Used Audi A4 vs BMW 3 Series vs Mercedes C-Class vs Citroen DS5

Buying a used Audi A4, BMW 3 Series or Mercedes C-Class might seem obvious if you want an executive car. But is the Citroรซn DS5 a worthy left-field alternative?

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The Contenders

Audi A4 2.0 TDIe 163 SE

List price when new ยฃ25,202

Price today ยฃ11,000

Available from 2008-2015

A classy interior and smart looks have made the Audi A4 one of the most desirable executive cars

BMW 3 Series 320d Efficient Dynamics

List price when new ยฃ28,080

Price today ยฃ10,500

Available from 2012-present

Our Executive Car of the Year in 2012, the BMW 3 Series blends an involving drive with sleek design

Citroรซn DS5 2.0 HDI 160 DStyle

List price when new ยฃ25,900

Price today ยฃ8,500

Available from 2012-2015

Citroรซnโ€™s flagship is the alternative choice โ€“ and its flamboyant styling makes the other three cars here look drab

Mercedes-Benz C-Class C 220 CDI BlueEfficiency SE

List price when new ยฃ28,270

Price today ยฃ10,000

Available from 2007-2014

Classy and well-built, the C-Class offers traditional Mercedes values in a surprisingly affordable package

Price today is based on a 2012 model with average mileage and full service history, correct at time of writing

Want a used executive car, but donโ€™t want to plump for one of the usual suspects? In that case, youโ€™ll probably find the Citroรซn DS5 pretty tempting.

Whether itโ€™s in terms of its French nationality, its badge, its radical โ€˜monoboxโ€™ styling or its unusual choice of interior finishes, the DS5 breaks the mould, providing a left-field alternative to the German rivals that have traditionally dominated this sector. And with used Citroรซns traditionally offering great value, it could well have price on its side too.

But that might not be enough for it to beat the established competition. The BMW 3 Series, for example, is one of the most crushingly competent used executive cars in the UK, and with plenty of ex-company and ex-fleet cars kicking around, itโ€™s one of the most widely available too.

Then thereโ€™s the Audi A4, also a fleet favourite, also ubiquitous and renowned for its classy, relaxing interior and efficient engine range. And if that wasnโ€™t enough, the DS5 also has to contend with the Mercedes-Benz C-Class, a car with arguably the best badge appeal in a class laden with the stuff.

So is there any way the French fancy can break the German stranglehold on this class? And if it canโ€™t, which of its rivals should have you parting with your hard-earned?

What are they like to drive?

This Efficient Dynamics version of the 3 Series has taller gearing and less power than a regular 320d. However, it develops the same 280lb ft of torque and pulls strongly from below 1500rpm, so thereโ€™s no need to constantly change down.

Itโ€™s also possible to leave the gearlever alone for long periods in the Audi A4 and Citroรซn DS5; they donโ€™t have the torque of the 3 Series, but make up for this with shorter, less economy-focused gear ratios. In fact, thereโ€™s very little between the three cars when you look at their in-gear acceleration times.

Only the C-Class has an advantage. Its engine produces a hefty 295lb ft of torque from just 1400rpm, so even when youโ€™re stuck behind slow-moving traffic and faced with an incline, the C-Class will haul you up it without the need for a downchange.

True, its engine is less impressive when you rev it hard to extract maximum acceleration because it starts to fall off before you get near the rev limiter. However, the C-Class still accelerates quicker than the A4 and DS5 through the gears.

Itโ€™s not quicker than the 3 Series, though; rev the engine in this Efficient Dynamics model hard and it feels more like a sports saloon than an eco special.

That feeling doesnโ€™t quite extend as far as the corners, though โ€“ mainly because the 3 Series weโ€™ve got here isnโ€™t fitted with the Adaptive M Sport suspension that was available as a ยฃ750 option when the car was new.

Without it, the 3 Series lacks the superb agility itโ€™s often known for; the car leans a bit too much and can lose its composure through a series of fast bends, and its body bounces up and down more at speed, so the motorway ride is less comfortable. Itโ€™s rare, but if you can find a car with the optional suspension fitted, itโ€™s worth having.

If anything, the C-Class is even more sensitive to the type of suspension itโ€™s fitted with. The SE car tested has a very supple ride at all speeds, but itโ€™s let down by slower steering and sloppier body control than all of its rivals here. By contrast, Sport-spec cars have a firm set-up, so they handle well on twisty roads, but jostle you too much on the motorway.

At least the C-Class is the easiest of the bunch to park; whichever version you choose, its front wheels can be turned to extreme angles and the steering is feather-light at low speed.

The A4โ€™s steering is usefully light for parking, too, but it doesnโ€™t guide you accurately enough in bends. Even Audiโ€™s Drive Select system which was available as an option and lets you play around with the weighting, adds little in the way of feedback. Itโ€™s a pity, because thereโ€™s plenty of grip and the short-travel suspension keeps the car impressively flat in bends.

Things are even worse in the Citroรซn, because it has rock-hard suspension that batters you relentlessly on any road that isnโ€™t silky smooth. Such a stiff set-up inevitably keeps the car from rolling around in corners, but the steering is vague and inaccurate, so it isnโ€™t even all that much fun to drive.

At least the DS5 is a tranquil thing to travel in; its engine is the second best damped here, while its laminated windows block out virtually all wind noise. In fact, the only thing that disturbs the peace is some suspension patter over broken surfaces. On the whole, though, itโ€™s the quietest car here.

The quietest engine belongs to the Audi โ€“ itโ€™s so smooth when you rev it that you could almost mistake it for running on petrol โ€“ but in other respects, the A4 isnโ€™t quite so impressive. It lets in quite a lot of road noise, and thereโ€™s the slightest flutter of wind noise down the sides of the car at cruising speeds.

Itโ€™s better than the 3 Series, mind you. Not only does the BMWโ€™s 2.0-litre diesel engine sound a bit coarse when you rev it, but the door mirrors generate a fair amount of wind noise at motorway speeds, while a noticeable amount of road roar is also present.

But the C-Class is the loudest car of all. Wind and road noise both find their way into the cabin, while the engine sounds very gruff under acceleration; the din never completely fades into the background, either, even when cruising on the motorway.

To make matters worse, the C-Class has a long-travel clutch with a decidedly vague biting point, which makes it tricky to pull away smoothly and gives gearshifts a ponderous feel. There are no such problems in the 3 Series or A4 โ€“ both have smooth and precise gearshifts โ€“ but the DS5 is let down by an overly springy clutch and a notchy gearshift.

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