Group test – Audi A4 vs BMW 3 Series

The past 18 months have been something of an executive saloon car fest. The Mercedes-Benz C-Class kicked things off in 2014 and was followed by the Jaguar XE earlier this year. Only weeks ago we put the heavily revised BMW 3 Series under the spotlight and now it’s the turn of the all-new Audi A4.

This new A4 is longer, wider and lighter than the car it replaces, with a range of improved engines that offer more performance and better fuel efficiency.

In our November 2015 issue we awarded the BMW 320d M Sport top spot in a group test that included the XE 2.0d R Sport, so it seemed only fitting to pitch the winner against its Audi equivalent – the A4 2.0 TDI 190 S line.


The contenders

Audi A4 2.0 TDI 190 S-Line auto

The new A4 is bigger, lighter and more efficient, in a bid to challenge the 3 Series.

BMW 320d M Sport Sport auto

With a host of recent revisions, is the 3 Series good enough to hold on to its crown?


What are they like to drive?

Both cars have 2.0-litre diesel engines that produce identical amounts of peak power and torque, with maximum torque being available from just 1750rpm.

That low-rev pulling power means both cars provide similarly effortless acceleration in relaxed driving, although the Audi feels gutsier when you put your foot down hard and was ultimately quicker against the stopwatch in all of our acceleration tests. This is probably a result of it being the lighter car, although the fact its seven-speed automatic gearbox reacts more snappily to kickdown requests than the 3 Series’ eight-speed ‘box also helps with high-speed overtakes. Mind you, the BMW’s ’box is slightly smoother in traffic and when parking.

Both cars resist body lean well through corners, but the rear-wheel-drive 3 Series is more fun on a twisting B-road thanks to its more playful handling. However, the A4’s steering is just as precise, and its weighting actually feels more natural than the overly heavy optional Servotronic set-up that was fitted to our 320d test car. The BMW’s brakes could also do with more feel.

Both cars ride more firmly than they do in cheaper trims, although you can opt for an A4 S line with comfort suspension for no extra charge – we’d recommend doing so. Even more sophisticated adaptive dampers are optional on both cars, which allow you to vary the stiffness of the suspension by pressing a button. Our test BMW had these whereas the Audi didn’t.

Switch the BMW’s adaptive suspension to Comfort mode and it’ll take the sting out of most rutted surfaces, with a settled ride at motorway speeds. Our Audi dealt well with speed bumps, but was a little too firm to dial out small undulations as effectively, which meant it fidgeted more, particularly at motorway speeds.

That said, the Audi’s cabin is that bit quieter. Its engine is considerably smoother than the BMW’s and there’s far less wind noise and marginally less road noise at speed.


What are they like inside?

Historically, Audi is the master of the well-appointed interior, but rather than rest on its laurels it’s really pushed the boat out here. 

The finish is exquisite and the switchgear feels almost aviation-grade in quality; the rotary heater controls, for example, have a particularly satisfying precision. Mind you, after BMW’s recent upgrades there’s little wrong with the 3 Series’ interior, beyond Audi setting the bar higher.

Both cars have decent driving positions, although the pedals are offset slightly to the right. Otherwise, the ergonomics are sound and forward visibility is good. The view behind in both cars is more limited because of thick rear pillars, but they both come with rear parking sensors.

The BMW’s front seats have larger side bolsters that grip you tighter in corners, while the Audi’s standard lumbar adjustment offers better lower back support. There’s plenty of head and leg room in both, but the Audi’s cabin is slightly wider and feels more airy.

Audi and BMW make the best infotainment systems on the market today. Both have crystal-clear screens with excellent graphics, navigated via a simple rotary controller by the gear levers. Ultimately, though, the BMW’s system just edges it thanks to snappier responses and slightly more intuitive menus.

Despite Audi emphasising the extra room offered by its new A4, the saloon still can’t quite match the rear leg room in the 3 Series – although it’s still fine by class standards. Both have adequate rear head room, but if you’re much more than six feet tall you’ll find your head brushing the ceiling. 

You wouldn’t want to be three abreast for long in the back of either, though; there’s a distinct dearth of shoulder room, and the middle passenger has to straddle a high central tunnel and sit on a firmer raised seat. 

Both boots hold 480 litres; that’s good enough to fit a large suitcase with room to spare. However, the A4’s load bay is squarer with a very usable one metre width throughout, while the BMW’s narrows towards the rear seats. You also have to pay extra for split-folding rear seats in the BMW; Audi gives you these as standard. 


What will they cost?

If you are a business user there’s hardly anything in it. Leasing costs over three years and 10,000 miles per annum are exactly the same, at £391 per month. Over three years you’ll pay just £342 less in company car tax if you choose the A4.

For the time being private buyers will get a better discount on the 3 Series – our research says this could be as much as £2700, compared with the £1600 you’ll save on the A4. Three years and 36,000 miles later, expect the BMW to have cost you around £600 less in depreciation, too. If you prefer the finance option, the A4 comes out cheaper by £14 per month, on a three-year, 10,000-mile-per-year PCP deal.

The Audi’s insurance group hasn’t been confirmed but, using the old car as a guide, this new A4 should work out slightly cheaper to insure than the 3 Series. Servicing costs over three years and 12,000 miles will also be lower – by around £500 – but the Audi will cost you around £300 more in fuel. For private buyers paying cash, just a few hundred pounds separates the total cost over three years, the BMW coming out more favourably.

Equipment levels are broadly similar. Essentials such as satellite-navigation, a DAB radio and Bluetooth are standard in both, as are luxuries such as climate and cruise controls. However, the Audi bolsters this with rear climate control and xenon headlights, while the BMW gets full leather upholstery, rather than the Audi’s part-leather, as standard.

Euro NCAP awarded the BMW a five-star crash safety rating, while the Audi is yet to be tested. Meanwhile, security experts Thatcham concluded that both cars were equally secure, scoring top marks for guarding against theft, and four out of five for resisting being broken into.

Disappointingly, neither the Audi or BMW scored well in our most recent reliability survey. However, both cars come with a three-year warranty, with no mileage cap on the BMW, whereas Audi limits you to 60,000 miles.


Our verdict

The BMW’s reign didn’t last long. However the margins are fine and the 3 Series can still claim to be the keen driver’s choice.

The new A4 matches the BMW, pound for pound, in many areas, while just sticking its nose in front in terms of quality, refinement, and the fact that safety kit such as city braking is included as standard. Both cars are very good, but as an all-rounder the A4 is just that little bit better and easier to live with.


1st

Audi A4 2.0 TDI 190 S-Line auto



For Exceptionally refined; high-quality interior; strong performance

Against Inferior real-world economy; less rear leg room; Sports ride firm

Verdict Easy to live with and a great all-round package

2nd

BMW 320d M Sport Sport auto



For Fun handling; excellent infotainment; slick gearbox

Against Road noise; optional Servotronic steering; poor brake feel

Verdict Still the most fun to drive but just loses out in this guise