Audi A4 vs. BMW 3-Series

Written by Suzanne Kane

Mention luxury sport sedan and immediately several automakers spring to mind, among them Audi, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz. The fact that other automakers are increasingly entering the compact luxury sport sedan field is testament to consumer demand for such cars. Two erstwhile competitors in this class are the Audi A4 and the BMW 3-Series. Both are highly regarded by automotive enthusiast magazines and consumers alike. But which one comes out on top in a head-to-head comparison? Audi A4 vs. BMW 3-Series, let’s take a look.

BMW 3 Series
Audi A4

Overview

Both A4 and the 3-Series shine in the entry-level luxury car segment – and for good reason. At the top of the list are performance, handling, luxurious interiors, and available all-wheel drive (AWD). BMW 3-Series has been at the top of Car and Driver’s 10Best list for 18 consecutive years. How’s that for a record? Virtually any option you can think of is available in these two competitive sedans, although loading up with them – and who can resist – can get decidedly pricey.

Audi A4, most recently redesigned in 2009, continues in 2010 with no major changes (other than the discontinuation of the A4 Cabriolet convertible, replaced by the A5 Cabriolet and no more V6 engine). Audi A4 is also available in a wagon. The BMW 3-Series likewise received a slight refresh in 2009, and continues in 2010 with few changes. Besides the sedan, BMW 3-Series is available in coupe, wagon, or hardtop convertible.

Speaking of price, the base manufacturers suggested retail price (MSRP) for the Audi A4 starts at $31,450. Compare this to the base starting MSRP for the BMW 3-Series that ranges from $33,150 (328i) to $43,950 (335d). But add in some of those hot options, and either model can quickly climb in price.

Performance

Performance is king with luxury sport sedans – compact or otherwise. Audi A4 and BMW 3-Series deliver the goods.

Audi A4: Under the hood of the Audi A4 sport sedan is a 211-hp 2.0-liter turbocharged inline 4-cylinder engine (2.0 TFSI) that provides class-leading fuel economy and 258 pound-feet of torque. Equipped with standard FrontTrack front-wheel drive (FWD) and Multitronic CVT (continuously variable transmission), the A4 2.0 TFSI is available with optional Quattro permanent AWD. Audi says that 80 percent of A4 buyers opt for Quattro AWD. A 6-speed manual transmission is standard, while a 6-speed automatic Tiptronic transmission is optional. A4 posts 0 to 60 mph times of 7.1 seconds for the Multitronic CVT, 6.6 seconds for Tiptronic, and 6.4 seconds for the manual. Top speed is electronically limited at 130 mph. EPA-estimated fuel economy is pretty impressive: 23 mpg city/30 mpg highway (Multitronic), 21 mpg city/27 mpg highway (Tiptronic), and 22 mpg city/30 mpg highway (manual). Premium unleaded 91 fuel is recommended.

BMW 3-Series: Perhaps Edmunds says it all: “For unparalleled driving excellence, the 2010 BMW 3 Series is still where it’s at.” Nothing against the Audi A4, but reviewers do have their opinions, after all. Still, here are the facts, so you can judge. Consumers have a choice of three engines in the 2010 3-Series. The 328i models are powered by 230-hp 3.0-liter inline 6 that delivers 200 pound-feet of torque. In the 335i is a 300-hp twin-turbocharged inline-6 that delivers 300 pound-feet of torque. Opt for the 335d and you get a 265-hp twin-turbocharged diesel and 425 pound-feet of torque. In the gasoline models, a 6-speed manual transmission is standard, while a 6-speed automatic with available paddle shifters is optional (standard on 335d). The 328i goes from 0 to 60 mph in 6.3 seconds (manual) and 6.9 seconds (automatic). 328i xDrive does it in 6.9 seconds (manual) and 7.1 seconds (automatic). Numbers for 335i are 5.4 seconds (manual) and 5.6 seconds (automatic, while 335 xDrive posts 5.3 (manual) and 5.4 (automatic) seconds. In the 335d, it’s a flat 6.0 seconds. EPA-estimated fuel economy is as follows: 17-18 mpg city/25-28 mpg highway (328i), 335i automatic achieves 17/26 city/highway mpg (manual and AWD are slightly lower), and 335d gets an impressive 23 mpg city/36 mpg highway.

