By Jeff Wilson
What we have here, ladies and gentlemen, is the world’s most sought after comparison test ever. These two mid-size luxury sedans have warmed the hearts of many around the world. This pair of Germans only keeps getting better, so let’s dive right into it.
Which car is better?
That’s a bit of a personal question, as it boils down to what each individual desires; but both of these cars are magnificent. They’re each decadently finished inside and out, and they are capable of creating ear-to-ear grins on the faces of enthusiastic drivers, just as much as they can coddle passengers for long highway cruises.
Which car is better? Whichever one appeals to your fashion sense more. Never have we encountered two so closely matched – and over-achieving – machines as these two. They both win.
Unfortunately, that answer is unlikely to suffice for those of you looking for the nitty-gritties on these two cars, so let’s get out the dissection tools and a microscope and see if we can weed out a winner by some sliver of margin.
The biggest news for each of these cars is that they have new model number badges on their trunk lids. This means the poor saps that bought BMW 335is or Mercedes-Benz C400s this past year are now horribly out of fashion. As we all know, the larger the number, the bigger the bragging rights when it comes to German sedans.
The respective manufacturers figured these 2016 models deserved bigger digits because their cars’ engines are now better and more powerful than before. BMW’s delightful N55-series 3.0L inline six-cylinder engine with twin-scroll turbo has been retired. Instead, this new engine, dubbed B58, ups the power from last year’s 300, to 320 horsies. And for fans of the N55 (or earlier N54, twin-turbo) thanks to their remarkable smoothness and effortless torque, fear not, this new engine is every bit as buttery smooth as before, along with being more powerful (torque is now rated at 330 lb-ft from only 1,380 rpms).
The ZF eight-speed automatic (a manual is miraculously still available) continues to be a sensational gearbox for this car with blazingly-quick gear changes when in its sportiest setting, or imperceptibly smooth ones when in Comfort mode. It’s a winning combination that reminds drivers that BMW does still place a lot of importance on making fun-to-drive sporty cars.
Getting a little long-in-the-tooth after one whole model year on the market, the C400 is no more, thanks largely to Mercedes having pumped up the 3.0L twin-turbo V6 from last year’s 329 horsepower, to the C450’s impressive 362 horsepower. Similarly, torque figures have also muscled up from 354 lb-ft to 384 lb-ft now.
When compared to the excellent eight-speed automatic that BMW has employed these past few years, the Benz seven-speed unit has always felt a little clunky and dim-witted. No more. The tuning of this 7G-Tronic Plus automatic is excellent, rifling off rapid-fire shifts when called on, or quietly going about its business when less aggression is required. It may not be quite as good as the Bimmer’s box in Sport mode, but it’s very close. Unsurprisingly, no manual transmission is available with the C450.
Each of these sport sedans delivers its power through all four wheels. The BMW is also available in rear wheel drive while the Mercedes is only brought to most markets with 4Matic. Both systems help deliver the abundance of torque each engine offers to the ground, aiding in fierce acceleration. BMW claims the 340i will achieve 100 km/h from a rest in 5.1 seconds; Mercedes boasts its more powerful C450 will do it in 4.9. If anything, those figures sound conservative by the seat-of-the-pants.
On the road, both the 340 and the C450 accelerate ferociously and the Benz’s horsepower advantage appears much larger on paper than it feels in actuality. To be sure, one would need to run them at a drag strip to actually pick a winner unless you have an incredibly accurate butt-dyno that our evaluators apparently lack.
Engine & Powertrain
Being relatively small cars with big power means nobody should be surprised that the 340i and C450 can really hustle in a straight line. And anyone who knows the lineage of these two models should also expect them to be eager handlers when the roads become circuitous, and they’d be right.
BMW claims to have made incremental changes to the steering and suspension set up to a sportier result versus the 335i. Our tester came equipped with the $1,900 M Performance Package that includes handsome 19-inch wheels fitted with proper summer tires (225/40 R19 front and 255/35 R19 rear Bridgestone Potenza S0001) as well as Variable Sport Steering and Adaptive M Suspension.
