Luxury compact sedans review

In a bit of one-upmanship by archrival Mercedes-Benz, BMW slips from the top spot in our tests

Published: January 16, 2015 01:45 PM

For many car buyers who desire a well-balanced mix of driving excitement, luxury appointments, and brand status, the pinnacle has been the BMW 3 Series. Other manufacturers have tried, but none has been able to replicate BMW’s magic in creating the best sporty compact luxury sedan. Until now. In our Ratings, the redesigned Mercedes-Benz C300 toppled the BMW 328i from the top spot among mainstream entries—although the low-selling BMW 328d diesel still remains our best scorer. Plus: A new Acura takes its shot at the segment leaders.

Click on the model name in the write-up for each car to read the comprehensive road test and get Ratings.

Mercedes-Benz C300: Classy, sporty, comfortable

Mercedes-Benz C300

It may be a case of different strokes, but the latest Mercedes has outpointed the Teutonic titan. Harmonizing unflappable ride comfort with sharp handling was a dynamic that BMW seemed to own, but the redesigned C-Class strikes an almost perfect balance. The C300’s driving capabilities are as good as those in the 328i, with a commendably quiet cabin. Shocked that a four-cylinder is under that three-pointed star? Don’t be. It delivers a donkey kick of power, making our all-wheel-drive C300 feel quick while returning a respectable 26 mpg overall. Slide behind the wheel and you’re rewarded with a plush, baby S-Class interior. The C300’s seats provide all-day relief, with a smidge more comfort and space than the BMW’s. The rear seats are snug but fine for two adults. It’s not all accolades, though. The center infotainment screen is inscrutable and overwrought, with an absurdly avant-garde piano-black touchpad. And all of that goodness comes at a premium price. Still, Mercedes has done the BMW one better. Literally.

Price $41,325-$49,515
Fuel economy 26 mpg
Engine 241-hp, 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cyl.

BMW 3 Series (328i): Still aspirational

BMW 328i

Car shoppers pine for it. Other manufacturers wish they had built it. And despite growing cushier over the years—like many of us—the BMW 3 Series has managed to maintain its heritage of pinpoint handling while evolving into a more accommodating car. BMW still wins the variety battle, with multiple engine offerings—including the best-in-class diesel and a wickedly punchy 300-hp inline-six—and additional convertible, hatchback, and wagon body styles. The base 320i sedan comes with a 180-hp turbo-four, but most buyers will opt for the 328i’s 240-hp turbo-four that effortlessly zings along on-ramps and passing lanes while providing excellent fuel economy. For those who like their luxury with a smidge of Bauhaus, the 3’s cabin materials are starkly attractive. The backseat properly fits two adults. The iDrive infotainment system is daunting, but many climate and audio features use plain old buttons. And though rowing through gears may be an anachronism, the BMW still provides the option of a stick shift.

Price $33,900-$51,100
Fuel economy 28 mpg
Engine 240-hp, 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cyl.

Acura TLX: A junior varsity starter

Acura TLX

Playing on the same field doesn’t equate to competitiveness. The TLX replaces both the TL midsized and TSX compact luxury sedans, using Honda Accord underpinnings to do so. Its family-sedan roots show through with mundane handling, which falls short of the agile class leaders despite standard four-wheel steering. The TLX’s ride is firmer yet calmer than its Accord sibling’s. The quiet interior’s wood and leather appointments may spoil those moving up from mainstream cars—but it probably won’t sway Audi, BMW, and Benz owners. Nor does cabin room impress, especially in the backseat. Acura’s complicated two-screen console can be frustrating. Four- and six-cylinder engines are available and are more powerful than the offerings in their Accord cousins. The 290-hp V6 ­delivers luxury-brand levels of thrust, but the middling base motor is saved only by a spirited eight-speed, dual-clutch transmission. The TLX is a competent “tweener”—cheaper than its luxurious peers but lacking their panache.

Price $31,915-$45,620
Fuel economy 27 mpg
Engine 206-hp, 2.4-liter 4-cyl.

