Premium prizefighters

Historically, the 3 Series has set the premium sedan template

WORDS DAMION SMY PHOTOS THOMAS WIELECKI

The new Audi A4 wants to take the premium sedan mantle from BMW and Mercedes, and itís not the only one

os Angeles rockers Guns Ní Rosesí 1992 album Use Your Illusion II included an angerfuelled track called Get in the Ring. In the compact sports sedan arena of that era, it could also have been the call from BMWís allconquering 3 Series as it threw down the gauntlet.

At the time, Bavariaís mid-size rivals were few and far between. The first Audi A4 was still a twinkle in Ingolstadtís eye. The Lexus IS was some six years distant, and it would be another decade before Jaguar introduced the X-Type Ė a Ford-era Mondeo spawn so unsuccessful that the Brits now claim that the XEís predecessor is not its predecessor after all.

Mercedesí future C-Class, the 180/190E, was the BMWís only real threat a quarter of a century ago. They were the Teutonic Golden Years. Fast forward to 2016 and itís a very different playing field. The two Germans are under attack from new challengers at every angle.

Case in point is the Lexus IS200t, freshly armed with the first four-cylinder turbo in the seriesí 17-year history. Ousting the old IS250 V6, it sits here in top-spec Sports Luxury trim, its only option being metallic paint (for an extortionate $1500.) Yet in terms of equipment and value for money, the Japanese contender still slams the Europeans. Itís the only one offering standard adaptive cruise control as well as blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert Ė options on all the others apart from the Mercedes (which comes with a ĎDriver

Historically, the 3 Series has set the premium sedan template

Assistance Package Plusí that includes cross-traffic assist and pedestrian recognition). Every combatant here includes leather, keyless entry/start and a reversing camera, but only the Lexus lets the sun shine in via a Ďmoonroofí.

Even with all that gear, the IS200tís $76,000 price is line-ball with the Jaguar XE Portfolio 25t, a 2016 Wheels COTY finalist, and both within striking distance of the hot-selling $78,217 (as tested) Mercedes C250.

Which makes the newest of the five cars assembled here, Audiís B9 A4, a compelling proposition from $69,990. But would you know it was all-new from the familiar exterior? Sure, itís clearly on-brand, with that single-frame grille and muscular posture, but is it different enough from its eight-year-old predecessor to have your neighbours knocking on your door to ask what itís like? We suggest you point out the exquisite clamshell bonnet that melds seamlessly into the B9ís waistline, or the exemplary fit and finish defined by tight and consistent panel gaps. Itís an engineering masterclass even at a standstill.

Underneath sits the MLB Evo platform that so helped the second-gen Q7 make such a strong impression at this yearís COTY. It brings with it a larger and stronger yet lighter body, laden with safety, efficiency and driver-assist tech. As tested in 185kW 2.0-litre TFSI quattro guise, the A4 lobs in with $22K worth of options to make this all-wheel-drive car an eye-watering $92,791. Included in that is the racy S-line package ($3200) complete with 19-inch alloys, brushed-aluminium this, perforated-leather that, much of it embellished with generous lashings of seductive Alcantara. More importantly, adaptive dampers are also part of the options extravaganza, for a notunreasonable $1100. Audiís much-vaunted full digital instrument cluster dubbed Ďvirtual cockpití ($2100), slick LED ĎMatrixí headlights ($1700), birdís-eye-view surround automatic parking system ($950), sunroof ($1950), plus a veritable driver-assist smorgasbord that includes adaptive cruise control and warnings for everything collision-related ($1900), were also bundled into our test car.

Compared to the Audi, our (from $69,990) BMW 330i Ė the most popular 3 Series Ė was comparatively modest in its $12K of options. More buyers than not go for the M Sport pack, with its 19-inch polished alloys, adaptive dampers and (optional) variable sports steering, which contributed in nudging towards $82K.

Note that, while the facelift may seem minor, the 2016 update includes a serious driveline upgrade in the form of the all-new B48 2.0-litre turbo four-pot petrol engine thatís fitter and more frugal. Is it a coincidence the power output matches the A4 at 185kW?

Cross about traffic

While that optional $2100 digital ĎVirtual Cockpití (left) may be its prime party-piece, the A4 isnít all show and no go. Among a plethora of safety gear, the A4 is the first production car to boast cross-traffic alert with an automatic braking function. The radar-based system detects traffic beyond the driverís periphery, but whereas systems from Mercedes, Lexus and Volvo will sound an audible warning, the A4 will actually apply the brakes to prevent a collision. Also impressive Ė and socially responsible Ė is its detection of oncoming cyclists when the A4 is parked; it will flash a red warning light to tell you that someone is approaching, and that you shouldnít open the door. Clever.