The latter enables the driver to electrically adjust between varying degrees of firmness, and it should be said that even in its tautest setting, the 340i’s suspension does a better job of taking the edge off bigger bumps than in previous 3-series generations.
The former contributes to a steering feel that is best described as artificial, particularly in highway driving where it just seems light and aloof. Still, with the prodigious grip offered by great tires and BMW’s excellent xDrive all-wheel drive system, the 340i is nevertheless a spectacular dancer when the roads get twisty.
The Mercedes is no slouch in this department either. Also fitted with adaptive suspension, the C450 offers a more natural steering feel that translates good feedback from the road surface, more communicatively than the BMW’s. The adjustable dampers have been yanked out of the full-on-ferocious C63 sport sedan and do a wonderful job of keeping the C450 planted during cornering manoeuvres, especially with Sport mode selected.
Despite slapping the coveted AMG performance division’s badges on the C450, our test car still wore the same (admittedly attractive) 5-spoke 18-inch wheels. Like the BMW’s, they have a wider rear than front, but the Benz wears a narrower 245-section rear. Worse, the tires Mercedes fits are Continental ContiProContact “all-season” performance rubber that gave up their grip far sooner than the BMW’s when both cars were pressed hard. Mercedes ought to at least make proper summer performance tires an option on such an otherwise stellar performer.
Braking is outstanding on both cars with firm, linear pedal action and stellar stopping power, neither one of them offering appreciably better or worse braking that we could discern.
Both cars have been stylishly updated for 2016, though you’ll need to look pretty closely to see either car’s changes. The most obvious ones on the Bimmer are new lights front and rear, with the traditional BMW ‘corona rings’ augmented with a slight horizontal line toward the kidney grilles. It’s still a handsome car, but the current Mercedes C-Class took the segment’s fashion to a whole other level when it arrived last year and makes the BMW look ordinary by comparison.
The C450 AMG’s updates are equally subtle. The grille is new and is likely the most easily identifiable feature with its chromed dots visually filling the otherwise black void surrounding the three-pointed-star. At the back, a subtle trunk lid spoiler is affixed and quad tailpipes replace the duals from last year’s C400.
The interiors on these two particular cars represent a bit of a reversal of tradition for the brands. Whereas Mercedes has traditionally leaned more toward a sedate, luxurious finish, BMW has typically been more closely associated with sportiness.
Here the 340i’s interior is the same familiar – though still contemporary – F30-generation look we’ve come to appreciate since we first saw it four years ago. This 340i wears a Cohiba Brown Extended Merino Leather package as part of a $1,900 Individual interior option. The door panels have the leather panels pressed to resemble a weave, which is both unique and a little strange. The brown leather complements the gorgeous deep Tanzanite Blue exterior (another “Individual” option, this one costing $1,450).
The Sport seats are as coddling, supportive and comfortable as they have been for generations of 3-series sport sedans. And BMW has also really sorted out iDrive, making it one of the best systems for operation and bright, crisp screen graphics. The Harman/Kardon sounds very good too.
As impressive as the BMW’s interior is; the Mercedes has a nicer one. The Cranberry red leather seems a particularly racy choice for a Benz, but a great one nonetheless. Like the 340i’s, the C450’s seats are adjustable in countless ways, ensuring front seat occupants are both comfortable and secure in their perch should the driving get a little hairy.
The material choices in the Mercedes seem a step above the BMW, and the stylistic flourishes make the C450 feel like a more expensive and exclusive machine than the 340i.
The latest version of Mercedes’ COMAND infotainment system also features bright, crisp graphics on its screen and is controlled by a stationary touch pad shaped like a computer mouse. With a control wheel mounted below the “mouse”, the tedium of scrolling through information is quick and easy just as it is with BMW’s iDrive. Both systems are among the best in the industry for ease and slickness. The C450’s Burmeister sound system takes an edge over the BMW’s audio.
The C450 AMG allows a more aggressive (and louder) exhaust note into the cabin when the car is driven in anger. The sweet sounds of the BMW’s inline-six are still present, but it’s more muted. When settled into highway speeds, both engines become smooth and whisper-quiet with the Mercedes also suppressing wind noise a little better than the BMW.
