It is with a keenly self-aware fear of apostasy that BMW has declined to fit its brand-defining inline-6 engine to the 2012 BMW 328i and instead has substituted a turbocharged, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine.
This sea change aligns the entry-level version of the 3 Series with its four-cylinder competitors, the 2012 Audi A4 and 2012 Mercedes-Benz C250. But in light of BMW's rich tradition of inline-6 engines and its loyal following of customers, is this new four-cylinder really progress?
This test aims to find out.
BMW's fear is justified. These are all very good cars. After two weeks, hundreds of miles of side-by-side driving and one day of track testing, a clear winner had yet to emerge. The new 2012 BMW 328i wasn't walking away from its competition, as have so many 3 Series models in past Inside Line comparison tests.
After all, here we've got an Audi that's clearly the BMW's better when it comes to measured evaluations of handling, while the distinctly well-built Mercedes-Benz strikes an attractive balance between efficiency and luxury. So we drove on, dug deep into our quiver of hair-splitting tools and began to tally the notes.
$50,000 Is the New $40,000
It is perhaps a sign of more than simple inflation that we can remember when coughing up $15,000 for an Audi 4000 seemed outrageous. Regardless, what we have here are three entry-level luxury sedans with base prices all starting at about $35,000. It's ironic that the Audi, which comes standard with all-wheel drive and provides the most sophisticated suspension configuration in the group, offers the lowest base price.
But don't mistake these base prices for what you'll actually pay. The cost goes up very quickly from there — way up. In fact, this entry-level 3 Series has been equipped as a showcase of BMW options, so our 328i tester tips the scales at a wage-crushing $50,745. Of course this fee includes some stupendous options, the most costly of which is the $3,600 Premium package. Also, there's the $2,550 Technology package and $2,500 Sport Line trim.
Audi's A4 is the next most expensive car here, although its $45,675 bottom line is $5,070 less costly than the Bimmer. It also packs big-dollar options. The costliest is the $9,500 Prestige package, which hits home with goodies like MMI navigation, the Convenience package, heated front seats and a Bang & Olufsen premium audio system.
The 2012 Mercedes C250 is marginally more costly than the A4 at $45,900 including the Premium and Multimedia packages.
The Economy/Power Compromise
The ever-tightening noose of Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) is no doubt responsible for shanghaiing two cylinders from this most established BMW model. The return is there, however, with EPA numbers offering a 5-mpg increase in combined fuel economy for the turbo-4 versus a normally aspirated inline-6 (27 mpg vs. 22 mpg).
What's more, BMW's turbocharged, direct-injected 2.0-liter inline-4 is rated at 240 horsepower and 255 pound-feet of torque, which amounts to 10 hp and 55 lb-ft more than last year's normally aspirated 3.0-liter inline-6. Our tester was fitted with the standard six-speed manual transmission. (An eight-speed automatic is a zero-cost option unless you opt for paddle shifters, which add $475.)
But BMW isn't alone in introducing a four-cylinder power plant to this segment of premium sedans. The 2012 Mercedes-Benz C250 is an all-new model created specifically to sip fuel in the most cost-effective way possible, even while surrounding its occupants in luxury. The Benz approach to this four is similar in concept to BMW, and this turbocharged, direct-injected 1.8-liter inline-4 cranks out 201 hp and 229 lb-ft of torque. Only one transmission is available: a seven-speed automatic. The mix yields a 25-mpg combined rating from the EPA.
The 2012 Audi A4 has embraced four-cylinder power since the 1997 model, although this 2012 iteration utilizes turbocharging and direct fuel injection to produce 211 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque from a 2.0-liter four. Choose either the six-speed manual transmission — as in our tester — or the eight-speed automatic (a $1,300 premium) and you'll get all-wheel drive as standard equipment. A continuously variable transmission (CVT) is available in front-drive models only. Six-speed shift-it-yourself A4s — like our test car — are rated at 25 mpg EPA combined.
Nobody is buying the four-cylinder version of these cars for drag racing, but there's a reason you skipped directly to this section of the copy, isn't there? We'll make this simple: When it comes to drag racing, the right physics will win. And so does the 328i.
At 3,427 pounds the BMW is 98 pounds lighter than the C250 and 235 pounds lighter than the A4. Combine these stats with a power advantage and the BMW is easily the quickest car here in a straight line. Even with the advantage of all-wheel drive during the launch, the A4 couldn't hold its edge in getaway quickness all the way to 60 mph.
The 2012 BMW 328i sweeps both straight-line tests by hitting 60 mph in 5.9 seconds (5.5 seconds using a 1-foot rollout like on a drag strip) and passing through the quarter-mile in 14.1 seconds at 98.9 mph. The A4 is marginally slower to 60 mph at 6.2 seconds (5.9 seconds with rollout) and is a half-second back at the quarter-mile with an effort of 14.6 seconds at 94.1 mph. The Benz, hampered by its automatic transmission off the line, is slowest. Sixty mph arrives in 7.3 seconds (6.9 seconds with rollout) with all 1,320 feet passing in 15.3 seconds at 90.7 mph.
It won't surprise anyone to know that the slowest car in the group earns the best fuel economy. The C250's 24.7 mpg came during 680 miles of mixed driving, but the 328i wasn't far behind at 23.6 mpg over 1,455 miles. At 21.6 mpg over 684 miles, the all-wheel-drive Audi isn't as miserly.
Objective handling tests, though, fall largely in favor of the Audi, which has the quickest slalom speed at 69.2 mph and best lateral acceleration at 0.92g. As different as the BMW and Mercedes-Benz might seem in concept, the 328i and C250 were much the same in these tests. The BMW recorded 66.7 mph in the slalom while the Benz reached 66.2 mph, and both pulled 0.88g around the skid pad.
