The modern compact executive car has to offer it all – a luxurious cabin, fun handling, impressive comfort and family friendly practicality. We compare four of the most popular models on sale – the Audi A4, Mercedes C-Class, BMW 3 Series and Jaguar XE, to help you decide which one deserves your hard earned cash.
Check out our Audi A4 deals page, Mercedes C-Class deals page or Jaguar XE deals page to discover just how much money carwow could help you save. For more options check out our list of the best large family cars on sale or, for business buyers, our list of the best company cars.
Audi A4 vs Mercedes C-Class vs BMW 3 Series vs Jaguar XE – styling
Styling is subjective but, to our eyes, it’s the Jaguar XE that’s the coolest looking car in this selection – few family cars look quite as dramatic, enhanced by aggressive gaping features up front. The rear end is a little less distinctive, however, and could be accused of being a little generic…
In fact, it looks pretty similar to the latest Audi contender. The A4’s styling is evolutionary so it’s easy to mistake it for the previous generation model but, despite this, it’s still a smart looking car – especially in sporty S-Line trim.
The BMW 3 Series has been around in current form for a few years meaning its looks are among the more mundane of the group. Again, go for a top-of-the-range M-Sport model and you get an added dose of visual aggression that adds something to the BMW’s character.
If it’s class you’re after, look no further than the Mercedes C-Class. It takes a more reserved approach to styling than rivals, aping the flagship S-Class, and therefore comes across as more expensive-looking and arguably the most elegant of the group.
Audi A4 vs Mercedes C-Class vs BMW 3 Series vs Jaguar XE – interior
It’s the same story inside. The Mercedes has a little more panache than any of its rivals in terms of design. Its cabin impresses most in its attention to detail with even small switches such as those that control the windows being made out of metal. It’s just a shame that the tablet-style infotainment screen looks like an afterthought, especially when paired with the clunky entry-level Garmin navigation system. The upgraded COMAND system is better, but still lags behind rivals.
The iDrive system in the 3 Series is probably the best on the market right now thanks to its intuitive layout and logical menu progression. The rest of the cabin is a nice place to be, but those familiar with the BMW range might be disappointed to learn it’s essentially the same inside as a basic 1 Series – compared to the Audi and Mercedes, it feels decidedly last generation.
Audi is well known for producing high-quality interiors and, although the cabin shares the same reserved design as the exterior, materials are a notch better than most rivals, and the MMI system rivals BMW’s iDrive for usability – Google Maps is a nice highlight, along with the Virtual Cockpit system.
Bringing up the rear is the Jaguar XE. It benefits from the latest version of Jaguar’s InControl infotainment system, complete with good app support, but the touchscreen itself is frustratingly slow to respond and not as user-friendly as the German offerings. The interior design is pleasing to the eye but, compared to the German rivals, feels too cheap in too many places to really mount much of an assault on the class leaders.
Audi A4 vs Mercedes C-Class vs BMW 3 Series vs Jaguar XE – practicality
The XE falls behind by a noticeable margin again when it comes to practicality. Cubby spaces are quite limited and the door openings are rather narrow – not great for fitting a child seat with any ease. Headroom in the rear is also poor and it’s an uncomfortable squeeze to sit three side-by-side. The 455-litre boot is the smallest here and has an awkwardly shaped opening, making it tricky to fit in a family holiday’s worth of luggage.
The C-Class’ 480-litre boot is a bit more impressive, and has automatic opening as standard, but the opening is awkward and can make for tricky loading. The rear seat isn’t perfect either – it’s larger than in the Jaguar but headroom is limited for the tallest passengers. The 3 Series fares better in all respects, although it has a raised centre rear seat. The boot officially holds the same 480-litres as the C-Class, but the opening is much better shaped.
However, those after the most practical model need to take a look at the A4. Again there is a 480-litre boot, but the large boxy opening makes it easy to load unusually shaped objects. Three-way folding seats are standard, too, unlike all rivals here, and the rear seats are also the roomiest compared to rivals. Ample cubby space is just a bonus.
