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Prestige car comparison

Life gets a little nicer when you have a prestige car in the driveway. Some people just crave a prestige badge, but it's true that the better European brands deliver a better car.

That means more comfort and quietness, more equipment, and - if you have the cash to splash, or a company that's paying the freight - genuine luxury in a mid-sized package.

The obvious choices for prestige buyers are the three big-name brands: Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz. Lexus is also a contender, which is why it's included in this four-car shootout, but you can also find prestige strengths everywhere from the Citroen C5 to the Skoda Superb and even - at a pinch - something like the Volkswagen Golf.

Even the better Japanese brands, Mazda and Subaru, have models that make a prestige pitch and Holden and Toyota want you to believe their Caprice and Aurion are also rivals for the German heavyweights.

VALUE

The price of a German prestige car is like a length of string - it depends on what you want but, more importantly, how much you have to spend. There are a vast range of Audi A4, BMW 3 Series and Mercedes-Benz C-Class models in showrooms and an almost infinite choices of colours and optional equipment.

BMW has the widest choice with 57 different 3 Series cars, 40 of them carrying a boot in the back end. Prices range from the 318d at $56,400 to more than $150,000 for an M3 hotrod. Mercedes has 28 different C-Class models, without thinking about the super-fast C63 AMG Black Series, with prices from $58,600 for the C200.

Audi trails the other Germans with 'only' 14 versions of the A4, including nine sedans, and a starting price of $53,000 for the 2.0 TDI running to $95,300 for the 3.2 FSI quattro. There are seven Lexus IS sedans and three convertibles with prices ranging from $55,800 for the 250 Prestige up to $81,300 for the 350 Sports Luxury.

Digging deeper, Lexus serves up the best standard package and even metallic paint which is $1270 in the A4, $1415 in the 3 Series and $1600 in the C-Class - is standard. It also has the longest warranty at four years including roadside assistance, but is limited to 100,000km while the others are unlimited.

Mercedes has the longest service intervals of 25,000 kilometres, which counts with potential service costs. At the other end resale values are fairly similar. BMW is the leader, retaining 53 per cent of its value after three years according to Glass's Guide, followed by Benz and Lexus at 52 per cent and Audi at 50 per cent.

TECHNOLOGY

The prestige smorgasbord continues on the mechanical front, with various petrol and diesel engine choices, apart from Lexus which is unleaded-only. Our test group includes three four-cylinder petrol turbos and the long Lexus six, which makes the best power and torque but trails on fuel economy at 9.4 litres/100km.

The Audi A4 benefits from the newest engine, with 155 kiloWatts and a whopping 350 Newton-metres, while the Benz trails on paper but feels strong with solid torque. Germans cars have stop-start systems to boost economy - although it's only a realistic one per cent saving - to the eight-speed auto in the BMW helps it to diesel-like figure of 6L/100km. The Audi and Benz also come in under the 7L/100km fuel-efficient Luxury Car Tax threshold.

There is technology everywhere, as the Germans have wheel-style controllers for their on-board computer, infotainment system and air-conditioning; all have Bluetooth, although the Lexus refuses audio streaming and the Benz has hiccups in playback; and Lexus has the brightest touch screen although the BMW has the best design and the biggest display.

SAFETY

Five-star safety is a given in the prestige class, but all four should have even quality when Australian New Car Assessment Program guidelines get tougher thanks to high-tech driving aids, although many are optional. Only the Lexus comes with a standard rear-view camera, and that's something you can now get in a humble Hyundai i30.

DESIGN

The Lexus is the oldest design and it shows, especially against the good looking new 3 Series. Inside, the BMW is focussed more on the driver but the cockpit can feel a little snug, although not as bare as the overly-black Lexus.

About a year ago, Mercedes gave its C-Class models a makeover inside and out. The exterior still looks a bit "grey cardigan" but the interior has more jewellery and a modern styling. Audi's interior design is standing the test of time but its exterior is a little boxy and boring. Infotainment controller is the best, the cabin finishes are great and the interior lighting is first-class.

DRIVING

The BMW should be an easy winner on the road, but it's not. The Lexus has a sportier feel, helped by the big six in the nose, and the Benz feels more solid and planted over bumps and other annoying acne. The BMW engine also lacks the shove of the Benz, although its transmission is silky smooth with a gear for everything, with the Audi also getting along nicely enough.

For handling, the BMW is just ahead on a smooth surface but I'm shocked to feel steering kickback over slight corrugations, something that's usually associated with the front-drive Audi. The Benz feels rock-solid and balanced in all conditions, the Lexus is fun, and the Audi is better for cruising.

During highway work, the A4 hits its sweet spot with a quiet and comfortable cabin that edges out the BMW - despite optional sports seats - and the Benz. The Lexus has way too much tyre roar. Assessing the cabins, BMW has done a great job in creating an Audi ambience with good design and classy materials.

It's probably a tick ahead of the A4, with the Benz - despite a mid-life update last year and a larger display screen - still boring and the Lexus trailing with an outdated interior. It's hard to pick winners in other areas, because of the varying levels of equipment and options, but I like the big wheels on the Lexus, the great seats in the BMW, the headlamps in the Audi, and a bunch of other stuff. If I had to pick a back seat for a longish trip I'd probably go for the BMW.

