Audi A4 VS BMW 3 Series
- Stylish, but simple, design
- New cabin tech a hit
- Sophisticated cabin feel
- Can lack some driving excitement
- Extra safety will cost you
- It's time to move past three-year warranties
BMW 3 Series
- A PHEV keen drivers can embrace at last
- Useable real-world pure-EV commuting ability
- Quality BMW cabin design and presentation
- Lofty pricing, and that's before expensive options
- Reduced boot capacity compared to regular 3 Series
- 2.0-litre turbo four lacks BMW six-cylinder refinement at higher revs
It's easy to think SUVs have already consumed Australia's new-car market, but a deeper dive into the numbers throws up some surprising results for some brands.
The question now is, is this plucky premium passenger car good enough to fight off the SUV hordes? Join me as we find out.
|Engine Type||2.0L turbo|
|Fuel Type||Premium Unleaded Petrol|
BMW 3 Series
Is the 330e the best of both worlds?
A plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV), it’s a part-time electric car for the city and a full-time sports sedan for everywhere else.
Both were based on the previous F30 3 Series shape. However, this year’s all-new G20 iteration improves the breed with a bigger boot, up to 50 per cent better range and brawnier performance.
The thing is, it shares showrooms with the 330i and M340i xDrive, which represent a powerful return-to-form for the 3 Series.
So, the question isn’t so much ‘Is the 330e a good enough PHEV?’ more so than ‘Is the PHEV worthy of the BMW badge?’ Let’s find out.
|Engine Type||2.0L turbo|
|Fuel Type||Hybrid with Premium Unleaded|
BMW 3 Series9/10
You know about Goldilocks and the Three Bears, right?
Well, its themes of too little or too much apply for buyers of an eco-focused luxury sports sedan. If a hybrid like the Lexus IS 300h isn’t electrified enough, and a pure EV such as the Tesla Model 3 is going too far, then a PHEV like the 330e plugs the gap just about perfectly.
Yes, prices are high (and especially so with a few choice options), boot capacity is on the low side for a 4.7-metre long sedan and that lusty four-pot turbo is sonically no match for a turbine-smooth BMW inline six as per the M340i, but the 330e does most of the expected things well and some of the ones you might not exceptionally.
Pay the price and you can have your cake and eat it too.
It's undeniably handsome, the A4, in all of its guises. I have a particular soft spot for the stance of the sedan, but wagon lovers will find plenty to like about the Avant, too.
Ask Audi, and they'll tell you how this is a major design update for then A4 (albeit one that's arrived in the middle of its life, rather than for a whole new model), and how almost every exterior panel has been changed or altered.
The reality, though, is it still looks like an A4, only now with a wider grille, and redesigned headlight and DRL clusters, both of which combine to give the muscular mid-sizer a lower, more athletic-looking front-end.
The sharp creases that flow down each flank give the side-view some clear definition, and I do particularly like the way those alloys fill the wheel arches, genuinely making the A4 look tough and purposeful.
The biggest change, though, is arguably reserved for the interior, where a new 10.1-inch screen takes pride of place in the dash. Audi says the new model offers 10 times the computing power of the outgoing model, owing mostly to connected car features including live traffic, weather reports and fuel pricing, as well as the ability to remote unlock or lock you car from your phone, or pre-plan destinations and send them to the vehicle's nav.
Better still, it's a touch screen, which is eleventy-billion times easier to use than fiddling with the centre controls. In fact, it's so much easier that Audi has done away with them entirely, replacing them with extra storage in the centre console.
The flat-bottomed wheel feels great under touch, leather abounds, and the dash and centre console received lashing of metallic or carbon-fibre trim.
The end result of all this is a clean and uncluttered interior space that feels very well screwed together, and rather premium.
BMW 3 Series
Remember when BMW 3 Series were compact three-box sedans that looked like nothing else? Today’s version seems so close in size to a 5 Series that only an anorak can instantly tell them apart. In fact, at a glance, differentiating the current G20 from the old F30 generation isn’t so easy, either.
