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BMW is riding high with its 3 Series saloon. The 2.0-litre diesel has wiped the floor with its rivals, becoming our favourite compact exec in the process. Something was missing from its armoury – an estate. Now, though, it has arrived.

The Touring isn’t designed to be a workhorse – it’s a more versatile version of the saloon in a sector where a conventional hatch would go down like a lead balloon.

The changes over the saloon are limited. There’s a new rear end with a separately opening rear window, but the wheelbase and overall length are unchanged. We’ve opted for the same model as our favourite saloon, the 320d ES, which at £24,875 is £1180 more than the four-door.

Competition comes in the shape of the Jaguar X-type Estate. It’s one of the most spacious compact exec estates and here we’re testing the all-new 2.2-litre diesel model. For an extra £1000 over the 2.0D, the new 2.2D provides an extra 24bhp, a six-speed manual gearbox and still respectable fuel economy and emissions. In our preferred Sport trim the Jaguar costs £24,165.

We’ve also pitted the BMW against its archrivals, the Audi A4 Avant and Mercedes C-Class Estate.

The latest A4 Avant has an enviable image and reputation for quality, and our chosen model – the 2.0 TDI SE – is the cheapest of our group at £23,450.

The Mercedes C220 CDi Classic SE is the priciest at £26,135, but it blends prestige, a roomy cabin, a powerful engine and generous kit.

On the road

Performance

Although the Jaguar and the Mercedes have larger 2.2-litre four-cylinder engines compared with the Audi’s and BMW’s 2.0-litre units, the BMW has the most outright power.

Developing 163bhp, the 3 Series is way ahead of the A4’s output of 138bhp, while the C-Class and X-type are closely matched with 150bhp and 152bhp respectively.

The Jaguar, however, generates the greatest amount of low- and mid-range pulling power. Summoning up 270lb ft of low-end grunt, it easily out-muscles the 251lb ft of the Mercedes and BMW, and makes the Audi’s 236lb ft look positively limp-wristed.

For all the Audi’s inferiority in power output, you’d never know it once you’re on the open road. Thanks to its willingness to pick up revs, it sprints through the gears in double-quick fashion and as our performance figures on page 68 show, it’s more than able to keep pace with its more powerful rivals. Also, thanks to the A4 Avant’s low top two gears and lightning throttle responses, it’s seldom necessary to drop down more than one gear to access its potent overtaking potential.

While the other cars here feel slightly flat away from the mark, followed by a surge of mid-range power, the BMW’s engine has a far more linear character.

It builds power progressively right across the rev range with less initial reticence and much less of a pronounced kick as it pumps out its maximum power. At the same time it’s far happier to rev than the others, and it is still offering power beyond the point where the others demand an upchange.

As a result, the 3 Series Touring is the quickest car here, both away from the mark and when worked hard through the gears. Even so, because of its tall top gear – designed to minimise revs and improve economy – the Touring is the first of the four to require a downshift to recover momentum after braking behind slower moving traffic.

Like the rest of the group the Jaguar is quick to gather speed, and thanks to its deep reserves of pulling power it simply flies up even the steepest of inclines and feels as if it would pull a trailer full of cement with little or no extra effort. Its low gearing makes it a doddle to use second or even third gear when encountering stop-start traffic, yet once slotted into top gear it is a relaxed, smooth motorway companion.

The Mercedes, too, is no slouch. Even with the power-sapping automatic gearbox fitted to our test car, it surges strongly away from the mark, picking up revs and speed rapidly. Even the additional weight of four passengers and a boot full of luggage does little to hinder the C-Class’s progress.

The Jaguar is the only car that feels short of stopping power. It requires a heavy shove of the brake pedal and it takes longer to pull to a standstill both from 30- and 70mph than the others here.

Audi ****

BMW *****

Jaguar ****

Mercedes ****

Ride and handling

All of these cars win praise for their fine blend of comfort and control, but it’s the 3 Series Touring which does most to win the hearts of keen drivers.

Much of this is due to the front-engined, rear-wheel-drive set-up of the BMW, and its even front-to-rear weight distribution. On top of that, the Touring offers precise steering, minimal body roll and tenacious grip, all of which adds up to remarkable agility.

Just as impressively, the 3 Series Touring’s suspension does a wonderful job of containing body movement over undulating surfaces and yet it is still supple enough to absorb the worst examples of British Tarmac. The suppleness of the BMW’s ride is even more impressive given that the Touring rides on stiff-sidewalled run-flat tyres.

The C-Class Estate also pushes its drive to the road through the rear wheels, but whereas the BMW places its emphasis on sporting prowess, the Mercedes trades some nimbleness in favour of comfort.

