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2015 Mercedes C-Class vs. BMW 428i Gran Coupe – a tale of two cities
October 6, 2014, 11:27 am
Filed under: cars, Technology | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

It was time to sell my Mercedes C-Class, and the launch of the new 2015 C-Class seemed like a logical upgrade.  But it didn’t turn out that way. Having had two Mercedes cars over 15 years, I ended up choosing a BMW 428i Gran Coupe instead of the new C-Class as my next car. Here’s why…

The 2015 C-Class is without doubt a thing of beauty, it ticks a lot of boxes at face-value, so like many potential buyers I dived into some in-store and online research. If you do a few Google searches you’ll find dozens of sites with lazy reviews – which is not Mercedes fault, but it’s off-putting (re-hashed press releases dominate sites – and you quickly find the majority of sites refer to the new C-Class as “a baby S-Class”. This is hardly the stuff of review, it’s one person’s interesting observation parroted a thousand times without original thought).  Amongst those who drove it, you’ll also find fans of the new (optional) air suspension, and detractors – proving the only proof is to test drive it for yourself.

The new Mercedes C-Class, jam packed with innovative technology

The new Mercedes C-Class, jam packed with innovative technology

But do a bit more digging online, and you’ll get past the cut-had-paste bloggers and through to the reviewers who know their stuff. Practical drivers with a sense of the how to report handling and drive – and not just talk about the admittedly clever (class leading) technology in the car.  During my first test drive – in the C200 – I was surprised that the car seemed to suddenly rev as it placed itself in the wrong gear for a short while.  And the engine was OK, but the modest torque was not for me.  A few days later I drove the C250 Diesel.  While the torque was great, the noise was surprising. We all know that a diesel engine can chatter at times, but this was intrusive IMO.  I’m not sure if the Diesel C-Class vehicles supplied to Australia contain the Renault Diesel engine that some of the Brit cars get, and I doubt Mercedes would promote this if it does, but one thing was very evident – whoever made that particular Diesel engine, they sure made a noisy one.  Sadly the C250 also did a bit of a gear-hunt at one stage. My caution levels were rising.

There’s no doubt the C-Class interior is impressive however, and the only thing I could fault was that the Nav screen looks like an iPad was slapped on at the last minute as it’s very prominent.  It also feels fractionally too far forward as I would have preferred it set-back a few cm.  But that’s a personal taste thing, I’m sure most people will like it.  I didn’t get to see how the move to Garmin maps played out in detail, but having long learnt not to trust the very ordinary directions delivered by the Becker maps in my previous C-Class, I figured any upgrade would be a good thing.  Sadly the old Mercedes Command menus (which look like a DOS-era computer screen to me) are soon found again as you get past the initial high-quality pages of the new system.  I read that Mercedes has delayed it’s introduction of Apple’s in-car system, so perhaps they had to shoehorn bits of the old into the new – because that’s what it feels like, and that’s a shame as they have not been competitive in this area, and still aren’t.  But I will give a nod in the direction of Garmin, seriously good to see the Becker system on the way out.

Immaculate C-Class interior. Notice the clean lines thanks to moving gear stick from centre console to a wand on steering column. And a long-time Mercedes visual benefit - no handbrake in centre console (it auto disengages as you drive off, and is applied by a small lever on lower dash)

Immaculate C-Class interior. Notice the clean lines thanks to moving gear stick from centre console to a wand on steering column. And a long-time Mercedes visual benefit – no handbrake in centre console (it auto disengages as you drive off, and is applied by a small lever on lower dash)

So, after a couple of drives, lots of reading, discussions with sales people, and a visit to one of the launch events I decided I needed to consider other options.  The Audi A4 is due for a major update, but is sometime from reveal let alone showrooms.  I flirted with the Audi Q5 briefly, but decided an SUV wasn’t for me.  Lexus got a quick look, but I soon moved on (the IS300h does have an impressive spec though).  A couple of visits to BMW had me interested in the Three Series, but I just couldn’t – it seemed dated after sitting in the new C-Class.  Then I took it for a test drive.  Wow!  The 328i’s engine is roughly comparable to the C250 petrol Mercedes, but on paper a better performer as they’re getting torque across more rev range and slightly more horsepower. And if you can find a bad review for the eight speed auto it might be a first. In fact I found many glowing reviews for this transmission, and I have to agree – unlike the two C-Class cars I drove, the BMW was always in the right gear at the right time, and with this engine the car leapt away nicely when you put your foot down.

