As corporate rivalries go, you have Pepsi and Coke, KFC and McDonald's, and BMW and Mercedes-Benz.
These two will do anything to outdo each other. In a recent example, they were locked in a US sales war, both of them having overtaken Lexus, but neither of them being assured of the number one spot. So they played a waiting game, stared each other down, cursed, shook their fists, and in the end BMW pipped Mercedes to the top spot by a handful of cars.
We're probably looking at a similar stalemate near the end of 2012, when sales figures of the new BMW 3 Series square off against the numbers of the Mercedes-Benz C-Class. We'll leave the results of that battle for column inches in the financial papers, while we focus on something much more interesting. Which of these two, the BMW 328i or Merc C300, should you buy?
When I initially drove the 328i at the Dubai Autodrome I said that it's brilliant. I said the chassis is marvellous, and I was right, and I couldn't stop lauding that engine either. I also said I didn't know what I was talking about. I was right on that point too. Here's what I mean...
At the limit the car becomes hesitant. The tyres just don't match that awesome chassis. These 225/45 R18 Goodyears are pliable and quiet runflats, but unfortunately they're also economical low-rolling-resistance tyres. They have a remarkable tendency to, well, roll, and the 328i thus isn't very effective at engine-braking. You can pretty much just coast to work.
The tyres also reach their limits of grip early, and start scrambling for the outside of a corner while the car has other plans. The two-stage traction control system, even in its second ‘off' mode, disrupts the power delivery and the 245bhp and 350Nm 2.0-litre turbocharged engine reveals its one and only flaw: lag. There is a point in its, however broad, power band where it runs out of ideas. The response is low, and the power hesitates for just a tick. That's not desirable when it happens precisely at the moment you want to tuck the car back into line with a dose of horsepower. I know the horses are there, they're just asleep in the stables...
But why bother about limits? The 3 Series boasts a sublimely engineered chassis that's talented in all situations, be it cosseting the passengers with a sturdy ride — the car doesn't bob on its suspension, it sinks as a whole and absorbs bumps and rough road surfaces like one solid mass instead of a collection of thousands of parts — or attacking corners with vicious grip. There is no danger, ever, of losing the back end. 245bhp would ensure a wild ride not that long ago, but this generation 3er shrugs that off like it's busy doing a parking job. I maintain: the tyres, the electronics, and the solitary flat-spot in the rev band are its only flaws.
The good bits are far superior in numbers though. We genuinely experienced fuel economy of 7.0 litres-per-100km, thanks in part to the slippery new body (Cd of just 0.26 also ensures an eerily quiet cabin) and an auto start-stop function which is standard kit with the silky eight-speed ZF. Plus you can squeal off a 0-100kph run in less than six seconds. In a four-pot saloon!
The interior is bigger than before — in fact the whole car is bigger than before, but lighter — which for the first time in the six generations of 3 Series history means normal adults can sit in the back. The dash is flawlessly built, the screen huge, the driving position perfect, and the electrically assisted steering in the BMW 328i is only second in terms of feel and communication to the new Porsche 911. The car also rides better than the Merc. Seriously. This is a 3 Series that's not bone-shaking, but is in fact more comfortable than the traditionally soapy C-Class.
Despite its reputation for solid build quality and bullet-proof mechanicals, image has rarely been Mercedes-Benz's forte. Although there have been noble exceptions over the brand's illustrious 125-year life, it remains a fact that not many men below the age of 35 would picture themselves behind the wheel of a Tristar. That puts the C300, which is a car aimed specifically at this category of buyers, at a clear disadvantage right at the onset. However, it must be said that the W204 C-Class, with its chiselled lines and crisp creases, looks slightly better than the previous version, which looked a lot barer. And it also helps that the new 3 Series with its drooping eyelids, looks like it's half asleep. It's a similar story inside, with good-quality material and practicality taking the front seat, giving it an altogether austere feel in comparison to the BMW's cheerful cabin.
However, you tend to get over all the preconceptions once the door closes with a reassuring thump and the new direct-injected 3.5-litre V6 comes alive. I remember saying this has to be the smoothest naturally aspirated V6 lump around when I drove the C350 a few months back. It's the same engine here but with 54 horses less. On paper it does the 0-100kph sprint a seventh of a second slower than the C350, but it doesn't ‘feel' any slower. And the 252 horses somehow seem quite adequate for the 1,540kg saloon, with lively acceleration right off the line. As I had noticed in the other version, the seven-speed automatic amazingly manages to pick the right ratio always, so much so that you won't miss a stick at all. And unlike the super-silent V6s of today, the C300's engine note has a sort of mechanical thrum at lower revs, although it gets diluted as the revs go up.
Its suspension is solid and remains composed when driven enthusiastically on a straight line or around bends. However, as opposed to traditional wisdom, this Merc's ride becomes a bit choppy and the spring set-up jiggles a bit too much when driven over rough surfaces. Although electronic traction aids kick in unsolicited, it's a car that readily puts its tail out when chucked around a roundabout or even a stretch of road with loose sand over it. There's something about the steerings in all new Mercs that makes them feel faultlessly weighted, delivering markedly more feedback than previous versions. But when driven back-to-back with the BMW, it still falls short of matching the tactile sensations conveyed by the 328i's awesome wheel.
Look, there really isn't any weighing up to be done here. It's simple; the BMW 328 is the best car in its class, and possibly the greatest all-rounder on the planet right now. We reckon that if the M department does nothing but stick an M-spec engine in there plus an M3 badge on the boot lid, that would make for the best M3 yet. Of course, the boys at M are busy having a field day with this brilliant chassis, and will doubtless tinker with every corner of the car to produce a brilliant product next year. We can hardly contain our excitement.
The 328i even makes more sense than the 335i, if only for the massive advancement the company's made in terms of performance, economy and flexibility using no more than four cylinders. The competition really needs to step it up now, and surprisingly, Cadillac seems to be the only manufacturer willing to take BMW on with its own 270bhp four-cylinder turbo ATS. Downsizing is here to stay, and it's for the better.
Theoretically, you can't go wrong with the brilliant 328i. The poor Merc is fighting a losing battle from the onset. Theoretically… Because if it was our money, there's simply no way we'd accept BMW's arrogance at charging almost a quarter of a million dirhams for a four-cylinder medium-sized saloon.
Theory is all good and well, but the world is a practice. So practise some sense and buy the Merc.
- Model 328i
- Engine 2.0-litre four-cyl turbo
- Transmission Eight-speed auto, RWD
- Max power 245bhp @ 5,000rpm
- Max torque 350Nm @ 1,250rpm
- Top speed 250kph
- 0-100kph 5.9sec
- Price Dh230,000
- Model C300
- Engine 3.5-litre V6
- Transmission Seven-speed auto, RWD
- Max power 252bhp @ 6,500rpm
- Max torque NA
- Top speed 250kph
- 0-100kph 6.7sec
- Price Dh191,201