Saturday, April 4, 2009

Comparison Drive: 08 Mercedes-Benz C300 4MATIC Lux vs 08 BMW 328xi

Even though we get snow probably three to five days out of all 365, the most commonly sold drivetrain on nearly every car in the lower Northeast/Mid-Atlantic states is All-Wheel-Drive. Something I don’t exactly understand because you’ll save money and gas by buying their two-wheel drive siblings and just setting aside an additional small sum of money for a good set of Blizzaks (snow tires for you non-brand people). But majority of the Mercedes-Benz C-Class and BMW 3-Series buyers don’t exactly know or follow up with that. So let’s compare and contrast the two most popular compact luxury sports sedans at their entry spec level and see who comes out in top.

Starting with the Mercedes, DaimlerBenz claims that the new W204 C-Class is the most researched, developed and tested Mercedes ever. But let’s make it plain, simple and clear: this does not mean cost-no-object build quality, or the build quality that Mercedes were so well known for pre-1995. But the instant you pull on the door handle and step inside the C300 you receive the notion that Mercedes is moving back in the right direction…just.

But before we continue inside let’s observe the exterior. The one we have is a C300 4MATIC non-sport. In a world where the Bangle-Butt is now a design standard and there’s awkward curve this and unusual crease that, Mercedes remains conservative with its styling but it never really comes across as boring. In fact, I think the new C-Class is one of the best looking cars out there today. It’s handsome, refined and understated and isn’t brash like some of the competitors from Japan. It follows much of the S-Class's design roots with a high sloping shoulder line and poignant face. It’s aggressive yet elegant and not overpowering. If only BMW could learn some things from these guys.

Returning to the interior, panels and fixtures are all well assembled and the door closes with a nice solid thunk. Buttons and switches are all tactile and refined, again signifying that Mercedes is going in the right direction, but let me reemphasize…just. You can still tell that this car was designed under the hierarchy of DaimlerChrysler and that Chrysler’s parting happened just in the middle of the C-Classes development, suggesting that the Germans finally reclaimed their stake in managing the company. For example, while most the controls I could see lasting long periods of time, there are some that still don’t really seem to match up with the test of time and use such as the faux-metallic temperature dials for the HVAC. And the plasticvinylleather-whatchya-ma-call-it material that covers the dash and the upholstery on the doors doesn’t exactly seem like something from a German luxury manufacturer and is a little cheap because of how it reflects light. At the same time though, it seems durable, which means it could echo the same notions that the W201 190E gave off back in the late 1980s: people called the interior on the 190 cheap (if only they could REALLY see what cheap was two decades later) but it still stood up very well to the test of time and use. On top of that, every time you put your seatbelt on your knuckle will find some way to hit the release button on the center storage compartment. Keep working DaimerBenz.

Control layout in the Mercedes is simple and straight forward but handling the radio controls can be a little confusing if this is your first Mercedes. The C300 being tested here was optioned with the Technology package which includes satnav. Mercedes’ COMAND is far more intuitive than BMW’s iDrive and is very easy to use. Exterior visibility is more than adequate and over all the layout is very pleasing.
The Mercedes also offers more interior and trunk space than the BMW from being a slightly larger car in general. Even with my near six foot figure full size adults were able to fit in the back without much complaint, as long as the trips were short. The seats up front though do lack in lateral support and are a bit flat and hard. Rear seating pretty much is the same story but having taken long trips in the C300 as a driver and passenger, it is an adequate long distance cruiser.

Driving the C300 however is as numb as receiving Novocain when getting that cavity filled. Steering feel and feedback is basically non-existent. You almost have to assist the steering wheel to return to normal after turning it anywhere and it’s very light. The suspension is communicative and employs the traditional firm yet complain tuning, but in light of being firmer with shorter suspension travel in order to catch up with modern times and to compete with the BMW, I really don’t think the suspensions’ firmness is thoroughly justified by its cornering and handling performance. In other words, even though the ride quality is superb, it can be a little softer to complement the “Luxury” non-sport trim better. If someone wanted to get a sportier automobile then they could opt for the Sports trim.

Having a slightly higher ride height to make way for ground clearance from being AWD on top of being in “Luxury Trim,” understeer is the name of the game for any driving nearing 8/10s. Other than that, the C300 remains composed in corners should any road imperfection arise. Handling remains neutral until about the aforementioned 8/10ths. But on top of lackadaisical steering and a slightly more body lean, this car should be driven more conservatively. Highway cruising is effortless however as this car was designed for the Autobahn so she tracks straight and true and remains very planted.

