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It’s an age-old battle, the Mercedes-Benz C-Class and the BMW 3 Series. However, things aren’t particularly straightforward this time round
It’s a confusing one, this. In the past, Mercedes-Benz and BMW have had clearly defined identities and characteristics in their entry-luxury sedans. The C-Class has always been the comfortable, sophisticated car and the 3 Series has been the one that dials you in and indulges in a bit of mischief. Then you walk up to these two, and you’re stumped. You’ve got a C-Class that draws heavily from AMG’s styling department and comes packing a fair few extra horses under the hood, and you have got a new-gen 3 Series that has shaken off its diminutive dimensions and is now bigger and more focussed on comfort. What happened to the good ol’ days where road-tests ended before they began?
Time to make sense of this. We’ve picked the top-of-the-line diesels that both BMW and Mercedes-Benz have on offer, and are putting them head-to-head. Or grille-to-grille. Can’t avoid talking about grilles when we’ve got a new BMW, can we?
In the 3 Series’ defence though, its grille isn’t polarising. Actually, it isn’t bad at all. Where BMW has been trying to make its styling brash, the 3 Series remains a more cohesive design. What you’re looking at is the 320d in the Luxury Line trim. You can get yourself a 3 Series with the M Sport package with a more aggressive body kit, but you’re going to have to get the 330i with the turbo-petrol engine for that. That said, even the M Sport-equipped 3 Series isn’t particularly ‘out there’. The face and stance of the 3 is fresh – a departure from the old F30’s styling, while staying well clear of the current-gen 5 Series and 7 Series. I like the fact that BMW has chosen to give the 3 its unique visual identity. It is a larger car, now 76mm longer than it was earlier and this is apparent when you walk up to it in the flesh. If there is something I don’t like about the 3 Series in this spec, it would be the wheels. They are 17-inchers but the wheel design looks far too mellow for something that costs this much money.
The Mercedes-Benz C300d, on the other hand, isn’t holding back. It is an AMG Line car which means it gets the whole AMG body kit, replete with the spindle grille from the C43. Visually, the C-Class looks like a shrunken E and S. There are subtle differences like the light signatures, but it is the spindle grille that makes the 300d stand out. The body kit with the larger scoops, side skirts and diffuser make the car suitably aggressive. As for dimensions, the C no longer dwarfs the 3. The 3 Series is longer (by 23mm), wider (by 48mm) but is shorter (by 7mm) giving it a more low-slung, squat stance. Meanwhile, the C’s lines are a bit more gentle but the AMG kit adds plenty of flair. In my opinion, the new 3 Series is certainly a looker, but the sportiness of the AMG Line edges it past the 3 Series in the styling department.
Both these cars get 2-litre diesels, but that is about as far as the similarities go. Let’s talk specs first and then get to what they feel like in the real world. The 3 Series has a 1995cc motor (188bhp, 400Nm) with a twin-scroll turbocharger latched on to it, mated to an eight-speed gearbox. The C300d gets the OM654 motor, the same as what the 220d gets, but in a higher state of tune (241bhp, 500Nm) and comes mated to a nine-speed automatic. In addition to this, the Mercedes-Benz diesel is a BS6-compliant motor even when running on BS4 fuel. The difference in peak outputs makes for nearly an entire second’s difference in the 0-100kmph sprint, in the C300d’s favour.
In real life, the C300d certainly feels quicker off the line. An extra 100Nm twisting the rear tyres tends to do that. However, the BMW’s throttle responses feel sharper and more urgent despite the power deficit. On the move, the difference between the two isn’t as apparent as you would expect. The BMW’s gearbox feels quicker too. The Mercedes-Benz automatic works rather well in isolation, but the ZF unit in the BMW feels a little sharper. As for refinement, the OM654 is a properly refined motor. The BMW, not as much, at least on the outside. What the 3 Series does have is brilliant insulation that keeps the noise out and the cabin comfortable. Which of these has the edge here? The Mercedes-Benz does, but not by as much as you think.
Dynamics have always been BMW’s forte. However, of late, it has been guilty of softening up the dynamics of its cars in pursuit of comfort, and consequently, numbers. The 3 Series is based on the CLAR platform that the 5 Series and 7 Series is also built on. Has this, combined with the fact that it is now larger than ever, affected the dynamics that made the 3 Series so endearing? Driving it up and down our favourite driving road, it impresses. This road has some sublime patches, but is fairly bumpy and uneven in parts. When it comes to ride quality, the BMW has a pliancy in its suspension that wasn’t there before and is very well damped. It absorbs rough patches without getting unsettled and soaks up humps and crests with finesse. It has become a genuinely comfortable car, something that was missing from the previous-generation 3 Series. The C-Class, on the other hand, has a slight firmness to its ride especially at low speeds. Sharp bumps have a tendency to be transferred, quite audibly, into the cabin. Part of this could be down to the larger 18-inchers the 300d comes with, but the C-Class has always been inherently firm over sharp bumps. At speed, the C300d’s ride improves and it feels planted while absorbing small undulations in a fast road well.