Most fun to drive/best performance

BMW 328i

The BMW 3 Series has been the dominant force in this category, living up to its “Ultimate Driving Machine” marketing moniker. Even though this Bavarian treat has added some cream, growing bigger and softer than its forebears, the 3 is still at the top. It’s the liveliest, most responsive car in the class. But it’s not alone anymore. Drafting right on the BMW’s bumper is the Cadillac ATS, which seems almost radar-guided to navigate twisty roads. Its lithe and agile handling, quick acceleration, and sharp steering make it pure fun. The Mercedes-­Benz C-Class’ strong turbo­charged mill puts down impressive power while rewarding drivers with athletic handling and a ride that pampers, effectively balancing comfort and sport. For those purists who insist that nothing can surpass the dynamic agility of their BMW, the Mercedes is just as good. And worth a look is the surprising Buick Regal, which provides a very close driving experience with an entry price that’s $8,000 lower.

Best telematics/infotainment

Buick Regal IntelliLink system
Photo: Courtesy Buick

BMW wrenched open Pandora’s box of infotainment when it foisted the original, overly complicated iDrive system upon the world in 2001. But with a decade-plus of experience, it has done a commendable job of making iDrive a logical-once-mastered system that operates audio, phone, and navigation through a single large knob and steering-wheel controls. Still, initiating certain prompts can be a chore. The Buick Regal uses the clear, straightforward IntelliLink touch screen and a second screen in the instrument binnacle. With big fonts, sensible logic, and clearly labeled menus, you intuitively access your music and phone controls. Too bad some of our staff encountered erratic navigation from the OnStar system. The MMI system in the soon-to-be-redesigned Audi A4 is the best of the rest. It has a quirky user interface, but eventually your fingers’ muscle memory will master the hard keys and center-console knob. Beyond that, the options for user-friendly systems fall frustratingly.

Top values

Buick Regal

Buick rides high when it comes to making the most of your luxury dollars and cents. The Regal, with its $34,485 as-tested price, is a well-equipped car for the money. Its 24 mpg overall is respectable when coming from a 259-hp motor. It also boasts Europhile driving qualities and above-average reliability. The Acura TLX has a low starting price, and its options packages provide good value for your incremental dollar. The base engine may lack driving thrills, but it’s a sound, less flashy alternative. Value is often about more than what comes out of your pocket. The Audi A4 and Volvo S60 historically have offered attractive leases that undercut the big German brands—if you are flexible about the timing. But the BMW 328i exemplifies the idea that paying a few extra bucks is worth it. The Bimmer is rewarding to drive, gets great fuel economy, and delivers enough luxury appointments to justify its price.

Acura TLX
Photo: Acura

Or should I just buy a loaded Accord?

What do you really get with an Acura TLX that you don’t get from a loaded version of its corporate cousin, the Honda Accord? To find out, we compared our four-cylinder TLX, which stickered at $35,920, with a $33,090 Accord EX-L V6. Both did well in our road tests, but the Accord finished with 84 points vs. the TLX’s 80.

In addition to costing about three grand less, the Accord’s 278-hp, 3.5-liter V6 has 72 more ponies than the TLX’s 206-hp four-cylinder.

The Accord is a full second quicker than the TLX to 60 mph. But with the TLX, you get a modern eight-speed, dual-clutch transmission, which has a more direct and sporty feel than the Accord’s conventional six-speed.

But the driving experience is quite different. Whereas the Accord V6’s power delivery is lush and smooth, the TLX’s feels crisper and more guttural. The Acura was more capable in handling and braking, and it has a quieter cabin; we found the Honda’s ride to be choppy.

Both come with such important standard features as dual-zone climate control, backup camera, and power driver and passenger heated leather seats. Their infotainment and safety suites are similarly equipped.

The TLX’s touted all-wheel steering didn’t seem to benefit agility or maneuverability. And the Accord’s conventional halogen headlamps illuminated stronger and farther than the Acura’s hyped LED setup.

Sure, the TLX has three more stereo speakers and one more year of warranty. And though it’s slower, the TLX rides better and feels sportier. If those things, plus the prestige badge, are worth the $3,000, go for it.

Editor's Note:

This article also appeared in the February 2015 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

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