AUSTRALIANS FELL FOR THE MERCEDES-BENZ C-CLASS FROM THE MOMENT IT LAUNCHED LAST YEAR AND IT SOON BECAME THE TOP-SELLING $60,000-PLUS PASSENGER VEHICLE. It then prompted a reactionary specification boost for arch rival, the BMW 3 Series.
Now we have a brand new Audi A4 joining the challenge in the premium medium sedan and wagon segment.
The Jaguar XE is also new, returning the British brand to the segment with big promises and bigger dreams.
Middle specification for premium medium sedans made sense. This quartet starts between $68,900 and $70,400 plus on-road costs, and feature 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engines with seven- or eight-speed automatic transmissions.
It is best to consider this a test of fully loaded $80,000 sedans, because frankly all four require around $10,000 in options to make them feel properly premium. We’ll discuss what that money buys below, as we aim to find out which manufacturer makes the best mid-spec European sedan.
Audi A4 2.0 TFSI quattro ($69,900)
185kW/370Nm 2.0-litre turbo 4cyl | 7-speed dual-clutch automatic
Fuel Consumption Claimed: 6.3 l/100km | Tested: 11.0l/100km
BMW 330i ($69,900)
185kW/350Nm 2.0-litre turbo 4cyl | 8-speed automatic
Fuel Consumption Claimed: 5.7 l/100km | Tested: 9.6l/100km
Jaguar XE 25t Portfolio ($70,400)
177kW/340Nm 2.0-litre turbo 4cyl | 8-speed automatic
Fuel Consumption Claimed: 7.5 l/100km | Tested: 11.2l/100km
Mercedes-Benz C250 ($68,900)
155kW/350Nm 2.0-litre turbo 4cyl | 7-speed automatic
Fuel Consumption Claimed: 6.0 l/100km | Tested: 11.7l/100km
All four cars here share autonomous emergency braking (AEB), lane departure warning, keyless auto-entry, leather trim with electrically adjustable front seats, satellite navigation, front and rear parking sensors and a reverse-view camera.
Jaguar offers the cheapest entry ticket, at $64,900 (plus orc) for the XE 25t Prestige. We are testing the $70,400 (plus) XE 25t Portfolio, however the extra $5500 only buys an electric rear sunblind and premium leather seats and dash.
In addition to the two equipment items mentioned above, the only other XE stand-out is an 11-speaker 380-watt Meridian sound system versus the unbranded units in the Audi and BMW (six speakers) and Benz (five speakers).
The $69,900 (plus orc) BMW 330i offers more kit than the XE 25t Portfolio. Over the Jaguar it scores 19- instead of 18-inch alloy wheels, full LED headlights (rather than bi-xenons), apps connectivity and digital radio, while it is the only car here with adaptive suspension, head-up display and surround-view camera.
The Audi A4 2.0 TFSI quattro is the same price as the BMW, yet it adds internet connectivity and automatic park assistance.
It is also the only car here with tri-zone climate control, autonomous rear braking (to prevent you reversing into a wall or person) and an exit warning that detects cyclists and alerts passengers before doors are opened.
The Mercedes-Benz C250 starts $1000 cheaper than both, from $68,900 (plus orc), yet, as with the Audi, it adds automatic park assistance over the BMW 330i.
The C-Class is also the only contender here with adaptive cruise control, active lane assistance (that can drive semi-autonomously for 20 seconds on the freeway) and a power bootlid.
Technology and Connectivity
Step inside an unoptioned Mercedes-Benz, and note the C250 misses one big item: a decent infotainment system.
An aftermarket-looking 7.0-inch screen with Garmin nav is standard, where a superior Benz-developed 8.0-inch Comand system is a $2300 option bundled with a 13-speaker, 590-watt Burmester sound system, as fitted to our test car.
There goes its saving over the others, though…
BMW boasts a brilliant 8.8-inch iDrive system as standard, and Audi follows with a similarly superb 8.3-inch MMI system.
Only when the Benz is optioned to the same standard does it become competitive.
All three work well, including their ‘one shot’ voice control systems. Simply say 1 Smith Street, Smithville and each understands first go.