It’s no surprise, then, to learn that both the 3- and 5 Series share the company’s scalable, light but super-strong ‘Cluster Architecture’. Imbued with a large-car feel, the 330e is elegant in silhouette and handsomely detailed, its imposing stance highlighted by the M Sport lowered suspension (by 10mm) and bi-colour five-prong double-spoke 19-inch alloys and (optional) Laser-light LEDs.
Flying under the radar for an eco-warrior, there is nothing other than two ‘filler’ flaps to give the PHEV game away externally. It’s all business as usual.
The same cool insouciance permeates our 3 Series’ leather-laden and metallic-accented cabin, that is now properly spacious for four adults. It still retains the signature-BMW driver-centric dashboard angle, but the style certainly isn’t retro, with twin large digital displays and a myriad of personalisation and vehicle configuration choices underlining the 330e’s modernity.
Aided by plenty of eco incentives to go PHEV, in Europe, BMW expects the 330e to be the best selling version; that said, given the inherent conservatism of premium medium sedan buyers globally, there is virtually nothing about this model’s overall execution that is too futuristic, intimidating or oddball.
It all comes down to your body style, of course, but let's start with the sedan, shall we?
It stretches 4762mm in length, 1847mm in width and 1431mm in height, and will swallow 460 litres of luggage in its boot.
Those numbers translate to pretty spacious cabin, with enough room up front for two adults to never encroach on each other's territory, and enough room in the back for me (I'm 175cm) to sit behind my own driving position with clear air above my head and between my knees and the driver's seat in front.
The Avant, or wagon, increases those dimensions to 4762mm x 1847mm x 1435mm, but also increases the cargo capacity to a considerable 495 litres with the rear seats in place, or 1495 litres with them folded flat. If yours is a life filled with kids' sport and weekends away, this is the model you want.
Finally, the allroad measures in at an identical 4762mm in length, and will deliver the same luggage space as the wagon, but you do get a more off-road focused suspension setup, delivering an extra 46mm ground clearance, a wider track front and rear, and a unique "off road mode" that uses the cars many traction and braking controls to deliver more grip off road.
Elsewhere, you'll find a plethora of storage spaces, two cupholders up front, bottle holders in each of the doors, and a new cubby in the centre console, where the media controls once lived.
Backseat riders share two USB connection ports (as well as ISOFIX attachment points in each window seat), while up-front riders get two of their own, as a 12-volt power source.
BMW 3 Series
For a swoopy sports sedan, the 330e’s interior is pleasingly practical and – after a little familiarisation – user-friendly. As the biggest-ever 3 Series, four average-sized adults can fit in easily, while a smaller fifth person can crowd in on the rear-centre cushion. For short periods, anyway.
One surprise is the lightness of the doors due to them being partly aluminium, which means while they close with a reassuring thud, they’re might feel flimsy at first.
No such misconceptions await once inside the cocoon-quiet cabin, thanks to solid and lush materials everywhere the eye lands and hands touch. Even the plastics seem expensive.
As the 3 Series is famous for, the 330e’s dash is driver-centric, with ample adjustability of the fat-rimmed wheel and unimpeded reach for most of the important switchgear. Sat low and cosily ensconced between door and bisecting centre console, the mood is definitely grand-touring sports sedan.
For this generation, BMW has honed the once-controversial 'iDrive' controller into an artful yet logical example of on-the-move multimedia interface and data retrieval, with a concerted effort to simplify what is a mountain of available information.
Of course, familiarisation is essential, but even a short tuition will open up a world of configuration and customisation of every single facet of the car – chassis, powertrain, climate control, audio, communication and media being the main platforms. Sounds intimidating but isn’t.
To help relax (or energise), there’s even a ‘Caring Car’ feature in the sub menus with appropriately chilled ambient lighting, audio and climate control.
Indeed, the Germans have made strides in improving the perceived quality and functionality in other areas of the latest 3 Series, such as the gear lever operation, thoughtful storage and effortlessly effective ventilation.
However, the digital instrumentation has ignored decades of classy analogue style for a messy computerised multi-view layout that is just too Space Invaders.
Sure, it’s multi-configurable and includes a less-cluttered basic screen, but where’s the sophistication and beauty here? Notice to carmakers: would you wear a watch this ugly?
