ON OCCASION, it’s better to forget what you thought you knew; to chuck out all those old tropes, heuristics, and pub knowledge you’ve accumulated about the cars we’ve assembled here.
They’ll do you no good. The game of one-upmanship in the medium executive class has moved at such breathtaking pace that perhaps it’s time to reset the datum and look over the best of 2017’s crop with a fresh set of eyes.
The Alfa Romeo Giulia was the catalyst for this comparison. We adored the 375kW Quadrifoglio rocketship, but wondered whether shearing more than 200kW from that figure would leave the Super version feeling a bit overmatched and underbaked in this company.
We clearly needed to include the big three German marques, so the Mercedes-Benz C250, Audi A4 2.0 TFSI, and BMW 420i Gran Coupe were joined by the Jaguar XE 25t; a car that had aced an early 2016 comparo. No 3 Series? Not on this occasion. We were curious as to whether the five-door 4 offered something extra, and, as it has just been given a mid-life refresh, it looked to be a solid candidate to pitch into the fray.
You’re probably car-mag literate enough to know that these tests usually go one of two ways. The conventional route is to discuss the merits of each vehicle in turn and then award the verdict to something German. Safest that way.
The alternate option is to cultivate a tasty bit of controversy by naming a left-fielder as the winner, and be forced to doggedly repeat and justify that decision for years to come. What we’re seeing here is something a bit different. As this genre matures, the templates for packaging, ride, handling, and other attributes become better known and easier to replicate. The net effect of this is that what was last year’s class leader can rapidly become this year’s wooden spoon holder. Picking a favourite a priori isn’t easy and that’s a new thing.
As indeed is the Alfa Romeo Giulia Super. Like every car here, it’s powered by a 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol engine, in this instance making 147kW. It’s the lightest of this group by some margin and easily feels the most alert, making it that rarest of things in this company; a genuine outlier. As a result of doing more with less, it registered the second quickest time to 400m, being pipped by a mere tenth by the gutsy Benz. It blends refinement and agility like none of the others, bringing a whole stack of Quadrifoglio DNA, if not power, to the party. The Giorgio chassis is genuinely talented, delivering impressive ride absorbency on our fully laden four-up test along a hideously surfaced route, yet wants for little in terms of body control.
Its ZF eight-speed transmission can be marshalled by a pair of vast column-mounted paddles, but with the ‘DNA’ drive controller set to dynamic, the software is smart enough to make these largely redundant. The engine isn’t the most vocal or charismatic unit, but 330Nm at 1750rpm ensures that you don’t need to work it too hard, and that delicious lack of inertia to the way Giulia changes direction means this is the only one of the bunch that eggs you on to look for the twistiest route home. The lack of a limited slip diff would be an issue with more power at its elbow, but even if you do step up to the more powerful Veloce, you’re then buying a diff with non-switchable ESC, which largely defeats the point, from an entertainment perspective at least.
If the Alfa is the great entertainer, the Jaguar XE is the big hitter. With 177kW under the bonnet, it enjoys a significant power advantage over everything else here and feels that way too, though the stopwatch tells a mixed story. This R-Sport car pipped everything to 100km/h before being overhauled further down the track and relegated to a mid-field 400m result, nipped by the slightly gluey progress at the top of its rev range.
On adaptive dampers, the ride quality varies from best of the bunch in Normal, to easily the worst when set to the borderline unuseable Sport mode. As a result of this huge variation, you tend to leave the Jaguar in Normal and put up with the slightly lugubrious body control. The steering’s excellent, there is stacks of grip and clever ESC calibration, but there’s a whole welter of ergonomic glitches that ought to have been ironed out of the XE’s interior by now. Changing drive modes is an inelegant grope for tiny buttons, and the motorised gear selector, which rises from the centre console remains an answer to a question that nobody was really asking.
At first, we thought we’d had the wrong Mercedes delivered. Fire the C250 up and you’d swear it was a diesel, the direct-injection engine leaning the fuelling back to such an extent that it clatters away merrily for the first few minutes before loosening up. It’s not what you’d expect of a Mercedes and nor is the ride quality. The waftability that you expect from Stuttgart just isn’t there.
On poorly surfaced roads it feels slightly neurotic, never really settling but without ever getting floaty. It tips into a corner sharply, though, and clings on gamely in the twistier sections without delivering much in the way of nuanced feedback. There’s also markedly more wind noise around the mirrors than in any other car here. What the engine lacks in charm, it makes up for in effectiveness, with the 155kW unit ceding nothing to its rivals in the lunge to the redline.