A friend suggested I check out the 428i Gran Coupe. Now here was a car that just looked great to my eye.  Coupe good looks, but with rear doors and a lift back in place of boot.  Where the three series is due for a facelift in 2015, the 4 series is fairly new – and the Gran Coupe pretty much brand new (you can see some DNA to the jaw-dropping Six Series Gran Coupe too – a nice family line coming through here)

Showing some design DNA from the 640i Gran Coupe, BMW's 428i Gran Coupe is a particularly good looking car

Showing some design DNA from the 640i Gran Coupe, BMW’s 428i Gran Coupe is a particularly good looking car

Inside the 328i was clean and tidy. Likewise the 428i. But that’s about it. It’s otherwise plain, storage is lacking, the lid on the cup-holder actually lifts right off (now what?) rather than flipping up or retracting – truly mad design.  Like many cars there is no seat memory for the passenger seat.  This must be what, a $10 chip and a $5 button?  Shame on BMW for this – and credit to Mercedes for finally adding it to the C-Class as standard. The front parking sensors need to be manually reactivated when you need them (WTF?), the brake lever feels 1950 after the Mercs elegant solution (for years Mercedes have had a great foot brake – but the new C-Class has a cool electronic park brake), the gear stick is OK, but the centre console area feels slightly cluttered after playing with the Merc’s gear wand on the steering column, the speed Limiter seems to do nothing apart from flash a light (the C-’s limiter is active, and has saved my license more than once).  The BMW’s sunroof is no match for the Merc’s elegant Panorama rook, Thanks to no visible handbrake or gearstick in the centre console, the Merc interior is clean and contemporary. The BMW is (by comparison) a little uninspiring.  But hey, maybe the handbrake position is handy for brake slides?!

Nice, but not as elegant as the new C-Class. Note the hand-break looking old compared to the C-Class

Nice, but not as elegant as the new C-Class. Note the hand-break on the centre console, which looks old compared to the C-Class

The BMW 428i that I purchased lacks half the technology the C-Class comes with standard – even after ticking several options on the BMW.  It has the “issues” mentioned above, but the iDrive system is a thing of pure joy to use (take note Mercedes, this is how you do it).  Best of all though, the engine and gearbox are in harmony, they absolutely sing together and funnily enough thats kind of important for a car 🙂  So impressed by the dive, this car became the car of choice for me.  Ride and handling in the 428i is very good – the wheelbase is slightly wider than the three series and I sense this adds to the sense of stability.  All up, it feels secure and is pure fun to drive – and like the new C-Class, offers adaptive suspension for further fine-tuning to suit your needs.

Honestly both cars are wonderful choices and you could be happy with either of them.  The new C-Class is likely to win dozens of awards and continue to lead the segment in this country.  It’s a big step forward for Mercedes and seriously throws the gauntlet down.  Except for the engine. And gearbox. And navigation. And looks (IMO the 428i Gran Coupe is second only to the 640 Gran Coupe in the entire BMW range at the moment).

But the main thing that swayed me against the new C-Class was the high cost of service with this brand – and not just routine services.  I’d had two significant (expensive) service issues in the last six years.  For the investment, it’s not something I was comfortable with.  My feeling for the Mercedes brand was tarnished with twice having to tow my car to the dealers after the immobiliser failed to unlock (one of these being very expensive thanks to a complex towing requirement from where it was parked).  I know any car can have a bad day, they are mechanical after all, but it had become a nagging doubt as to long term reliability for me.  Especially as another Merc owner I know of had several grands worth of engine repairs seven years in – it seemed to paint a warning picture to me, and felt like it was time to get out (another friend reminded me that maybe this is not so unusual – he said there’s a saying that goes “If you can’t afford a new Mercedes, you certainly can’t afford a used one”).  I’m sure others could point to a reverse version of this story with a heroic track record in a Merc and a lumpy run in another marque – but this stuff is all about personal perception, and mine was now framed by my experiences

C-Class dash

C-Class dash

428i Dash

428i Dash

So now I’m learning to in’s and out’s of my new BMW.  It’s early days and I still drop my right hand ready to release the handbrake under the dash, but that kind of muscle memory will soon fade.  I’m noticing even more things I like now, for example the dashboard looks like a car dash – not a toy.  The connected apps are clever – finding an address on my phone or computer and pushing it to the car is fantastic.  Giving Pandora tracks the thumbs-up or thumbs-down on iDrive is perfect.  Remote lights flash in a carpark is actually handy (the horn option is sadly muted in Australia).  Best of all, the driving experience is exactly what I wanted – pure pleasure.  There are a couple of options I wish I’d gone for, things that are standard on the new C-Class too, but that engine, that gearbox. Really, I’m more than spoilt.