Moving to the back seat, the optional sunroof might eat into rear headroom, and really long-legged travellers need to ensure the front-seat occupants are as far forward as comfortably possible, but otherwise it’s the same story of well-sculptured cushions and backrests, set within a business-class style environment.
Twin USB-C ports, a 12V outlet and temperature controls are a bonus, hungry door pockets can take a large drink bottle and the essential cupholders are set within the centre armrest.
The only giveaway that this 3 Series is hauling extra electrification is inside the boot. Somewhat shallower than the regular 480-litre item, a higher floor than usual cuts that by 105L to 375L.
But at least the battery doesn’t intrude to the point where you can’t use the cabin load-through with the tri-sected backrests folded down (via a handy lever if you’re standing behind the vehicle). A through-loading system is part of the standard 40/20/40 split-fold backrest.
The floor itself is stepped half way, but if you require a flat surface, it can be lifted to even out the area. And remember, there is no spare wheel – just tyres that can be driven ‘flat’ as required to drive you to the nearest garage.
Price and features
The cheapest way into an A4 remains the 35 TFSI Sedan, which will set you back $55,900, while the more sport-and-style focused S line variant will cost you $59,900.
For that, you'll find LED headlights, 19-inch alloy wheels, a new 10.1-inch touchscreen that's Apple CarPlay and Android Auto equipped, a smart key with push-button start, leather trim, three-zone climate, standard navigation and a DAB+ digital radio.
The S line version adds Audi's Virtual Cockpit (a 12.3-inch digital display that replaces the traditional driver's binnacle), as well as sportier exterior and interior styling, frameless mirrors and illuminated door sills.
The range then steps up to the A4 45 TFSI quattro S line, which is yours for $68,900 in sedan guise, or $71,400 for the Avant, or wagon. Both are S line only, so you get the sportier style, but you also build on the 35 TFSI S line's equipment list with a memory function for the driver's seat and a better Audi 10-speaker stereo.
Finally, you can opt for the more off-road focused allroad, which is available with the 45 TFSI petrol engine ($72,900), or with a smaller diesel power plant ($69,900), bot of which are quattro AWD.
Both offer aluminium-look exterior highlights, roof rails and new front and rear bumpers, as well as a mite more off-road ability.
BMW 3 Series
It’s clear that electrification will become the norm in the not-too-distant future, from hybrids combining internal combustion engines (ICE) with electric motors and batteries, to the full battery electric vehicle (EV) and eventually hydrogen EV experience.
Somewhere along that spectrum, and nestled between the 320i (from $68,900) and 330i (from $74,900), is the 330e.
Arriving from Germany in either racy M Sport or dreary Luxury grades from $81,900 (before on-road costs), it features an electric motor and battery pack for up to 60km of pure EV propulsion, before a four-cylinder turbo-petrol engine kicks in for in excess of 1800km between refills, officially. Range anxiety be damned.
Mind you, the similarly-engined 320i but minus the electrification is almost 300kg lighter. Blame all that extra electrification swag like an 83kW synchronous motor, 10.3kWh lithium ion battery and a five-metre 1.8kW charging cable.
Being a PHEV means it needs up to six hours to recharge from a regular 10-amp household plug, down to a minimum of around 3.5 hours from a larger power source.
In contrast, a non-plug-in, series-parallel hybrid like the Lexus IS 300h barely manages 2.0km of sub-40km/h-only EV range, before its ICE takes over to replenish a much-smaller battery pack, and relegate the electric motor to mere performance and/or economy boosters only. That’s why the Lexus is some $20,000 cheaper.
Though both promise slightly less EV range than the 330e, the former is comfort-biased while the latter is a bit of a Swedish hot-rod, blitzing all for sheer oomph while scoring all-wheel drive into the bargain.
Note, however, that from $75,425 (before tax and on-road costs) will buy you the mouthful Tesla Model 3 Standard Range Plus RWD (rear-wheel drive). As a pure EV, the Yank has kicked the ICE habit with a silent and furious need for speed.
Not that our 330e M Sport Package isn’t hot to trot, with its M Sport-enhanced suspension, brakes, aero body kit, 19-inch alloys shod with run-flat tyres (so no spare wheel), steering wheel, Alcantara/Sensonic vinyl upholstery and ‘Shadow Line’ gloss-grey trimmings. Menacing.