Driving the Mercedes encourages a more relaxed approach. Its implacable stability is hugely impressive when ploughing up and down motorways, where its syrupy suspension enables it to glide over surface imperfections with limousine-like disdain.

It’s only when you turn off the national network on to less-populated routes that the Mercedes starts to feel less assured. You won’t be inclined to hustle it through a set of bends in the same spirited manner as the BMW, because the languid steering and pronounced bodyroll give it an altogether more reticent feel in tight corners.

Both the Audi and the Jaguar transmit their power to the road through the front wheels, and neither feels as well balanced as the BMW. Additionally, neither car instils the same level of confidence because their helms don’t have the same sensitivity as the Touring.

The Jaguar’s sports suspension is a little on the firm side, but it’s still forgiving and is rarely caught out by run-of-the-mill lumps and bumps. The plus side to this firmer set up is excellent body control to complement the Jaguar’s strong grip.

The A4 Avant can’t match the stringent body control of the 3 Series Touring and X-type Estate, but it’s far from wallowy and it hangs on gamely when pushing through sweeping bends. However, it is troubled more by a series of bumps, taking longer to regain composure than its rivals.

Refinement

The 3 Series saloon has already set new levels of excellence in this area, and the Touring version is the merest whisker behind.

As in the saloon, some wind noise can be heard swishing across the windscreen, but in the estate an additional whoosh can be heard coursing through the roof rails. A smidgen more road roar can be heard from the rear of the cabin, simply because occupants aren’t as well isolated as in the booted saloon. However, the Touring does a great job of suppressing suspension thud, plus it has the smoothest engine here. Overall, it is by far the quietest car in this test.

The Mercedes comes closest to matching the BMW for civility. It glides across most surfaces with hushed efficiency and cuts through the air with a minimum of disturbance. The only real disturbance to this tranquillity is provided by the engine. Work the motor hard and it answers back with a harsh note and plenty of vibration. That said, at least the noise melts into the background once you’re at cruising speeds.

The Jaguar isn’t nearly as good a cruiser as the BMW, due to wind noise from the door mirrors and side windows at motorway speeds. However, the engine is smooth, free-revving and extremely quiet when driving at the national limit, although it is audible at tickover and when worked hard.

The poor refinement of Audi’s four-cylinder diesel engine is in stark contrast to that of newer rivals. Work the A4’s engine close to its maximum and you’ll be greeted by a boomy resonance and plenty of harsh mechanical racket.

On the upside, road noise is well suppressed, but this good work is immediately undermined by the amount of wind noise.

Behind the wheel

Each of these estates uses the same cabin furniture as the saloon on which it is based, meaning the new 3 Series Touring has a simple, modern dash. While perhaps missing the sporty feel BMW is renowned for, the dials and switches are all well arranged and intuitive to use.

Unless you specify the £2215 sat-nav system, that is. Tick this box on the options list and the standard controls are exchanged for BMW’s iDrive system. This requires drivers to operate the stereo, climate control and sat-nav using a single knob – but the onscreen menus it employs are overly complex and can distract you from the road ahead.

The Touring’s three rivals all feature logical dashboard layouts, although they are not without their faults. The central panel in the A4 Avant is overloaded with small buttons which are difficult to tell apart at a glance, while the C-Class Estate loses marks for its awkward foot-operated parking brake and single steering column stalk for both the windscreen wipers and indicators.

Swap into the retro-looking Jaguar cabin and it’s the driving position that lets the side down. Like the other cars here, the X-type has a steering wheel that adjusts for both rake and reach, but where the seats in the Audi, BMW and Mercedes can be raised or lowered to suit all tastes, the Jag’s feels too high even in its lowest setting. To make matters worse, the base is narrow and doesn’t offer much thigh support, so numbness can set in on long journeys.

Some compensation for Jaguar drivers comes in the shape of power adjustment for the seat height and backrest angle, although the seats on Sport models don’t get the electric fore-and-aft movement found in other X-types.

The C-Class has a similar part-electric system, while the A4 Avant and 3 Series Touring make do with full manual adjustment. In the Audi you crank the seat up and down using a simple ratchet lever, but adjusting the BMW’s seat height involves pulling a lever and shifting your weight. Moving the Touring’s backrest is a similarly fiddly affair. In the Audi you get a large rotary knob, which is both easier to use and more accurate.

Space and practicality

Unsurprisingly, these estates offer more luggage space than their saloon counterparts, but they’re still far from cavernous.