What makes the compact sport luxury sedan class so appealing is their ability to play many roles. They’re impressive performers, comfortable luxury cars and fashionable enough brands to make owners proud to toss the keys to the valet. But they’re also reasonably practical thanks to rear seats that will contain a pair of average-sized adults and trunks large enough to contain most of what people would ever need these cars to haul. Plus they both have split-folding rear seats for greater usefulness. The BMW’s trunk will contain 368 L of stuff whereas the Benz will swallow 481 L. A difference this significant is too great to ignore.
And despite their sensational performance capabilities, they’re decently fuel-efficient too. Even after a day of mixed driving, back to back that included some urban traffic, highway cruising and serious back-road flogging, the C450 showed an average consumption rate of 12.3 L/100 km. The BMW was surprisingly a higher at 13.1 L/100 km. The government expects things to be a bit different with the official combined driving figure for the BMW posted at 9.3 L/100 km versus 9.8 for the Mercedes.
Not only are the 340i and C450 formidable foes dimensionally and in terms of performance, but when the pricing is compared, it’s near enough to not matter there too. The BMW starts at $54,500; the Mercedes: $55,900. Each of these cars came with a number of options boosting their respective costs up ($64,350 for the BMW and $66,290 for the Mercedes).
The BMW comes “bare-bones” with most of what we’d want in our sporty sedan anyway, meaning that we could’ve likely skipped the $6,500 Premium Package Enhanced and done without manual side sunshades in the rear or heated rear seats. Plus, nearly $3,500 was thrown at the fancy paint and “Individual” interior options. The M Performance Package at $1,900 seems a veritable deal adding the big, handsome 19-inch wheels and performance rubber, plus the M Sport brakes and Adaptive M Suspension. Needing to pay for an expensive option package to get a back-up camera is an obscenity that BMW should correct.
The C450 wears over $3,000 in fancier paint and interior trappings that have certainly contributed to its “specialness”. Despite starting with the higher entry cost, the Mercedes still requires a buyer to shell out an additional $4,500 to get this car’s Premium Package in order to have COMAND with navigation! Factor in the BMW’s free maintenance for four years as well, and suddenly the Benz is starting to feel a little spicy in the price department.
After all this, it still comes down to whichever one ignites a buyer’s emotions a little more strongly. There is no wrong choice here. But since one of them needs to take home the trophy, we’ll have to go with the car that feels like the livelier performer with a more active transmission and better handling capabilities. The BMW has that – and while a better set of tires would probably erase the C450’s grip deficit and fix the handling woes, the BMW’s better value for dollar can’t be ignored here, either.
In the end, it’s BMW’s 340i xDrive that can wear the crown this time, but only just barely.
Lexus IS 350 AWD F Sport
Volvo S60 R AWD
Pricing: 2016 BMW 340i xDrive
Base Price: $54,500
Options: Premium Package Enhanced (Alarm, Comfort Access, Rear View Camera, Electric Rear Sunshade, Manual Side Sunshades, Auto Dimming Exterior Mirrors, Lumbar Support, Heated Rear Seats, Park Distance Control, High-Beam Assistant, Active Blind Spot Detection, Durround View, Head-Up Display, Sirius XM Satellite Radio, Harman/Kardon Sound, BMW ConnectedDrive Services, Speed Limit Info), 6,500; M Performance Package (19” M Wheels with performance tires, M Sport brakes, Adaptive M Suspension, Variable Sport Steering), $1,900; Individual Paint, $1,450; Individual Interior, $1,900
Warranty: 4 years/80,000 km; 4 years/80,000 km powertrain; 12 years/unlimited distance corrosion perforation
Pricing: 2016 Mercedes-Benz C 450 AMG 4Matic
Base Price: $55,900
Options: Paint, $890; Red AMG Nappa Leather, $1,990; Dark Ash Open Pore Wood Trim; $250; Premium Package (COMAND with Navigation, Parktronic, Integrated Garage Door Opener), $4,500; Active LED lighting system, $1,200; Head-Up Display, $1,500
Warranty: 4 years/80,000 km; 4 years/80,000 km powertrain; 5 years/unlimited distance corrosion perforation