Piston slap

The engine in the BMW 330i may seem familiar, but the B48, as itís designated, is entirely new. As part of BMWís new modular engine family, itís already in service under the bonnet of the F56 Mini Cooper S and John Cooper Works models, where it replaces the previous Prince engines, as well as the BWM 225i Active Tourer, 320i and our 330i (among others), where it supplants the N20. Itís all-aluminium with direct injection, variable valve timing and twin-scroll turbocharging to deliver more power yet use less fuel than its predecessors.

The new A4 is an engineering masterclass even at a standstill

Historically, the 3 Series has set the premium sedan template, extolling the virtues of rear-wheel drive as the ticket to sports sedan Ďauthenticityí. Itís a formula of course followed by Mercedes, and Lexus and Jaguar also realise that rear-drive is a marketing prerequisite for this segment.

Except Audi doesnít agree. The 2.0 TFSI quattro it has sent into this bout is all-wheel drive, but the packaging advantages that the Ingolstadt sedan offers give it an edge over the others. Itís larger than its predecessor, with a longer wheelbase for more cabin space than any preceding A4, making it a properly spacious five-seater.

That alone is not enough to make a convincing premium compact sedan, so Audi has created what is a game-changing cabin. Itís a rich mix of soft-touch trim, and solid, quality materials, all expertly blended with inlays as beautiful as they are tactile.

The overwhelming phalanx of buttons and switches surrounding the tight, hefty centre console area of its predecessor are now classily consolidated into the smart centre stack thatís stunningly sophisticated.

Then thereís the crisp, brilliant graphics of the Virtual Cockpit instrument cluster that only a handful of years ago your smartphone could only dream of. The A4ís interior is in a different league and feels generations newer than any of its rivals here.

Especially compared to the Jaguar. The XEís cabin is the source of our biggest single criticism of the British car, with its cheaper materials far from convincing against those of the Audi. While the intuitive touchscreen has crisp graphics and the core layout and design are impressive, itís simply not executed to wow like the A4ís. The rearward vision, too, is the worst of the group, with that high parcel shelf and consequently angular windscreen distorting cars comically behind it. Yet itís surprisingly spacious up front and still has sufficient space for a premium compact sedan.

Same goes for the Mercedes in terms of roominess, and while it dazzles where the Jaguar canít, itís a more glammed-up, superficial effort that canít match the Audiís fit, finish and tactility, nor the restraint of the Jaguarís design. A standout for the C-Class is the beautifully sculpted Comand centre controller, but even this is out of tune with the glitzy sheen of the materials throughout in a cabin that doesnít possess the design cohesiveness of the Audi.

What chance does that give the BMW Ė and the Lexus Ė as the oldest two cars here? The Bavarianís fundamentals of spaciousness and solid, rich materials are furnished with its intuitive iDrive controller and classic white-on-black instruments to deliver a sense of occasion. Itís not fresh, but everything just works in the 3 Series, down to the manual park-brake lever.

The same canít be said of the Lexus, which kicks things off awkwardly with its foot-operated park brake. Beyond that, itís better news, with its cushy yet

Forming a Q

The Infiniti Q50 may not have made the impact of its rivals here, but in the second half of 2016 a revised version will bring new engines and chassis tech.

That includes the second generation of its fly-by-wire steering system, as well as a new ĎDigital Dynamic Suspensioní and new 3.0-litre twin-turbo V6, designated VR30. It will be offered in 224kW and 298kW outputs as the halo engines of the Q50 range, joining hybrid, diesel and 155kW four-cylinder petrol variants, the latter straight out of the Mercedes-Benz C250 tested here.

supportive seats, solid switchgear and a distinctive ambience and overall execution. Yet its tilt towards durable materials as opposed to premium, tactile finishes lets its down. To top it off, it has the least accommodating rear seat.

The Lexus also takes a back seat in terms of performance as the slowest car here, by a considerable margin. While its box-fresh 180kW/350Nm turbo four is refined and smooth around town, its 16.4sec standing- 400m time is the tardiest by more than second, and its 10.7L/100km as-tested fuel economy the poorest. The numbers simply donít lie.

It was even slower and thirster than the Mercedes, despite the 155kW C250 fielding the lowest output here. The Mercedesí 15.3sec 400m time is commendable, even if its powerplant is a tad coarse in the upper reaches, and its straight-line performance not exactly entertaining.

Thatís what is so interesting about the XE, the next quickest, barely 0.2sec ahead of the Benz; its 177kW engine is a left-over Ford powerplant thatís near the end of its lifecycle, but shows no signs of age in terms of refinement, responsiveness and in offering a good old-fashioned slab of grunt.

Yet sparring at the front is the new A4 and the 330i, their matching power outputs delivering near identical times, albeit in such different ways. The A4 proved clinical, quick and effective with its quattro all-wheel drive simply churning away the drag strip beneath its Hankook tyres, clocking a 14.4sec 400m while despatching 100km/h in a brisk 6.3sec.