Jaguar is the odd-cat out. Its touchscreen is slow to respond, and its graphics appear cheap. It singularly lacks voice control for its navigation system and is unable to be optioned further.
Options, Pricing and ‘Real’ Value
We need to dabble with options to attempt to equalise the equipment level and in doing so find ‘real’ value beyond the basic purchase price.
With the XE, adding adaptive cruise/forward collision alert/head-up display ($3420), adaptive suspension ($1850), panoramic sunroof ($1800), auto park assistance with round-view camera ($1580), adaptive bi-xenon headlights with auto up/down high-beam ($770), heated front seats ($620) and digital radio ($540) results in a $10,580 options bill.
For the 330i, select a sunroof ($2245), automatic park assistance with adaptive cruise ($1880), LED headlights with automatic adaptive high-beam ($1820), 600-watt Harman Kardon audio system ($1462), and heated front seats plus electric rear sunblind ($1450) for an $8857 additional ask.
In addition to the $2300 Comand system, the C250 can be optioned with panoramic sunroof plus LED headlights with adaptive high-beam ($3454), heated front seats with electric-adjust memory settings ($992) and adaptive suspension ($1915) for a $8661 total.
The A4 is the only car here that can match the Benz with its optional semi-autonomous freeway driving feature, called active lane assistance, bundled with active cruise ($1900).
Matrix LED headlights with adaptive high-beam ($1700) also means the Audi equals the BMW and Benz’s unique system that can detect forward or oncoming traffic and only remove the strand of high-beam light affecting other drivers. You can drive at night on the freeway all the time with high-beam on and the rest of the landscape lit.
By contrast, the Jaguar only detects traffic then dips its beam altogether. As with the BMW, it can’t semi-autonomously drive either.
Other A4 additions include head-up display with ‘virtual cockpit’ 12.3-inch screen ($2100), sunroof ($1950), 19-speaker 755-watt Bang and Olufsen audio ($1500), adaptive suspension ($1100), auto park assistance ($950) and heated front seats ($600) for a hefty $11,800 extra bill.
However, for $81,700, you would then have by far the best equipped car here, despite the surcharge over the optioned-up XE ($80,980), 330i ($78,757) and C250 ($77,561), all plus-on road costs.
But wait, there’s more, because for every dollar you spend over $75,375 the government will require you to add 33 percent courtesy of our country’s Luxury Car Tax (LCT).
That results in totals of $83,787 (A4), $79,873 (330i) and $78,217 (C250), with state government, dealer delivery and registration charges still to come.
And the XE? It’s the only car here that officially uses more than 7.0 litres of fuel per 100 kilometres, which means it doesn’t get a “fuel-efficient cars” higher tax threshold and the buyer must pay 33 per cent extra for every dollar above $63,184.
In the way we’ve optioned the Jaguar, LCT adds $5873 to the price for a hefty $86,853 (plus orc) total.
Cabin Ambience and Space
The newest car here, the A4, is also the longest at 4.73 metres. It offers the most rear legroom and headroom, and the comfiest rear cushion. It equals the 480-litre boot of the 330i and C250, while the XE is smaller at 455 litres.
The Audi wins the quality contest inside, boasting rich plastics and tactile switchgear.
It looks like the ‘tech’ contender with its cool aluminium trim, slimline toggles and the optional ‘virtual cockpit’ with a big TFT screen placed in front of the driver.
Mercedes-Benz hides its advanced tech behind a veil of formal styling. The interior boasts cues from the S-Class, though with cheaper switchgear and detailing when you look really hard.
‘The C’ is still a lovely place to be, and the electrically adjustable seat switches on the door remain as inspired as the fancy Burmester speaker grilles.
Behind the front seats, though, the optional sunroof affects rear headroom and legroom matches the BMW only because the cushion is the shortest and least accommodating here.
Choose the 3 Series if you appreciate quality with simplicity.
Its dashboard may be circa-2012, but BMW has cleverly updated it with soft mood lighting and renewed graphics on its screens.