The BMW’s list of goodies is barely good enough for a sedan that’s over $90K drive-away. You’ll find adaptive dampers that switch seamlessly from firm to soft depending on how stiff/supple you want the ride to be, auto entry/start, stop/start, heated/folding/dipping mirrors, two USB and a single 12V ports, tri-zone climate control, electrically adjustable front seats with driver’s-side memory, three-year subscription-based in-car emergency and concierge services, Apple CarPlay (but still not Android Auto at the time of publishing), 12.3-inch digital instrumentation with head-up display, a 10.25-inch central screen, satellite navigation, extended Bluetooth connectivity, an unreliable ‘Hey, BMW’ voice-activation system, digital radio, 205W amplifier audio, a 32GB hard drive, wireless smartphone charger and a personalisation function in the key saving all your preferred settings.
On the safety and security front there’s also autonomous emergency braking (AEB), warnings and active assistance/intervention for steering, lane-change, lane-departure and front/rear cross-traffic (with braking) situations, full-auto parking with surround-view 3D cameras and sensors, adaptive cruise control with full stop/go, auto high-beam LED headlights with delay/off, rain-sensing wipers, low-speed EV-mode acoustic warnings for pedestrians and localised recharging info including range radius. Handy.
Still, a sunroof is optional, as are our car’s trick 'Laser-light' active/adaptive LEDs, ambient cabin lighting, motion-sensor electric bootlid, seat and steering wheel heaters, galvanised trim, and other goodies, amounting to over $10,000. All blow out pricing towards $100K. Ouch.
At least you can pre-set the climate control in your 330e via a BMW app. Cool!
Engine & trans
Let's start with the 35 TFSI, which is home to a turbocharged 2.0-litre engine producing 110kW and 270Nm, and that is now paired with a 12V mild hybrid system that delivers fuel savings of up to 0.3 litres per hundred kilometres.
That engine is paired with a seven-speed S tronic automatic, with power sent to the front wheels. Audi reckons it will knock off the sprint to 100km/h in 8.6 seconds on its way to a 224km/h limited top speed.
The 45 TFSI engine is the same size as the 35 TFSI, but ups the grunt to 183kW and 370Nm. It gets the same gearbox, and the same mild hybrid system, but because it's only offered with quattro, power is sent to all four wheels. Fittingly, there's a drop in the sprint time, now as low as 5.8 seconds, with the top speed increased to 250km/h.
Finally, the diesel, which is only offered in the allroad body style. The 40 TDI quattro squeezes 140kW and 400Nm from the it's 2.0-litre engine - enough to dispatch 100km/h in 7.9 seconds.
BMW 3 Series
BMW’s modular (B48) 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine delivers 135kW of power and 300Nm of torque, and drives the rear wheels via a ZF eight-speed automatic. The latter is regarded as one of the best transmissions of its type in production today.
That transmission also houses the 83kW/105Nm synchronous motor, while the 10.3kWh battery pack is located underneath the back seat. Total outputs are 185kW/420Nm.
Each power source works together to create a smooth and quiet EV experience up to a published 60km, before the 2.0-litre takes over the main driving function, but powering down again when coasting or under very light throttle, to help eke out maximum mileage between refills.
There are three modes to choose from – 'Sport', 'Hybrid' and 'Electric' – with the latter allowing for pure EV driving as long as the batteries are juiced up enough; otherwise the default Hybrid setting kicks in, where both propulsion options are used to maximum efficiency.
Back in Electric mode, in Battery Control mode, the driver can pre-select a minimum battery charge level for use later on where conditions are better-suited to EV driving – such as in downtown.
There’s also a so-called ‘XtraBoost’ function, providing up to 30kW of extra power (topping out at 215kW) for short periods, and is accompanied by a fake/enhanced exhaust note. It’s a bit of a scorcher, actually, revving hungrily to the redline and reeling in the horizon like a proper BMW should.
Don't go searching for an evocative in-line six-cylinder soundtrack, however. Instead, there's simply a zingy metallic snarl as the tacho swings swiftly upwards. S mode loves holding on to each gear ratio, aided by a thoughtfully placed set of paddle shifters.