Power is delivered through a 3.0-Liter V6 good for 228HP and 221 lb-ft of twist mated to Merc’s usual 7-Speed automatic. Mash on the throttle and you’ll get to 60 in a shade over seven seconds. While there’s no issue to be had with the power offered, it’s how the power’s delivered. There’s too much torque converter lag when downshifts occur and the power doesn’t seem to come in until about 4000 RPM so overtaking will seem a bit lethargic. With the lazy power delivery, a pedal that's as dead as Mr. Benz himself and the typical delay of drive-by-wire throttle, you'll feel the need to mash the pedal quite a bit.

The transmission, in light of keeping fuel economy averages up always finds the highest gear possible, even when in the “Sport” mode setting versus “Comfort,” and fuhgettaboutit when it’s in Comfort mode. Engaging the manu-matic mode doesn’t help the slightest bit as every input is delayed before it does what its told. Otherwise the power and drivetrains are well-refined and meet the expectations of what a luxury sedan should offer…key emphasis on LUXURY SEDAN. On the upside however, the stoppers are adequate though pedal motion is a bit mushy and lacking in feel.

Altogether, though, the W204 represents that Mercedes is moving in the right direction and the influx of new models such as the S-Class and CL-Class a couple years ago exemplify that. However, the company has a lot of catching up to do and with a lackluster driving experience and an interior that needs work, the C300 finishes second in this comparison.

The BMW 3-Series has been the industry leader for over two decades and still leads the market today with the E90. Its combination of practicality, style and superior driving dynamics has made it the choice in the luxury sport compact sedan segment so with proper reason, the 328xi that I tested in this comparison finishes a solid first; and here's why.

Although this may not be starting on the proper note to review the winner of this comparison, I've never been a fan of the new styling for the 3er. It's bulbous and looks just flat-out ugly. With it's sloping hood and stretched face, it looks like a dog sticking his face out of a window whilst storming down the Autobahn at triple digit speeds. The rest of the car just doesn't look proportionate with it's blobular shapes.

The interior is not much of a better place, but it holds its own against the C300. The tester came in black and its as cold and dark as a mortuary. Everything else however is well assembled with the plastics and other materials being on a level higher than that of the C300s. Switchgear and buttons are tactile and the layout is simple. The doors close with a soft yet solid thunk and the cabin, much like the C300 is void from squeaks and rattles. My only suggestion is getting a color combination that gives you a lighter color inside.

Interior space is good up front, but the rear quarters can get rather cramped. While I was fine adjusting the seat to my figure, having someone of equal proportions in the seat behind would give discomfort to both of us. Getting in and out of the backseat in the 3er also demanded that I duck to avoid bashing my head on the sloping roofline. This however is the only place that the C300 shines because it's more comfortable with its larger interior space and more comfortable seats.

Driving the 328xi is something that should meet yours and many others' expectations when driving a BMW. While the steering is far more communicative than the C300s helm with more feedback and feel, it still is a bit numb when compared to its two-wheel drive siblings. You don't have to assist the steering wheel back to center like you need to with the C300 and the 3er's helm is heavier for the better. Ride quality is a bit firm, especially with the extremely lauded run-flats that all BMWs are equipped with to save weight from putting a full-size spare. But that ride quality is thoroughly justified by very composed handling and very well controlled body motions, again a trademark for the BMW 3-Series. Drive at or past 9/10s however and understeer is the name of the game, again with the higher ride height and 50/50 split AWD system. But what separates it from the Mercedes is that it's so much easier to reach the limits of the BMW and it doesn't scare you off from doing so with unpredictability and a rolling body like the Mercedes. The car inspired confidence like no other and will give your average driver a great feeling when trolling up those mountain roads.

Power is delivered by BMW's famed tradition of straight sixes, this one being a 3.0-Liter putting out 230HP and 200lb-ft. Zero-to-Sixty comes in at a near equal 7.1 seconds, just a tenth of a second quicker than the Merc. It still however doesn't feel as enlightening or as fast as it's two-wheel drive sibling considering that this 328 was fitted with the optional automatic so there's the loss at the torque converter and transfer case, just like with any other AWD vehicle. Even though the 328xi isn't much more powerful overall than the Merc, it's higher horsepower inspires you to rev the living daylight out of this engine; and what a rev-tastic engine it is.

The optional 6-Speed automatic is very good and takes advantage of the power band. But the STEPTRONIC likes to be laid back when change inputs are sent. In addition, it doesn't exactly like to hold a gear so it will randomly change at its own discretion, even if you might want to hold a gear mid-corner. NOT COOL!

So to wrap things up, it is to no surprise that the driving experience alone is what leads the BMW 3er to first place in this comparison. While it may lack in the practicality department in terms of size when compared to the C300, it shines at just about everything else. Power's nearly identical and gas mileage is exactly the same. But the BMW drives better, is cheaper than the Mercedes, feels better built and despite looking like a troll...well aesthetics is something I'm willing to sacrifice when the BMW does everything else so extraordinarily well.

~Chris Chin