The new DS3, customise every feature to suit your style
Most car-comparison tests focus on high-performance models because they make for attention-grabbing headlines such as “Audi S4 vs BMW 335i”.
As much as we enjoy those ourselves, the reality is most people can’t afford the “gee-whiz” models and buy the more humble derivatives in a range – cars which are depended upon in the daily routine of commuting and school runs and, from time to time, family holidays. Cars which aren’t necessarily the most exciting or pulse-quickening, but need to deliver practicality, comfort, honest performance and decent fuel economy.
Which is why we’ve lined up lower-powered versions of BMW’s all-new 3 Series and Audi’s recently-facelifted A4 for a shootout: the BMW 320i and the Audi A4 1.8T SE – both in automatic guise.
The new 3 Series launched here a couple of months ago has been well received both by South African buyers and the motoring media (including ourselves) for its impressive all-round capability, and we wanted to see whether it’s left behind the four-year old (albeit newly-updated) Audi A4, which still has a couple of years left in its life cycle.
The BMW 320i is moved along by a new-generation 2-litre turbo petrol that, with its 135kW and 270Nm outputs, is a huge leap over the 115kW and 200Nm produced by the normally-aspirated engine of the last-generation 320i – especially at high altitudes. What was previously pedestrian, repmobile performance has grown into something entirely more eager and zestful. Not quite sufficient to chase hot hatches, but the 320i at last has performance to compete with Audi’s long-serving 1.8 turbo petrol.
But Audi hasn’t rested on its laurels, and as part of the A4’s recent upgrade in South Africa the 1.8 turbo engine’s outputs were bumped up from 118kW/250Nm to 125kW and 320Nm which gives it slightly less power but a 50Nm torque advantage over the Beemer (Audi has also introduced a new 88kW/230Nm baseline A4 1.8T for the rental market).
In the BMW the juice is fed to the rear wheels through an eight-speed automatic transmission, while the Audi sends it forward via an eight-step Multitronic CVT auto.
Both our arch-rivals have the ability to effortlessly cruise open roads no matter what the incline of the hill, combined with a decent dose of overtaking punch. It’s the 320i that feels more eager off the line however, as its power comes in more instantly whereas the Audi has some turbo lag before hitting its performance groove.
This is reflected in the performance figures we attained in Gauteng, with the 320i’s 0-100km/h time of 7.9 seconds bettering the A4 by exactly one second, while the Beemer had an even bigger margin in overtaking acceleration by posting 60-120km/h in 7.3 secs compared to the Audi’s 8.7 secs.
The 320i’s new eight-speed Steptronic transmission is a smooth-shifting dream but so’s the Audi’s, and the Multitronic gearbox feels much like a regular auto and doesn’t have the annoying slipping-clutch effect of earlier CVTs.
Both cars have economy and sport gearshift settings, but the BMW goes further in offering Driving Experience Control which at the press of a button changes between four modes – from ultra economy to ultra sport – that affect gearchange, steering, throttle, and dynamic stability control settings. There’s really a big difference in the different modes and you feel as if the car’s a goldfish transforming into a piranha.
Fuel consumption was almost identical for the two cars at just over 8 litres per 100km.
RIDE AND HANDLING
One of the new BMW 3 Series’ biggest achievements is a ride quality improvement over its predecessor. Though the car retains controversial runflat tyres with their stiffened sidewalls (and no spare wheel), the 320i glides more gracefully over bumpy tar than ever before on its 17” wheels.
The Audi’s ride is a little firmer but our A4 test car was fitted with optional low-profile 18” rubber instead of the comfier-riding 17s that come standard – but it at least, unlike the BMW, has a spare tyre (albeit a thin space-saver).
Both cars will ultimately get through corners as neatly as you’d wish them to. In normal driving the biggest difference between our arch-rivals is that the Audi has just one electromechanical steering setting: quite light. In its Eco mode the Beemer feels just as effortless to turn, but selecting one of the Sport modes loads up the steering with that meaty, well-weighted feel of BMW renown.
When tested through the twisties at a medium-to-brisk pace our two German adversaries are basically equal in terms of agility and grip – equally very good, that is. But when pushed really hard it’s the rear-wheel drive Beemer that rocked our world a little more because it doesn’t understeer as quickly, and the nose hugs a tight turn more readily.
EQUIPMENT AND PACKAGING
Both cars have high-tech coming out of their ears if you tick enough options boxes.
As part of its recent upgrade the A4 became SA’s first car to offer an onboard Wi-Fi zone as an option. Part of the optional Audi connect package, the Wi-Fi feature allows web surfing or emailing in the car via devices such as a laptop or tablet. It also has a fancy (also optional) navigation system with a Google Earth view that lets you see the terrain with true photo-realism.
In SE trim the A4 1.8T comes standard with features like cruise control, Bluetooth connectivity, and a colour driver information system. The cabin of the updated A4 includes new chrome detailing and a more user-friendly MMI system with fewer buttons.
The new 3 Series now offers three trim lines: Modern, Luxury and Sport, with external and interior facades that can be matched to your persona. We tested the Sports version and liked its body-hugging front seats and colourful dashboard inserts.
Some of the newly-available options in the 3 Series include a full-colour Head-Up Display, along with driver aids such as Active Cruise control, and Lane Change and Lane Departure warning systems. Special apps such as “BMW Connected” – for using social networks – are also available.
The new BMW’s cabin and boot have grown slightly, but it’s about the same size as the A4 and there’s little to tell these two cars apart in terms of passenger space. Both comfortably swallow four adults without any unwanted intimacy. Their boots are also identically sized at 480 litres, expandable by folding down the rear seats.
The 3 Series has a cool feature (an option) in that, when you have both hands full of shopping, you’re able to pop open the boot by simply waving your foot under the rear bumper.
Many people will simply buy according to badge loyalty, and either way they’re ending up with a fine piece of German engineering, but for the fence-sitters here is our conclusion.
The facelifted A4 has some life left in it and hasn’t suddenly become dated against the all-new 3 Series.
The most noticeable differences are that the A4 1.8T has more turbo lag and a slight performance disadvantage, and steering that can’t be made heavier. This, combined with the 320i allowing you to personalise your driving experience with those four driving modes to suit your mood, is enough to make the BMW our winner.
PRICES AND WARRANTIES:
BMW 320i - R361 000. 2-years/unlimited mileage warranty, 5-year/100 000km maintenance contract and roadside assistance
Audi A4 1.8T SE - R364 000. 1-year/unlimited mileage warranty, 5-year/100 000 km maintenance plan with roadside assistance
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