreed, the last one was a bit more feelsome, but the compromise is one you can live with – an easier turning, sportier steering. The only other rear-wheel driven car apart from the C, the 3 is keen to turn in with great grip and an ESP setup that offers more leeway. Turn in hard and fast and there’s mild understeer but the electronics allow you to explore that little more without acting like a traffic cop. The responsive powertrain also aids you in placing the car exactly where you want to and that makes it all the more fun when the road starts to twist and turn. Body control is pretty good and that’s now backed up by softer riding runflats that have also helped improve ride quality by a fair bit. The slightly soft suspension setup too has made the car feel more plush for its occupants, the only crib being that deep into three digit speeds it does feel slightly springy in the Luxury trim.

The C-Class’ meatier torque does get it to corners quicker, but it isn’t in the same league as the 3 once it enters them. What catches your fancy first is that the lighter steering does tighten up with the activation of the sport button on the AMG-kitted version, but it doesn’t accurately tell you what the front wheels are up to. The ESP too cuts in rather prematurely, just as you start to feel the rear-end lose a bit of a traction. Good for amateur drivers but a bit of a killjoy if you want to explore the dynamic limits further. The C-Class’ biggest selling point has been its ride and that it continues to do well in the current guise as well.

A very big surprise around the course was the A4. While it may be down on power, it does give the others a serious run for their money while driving up hill. For a front-wheel driver it has immense traction. There is very little by way of understeer and lots of grip, something that makes things a lot better for it. In this company, it also has the next best steering setup given that it has been revised for the facelift. Decent feel and well weighted, the A4 seems to run the 3 Series close. The softer suspension here too gives it a very pliant ride, but it feels too soft at times and at speed it does tend to get a bit bouncy over bumps. High speed stability, though is impressive on the whole.

You can’t go wrong with the ride setup on the S60, its strongest point in the dynamic package. With the best seats and possibly even the best ride, it just gets its setup for India smack bang where it should be. Sharp ridges or large bumps, it handles them all with great aplomb without getting fidgety in the process. Even around a curvy road, the S60’s overall manners are tight, though not necessarily sharp. The steering lacks progression and feel and it can be disconcerting when all you want to do is have some fun. Body control is good but let’s admit it, it’s no Polestar. There is a bit of wooliness and some body roll that means you sometimes have to drive a little below the limit.  

 

FREQUENT FLYER WITH BENEFITS

Sometimes it’s never this close. Sometimes it’s as clear as a bright, smog free day in Mumbai. This one really was as simple as that.

In number four comes the A4. How the A4 hasn’t managed to reinvent the wheel, – despite being a wonderful front-wheel driven car with strong interior quality and lots of kit, the facelift hasn’t really done much to improve its chances. Agreed it steers better, but why for Chrissakes has Audi resorted to a 140 bhp diesel motor that feels slow is beyond me. Why is the performance chasm so wide between the 2.0 TDI and the 3.0 TDI? Let down by an engine that doesn’t have much firepower and generally missing out on an opportunity to improve it mechanically by much (rather than the frivolities), the A4 makes for a car that continues with its all-rounder tag, but times have changed a lot since 2008 and it needed to have done more!

In number three is the Mary Kom of the four, the elephant in the room if you please – the Volvo S60. It does some things very well – NVH and ride comfort for one. The diesel motor may not produce enough horsepower, but you can’t fault it for its rorty soundtrack and good economy. And of course those looks. Add the price-tag to the equation and the S60 very nearly walks away with the runner-up position. Yet the S60 can’t keep more than one German at bay. The rear is a bit short on rear leg room, the steering is a bit ‘unsure’ and it just lacks some flair that could take it from ‘very good’ to ‘brilliant'.

In number two stands the Mercedes-Benz C-Class, a car that has truly made the word facelift a bit redundant. It drives better, steers better, even looks and feels better on the inside and outside. This then isn’t a facelift but a half generation up. Still it can’t hide the fact that it’s been around for a while and the lack of space at the rear, some more kit and an ability to plant a wide grin on your face when going up a hill doesn’t take it beyond number two. I’d be very keen to see how it turns out when the next C-Class is out for Mercedes-Benz is quietly, but firmly making bigger strides than it appears.

The biggest stride though is reserved for the BMW. It simply outclasses its competition and sets the benchmark so high that it should feel all chuffed and swollen with pride. It’s predecessor was very good but this one is a landmark. It smoothens out the rough edges and doesn’t leave much to crib about. I wish though BMW’s quality hadn’t slipped a bit, the car should have had better NVH and a less noisy suspension and motors. Still, it nails it because it covers most grounds so well that the sum of it all puts it an entire ship’s length ahead. It’s no longer a car to ‘run from’ but ‘run to'.