The only sedan here with a simple manual park brake lever also happens to be the one with the most simple, yet brilliant infotainment system. Some of the plastics are cheap, but a full leather dashboard is a $1231 option.
Rear passengers in the BMW enjoy legroom second only to the A4, with a deeper and nicer cushion than C-Class.
The XE in 25t Portfolio trim commands a decent premium over the 25t Prestige, and all testers agreed the ‘Windsor’ leather seat trim and leather dashboard lifts an otherwise staid design, but it's hard to see where the dollars went.
Everything works, but nothing stands out … except for the grainy head-up display graphics, for the wrong reason.
Everything however is nicely driver-focused and the Jaguar has the sportiest driving position, nice and low and ready for action.
It also has - by far - the least legroom and boot space. Frankly, a Corolla has more room behind its front seats, so if you’re regularly travelling more than two-up, think twice about this poorly packaged cat.
ON THE ROAD
Steering, Ride Comfort and refinement
If the Jaguar looks to be on the back paw for value and interior appointments, then it accelerates from behind on the road.
Our as-tested XE was the only sedan without optional multi-mode adaptive suspension and it also rolled on standard 18s.
Yet this most ‘pure’ contender nails its steering, ride and handling balance better than any here. Its steering is light, progressive and natural, without feeling fidgety on the freeway.
The 330i was fitted with $400-optional variable-ratio steering that we wouldn’t bother with, because it’s sharp but can be lumpy in its weighting when winding on lock.
Likewise the A4’s standard steering is immediate, but its three weighting settings (comfort, auto, dynamic) only elevate the sense of artificiality and it does nothing the single-setting Jaguar can’t.
Benz does steering in a very measured but unremarkable way, nicely sweet without hinting at either dullness or sportiness.
The C250 with its standard fixed suspension and standard 19-inch wheels is deeply unimpressive. Soothing ride-quality is a luxury-sports sedan requisite, but Benz can’t deliver it with big wheels unless optional adaptive suspension is fitted, as it was to our test car.
The air-filled springs deliver a wafting, soothing ride, particularly around town or on flowing touring roads, with only a the barest trace of the thumping and banging you get in the unoptioned model.
Benz should make adaptive suspension standard, as BMW has commendably done with all 3 Series model grades bar the entry 318i.
In the BMW 330i’s Comfort setting its ride quality is good, both compliant and controlled. But it is even better with the no-cost-option 18-inch wheels sampled on a 320i weeks before this test. The 19-inch wheels standard on 330i clunk needlessly by comparison.
They also throw up the most road noise of any car here, slightly behind the Audi, and well adrift of the quiet Jag and (especially) Benz.
Seeing the trend yet? Yes, the A4 likewise suffers some surface intrusion through its 19-inch tyres, with some imperfections ‘chattering’ into the cabin. The low-profile tyres force the suspension to work hard, and we don’t yet know how this new Audi rides on its standard fixed suspension.
Audi’s adaptive suspension is, however, perhaps the best here. It sits in a sweet spot between the Benz's wafting ride and the BMW's edginess.
But then we come full circle to the XE and are reminded its single setting is even more silken again.
Engines and Transmissions
Neither the Jaguar, nor any contender here, can beat the BMW for engine performance, transmission intuition or outright handling, which in all three cases are 3 Series clean sweeps.
The playing field should be level given we are working with 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engines of similar output in each car, but there are major differences.
BMW’s engine is sporty and speedy. Its 5.8-second 0-100km/h is testament to that, a time the Audi matches but without quite the instant response.
They share the same 185kW of power, but the 330i’s lesser torque – 350Nm versus 370Nm – doesn’t factor because at 1495kg it is 90kg lighter overall.
The ‘Snappy Tom’ response of the eight-speed ZF automatic in the 3 Series is flawless. That said, the slightly growly and whooshy soundtrack in the A4 is a characterful addition to the cabin and its seven-speed dual-clutch is similarly slick.
The 330i’s 5.8l/100km combined cycle fuel consumption claim extended to 9.6l/100km on test, however, where the A4’s 6.3l/100km soared to 11.0l/100km during freeway, stop-start and country driving conditions.