The Audi's superior grip showed itself again in our braking test, where it stopped from 60 mph in only 108 feet. The C250 and 328i recorded stops only 4 feet and 7 feet longer, respectively.
Inside the Cabins
With a 2-inch stretch, the wheelbase of the BMW 3 Series now measures 110.6 inches. This now gives the BMW parity with the Audi A4, which increased the length of its all-wheel-drive platform in 2009 in an effort to achieve handling dynamics more like a rear-wheel-drive car.
The 2012 Mercedes-Benz C250 has a wheelbase of 108.7 inches, and while the 1.9-inch difference hardly makes this car small, it does translate into about an inch less rear legroom. If you're of average build, you'll have no trouble finding room in the back of the Benz. But if your vertical dimension pushes the 6-foot mark, the missing inch will make a difference on longer trips. Also, the Benz offers the least headroom in the group by about a half inch.
But the best interior in this group is not determined by space alone. By our estimation, the honor falls squarely to the Audi. Credit for this accomplishment goes to the S line Plus option package, which adds faux suede to the A4's standard leather on most critical seating surfaces. There are also brushed aluminum inlays and a black cloth headliner.
When it comes to the interface for the cabin's electronic comfort and convenience features, the Audi gives up its leadership, as MMI is awkward to use relative to both BMW's iDrive and Mercedes' COMAND systems. All three systems integrate navigation, phone and audio controls into a menu-based knob-and-button interface, but Audi's system is less elegant and integrated in its design than the others.
Perhaps the most defining trait of the Mercedes-Benz C250 is the simple, honest way it goes about every task. This sense of overbuilt purpose is a kind of DNA trickle-down from the small Benz's larger, heavier brethren, the E-Class and S-Class. Although the C-Class lacks the cruise-missile speed of those bigger cars, it delivers the same carefully controlled body motions when you're behind the wheel. The Benz also wins the timeless contest in door-slam quality with a heavily damped thud that sounds like Play Doh landing on bedrock.
Of course, the downside to bedrock solidity is, in this case, a less engaging driving character. There's less athleticism in the C250 than either of the other cars, although the problem isn't so much the chassis as the powertrain. The automatic transmission is slow to respond and no complement to the least powerful engine in this group. A downshift, which requires a lateral slap of the shift lever on the console, slurs between gears with a throttle blip that's only marginally effective in speeding the process.
The A4, which is the most controlled car here when tossed around, is downright snappy by comparison. There's less body roll, speedy response from the steering wheel and the most trusted and effective brake pedal in the group. Of course, you can forget about adjustments in cornering attitude from the chassis when you're in the middle of the corner, but these matter less when the other cars are already dots in the rearview mirror.
The BMW doesn't inspire you to attack any back roads, but it offers a prudent degree of mountain-road-handling prowess to complement BMW's classic formula for all-around success. The new electrically assisted steering isn't communicative on a granular level, but it isn't going to repel anyone either. The interior provides the same familiar feel of a recent-generation 3 Series with a touch of updating, and to our eyes the exterior styling easily makes it the best-looking car here.
It's All Relative
It's the subjective, touchy-feely part of any comparison test that's always the hardest to assess. We have to ask why the Audi handles best and if the Benz's anvil-like solidity is important. Such details ultimately define a car's character and then earn brand loyalty. We think they're important.
So you should know, then, that part of the reason the Audi handles the best is because it's fitted with the widest, stickiest tires wrapped around the biggest, heaviest wheels. This is a product of the same optional S line Plus package that gives the A4 the interior detailing we love. The A4 is decidedly the most sporty-feeling sedan in the group as a result. And by "sporty feeling" we mean stiff, because the car's ride quality is compromised by this setup.
Audi Drive Select, a $2,950 option, would have mitigated the impact of the big wheels and tires by tuning the throttle action, steering assist and damper action to suit different driving circumstances, but it wasn't a part of this A4's option package. The C250 also could have benefited from the optional $1,530 Dynamic Handling package, which adds adjustable dampers and a variable steering ratio to the C-Class, but it wasn't fitted to our test car.
Meanwhile, the 328i included Driving Dynamics Control, BMW's own electronic overseer of throttle, steering and damping, and the optional adjustable dampers of the Adaptive M suspension certainly helped this 3 Series be all things to all people. No matter where we drove the BMW, we liked the experience, even if the car might have lacked a little something compared to either the Audi or Mercedes.
That we're giving the win in this contest to the 2012 BMW 328i is a product of its do-all abilities. The victory, though, comes with the caveat that your needs might demand other priorities better served by the supremely good Audi or Benz.
All-weather ability, for example, might be necessary. If we lived in Colorado, we'd buy the 2012 Audi A4 and ditch the 19-inch wheels and tires in favor of a choice with lighter wheels and better-riding rubber. Or perhaps you're a sucker for the well-built refinement of the 2012 Mercedes-Benz C250, and we wouldn't fault you for your choice even if we might beat you to the next stoplight in the BMW.
Truth is, you won't go wrong with any of these cars.
Thanks to its options-gone-wild approach, this BMW 328i punches through the $50,000 barrier, which isn't something we take lightly in this segment. Still, we could option this car with more restraint and keep it competitive with the A4 and C250, and yet still lop nearly $6 grand from its sticker price. So equipped, the BMW 328i would still offer the ability to morph between agreeable freeway cruiser, efficient commuter and reasonably capable back-road companion better than its competition. It's this resourcefulness in combination with enduring quality that makes the 2012 BMW 328i so profoundly effective in this segment.
And that's the case even when it's absent two historically important cylinders.
The manufacturers provided Edmunds these vehicles for the purposes of evaluation.