VERDICT

The Lexus goes out first. It looks nice enough, it has good grunt and plenty of cornering grip, but it shows its age in too many ways. The cabin is dark and uninspiring against its rivals, and the back seat is too tight. It's also way too noisy with road roar on anything but a perfect surface.

The Audi is next to fall, not because it's not good but because it's not good enough against the other two Germans. The A4 is a nice design and the car is beautifully built, the new engine is smooth and very efficient, but it falls short of the rock-solid feel and driving enjoyment you deserve - and expect - in the prestige class.

So it's down to the BMW and the Benz, and I admit that I chose the new 3 Series to drive away at the end of the test. That's usually the sign of a sure-fire winner, and the Three is very good. But it is flawed. The cabin now manages to out-Audi the A4, with classy design and a big display screen, but some of the plastics feel cheap and the things I really like - especially the cushy seats - are extra-cost options.

Worst of all, since BMW has always billed itself as the Ultimate Driving Machine, there is front-end chatter over bumps and the silky-smooth eight-speed auto cannot totally compensate for an engine that's too noisy at idle and missing the mid-range shove you need for overtaking in Australia.

So the winner, in the end, is the Benz. It's rock solid, it has the best badge in the business, and Mercedes has done a great job on updating the car to make it a nice drive, a value package, and the top choice in this class.

Audi A4 2.0 TFSI quattro

Price: $64,500
Warranty: 3 years/unlimited km
Resale: 50 per cent
Service interval: 15,000km/12 months
Safety rating: 5 star
Spare: spacesaver
Engine: 2.0-litre 4-cyl turbo, 155kW/350Nm
Transmission: 7-speed S tronic, quattro
Body: 4.7m (L); 1.8m (w); 1.4m (h)
Weight: 1570kg
Thirst: 7/100km; 159g/km CO2
Options fitted: metallic paint ($1270), sports front seats ($577), hill hold assist ($154)
Total: $66,501

BMW 3 Series - 320i Sport

Price: $57,600
Warranty: 3 years/unlimited km
Resale: 53 per cent
Service interval: optional
Safety rating: 5 star
Spare: Nil, run-flat tyres
Engine: 2-litre, 4-cyl, 135kW/270Nm
Transmission: 8-speed auto, RWD
Body: 4.6m (L); 1.8m (w); 1.4m (h)
Weight: 1425kg
Thirst: 6/100km; 141g/km CO2
Options: metallic paint ($1415), glass sunroof ($2245), Navigation System Business ($1538), Sport Line package ($3152) includes 17 light-alloy wheels Double-spoke 392, Ambience light, switchable between Orange and White, BMW Sport Seats, Chrome Pearl Grey surrounds for centre console, Dakota leather upholstery, Exclusive high-gloss Black exterior trims, Red contrast stitching for sport leather steering wheel, Red detailing on key, Speedometer and rev counter with Red chronoscales, Welcome light, switchable between White or Cold White, Sport designation, exterior, BMW Sport door sill finishers in Aluminium
Total: $65,956

Lexus IS 350 Prestige

Price: $64,800
Warranty: 4 years/100,000km
Resale: 52 per cent
Service interval: 15,000km/12 months
Safety rating: 5 star
Spare: spacesaver
Engine: 3.5-litre 6-cyl, 233kW/378Nm
Transmission: 6-speed auto, FWD
Body: 4.6m (L); 1.8m (w); 1.4m (h)
Weight: 1645kg
Thirst: 9.4/100km; 223g/km CO2
Options: Enhancement Pack (includes moonroof, satnav and semi-aniline leather) at $3500.
Total: $68,300

Mercedes-Benz C250 Avantgarde Standard

Price: $67,400
Warranty: 3 years/unlimited km
Resale:  52 per cent
Service interval: 25,000km/12 months
Safety rating: 5 star
Spare: spacesaver
Engine: 1.8-litre 4-cyl, 150kW/310Nm
Transmission: 7-speed auto, RWD
Body: 4.5m (l); 1.7m (w); 1.4m (h)
Weight: 1505kg
Thirst: 6.8/100km; 158g/km CO2
Options: metallic paint $1600, Option Vision Package $3785 - Harman Kardon Logic 7 surround sound system- Glass electric sunroof- Bi-Xenon headlights with Intelligent Light System
Total: $72,785
 

Pricing guides

$17,950
Based on 41 cars listed for sale in the last 6 months
Lowest Price
$13,500
Highest Price
$31,990

Range and Specs

VehicleSpecsPrice*
1.8 Tfsi 1.8L, PULP, CVT AUTO $10,600 – 15,510 2012 Audi A4 2012 1.8 Tfsi Pricing and Specs
2.0 TDI 2.0L, Diesel, CVT AUTO $10,600 – 15,620 2012 Audi A4 2012 2.0 TDI Pricing and Specs
2.0 TDI E 2.0L, Diesel, 6 SP MAN $10,900 – 15,950 2012 Audi A4 2012 2.0 TDI E Pricing and Specs
2.0 Tfsi 2.0L, PULP, CVT AUTO $11,400 – 16,720 2012 Audi A4 2012 2.0 Tfsi Pricing and Specs