Lastly, if you’re in the market for either car (or similar), don’t overlook the head-up-display (HUD).  So handy, and definitely a safety enhancement as it projects speed and navigation directions in front of you meaning you don’t need to take your eyes off the road (both cars have a raft of other active and passive safety features – and the HUD is normally promoted for convenience, but I’d say it plays a role in safety too)

I plan to update this post in a couple of months when I’ve got some more k’s on the clock. (DONE – Scroll down)

Another view of the BMW 428i Gran Coupe

Another view of the BMW 428i Gran Coupe

 

BMW's 640i Gran Coupe - the 428i Gran Coupe seems to be drawn from this cars elegant lines

BMW’s 640i Gran Coupe – the 428i Gran Coupe seems to be drawn from this cars elegant lines

 

UPDATE: Two months in…

After 2500 km of city driving and four lengthy freeway drives, it’s time to update my thoughts;

  • The C-Class (as predicted) has won Car of the year. Well deserved with the way it has raised the bar in the segment.  But I have no regrets, no buyers remorse, as I am loving the BMW.
  • My concern with the handbrake placement has turned out to be a non-issue. Maybe there’s a cosmetic argument, but no concerns in use or performance.
  • The Head Up Display is fantastic (Mercedes has this too). What a great innovation, surely something to trickle down to more cars. It is a genuine safety aid, bring it on.
  • I was worried the BMW interior would seem lame compared to the luxe of the new C-Class. Not so, the striking red leather seats and dash, accented with black and aluminium look fantastic. Wood grain belongs on the dining room table not in a car – such a daggy dated look to put wood grain inside a car.  When I look back at the interior of the new C-Class I’m now preferring my BMW interior – I know this is in part due to “getting to know it”, but I think my initial concern was misplaced.
  • The BMW is ALWAYS in the right gear at the right time.  The eight-speed auto is sublime, absolute magic.
  • The Mercedes has better execution of the hill start brake, front parking sensors and speed limiter (the BMW has these, but not as well implemented IMO)
  • The Mercedes has a seat memory function for the front passenger seat. Given the BMW has the electric controls, but lacks a $5 memory chip this is a cheap and hopelessly accountant-driven omission by BMW.
  • The lack of a sync button for air-con in the BMW is another omission that I can’t get my head around. Mercs and other cars have had these for over a decade. If I’m the sole occupant, I want the air on both sides at 18 degrees, not one at 18 and one 19.5 or whatever. $10 BMW, that’s all it would cost per car to deliver this. It’s a software script and a plastic button, and for a company that promotes its engineering prowess it’s an omission that just looks cheap and stupid. My feeling is that the Merc’s air-con is colder than the BMW – handy for Merc drivers here in Austaralia
  • The BMW’s iDrive system is light years ahead of the Mercedes navigation/entertainment offer (this is not to be glossed over, it’s something I use most days and the improvement is a major benefit to me)
  • The BMW has (IMO) a significantly better engine and gearbox. Game, set, and match right there.
  • I regularly get to drive a 2014 E-Class Mercedes.  It’s a nice pleasant drive, but by comparison my BMW is engaging, involving and eagerly anticipated.  The Mercedes gets me form A to B efficiently. The BMW does the same, but with a connection or feel that makes it much more enjoyable. It’s hard to describe, but one car is like a quality functional tool, and the other is an emotive experience. And that wraps it up, the BMW was definitely the right choice for me.

Update – just over a year in….

  • Of the points mentioned at the two-month update, the auto rain wipers and hill start brake are the most annoying
  • Two minor faults fixed under warranty (tilt on passenger wing mirror when in reverse failed, and passenger right hand door developed a rattle – which Google tells me is not exactly rare for BMW’s)
  • Merc air-con definitely much cooler
  • I take the elegant BMW dash for granted now, but seeing modern Mercs up close their dash looks toy-town and cartoonish by comparison
  • STILL loving the driving experience, it’s brilliant.

Update – just over two years in…

  • We’re experiencing a very hot summer in Australia and the BMW’s air-con still provides cool air, but not super-cold air as the Mercedes does.  The advantage on the Merc is that you can return to a hot car and drop the internal temperature quickly, then back off the setting to something more comfortable.  The BMW struggles in this regard as it simply doesn’t deliver enough super-cold air for Australia’s climate.
  • The Reversing wing mirror has failed again – in fact it repeatedly fails,  which is really annoying as it’s great feature when it works.
  • Of more concern the fuel pump failed – the car was towed and repaired under warranty, but it was a startling issue to have in a two-year old car (and Google tells me this is not a rare event for some BMW’s)
  • The car otherwise remains a satisfyingly tight drive.  The Nav and iDrive are first-class and well ahead of anything I have experienced in any other car to date.  The heads-up display is so good I miss it when I drive a car without it – a new “must have” IMO as it adds to safety and the overall experience.
  • The car looks good and I still have zero regrets opting for the Four Series over the C-class (but having said that, I  will keep an eye on the next generation C when it comes out in a few years time)