What drama will unfold as a new protagonist from House Munich takes on the lead knight from House Stuttgart?

A slightly dramatic intro to this comparative test but, considering
the long-standing rivalry between these two leading German brands and
the significance each manufacturer places on this segment, you might
well imagine a medieval-style duel between the best knights of each
territory. All the while, House Ingolstadt currently sits on CAR’s Top 12 Best Buys throne…

Historically regarded as the sportiest of the three German-built premium midsize sedans, the BMW 3 Series is at a crossroads. How does it balance staying true to its sure-footed roots with market demands for increased versatility and roominess? It’s not only the updated 7 Series which has bowed to pressures from the significant Chinese market. Together with a market-specific new long-wheelbase derivative, this recently introduced seventh-generation (G20) 3 Series has grown somewhat compared with its F30-coded predecessor.

Escaping the magnified-nose treatment doled out to its 7 Series
stablemate, the new 3 is 79 mm longer (to 4 709 mm), 16 mm wider and
fractionally taller than before. Still trumped by the current Audi A4 in
terms of overall length and width, a significant 41 mm stretch in the
bestselling BMW’s wheelbase (to 2 851 mm) affords it the longest stride
in its class. As a sign of dynamic intent, the 3 Series also boasts
among the widest track widths in this segment (closely mimicked by the
equally sporty Alfa Romeo Guilia and Jaguar XE). The body-in-white of
the new 3 is 25% stiffer than before and an average 55 kg lighter than
the generation it replaces.

Likely still at least a year away from the covers being pulled off an all-new Mercedes-Benz C-Class, the 2018 refresh of this W205-generation included both cosmetic and under-the-skin updates to a model continuing a pivotal role in the good fortunes of its Stuttgart-based maker. A hallmark of its sales successes is its ability to maintain an appealing middle ground between dynamic ability and overall comfort, held together by enviable levels of sophistication. As discovered in our initial test of this updated range (in the form of the C180 9G-tronic), the modern C-Class package remains a tough act to beat.

Leaning heavily on slim-look head- and taillamps and cleverly placed
crease lines to counter those increased dimensions, this 3 Series test
unit gains added presence via an optional (R45 400) M Sport package
complete with bespoke fender designs front and rear, and a 10 mm lower
ride height. A further R15 000 upgrade increases this car’s 18-inch
alloy wheels to 19 inches.

Acknowledging its opponent, this C220d sports a R29 000 AMG Line
package that includes the brand’s star-studded grille, 18-inch rims and a
15 mm drop in ride height compared with the standard car.

Packaging

Comparing an all-new vehicle with one five years into its lifecycle, it’s likely the box-fresh product will be best served in meeting the demands of a modern customer base. While the next-generation C-Class will inevitably also grow in its proportions to distance itself from the new A-Class Sedan, for the time being, it’s the inflated dimensions of the CLAR-platformed 3 Series that offers the superior levels of overall comfort and versatility. Even if the rear-passenger legroom figures show otherwise, it’s the shape and angle of the BMW’s seats – and easier access through wide-opening doors – that provide the more comfortable bench of the two sedans. The installation of a panoramic sunroof in this particular C-Class impacts headroom.

It’s interesting to note BMW now offers a 40:20:40-split folding
rear backrest as standard fitment. With these items tumbled (via release
points in the boot), luggage space increases from 368 litres to a
useful 1 000 litres. The Mercedes offers 312 litres, acceptable for this
segment. It simply wouldn’t be a BMW if the driver’s seat didn’t adjust
to near-ground level and, combined with upgraded M Sport seats and a
thick-rimmed steering wheel, the 3 Series feels sportier.

For a model which prides itself on striking a happy medium, the
C220d can thank its notably more powerful AMG-fettled relations for a
catalogue of performance-slanted interior upgrades offering a compelling
counter to the BMW.

We’ve trawled the literature around the 2018 update of the C-Class
(including 6 500 new parts) and nowhere does its maker boast improved
build quality. Yet, for a second successive road test of the “new”
model, it was impossible not to note both superior levels of trim
fitment and finish, and well as fewer squeaks and rattles throughout the
cabin.

Enhancing this cabin is a hybrid version of the brand’s latest
infotainment system. In the C-Class, it may not include the full MBUX
(“hey, Mercedes”) setup but can at least be upgraded (R9 000) to include
a crisp 10,25-inch display screen. For what it’s worth, we’d save R11
000 and stick with the traditional analogue instrumentation as seen
here, as opposed to a full digital version.  

The 3 Series takes a step closer to matching the levels of build
quality and materials currently offered by the segment-leading Audi A4. A
R24 000 upgrade to the brand’s Live Cockpit Professional arrangement
gains an integrated 10,25-inch touchscreen control display (including
navigation) and futuristic-looking 12,3-inch digital instrument cluster.

Drivetrains

Seeking improvements in both efficiency and responsiveness, the 1
995 cm3 common-rail diesel engine in the modern BMW 320d switches from a
twin-scroll turbocharged setup to a more fluid sequential double blower
system. Mated with an ever-impressive eight-speed automatic
transmission, this 140 kW/400 N.m updated unit delivers class-leading
levels of idling refinement (especially from behind a standard acoustic
windscreen) and promising shove from just 1 750 r/min. Through three
driving modes (sport, comfort and Eco Pro), it’s a drivetrain offering
remarkable levels of flexibility; returning a fuel route figure of just
5,10 L/100 km (or a tank range of 1 093 km) and blasting from 0-100 km/h
in under seven seconds.

Mercedes-Benz’s compact new 1 950 cm3 turbodiesel introduced with
the C-Class update includes an aluminium block and steel pistons that
weigh 16% less than in the previous C220d. Mated with the brand’s own
nine-speed 9G-tronic, it’s a 143 kW/400 N.m drivetrain that feels just a
smidge less refined at idle than the BMW. It is also frugal (just 4,90
L/100 km on our fuel route and a tank range of around 1 250 km) and
feels just slightly less urgent than the 320d both off-the-mark and
through the gears on overtaking.

Ride and handling

Standard fitment in the new 3 Series is BMW’s new lift-related
damper-control system. An additional hydraulic damper on the front
architecture works in conjunction with compression-limiting technology
at the rear to offer constant, variable bump absorption. It worked
overtime on our test car to counter the effects of a firmer M Sport
suspension and 40-profile run-flat rubber. While all testers appreciated
that the end result remained relatively civilised (without crashing
over scars), most agreed this combination should be reserved for those
with focused driving in mind; the trade-off is a level of firmness not
easy to live with on a daily basis. Thankfully, there are more benign
suspension combinations.

Even without this maximum attack (for a 320d) setup, the new 3
Series easily shrugs off its larger dimensions with a level of turn-in
precision, mid-corner poise and low-slung balance – 51:49, front to
rear, by our measurements – that bodes well for future performance-based
derivatives. That this 320d weighed only 1 587 kg is also a positive
sign.

If the interior build quality of the W205-generation C-Class has
improved steadily, so too has its general ride quality. In early tests,
we bemoaned that only the fitment of an optional air-suspension system
returned the refinement we’d come to expect from Mercedes-Benz. More
recently, the engineers seem to have focused on getting the standard
suspension right. Even with the firmer setup associated with this AMG
Line package, the current generation C-Class puts its best foot forward
to deliver a well-cossetted ride. It’s both easy to live with, including
for passengers, and more than capable of shifting its 1 648 kg around a
mountain pass.

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