The BMW pipped the Audi by a single tenth to take out the sprint, and it did so in a much more emotive, thrilling fashion. That 1998cc four-cylinder engine belts out the loudest exhaust note, with a throaty, deep timbre that even devotees of the traditional BMW straight-six will appreciate. Thanks to its eight-speed ZF auto, the Bavarian changes gears smoothly, swiftly and, in Sport mode, spins its 19-inch Bridgestones off the mark and between second and third gears. Itís a lot of fun in a straight line, but not so convincing around corners.

Thatís because the 330i M Sport is equipped with the optional Variable Sport Steering. It works much better in Comfort mode than in Sport, where the steering weights up artificially and seems to work in segments (thatís the variable part) as opposed to a flowing, smooth progressive motion. Save yourself $400 and stick with the standard steering because it delivers a more natural, less convoluted character.

In terms of ride, Wheels criticised the F30 3 Series when it first arrived, and now adaptive dampers are standard across the range. This car, though, sits lower on M Sports suspension, with those larger alloys, and the combination canít quite deliver a plush, supple ride at slow speed nor deal with larger bumps without an obvious, intrusive clunkiness. We like that the chassis feeds road feel back through the great seats, which offer excellent support and bolstering, as well as through the thick-rimmed M steering wheel, but its fidgety ride never settles, constantly battling the road surface below.

The Lexus handles the larger bumps more effectively, but its slow-speed ride is hardly premium-feeling and overall dynamic ability is hampered by its heft and consequent lethargy. It can still deliver a rewarding drive down a winding road, with well-sorted body control and accurate steering, but its slower turn-in and the transmissionís inability to deliver the ideal ratio out of slower corners brings a lack of overall bite that its rivals here possess in spades.

For a sharper set of fangs, get behind the wheel of the C250, with its precise steering and quicker reflexes.

Yet still the coarse engine disappoints, and new AirMatic air springs donít deliver the dynamic edge when the heat is on, nor the cloud-like comfort around town that youíd expect when ticking the options box to ditch metal springs. Then thereís the high driving position, which makes you feel as if youíre sitting on top of the seat, as opposed to the cosseted lower-slung top of the seat, as opposed to the cosseted lower-slung seating position of the Audi.

Full load

AN XE wagon hasnít been confirmed, but if Jaguar is to make serious inroads in Germany, it will have to build one. Thatís despite the fact that Jaguar has developed its first SUV, the F-Pace, which shares its platform with the XE and the larger XF.

Deutschland loves an estate; for example, the Avant version of the A4 makes up 65 percent of A4 sales in its homeland.

Thatís one of several XE body styles on the cards, including a convertible and coupe Ė yet Jaguar says that its relatively small scale may prevent it from producing a full suite of C-Class and 3 Series alternatives.

The A4 even offers steering feel that would have been unthinkable not long ago

That leaves the Jaguar and Audi as the dynamic front-runners, yet for quite different reasons.

To suggest that the A4ís firmer ride is more composed, its steering is more accurate and better weighted than a 3 Series, and that it Ė gulp Ė even offers a modicum of feel would have been unthinkable not so long ago. But itís utterly true in 2016 with what is by far the best A4 yet.

Itís also more composed into corners than the BMW and Mercedes, and sits flat with confidence, even if you can feel its weight when charging through a set of bends, something its roadholding and vast post-apex traction begs you to do again and again. Its engine is not as vocal as the rich BMWís, but its solid, grunty note backs a responsive, quick-shifting and silky yet athletic driveline that matches its soundtrack perfectly with sheer pace.

Itís the Jaguar that is the true driverís car here, though. What an accomplishment. The British sedan delivers sublime ride and body control that simply stuns its opposition in the same way that Audiís interiors blow all others into the weeds. The Jaguar is planted, composed and simply crushes bumps without the driver needing to be informed of whatís happening, leaving you to enjoy the excellent seating position, perfectly sized steering wheel and the smooth application of grunt from its engine. Matched to fluid, accurate and responsive steering, the XE sets a new class benchmark in terms of involving and rewarding the driver.

Thatís why the Jaguar XE wins this hard-fought five-car battle, nudging the A4 off the top of the podium. Itís clearly cut from a different cloth, and in an increasingly homogenised 2016, thatís a significant strength. Its interior may not match the Audiís, but the fundamentals are sound, and that excellent engine teams with class-leading dynamics to deliver an unbeatable package.

The Jaguar doesnít rely on chassis add-ons or option box-ticking; itís brilliant just the way it is. Every owner gets a stunning ride, handling and utterly connected, fluid-feeling steering. It fits like your favourite pair of jeans, is familiar yet not bland, comforting yet not benign. The cat has sharp claws.

BMW may have written the book four decades ago, but Jaguar has Ė at last Ė entered the ring and delivered a near-knockout blow.