By contrast, the BMW 420i Gran Coupe delivers the opposite; strong subjective scorecards, but was utterly found out against the clock. It occupies the middle dynamic ground in virtually every test bar straight-line speed, offering excellent composure at high speed, fine ride quality, decent body control for such a sizeable car, and an electrically assisted steering system that returns a surprising degree of fizz and feedback through the wheel rim. When consulting the other judges’ notes on the cross-country route, the most telling remark of this, the least powerful car on test with just 135kW, was ‘feels fast: is slow’.
In a field of rear-drive rivals, the front-drive Audi A4 2.0 TFSI always runs the risk of feeling a bit inauthentic, a gussied-up hatch chassis pretending to be part of an exclusive club. On the road it feels nothing of the sort. Refinement is excellent, front-end grip mighty, turn-in crisp, body control taut, and only on rougher roads does the Audi begin to feel a bit raggedy, despite the fitment of $1700 worth of comfort adaptive suspension. Like the BMW, it feels fairly frothy despite fronting up with a mere 140kW, pipping the Munich liftback, but nothing else on the Heathcote strip.
Audi also scores when it’s time to refuel, the A4 returning a test average of just 7.6L/100km, with the BMW scoring next best at 8.9L/100km. The brawny Jaguar XE consumed 42 percent more fuel than the A4, its 10.8L/100km thirst reinforcing that the new Ingenium turbo-petrol engines can’t come soon enough.
The A4 also won admirers with its design and packaging savvy. Its rear is the only one of this quintet where a six-footer would be comfortable spending any extended period. Headroom up front is the best too, though it being the only car here without a sunroof certainly helped in that regard. While the dash finish and layout is beautifully executed, the long reach to the Drive Select switches and volume control is evidence of a complacent right-hand drive conversion. The interior trim choices of this particular car aren’t Ingolstadt’s finest hour.
However, if you don’t like elephant grey leather and chintzy silver dash infills, other selections are available. The lovely frameless rear-view mirror, the slick sweeping rear indicators, and the razor-thin shutlines of the clamshell bonnet along with its integration with the full-body swage line are deftly executed details. It seems odd to point out that its 18-inch alloys look a bit malnourished in this company, but the yawning chasm above the A4’s sidewalls hardly smacks of hunkered-down focus.
That’s one accusation you’d never level at the Jaguar XE 25t R-Sport – presented here laden down with options that lifted its $68,900 list to an eye-watering $87,590. It’s hard to argue that the combination of 19-inch black Venom alloys, Caesium Blue metallic paint, and gloss black detailing pack doesn’t create a compelling visual argument. Lantern-jawed good looks aside, the XE was found wanting inside.
The dial pack now looks old, the touchscreen is clunky, the dash materials are far from top drawer in this class, and it has the least rear headroom of any rival here. The test car also began to make some creaking noises over bumps that sounded more like the impending end of a Bond villain’s lair than a car that’s just cost you the better part of 90 grand.
The Giulia’s cabin is a game of two halves, good up front, not so special in the back. The pale wood finish on this car worked better than expected, however some features, like the overly loud indicators, the lack of any interior bottle storage, and the bizarre piano black overhead panel that looks like Darth Vader’s helmet didn’t endear the Giulia to testers.
Neither did the headroom stolen by the $2200 dual-pane sunroof improve their disposition. Give that one a miss if you’re anything approaching six foot. In order to provide a valet-safe boot, you can’t fold the Alfa’s rear seats from inside the cabin, instead having to open the boot and pull a lever. Everybody loved the thin-rimmed steering wheel, even if its wheel-mounted starter button wasn’t universally approved. Legroom in the back is disastrous, although the Giulia’s low beltline and windows that drop all the way down offer some recompense for lingering deep vein thrombosis.
As the only liftback of the lot, the BMW offers something a little different. It arguably looks better than the 3 Series sedan too, with its power-packed bottle rocket flanks and sleek glasshouse. Whether you see that as worth its $7500 premium is clearly debatable, but the recent Life Cycle Impulse (Munich’s mangled argot for ‘facelift’), has seen the price shaved by $2200 and a stack more kit included as standard.
Off the options list and onto the standard equipment sheet come adaptive M suspension, head-up display, auto-dimming mirrors, blind-spot warning, autonomous braking, and a surround-view camera. The beige leather and chrome of this Luxury trim car felt a bit pipe-and-slippers but the ergonomics are hard to argue with. The only real downside to the Gran Coupe’s interior is the slightly pinched rear headroom and the fact that the rear windows only drop halfway.