The Benz is lightest at 1585kg, but it gets the least power (155kW) if not torque (350Nm), and claims a 6.6sec 0-100 km/h.
The C250 engine is a pleasant but uninspiring toiler, with the long-travel accelerator pedal and grainy soundtrack the main downsides. The seven-speed automatic can also be slow to respond during sporty driving, though it is smooth otherwise.
The Benz’s 6.0l/100km claim almost doubled to 11.7l/100km on-test, however, driving harder than even the XE that increased its 7.5l/100km claim to 11.2l/100km.
As the second-heaviest car here, the 1530kg Jaguar compounds the problem with the least torque (340Nm), though it delivers more power (177kW) than the Benz.
The Jaguar engine is more impressive in this application than in the larger XF, but it can feel laggy then boosty when responding to small throttle inputs. The engine also lacks refinement when revved, and the eight-speed ZF auto – though seemingly like the 330i’s – struggles to deliver crisp shifts.
Given the XE’s performance deficit, it struggles to capitalise on dynamics that could come close to knocking off the 330i. For a start the Jaguar is more composed across all surfaces, it is beautifully progressive in corners and lacks nothing for grip.
However the BMW always feels lighter on its feet, with greater agility and a willingness to be driven from the rear.
The Benz and Jag are rear-wheel-driven, too, but neither thrive on the ability to balance front-end grip with rear-end slip, all finely measured. The engine and transmission must take some honours, because they are always up for a great time.
For a Jaguar engine to match the chassis, select the $100K-plus XE S.
Meanwhile the Audi is as efficient dynamically as its cabin technology is. It sits flat, it grips well, and it even enjoys having its line tightened by accelerating during the middle of the corner. The all-wheel-drive system can send up to 85 per cent of drive to the rear wheels.
Tellingly, however, Comfort suspension proved better for cornering than Dynamic on public roads, where the harder setting can get jittery and promote understeer. The A4 is decently fun to drive, but not in a laugh-out-loud way like the BMW.
The C250, meanwhile, is outclassed in corners. This is a car that prefers being driven at middling pace on flowing roads, where it excels. In tighter corners it feels lazy and unwilling to change direction quickly, even in the suspension’s Sport+ mode (there is also a middle Sport setting for steering and engine/transmission).
It’s fine for the Benz to be the quiet, wafting choice, but again, the A4 and especially the XE come close to achieving its blend of wafting ride quality and refinement without being dynamically inferior.
Jaguar’s latest premium medium sedan is in many ways a loveable car. The $65K entry model grade without options may not feel premium, but its steering, ride, handling and performance blend is reminiscent of Australia’s Holden Calais.
The XE is simple, functional, and with a distinctly sporty feel, but lacks technology and rear-seat space. It is also hampered by hefty options pricing and a tax-sucking engine.
Mercedes-Benz should be applauded for making its extensive active safety technology standard on every C250. It just needs the better Comand infotainment system and superior air suspension made standard to capitalise on its soothing, luxury-oriented strengths.
The trouble is, the A4 matches it for technology and almost equals it for ride, while being roomier, faster and more dynamic.
While the C-Class takes a noble third place, splitting second from first is almost impossible.
Personally, this tester would take the 3 Series because its engine, transmission and especially handling are triumphant without sacrificing much ride comfort.
I also know it can be optioned for a more sumptuous premium feel (with a leather dashboard) and drive even better (by trading 19-inch wheels for 18s), all for less than an optioned-up A4.
A highly optioned 330i cannot match the space and technology of the A4, however.
From the ‘virtual cockpit’ to the ability to drive itself on the freeway for seconds at a time, the Audi delivers a feature onslaught to help warrant its pricing premium.
Because it matches the BMW’s performance and delivers around 80 percent of its handling ability, by the narrowest of margins we think the 2.0 TFSI quattro is the best premium medium sedan that around $80,000 can buy.
Jaguar XE 25t Portfolio: 3/5
Mercedes-Benz C250: 3.5/5
BMW 330i: 4.5/5
Audi A4 2.0 TFSI quattro: 4.5/5
Photography by Alex Bryden
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