Overall, the 3 Series PHEV is surprisingly rapid – clearing the 100km/h marker needs just 5.9 seconds – but subjectively actually feels even faster. BMW limits the 330e's EV top speed to 140km/h, or 230km/h in dinosaur-fuel mode.
The diesel is the most fuel-efficient option, sipping a claimed 5.2 litres per hundred kilometres on the combined cycle, while emitting 136g/km of C02.
The smaller petrol will use 6.1 litres on the same cycle over the same distance, and expel 167g/km of C02, while the bigger petrol ups the fuel use to to 7.1 litres, but drops the C02 to 162g/km.
Fuel tank sizes vary from 54 litres for the petrol sedan, 61 litres for the diesel, and 58 litres for the petrol wagon.
BMW 3 Series
On the flipside, BMW reckons over 1800km is possible, thanks to the official combined figure of only 2.2 litres per 100km. That’s outstanding range, especially considering the fuel tank is a teeny 40 litres.
Maybe it was the addictive allure of all that XtraBoost oomph, or perhaps it’s the porky 1740kg throwing its weight around, but we could not better 6.3L/100km during our week with the Bavarian wunderkind.
BMW recommends either premium unleaded (95 RON plus) or E10 ethanol, so no standard stuff, please.
Meanwhile, in EV mode, less than 40km is the real-world range, and that can drop dramatically with amenities running like the AC. The EU electricity consumption figure is 15.4kW/h/100km, which is reasonable for the 330e’s size and weight.
You can't help but feel for Audi when you first slink into the driver's seat of the A4 45 TFSI. In today's motoring world, there's a heap of pressure on car company's to deliver something special with each new vehicle - some scintillating wow factor - be it a door-to-door digital screen, rocket ship acceleration or game-changing cabin materials.
And if we're honest, the A4 doesn't really do any of that. Instead, it offers a comfortable, quiet, super-competent drive experience that delivers most everything you might expect from it, and then some.
And while that might sound disappointing, here's the rub. Wow factor eventually fades, or the speeding tickets begin to pile up, and all you're really left with is how well a car goes about its day-to-day business, and it's here the A4 shines.
You'll notice I called out a particular engine at the start there, and that's because the 45 TFSI really is the pick of the bunch. It’s not that the engine is overly potent, it’s more that the power delivery feels perfectly matched to the vibe of the car - easy, plentiful, and hassle-free.
The entry-level petrol engine feels exactly that, like the entry-level choice. Perfectly capable at commuter speeds, but lacking in the fizz department should you find yourself on a winding road, and you do find yourself longing for more grunt as you exit a corner, especially heading up hill.
Same, too, the diesel, which isn't underwhelming, but feels like a particular tool for a particular job, or for those wedded to the idea of a long-distance diesel engine.
But in the words of a particular fairytale heroine, the 45 TFSI quattro feels just right. And even the most prehistoric owner can’t complain about the hybrid tech here, either. It’s seriously unnoticeable, with the Audi behaving like any other turbocharged petrol engine should, only with the added benefit of saving a little fuel.
So, to the drive experience itself. It is, in a word, very Audi. The ride might lean to the firm side of comfortable occasionally, especially over harsher road imperfections, but the cabin is quiet, comfortable, and your forward momentum is effortless, with the steering and gearbox both performing their duties seamlessly.
So seamlessly, in fact, that it can feel a little disconnected. It will get you where you’re going in comfort and with ease, but it won’t necessarily stir the soul on the way. For that, you might have to spring for the incoming S4, due later this year.
BMW 3 Series
The good news is that the 330e is designed for built-up and urban environments, since it benefits from a quiet electric motor to whoosh you along almost silently and always serenely for up to that 60km official range. Acceleration is instant, punchy and remains strong as speeds quickly rise, making the BMW ideal for darting in and out of traffic gaps.
In the real world, with the climate-control switched on and other drains on the car, that drops to under 40km, though that can often be more than enough for most commutes. If there’s access to a normal 10a socket, the BMW will be fully charged to get you back home in fewer than six hours.
Of course, the beauty of a PHEV is that the main form of motivation is a brilliantly muscular and responsive BMW 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo petrol engine, which really gives the 330e wings as a fast and fluent open-road grand tourer. It just laps the miles up.
