The Germans traditionally have the compact executive class pretty well-covered, with the Audi A4, the Mercedes C-Class and the BMW 3 Series all vying for the top spot. In the shape of the handsome Jaguar XE, however, comes another talented alternative. But which is the best of the bunch? carwow’s tame car expert, Mat Watson tests all four to bring you his verdict.
Head over to our new car deals page to see how much carwow could help you save on your next new car. For more options, check out our list of the best compact executive cars. Alternatively, check out our car chooser tool to narrow down your search.
Audi A4 vs Mercedes C-Class vs BMW 3 Series vs Jaguar XE – price
The cars on test are high-spec examples from each brand, each powered by the popular diesel engine option. All four are priced from £30,000-£33,000, but adding optional extras to any of them sees costs spiral – this quartet has an average of almost £7,000-worth of goodies added to their base prices.
A quick look at the entry-level models from each range reveals that the BMW is the cheapest car here – the 318i costs from £25,160, the Audi A4 1.4 TFSI from £25,900, the Jaguar XE 2.0 Auto SE from £26,995 and the Mercedes C 200 SE from £27,665.
Match engines and equipment levels more closely among the four, and there’s very little to choose among them. In other words, it makes perfect sense to see how much you could save with each through carwow’s configurator.
Audi A4 vs Mercedes C-Class vs BMW 3 Series vs Jaguar XE – styling
The fifth-generation Audi A4 was introduced in 2015 but, from the outside, buyers might need a little convincing that anything has changed over the last model. Look closely, and you might be able to spot a sharper front grille, more angular headlights and tauter creases down its flanks. Some might find it a little too understated – but Audi has developed a solid styling language that buyers find very desirable.
The Mercedes sports a softer look than the Audi, conveying more a sense of class than aggression. It’s a graceful-looking machine and, even to the eagle-eyed Mercedes fan, it could easily be confused with larger, pricier Mercedes saloons. That’s possibly more of a positive for C-Class owners than it is for S-Class drivers. In the Mercedes’ defence, ‘Russian doll’ styling is a criticism that could be levelled at the other three saloons here, too.
The BMW has the sportiest stance of the four. While its look isn’t ground-breaking, the iconic kidney grilles at the front and a pair of slim, frowning headlights mean this is a shape which couldn’t be mistaken for anything other than a BMW. It’s the oldest design here, though, and is starting to look it from the outside.
The Jaguar offers the freshest style in this class, mixing the sporting intent of the BMW with the grace of the Mercedes. It’s not a radical design by any means, but it’s certainly easy on the eye. From the outside at least, we reckon it’s the best looking car here.
Audi A4 vs Mercedes C-Class vs BMW 3 Series vs Jaguar XE – interior
Audi has a knack for getting its interiors just right and the A4 is no exception. It looks understated and contemporary, but it’s the quality of the materials and the solid feel to all of the switchgear that impresses so much. The infotainment system is great, too – if not quite a match for the BMW’s – and features Google Maps for the sat-nav. Audi’s Virtual Cockpit display is well worth the £450 outlay, too. Design is subjective but, for us, the Audi has the best cabin here.
The Mercedes is as well-screwed together as the Audi and all of the materials inside feel soft to the touch. If it wasn’t for the infotainment screen which, perched high on top of the dashboard, looks like an afterthought and it’d arguably be the best looking here. It’s worth paying extra for the upgraded satellite navigation system if you can, because the standard Garmin system is fiddly and unintuitive. Despite the decidedly mediocre infotainment, the Mercedes’ cabin design is even more glamorous than the A4 making it feel as special as some luxury saloons costing many times the price.
The BMW has the most driver-focused feel inside, with the dash angled slightly towards the driver to add a cocooning feel. Everything feels sturdy and expensive, though it just doesn’t quite seem as plush as the Audi or the Mercedes. The infotainment system, controlled via iDrive, is very easy and intuitive to use, and unquestionably the best here. Like the outside, however, the BMW’s cabin feels somewhat dated now.
In terms of design and build quality, the Jaguar has the weakest cabin here. The touchscreen system is the slowest and least intuitive to use, while some plastics feel very cheap to the touch. It flaunts one or two neat details – the steering wheel is attractive and there’s a stylish swoop that blends seamlessly around the base of the windscreen into the doors – but, elsewhere, it’s something of a disappointment. The design is too bland and the build quality is somewhat trounced in this company.
Audi A4 vs Mercedes C-Class vs BMW 3 Series vs Jaguar XE – practicality
The A4 isn’t just the nicest to sit in for the driver – everyone else will be happiest there, too. It’s the roomiest in the back, and the rear bench can accommodate three adults with little complaint. The door bins are huge front and rear, and the boot has a usable shape and largest opening on test.
