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Used test: Audi A4 vs BMW 3 Series

These used executive saloons both give you sharp looks, superb quality and plenty of badge appeal for a bargain price. But which should you choose?...

Audi A4 vs BMW 3 Series

The Contenders

Audi A4 2.0 TDI 190 S Line

List price when new £34,030
Price today £15,000*
Available from 2015-present

Smart, sophisticated and refined, this A4 has always been a class-leading executive car


BMW 3 Series 320d M Sport

List price when new £33,775
Price today £15,000*
Available from 2012-2019

As its more muscular exterior suggests, could this previous-generation 3 Series be the stronger choice?

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


Let's face it, the old stereotype of veteran businessmen driving around in executive cars is far behind us. There's still a place for exec models, sure, but the class has an incredibly wide appeal now. Everyone from young singletons to families in search of a bargain go for them, especially because their used prices are now so reasonable.

New car deal of the day: Audi A4

Two of the cases in point are the Audi A4 and the BMW 3 Series. If you buy a 2016 example of either, you can save as much as £20,000 off what it would have cost when new. That applies to the more economical lower-powered diesels, rather than the truly rapid variants – although the desirable S Line and M Sport trims are still accessible for very sensible money.

And the A4 and 3 Series' selling points don't end there. They also have classy, good quality interiors and sorted driving dynamics. In fact, these two long-standing rivals rank among our favourite used cars, so you can see this head-to-head is going to be a close one. Let battle commence...

BMW 3 Series

Driving

Performance, ride, handling, refinement

Both cars on test here have 2.0-litre diesel engines that produce identical amounts of peak power and torque, with maximum torque available from just 1750rpm. That low-rev pulling power means both cars provide similarly effortless acceleration in relaxed driving.

Of the two, the A4 feels gutsier when you put your foot down hard and was quicker against the stopwatch in all our acceleration tests. That's probably because it's a lighter car, although the fact that its seven-speed automatic gearbox reacts more snappily to kickdown requests than the 3 Series’ eight-speed auto also helps with open-road overtaking. Mind you, the 3 Series’ gearbox is slightly smoother at low speeds.

Used test: Audi A4 vs BMW 3 Series

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 from new) Servotronic set-up that was fitted to our 320d test car. The 3 Series’ brakes could do with more feel too.

Our test cars are in trims that include harsher suspension set-ups, so there are more comfortable versions of both models available. A way of getting the best of both worlds is to find examples with adaptive dampers, which were optional from new and allow you to vary the stiffness of the suspension by pressing a button. That said, it's rare to find them on the A4 and our test car doesn't have them, although the 3 Series does.

Used test: Audi A4 vs BMW 3 Series

When the 3 Series’ adaptive suspension is in Comfort mode, it takes 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, especially at motorway speeds.

On the other hand, the A4’s interior is slightly quieter. Its engine is considerably smoother than the 3 Series’ and there’s far less wind noise and marginally less road noise at speed.