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Mercedes-Benz C250 vs BMW 328i 2012

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...and BMW 328i Sport Line.

Two old enemies fight a perennial civil war on the Australian front

It's almost tediously inevitable yet the comparison between the BMW 3 Series and Mercedes C-Class has also never been more pertinent nor so closely fought. Hitherto the BMW has embodied the compact sports sedan, the rear-drive, perfectly balanced corner carver - the driver's default choice. The Benz signified aspiration, entry to the prestige touring club, a step to the E-Class.

Value

In terms of performance and perception, the entry levels of both were pretty parsimonious. A bit try-hard. Overpriced and underdone. You needed to drop closer to $100,000 than $60,000 to get a decently kitted 3 or C, or one with an engine to keep a Corolla honest.

In terms of go for your dough and fruit for your finance package, these longstanding adversaries have never been better value. That you can say “value'' in this context without dislocating an eyebrow says much in itself. The 320i and C200 CGI are not only nothing to sneer at, they're almost too good for you to spend more money.

Yet people will and do, climbing to the mid-range 328i and C250. These have the full-cream versions of the turbocharged fours that fling along their respective entry level cars. The Bimmer and the Benz have coalesced in more ways than similar engines and newly non-extortionate options list.

What was once the undisputed choice for those who fancied themselves behind the wheel now enjoys not so nearly clear cut an advantage. In this regard BMW has kicked some own goals, four of which are found at each corner.

Value remains a pertinent formula at this end of the prestige equation. As tested the C250 Avantgarde's list price climbs some nine grand north. None of the contributing options are are necessary, perhaps only metallic paint (a fairly outrageous $1600) is desirable.

The 328i starts and finishes significantly lower, but the $1692 Adaptive M-Suspension is crucial and $1538 Sport Line package includes smart 18-inch alloys. Previously M kits have, in concert with run-flats, ruined many a 3 Series. This one is of the essence. Without it, the 3 Series is shockingly poor at dealing with bumps and corners simultaneously.

The smart suspension imbues the Comfort and Sport settings of the Driving Experience Control with real meaning, making the latter the one to select at every opportunity. Am I alone in thinking it’s not good enough that a BMW should need artificial enhancement to deliver on the drive that badge promises? 

The C-Class needs and is equipped with no such frippery. There's the default Eco setting or the Sport mode. The seven-speed auto is slower than BMW's eight, but kicks down emphatically and informatively. The Tristar car is simply less adulterated, something that extends to its cornering attitude. Its slightly greater mass is felt, but not negatively, even next to the Bimmer's more alert turn-in and adroit stance.

Design

Run-flat tyres have become more pliant than the first-generation shockers but their presence is still felt, though more in the ears than the spine. In contrast, the Benz is as aurally ambient as it is absorbent of the road's irregularities.

The C-Class's cabin insulation is A-plus as are its material quality, fit and finish. It's sombre in there but this cabin is as sure a sign of the marque you've bought into as the Tristar emblem in the grille of this Avantgarde edition sedan.

Having a wonderful time driving a 328i Sport Line in Spain last year at the model's international launch, I still expressed mild misgivings about the pre-production car's cabin quality. Nine months later in this identically specified South Africa-built example, I've made up my mind - it's pretty damn ordinary. As I write this a $31K Ford Focus (German-made as it happens) is parked by the 328i in my garage. The former's cabin is demonstrably superior.

The Sport Line is the most popular 3 Series trim package but none are worthy of the sum asked. The accents and plastics are strikingly tacky and cheap. The 3 Series' sole advantage is its driver's position, which wraps you in a cockpit as opposed to the more upright and alert C-Class pew.

But in the latter car you're not gripping an unpleasantly scratchy wheel. All the Merc's materials are more tactile and - crucially in a country where staring at the speedo is held to be more important than watching the road - the Bimmer lacks the Benz's digital readout. Nor, incredibly irritatingly, did the 328i accept the Apple lead for the iPhone.

Neither has rear seats in which to spend interstate trips, though you've a slim hope of seating a human in the middle of the Merc. The BMW's Himalayan transmission tunnel renders it a four-seater. Better use of space extends to the C-Class's boot, which accommodates a temporary use spare. As ever, the 3 Series has none, although there's room for one. In Europe this matters not. Cop a serious rubber malfunction in this part of the planet, though, and it'll matter a whole lot.

Driving

The 3 Series is the one that encourages you to seek out bendy stretches of bitumen where - at least when equipped to the optimum - it more readily conveys that sheer driving pleasure cliche. Some moan about the eight-speed auto, but they're wrong.

This is a brilliantly adept transmission that's impossible to catch out, so much so that you might as well chuck out the paddle shifters. It slurs though the middle gears without the obvious shifting sensation of a box endowed with fewer gears but - as the speed dial tells you - with deceptive rapidity. The 3 is by far the quicker car.

Mercedes steering remains lighter in all circumstances. Equally it is a little more linear that BMW's although the electronic set up with Servotronic imparts distinct and worthwhile feedback. Again though, why not simply have one setting that works? It’s passed the point where tech is unnecessary. Now it’s merely irritating.

Verdict

When equipped with its full optional panoply, the 3 Series remains the recreational device of choice. But its advantage is marginal. The Merc is vastly more than adequate on most roads most of the time and of discernibly higher quality within. The C-Class is, simply, a better prestige car.

Pricing guides

$21,990
Based on 114 cars listed for sale in the last 6 months
Lowest Price
$15,913
Highest Price
$62,000

Range and Specs

VehicleSpecsPrice*
C63 AMG 6.2L, PULP, 7 SP AUTO $55,800 – 70,510 2012 Mercedes-Benz C-Class 2012 C63 AMG Pricing and Specs
C63 AMG Black Series 6.2L, PULP, 7 SP AUTO $88,700 – 112,090 2012 Mercedes-Benz C-Class 2012 C63 AMG Black Series Pricing and Specs
C350 BE 3.5L, PULP, 7 SP AUTO $25,100 – 33,330 2012 Mercedes-Benz C-Class 2012 C350 BE Pricing and Specs
C250 CDI BE 2.1L, Diesel, 7 SP AUTO $20,700 – 28,050 2012 Mercedes-Benz C-Class 2012 C250 CDI BE Pricing and Specs