Used test: Audi A4 vs BMW 3 Series

A used executive saloon brings a sharp suit and superb quality at a sensible price. But which of these two old rivals should you choose?...

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Alex Robbins
05 August 2018

Used test: Audi A4 vs BMW 3 Series

The Contenders

Audi A4 2.0 TDI 190 S Line auto

List price when new £34,030

Price today £19,500

Available from 2015-present

The latest A4 is one of our favourite new executive cars – but does it still stack up as a used buy?

BMW 3 Series 320d M Sport sport auto

List price when new £33,775

Price today £18,500

Available from 2012-present

The BMW 3 Series is the quintessential used executive car, and in 320d M Sport form, one of the most popular.

Price today is based on a 2016 model with average mileage and full service history, correct at time of writing

Audi A4 or BMW 3 Series? It’s a rivalry that’s echoed down the years since the 1990s, ever since Audi replaced its venerable 80 with the slick, handsome first-generation A4 – the first model with which it truly challenged the then-dominant 3 Series for class honours.

Fast forward to today and the latest A4 reigns supreme; it’s been our favourite new executive car ever since it was introduced. But only just; as a new car, today’s 3 Series is just as good in many areas, so it isn’t as though it sits in a distant second place.

Used test: Audi A4 vs BMW 3 Series

Which begs the question: can the A4 retain its lead as a used buy? Now that both of these models are a few years old, they’re plentiful on the second-hand market. And with the running so close between the two of them, there’s a chance the BMW’s lower price as a used car might make it a smarter option. So we’ve brought the two of them together once again, to find out whether the A4 can retain its crown once it’s on used car dealers’ lots.

What are they like to drive?

Both cars have 2.0-litre diesel engines that produce identical amounts of peak power and torque, with maximum torque being available from just 1750rpm.

That low-rev pulling power means both cars provide similarly effortless acceleration in relaxed driving, although the A4 feels gutsier when you put your foot down hard and was quicker against the stopwatch in all of our acceleration tests. This is probably a result of it being the lighter car, although the fact that its seven-speed automatic gearbox reacts more snappily to kickdown requests than the 3 Series’ eight-speed ’box also helps with open-road overtaking. Mind you, the 3 Series’ gearbox is slightly smoother in traffic and when parking.

Both cars resist body lean well through corners, but the rear-wheel-drive 3 Series is more fun on a twisting B-road, thanks to its more playful handling. However, the A4’s steering is just as precise and its weighting actually feels more natural than the overly heavy optional Servotronic set-up that was fitted to our 320d test car. The 3 Series’ brakes could also do with more feel.

Used test: Audi A4 vs BMW 3 Series

Both cars ride more firmly than they do in cheaper trims, although the A4 S line was available with comfort suspension for no extra charge. But while it’s worth having if you can find one so equipped, it’s a rare option. Adaptive dampers were available at extra cost on both cars, and these allow you to vary the stiffness of the suspension by pressing a button. Our test 3 Series had these, whereas the A4 didn’t.

Switch the 3 Series’ adaptive suspension to Comfort mode and it’ll take the sting out of most rutted surfaces, with a settled ride at motorway speeds. Our A4 dealt well with speed bumps but was a little too firm to dial out small undulations as effectively, so it fidgeted more, particularly at motorway speeds.

That said, the A4’s interior is that bit quieter. Its engine is considerably smoother than the 3 Series’ and there’s far less wind noise and marginally less road noise at speed.

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Used test: Audi A4 vs BMW 3 Series