Still, running on petrol, the Bavarian is as impressive around town, too, since there’s a hefty lump of low-down torque on tap for prompt throttle responses. The superb eight-speed torque-converter auto provides an almost supernatural ability to select the right ratio at the right time, and in a most harmonious manner too.
Perhaps this is a one-off blip in our test car, but a concerning powertrain jolt was discernible from somewhere in the transmission at step-off, as if the 330e is struggling to reconcile electric and petrol power seamlessly.
Every aspect of the BMW PHEV’s powertrain and chassis – engine, transmission, steering and suspension – can be altered from a cushy softness to a muscular firmness, according to the mood of the driver (or passengers).
Although never heavy, there is substance to the steering even at slower speeds, and the upshot is an engaging and involving experience. Switching to Sport intensifies everything, for an edgier, more athletic experience.
Great for keener folk seeking the 3 Series’ enthusiast’s machine reputation. That said, the turning circle is tight for easy manoeuvrability, while the auto parking feature helps getting the sedan into tighter spots, and generally works reliably.
Adaptive dampers do a great job in helping to smother out most of the bumps and ruts of suburbia’s roads, though larger speed humps can expose the limits of available suspension travel as well as ground clearance (147mm).
Out on the open road, the steering is a boon, working with the taut chassis for sharp handling and balanced roadholding. Displaying towering levels of roadholding, the 330e simply remains glued to the road, even at speed.
One small observation is that the 330e lacks a mechanical limited slip differential, so there isn’t quite the surgical handling crispness that elevates the latest 330i into the dynamic stratosphere.
That, plus the extra mass of the PHEV, do dull the steering’s sharpness and BMW’s overall agility slightly. Never stodgy, just not supernaturally athletic. That’s the price you pay for parsimony.
Finally, in the sportier settings, with the stability and traction controls’ hold loosened, the tail can be made to swing out, meaning the driver must remain alert and ready to reel it all back into place.
This isn’t as much a flaw as a playful aspect of the 330e’s very broad dynamic bandwidth. There’s something for everyone.
You can expect AEB with pedestrian detect, an exit warning system, lane change warning, rear cross-traffic alert, front and rear parking sensors and a reversing camera - all of which contribute to the A4's five-star ANCAP safety rating.
The high-tech stuff joins the eight airbags (dual front, front side, side bags front and rear and curtains front and rear), but if you want more, you'll have to pay.
Adaptive cruise control with Stop&Go, active lane assist, Audi pre-sense, Collision avoidance assist, high beam assist and turn assist all arrives as a package on the 35 TFSI, costing between $1900 and $2470.
The same kit, only with a head up display, park assist and a 360-degree camera will cost you between $2900 and $3770 on the 35 TFSI S line and 45 TFSI S line.
BMW 3 Series
As part of the G20 3 Series line-up, the 330e achieved a five-star ANCAP crash-test rating in October, 2019.
There basically isn’t an active or passive safety item left unticked in this grade, meaning AEB (operational from 5km/h to 210km/h), stability and traction control, anti-lock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution, cornering brake control and brake-assist, active lane-change and lane-departure warnings and intervention, front and rear cross-traffic alert with braking and blind-spot monitoring.
Eight airbags are fitted – front and side airbags for driver and front passenger and head airbags for all outboard seat occupants.
There’s also adaptive cruise control with full stop/go functionality, as well as a low-speed EV-mode acoustic warning for pedestrians and cyclists to get out of the way. That’s set to about 20km/h.
All Audi's are covered by a three-year, unlimited-kilometre warranty, with servicing required every 12 months or 15,000km.
You can pre-pay your service costs for three or five years, which will set you back $1710 or $2720 for petrol engines, or $2050 and $3190 for diesel engines.
BMW 3 Series
The 330e’s servicing is condition-based, depending on how it’s driven and other factors, with a dash warning appearing to let the driver/owner know when it’s time. In the UK, a two-year/30,000km interval is advised, if that helps.
No capped-price servicing regime is offered, but the 'BMW Service Inclusive Basic' packages cover scheduled servicing from three years/40,000km to five years/80,000km, and start from $1350.