BMW 320d SE auto
List price when new £29,850
Price today £10,500
Available from 2012-present
The BMW 3 Series’s reputation precedes it – it’s efficient, handsome and a delight to drive.
Mercedes-Benz C220 CDI SE auto
List price when new £29,850
Price today £11,000
Available from 2007-2014
The Mercedes C-Class majors on comfort and has a seriously upmarket image.
Price today is based on a 2012 model with average mileage and full service history, correct at time of writing
It is an eternal joy to remember just how much you can get for your cash if you decide to buy a used car, rather than a new one. And in few areas does that comparison come into such sharp focus as in the used executive car market.
Let’s assume you’ve got a budget of £11,000 or so. Brand new, that’d get you a nice, mid-range city car, or perhaps an entry-level small car. But second-hand, it opens the door to a truly suave, five-year-old executive saloon, with all the trimmings that usually come with it.
“Ah,” we hear you say, “but these older cars don’t come with any manufacturer’s warranty.” That’s as may be, but even if something were to go wrong, it’d have to be catastrophic to hit you as hard as the depreciation costs the brand new alternatives would incur.
Buying a smart executive car of this age is a truly savvy move, then. But which to choose? Now, that is a question. The top dogs in the sales charts have, for a long time, been the BMW 3 Series and Mercedes C-Class. Both look good, are freely available on the used market, cost about the same and share that sense of class that only an executive car can exude. A tough choice, in other words. It probably makes sense to get them together to find out once and for all, then – so that’s exactly what we’ve done.
What are they like to drive?
Our 320d was fitted with BMW’s potent 181bhp 2.0-litre diesel engine and the latest eight-speed automatic gearbox, and when we timed the 320d’s acceleration from 0-60mph in this form, it clocked in at just 7.6sec.
What’s more, the influence of the BMW’s auto gearbox on the car’s power delivery cannot be overstated. Leave it in Comfort mode and it will slip through the ratios imperceptibly; select Sport, and the shifts come hard and fast, and yet they remain shudder-free.
Although Mercedes’ C220 uses a 2.1-litre engine, it produces a relatively modest 168bhp. However, that’s partially offset by the 295lb ft of torque; that’s 15lb ft more than the 320d produces.
Any thoughts that the Mercedes will give the BMW a run for its money are short-lived, however, because the C-Class feels weaker and less flexible at any speed.
As if that weren't enough, the C-Class's’ engine is noisier and vibrates more than the 3 Series', and its seven-speed automatic gearbox feels slow-witted. The C-Class masks road and wind noise more effectively when it is settled at a motorway cruise, though.
Our 3 Series had the optional switchable suspension that can be adjusted for firmness via a rocker switch next to the gear selector. In Comfort mode, the ride still isn’t as relaxing as that of the softly sprung C-Class, but only roads with severely rippled surfaces cause uncomfortable clunks to be felt inside the 3 Series.
We strongly suspect most owners will default to Sport mode anyway, and they'll delight in the sharp, accurate steering, grip and sheer dynamic balance that that setting brings.
Next to this brilliance, the C-Class feels leaden. It rolls in corners, while the nose is slow to follow steering inputs and dives markedly under braking.
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