Where things get a bit sticky for the BMW is when you want to step up to the rather lovely 430i version, and net yourself 185kW rather than 135. It’s much the same engine, effectively making the 420i a crippleware version of the 430i, and yet the step up will cost you a swingeing $10,000. For $9000, Audi will elevate you from the 140kW 2.0 TFSI to the 185kW version and include the quattro all-wheel drivetrain, with comparatively better residuals to boot.
Vying with the Jag and the Alfa for the best retained values after three years is the Mercedes-Benz C250, which perhaps partly explains why it has outsold the BMW 3 Series by two and a half to one recently. The exterior styling is low key and lacks the immaculate tailoring of its predecessor.
Yet, despite the conservative exterior treatment, the interior is the brashest of the bunch. It’s strangely mismatched in this regard, with swathes of distractingly reflective piano black on the fascia and look-at-me flourishes of contrasting silver and chrome. Yes, it’s undoubtedly expensive looking, but it feels a bit new money in overall execution.
There are annoying objective glitches too, like the vast step up from throttle to brake that’ll give you shin splints, the front seats that squash the feet of rear passengers when the driver lowers the seat height, and the rear arches that intrude so far on the rear door aperture that it’s hard to enter the back seat without hitting the frame on the way past. That said, the black leather upholstery feels beautiful, the infotainment system is the best of the lot, and the Burmester stereo delivers the most faithful reproduction of all the sound systems with punchy bass and crisply enunciated treble.
Sifting these cars into any semblance of order based on merit is far from a straightforward task.
In the end, three strata coalesced. The Mercedes C250 is the first to fall. Strangely for a Benz, this iteration of the C-Class isn’t a particularly cohesive proposition. The engine lacks charisma, the ride (without Air Body Control) isn’t what you’d expect from a Mercedes, and there’s a disconnect between the slightly frumpy exterior and the shouty cabin.
This engine has now been replaced with the 180kW C300 9G-Tronic, which could well have punched the Benz back into contention.
The BMW 420i Gran Coupe and the Jaguar XE 25t are harder to separate. The 420i Gran Coupe is a car with precious few vices. Its dumbed-down engine proves its Achilles heel, and the cost to overcome this lack of urge is punitive. Otherwise endearing in so many regards, the BMW is probably the easiest to live with of the lot, and that has earned it significant credit. It’s also a car that rewards you the harder you drive, the chassis initially feeling as if it lacks a bit of personality, but push it hard and you’ll see where the hours of testing have paid dividends.
In the final reckoning, despite its overall likeability, the sedan that became a coupe and then became a four-door again asks the most money for the least amount of engine, which proved a hurdle too big to overcome.
The Jag is a car we kept coming back to, trying to nail down its enigmatic appeal. Whereas most of the other contenders here lay bare their talents in short order, the XE’s skill set reveals itself gradually. At first acquaintance, it’s easy to be underwhelmed by the nearly-there cabin execution and the dismal fuel economy. Press pause on the impression that the XE lacks the engineering depth required to play in this company, give the car a little longer before locking in a firm impression, and the Jaguar’s talents start to form a critical mass.
It’s arguably the best-looking car here, it’s the quickest, has unquestionably the best ride (in Normal mode), and is fun to drive. And it’s only going to get better when the Ingenium petrol engines arrive with the promise of better efficiency and refinement.
Separating the Audi and the Alfa could easily be framed as a head/heart thing, the ruthlessly effective A4 versus the brio and bravado of the Giulia. In bald financial terms, it’s hard to argue against the Audi. It is, in most objective considerations, the best car here. It may not tug your heart strings – one judge dismissing the unremittingly grey Audi as a ‘nothingburger’ – but the longer you spend with it, the more its quietly considered qualities come to the fore. It came within a squeak of winning this year’s Wheels Car of the Year award, losing out only to the genre-changing Mazda CX-9, and it occupies the second step of the podium here once again.
Which leaves the Giulia. Nobody saw this coming, not even those among us who got a bit worked up over the Quadrifoglio. Most felt that with the show-stopping engine taken out of the equation, the Alfa would struggle against the unrelenting polish of the premium German marques, but of all the cars here, there’s only one that’s touched by the mark of genius, and it’s the Giulia. The others are very good cars, and none would spark a moment of buyer’s remorse, but there’s a clear superiority about the way the Giulia goes down a challenging road that buys it all manner of credit.
Yet it doesn’t actually need to call upon that reserve of goodwill too often. If you’re scrutinising leasing rates and economy figures, or are still unconvinced by Alfa’s reliability prospects, the Audi makes a great Plan B.
But if, like us, you’d rather be behind the wheel of a car that delivers so much and asks for so little, the Giulia delivers a wholly convincing argument.
Forget what you thought you knew. Press reset. You’re going to like it.