Safety

Audi A4: All A4’s come standard with antilock brakes, traction control, stability control, front-seat side airbags and full-length side-curtain airbags. Rear-seat side-mounted airbags are available as an option. An optional blind-spot warning system (called “side-assist”) is available as long as navigation system is selecte d. Another optional safety feature is Active Braking Guard, part of the adaptive cruise control. In the event that an imminent collision is detected, the system alerts the driver while priming the brakes for full stopping power. The 2010 A4 received perfect 5-star scores in front and rear impact testing from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and perfect “Good” rating in frontal offset and side impact testing from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).

BMW 3-Series: Standard safety features include antilock disc brakes, stability control, front-seat side airbags and full-length side-curtain airbags. Notable is that the stability control system integrates several features that are designed to improve braking performance. One such feature is that it periodically wipes the brake rotors dry while windshield wipers are in use. Another is that the system automatically snugs the pads to the rotors when the driver suddenly lifts off the throttle. In NHTSA testing, the 2010 3-Series received 4 out of 5 stars for frontal protection and 5 stars for side protection. The IIHS gave 3-Series sedan a “Good” rating for frontal offset and side crash protection.

Interior and Special Features

Audi A4: Reviewers are virtually unanimous in praise for the A4 interior. Edmunds remarks: “The 2010 A4’s cabin is one of the nicest in this class. The control layout is attractive, if button-happy, and the standard leather upholstery trumps the leatherette in base BMWs and Benzes… We find the overall design to be more visually interesting than most other competitors have to offer.” A Bang and Olufsen advanced audio system is available, and a sunroof is standard across all trims. Looking for trunk space? Audi A4 sedan offers a whopping 16.9 cubic feet – which is sizable enough even for family sedans.

BMW 3-Series: Luxurious materials, advanced electronics, and a level of fit and finish that’s perfect for the most demanding drivers – all are hallmarks of the 3-Series. BMW pays a lot of attention to driver comfort with supportive seats and clean analog gauges. There is a tradeoff with only 12 cubic feet of cargo space in the trunk, however, which is considered just average for this class. Five years after its introduction, the iDrive system continues to draw mixed reviews. The iDrive uses a single dial to control the entire car’s interior electronics – everything from navigation to climate control. Although BMW improved the system in 2009, drivers that don’t like driver interface systems still may think it’s a bad idea.

Summing it Up

Consumers simply can’t go wrong with either choice of luxury compact entry-level sport sedan, Audi A4 or BMW 3-Series. Sure, there are distinct differences between the two, and there are many die-hard fans that will only choose their long-held favorite, thinking, perhaps mistakenly, that the competitor couldn’t possibly offer more. To them, may we say two words: test drive. In the end, the luxury sports sedan in this class that wins your heart has to hit on all cylinders. It has to be a stellar performer, and an adroit and nimble-handling vehicle that hugs curves and sprints flat-out like an electrified rabbit. It has to look classy, be comfortable and luxurious to ride in, and signify elegance in an understated yet unmistakable fashion.

A4 vs. 3-Series Comparison Table

SpecificationsAudi A4BMW 335i
PRICE$32,500$42,050
ENGINGE2.03.0
CYLINDERS4 inline6 inline
DRIVE-TYPERear-wheel / AWDRear-wheel / AWD
FUELPetrolPetrol
AVERAGE FUEL USAGE26.0 mpg23.5 mpg
POWER211 hp300 hp
TORQUE258 ft-lbs.300 ft-lbs.
ACCELERATION (0-60)6.9 seconds5.6 seconds