Audi A4 vs Mercedes C-Class vs BMW 3 Series vs Jaguar XE – driving
The A4 is the only model in this comparison not to be based on a rear-wheel-drive platform, so driving purists may claim it doesn’t handle quite as well. However, for most people it drives very well, and the optional quattro all-wheel-drive system gives plenty of grip. The Audi is also the comfiest car here in standard form and is very refined, especially with the optional adaptive dampeners.
The C-Class also offers and quiet and refined driving experience, with Sport trim offering the best blend between ride and handling. It isn’t the sportiest car to drive, but this is made up for by its sheer comfort – expensive air-suspension is optional and adds a detectable ‘float’ at motorway speeds.
Like the A4 and C-Class, the BMW benefits from being fitted with the pricey optional adaptive suspension to offer the best handling and ride mix. With this, it can rival the A4 for comfort, but is more fun on a twisty road, if not as refined.
The XE handles similarly to the 3 Series with a definite sportier edge than the Audi or Mercedes. It has the sharpest steering and, as a result, corners with plenty of confidence. It’s also fairly comfortable as long as you avoid the harsh suspension on R-Sport models. Impressively, all this is achievable without upgrading to an adaptive setup, although road noise and refinement suffer compared to rivals.
Audi A4 vs Mercedes C-Class vs BMW 3 Series vs Jaguar XE – engines
Diesel engines are most likely to be popular with buyers, and we tested all four models in arguably their most popular guises. The Audi’s 2.0-litre engine is smooth and quiet, and the version with 187hp has ample power with either manual or automatic gearbox. We achieved an impressive 54mpg against the official 66mpg figure. Other engine choices include 1.4 and 2.0-litre turbocharged petrols, and a variety of beefy 3.0-litre V6 diesels.
The C250d we tested had a 2.1-litre diesel engine producing an impressive 204hp, and that extra power could really be felt, although the engine is much grumblier than rivals’. Despite the extra power, we still achieved a reasonable 51mpg, compared to the 64mpg official figure. The C-Class is also available with a more efficient 1.6-litre diesel, a 2.0-litre petrol and in several hybrid versions.
We tested the xDrive all-wheel drive version of the popular 320d, and the 184hp 2.0-litre diesel returned 48mpg – not bad when you consider its extra weight and the fact official figures suggest 59mpg. The eight-speed ZF automatic gearbox is highly recommended and is available in all 3 Series variants. There’s a wide engine choice on offer, with diesels producing between 114 and 308hp, and petrols between 134 and 321hp.
The 2.0-litre ‘Ingenium’ diesel in the XE sounds the most exciting and produces 177hp, it averaged around 55mpg against an official figure of 74mpg – the most economical here but only by a whisker. The eight-speed automatic gearbox is a solid alternative to the manual, but it’s slow to change gear when extra acceleration is needed. The diesel is also available with 160hp, and there are 2.0 and 3.0-litre petrol engines on offer.
Audi A4 vs Mercedes C-Class vs BMW 3 Series vs Jaguar XE – value for money
All these cars are expensive and, on top of the expensive list prices, there’s also a wide range of available optional equipment – our four test cars featured over £27,000 of options between them. The comparatively old BMW is the cheapest, priced between £24,380-£41,015, the Audi from £26,250 to £42,000, the Jaguar between £26,990 and £44,995, and the Mercedes is the most expensive, costing between £27,650-£47,555.
When you compare engines and equipment, you’ll find that the four cars are pretty well matched and there isn’t a whole lot between them in terms of price. The same is true of options lists – only the BMW offers sat-nav as standard, but upgrading to a larger screen costs around £1,500, the same as in rivals. Adaptive suspension is around £700, as are upgraded LED headlights.
Audi A4 vs Mercedes C-Class vs BMW 3 Series vs Jaguar XE – verdict
It’d be hard to regret buying any of these cars and they are all very talented. The BMW 3 Series is great to drive and offers impressive usability, while the Jaguar XE swaps some of the Germans’ upmarket features for more exterior style. The Mercedes C-Class offers a refined driving experience and a gorgeous cabin, and will suit those after the luxury of the brand’s larger models in a smaller and more efficient package.
However, we feel the latest Audi A4 has earned the compact executive crown. It’s a little more reserved in terms of appearance and outright fun, but it offers a winning blend of practicality, comfort and desirability that’s hard to overlook in a class where those three attributes are probably what’s most important to the majority of buyers.
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