The Mercedes’ standard-fit powered tailgate is a nice touch, but a narrow opening means that its Audi-matching 480-litre volume is less useful overall. It lags behind the A4 inside, too. Rear headroom is tight for taller occupants, while the foot wells in the back are a little more cramped – two adults will fit fine but three would be a little uncomfortable.
The BMW’s insides have plenty of cubby holes dotted around and rear seat space is great – as long as you’re not sat in the middle. The BMW matches the Audi for boot space and usability, but folding rear seats are a cost option – disappointing at this price level.
Bringing up the rear is the Jaguar, which is the least spacious car in terms of both interior and boot space. Six-footers will struggle for legroom in the back, while smaller rear door openings make installing a child seat more tricky than in the other three. Storage space is lacking inside, while the boot is an awkward shape, making the limited volume even less usable.
Audi A4 vs Mercedes C-Class vs BMW 3 Series vs Jaguar XE – driving
Unlike its three rear-wheel drive rivals, the bulk of the A4 range sends its power to the front wheels. Though the former setup bodes well for sporty handling, in everyday driving the Audi feels the best here. It’s the comfiest car – particularly when paired with optional adaptive dampers – and intuitive controls make it easy to drive around town. It’s quiet at motorway speeds too, transmitting very little road or wind noise into the cabin.
The pick of the C-Class range is the Sport model – it delivers the finest compromise between relaxing comfort and sporty handling. The air suspension is a pricey option, but adds an extra level of smoothness when cruising. If you can afford to budget an extra £1,500, we’d strongly recommend the automatic gearbox over the standard manual that doesn’t suit the car’s chilled character. It’ll also be much more desirable on the used car market, making it a worthwhile investment in the long run.
A must-have option for the BMW 3 Series is the adaptive suspension – without it, the ride feels just a little too fussy but without the body control the brand is famed for. When equipped, the BMW offers Audi-like levels of smoothness in Comfort mode, but is even more fun when you switch to Sport mode. It must be said, however, the BMW is no longer the outright leader in terms of driving dynamics thanks to the hard work put in by Mercedes and Audi engineers.
Where the Jaguar recovers some much needed points is behind the wheel. Even with its standard suspension setup, it corners brilliantly and has wonderfully precise steering. As long as you avoid the jiggly R Sport spec, the fun doesn’t come at the expense of ride quality, either. The only negatives to draw from the driving experience are poor all-round visibility and a little extra road noise from the tyres compared to its rivals.
Audi A4 vs Mercedes C-Class vs BMW 3 Series vs Jaguar XE – engines
Buyers in this class will probably choose the more popular diesel engine options. The pick of the A4 lineup – and the best diesel in this company – is the 2.0 TDI. Producing 187hp – an equally capable 148hp alternative is also available – it enables smooth, quiet and brisk progress. It’s claimed to achieve 72.4mpg and, in our hands, it was the most frugal car here.
The engine in the C250d trades a little fuel economy for an extra dose of power, and it’s the quickest car of our four. Compared back-to-back with the Audi, it sounds less refined, with a more obvious rattle disturbing the peace in an otherwise calm cabin. Its seven-speed automatic gearbox is well programmed making it easy to use in town while making sensible gear selections on the motorway.
Like the Mercedes, the BMW diesel sounds a little noisy in this company, too. To its credit, at a claimed 67.3mpg, it ties on paper with the Jaguar for fuel economy, and its eight-speed automatic gearbox is among the best here.
The XE uses a similar eight-speed automatic gearbox to the BMW, but Jaguar’s software tuning isn’t as polished, resulting in marginally slower and jerkier gearshifts. The Jaguar counters with a smoother 2.0-litre diesel than you’ll find under the bonnet of the 3 Series.
The BMW and the Mercedes are both available with plug-in hybrid variants which, should you cover an average daily commute and keep the batteries topped up, both have the potential to return over 100mpg from their petrol/electric powertrains. The low emissions make them cheap for company car users, and they’re pretty good value for money compared to similarly-performing non-hybrid alternatives in each range.
Audi A4 vs Mercedes C-Class vs BMW 3 Series vs Jaguar XE – verdict
All four options each offer their own compelling reasons to choose them over the others. The Jaguar XE looks good on the outside and is fun to drive, the Mercedes C-Class has a luxurious cabin and a great balance of driving comfort and control, while the BMW 3 Series offers a genuinely fun driving experience and the best infotainment system on sale.
Overall, however, it’s the Audi A4 which stands head-and-shoulders above the others. It’s practical, comfortable, beautifully built and laden with tech making it the worthy class-leader.
Save money on your next new car
Take a look at the new car deals page to see the deals carwow could help you get. For more options, check out our list of the best compact executive cars. Alternatively, check out our car chooser tool to narrow down your search.