You would think the BMW’s suspension tune would compromise its handling, but that isn’t so. Around a set of corners, the BMW is very dialled in and involving. Both cars here run on steel springs, so what the driving modes change are the steering and the throttle response. The 3 Series has a very direct steering that weighs up superbly when you chuck it into bends, and there is a degree of feedback too. The 3 may be bigger than before, but it shrinks around you when you’re driving it hard. That 3 Series DNA? It has still got it. The C300d’s steering is rather predictable too, and it handles a winding road very well. But up against the 3 Series, you begin to see a few flaws. The steering isn’t as direct and responsive. It doesn’t feel as darty. The big power does promise big thrills but the dynamics don’t egg you on as much as the 3’s. The 3’s sheer breadth of ability — to keep you comfortable over a bad road, but to egg you on to drive at 11/10ths – is what makes it really special.
When it comes to making you feel special inside the car, the C-Class does a mighty fine job. When the new-gen C-Class debuted in 2014, its interiors were the benchmark in the class. Five years on, they still look fresh. The surfaces and materials feel expensive. The new steering wheel, for example, with the touchpads to control either the COMAND system or the information on the centre console feels very upmarket. The open-pore wood is a pleasant departure from the otherwise glossy wood finishes that are commonplace in cars from this class. Even bits like the air-con vents, the window switches and the steering wheel paddles for the gearbox — all finished in metal — have a certain class to them. They feel like they have filtered down from an S-Class. Or at least the E.
The BMW, in comparison, lacks that sense of occasion. This is especially true in the 320d that has to make do with dark (glossy *facepalm*) wood inserts instead of the flashy aluminium tetragon trim of the 330i. The steering wheel, too, is a bit pedestrian compared to the C-Class’ and a lot of the buttons around the cabin are hard plastic. However, while the BMW isn’t particularly great to look at, everything is placed far more intuitively. For example, the traction control button is very visible (and very accessible) whereas in the C-Class, you’ve got to dig through a bunch of menus to find it. The 7th-gen iDrive system is also easier to navigate than COMAND in the Benz. The whole cabin is ergonomically more sound and with a lower seating position, you feel more snug as well.
As for space, I was rather surprised to find that the backseat of the 3 Series was more comfortable. There’s marginally more kneeroom, headroom and even your feet have more space. The C-Class has plusher seats, but the 3’s bench is longer and more supportive under the thighs. Never thought I’d say that.
In terms of features, the Mercedes-Benz has a fair amount of pampering for rear seat passengers with sunblinds for the rear windows and rear glass, and a panoramic sunroof. The C-Class was recently updated with wireless charging in the centre tray and a fully-digital instrument cluster as well, so though you don’t see it in the photos here, you will get them if you pick up a new C300d now. Meanwhile, the BMW also has a digital instrument cluster but misses out on the larger sunroof (it gets a regular-sized one) and wireless charging. It also misses out on Android Auto, whereas the Merc gets both CarPlay and Android Auto. What it does get, instead, is a separate AC zone for the rear passengers while the Benz only gets blowers.
The BMW is more affordable — this Luxury Line trim of the BMW 320d coming in at Rs 46.9 lakh whereas the Mercedes-Benz C300d costs Rs 49.7 lakh. The Merc has been the most popular choice in the segment, and it isn’t hard to see why. It is a car that makes you (and everybody else) feel like your money has gone somewhere worthwhile. It feels expensive. It feels like a luxury car. The uprated power gives it sprightly performance in a straight line too. And if the Rs 3 lakh difference is of concern to you, the C220d will match the 320d on price and engine spec, and still give you bits like the bigger sunroof and wireless charging.
However, the new guy is taking no prisoners. The BMW promises far more thrills, and ends up being a far more complete package. It has the dynamics sorted, and now provides you with levels of comfort that it never did before. The cabin may not feel as special, but it is just as comfortable as the Merc’s (if not more), there’s really not much else to complain about. It even gets a space-saver that doesn’t eat too much into boot space! Arguing that the extra power on the Merc makes it better is like saying a drag strip-slaying electric car is better than a burbling V8. When it comes to giving you the Thrill of Driving, BMW has significantly upped the ante. Your move, Mercedes-Benz.