Of the four, it’s the Mercedes that has the biggest boot with the rear seats in place – largely thanks to its greater width – and the Audi that has the smallest. The new 3 Series Touring gets close to the C-Class in terms of outright volume. However, the BMW’s space is less usable because it suffers from considerable wheelarch intrusion.

When you’re trying to heave heavy cases in and out, the Mercedes also has the edge over its rivals. It is the only car where the load floor and aperture are at the same level, whereas the others have a small lip you have to get items over.

The Audi, BMW and Mercedes have 60/40 split rear seats for when you need to extend the load area, while the Jaguar’s is split 70/30. In all the cars you simply flip one or both of these sections forward but, because the seat bases are fixed, the backs don’t lay completely flat.

In this workhorse configuration the X-type has the biggest overall luggage capacity, with the A4 again bringing up the rear. The Jaguar also benefits from the longest loadbay, whether you have the seats up or down.

The X-type’s boot doesn’t have the flat sides of the C-Class’s and A4’s, but it’s still a useful shape. Its rear light clusters are more of a problem, though, because they cut into the boot entrance and make wide items tricky to load.

Convenient features such as lashing points, nets and underfloor storage are found in all four boots, but only the BMW and Jaguar have an independently opening rear screen. This lets you drop in items without lifting the whole tailgate – handy if someone parks too close behind you.

None of these cars is particularly generous when it comes to cabin cubbies, although they all get a decent-sized glovebox and a storage bin between the front seats.

Fortunately they’re more impressive when it comes to accommodating people, with plenty of room for six-footers in the front of each. That said, the really lanky will be happiest in the C-Class.

Move to the back seats, and the BMW just edges the Mercedes out in terms of kneeroom, with the Audi feeling distinctly cramped in comparison. It’s a different story when it comes to headroom, with the 3 Series and C-Class joint worst due to their sloping rooflines, and the X-type leading the way.

All four have a bulky transmission tunnel that forces a central rear passenger to sit with their legs splayed. The BMW is best suited to carrying five people because it has the most shoulder room.

Safety equipment

All four cars have twin front, side and curtain airbags, while Audi and Mercedes also offer rear side ’bags for £300 and £310 respectively.

The A4 is unique in having active front head restraints, which move in the event of a rear impact to help protect against whiplash. All four cars here offer a trio of three-point rear seatbelts.

Each has traction control to rein in wheelspin when conditions are slippery, and Audi, BMW and Mercedes supplement this with an electronic stability control programme that helps to keep you on the road if a bend suddenly tightens. Jaguar charges an extra £340 for this system.

In saloon form, the 3 Series and C-Class were awarded the maximum five-star crash test rating by Euro NCAP. The X-type and the A4 both scored four stars.

Quality and reliability

As with the saloon’s interior, the 3 Series Touring’s cabin is hard to fault for quality. Everything has a solid, well engineered feel and the materials are classy and appealing. The same is true of the A4 Avant. It says much for the Audi’s exceptional cabin that, despite the fact only the steering wheel has changed since it was launched in 2000, none of its rivals have surpassed it for quality.

Mercedes improved the fit and finish of the C-Class’ cabin last year and it’s now on a par with its German rivals, with plush materials and tightly fitting panels throughout.

In such company, the X-type’s interior looks downbeat. It’s generally solid, but the fit isn’t as faultless as the others, the switchgear doesn’t operate with the same weighty precision and some of the materials look cheap.

In our 2005 Reliability Survey (What Car? September 2005) the pre-face-lift A4 performed brilliantly, achieving a maximum five-star score and finishing an impressive ninth place overall. The C-Class and previous 3 Series also fared well, scoring four stars and coming 21st and 23rd.

The X-type wasn’t included in that survey, but finished in 46th place in the 2005 JD Power Customer Satisfaction Survey (What Car? June 2005). The Audi was joint 30th and the Mercedes finished a disappointing 60th, while the previous 3 Series sat pretty in 14th place.

Equipment

Despite their differing price tags and trim levels, these four cars are fairly evenly matched for equipment. The BMW has manually operated air-conditioning to the others’ climate control but they all feature a single-slot CD player and electric windows all-round.

The Jaguar and Mercedes have steering wheel-mounted stereo controls, a handy feature that costs £180 for the Audi and £110 for the BMW.

Part-leather seat trim is standard for the Jag and can be added to the Merc for just £320. Upgrading to full leather costs £615 for the Jaguar, £1220 for the BMW and £1250 for the Audi. Leather isn’t available for Classic SE C-Class models, but metallic paint comes as standard. On the others it costs between £495 and £550.

Opting for an automatic gearbox costs £1000 on the Mercedes. You pay at least another £450 for a self-shifter in the BMW and Audi, while the Jaguar is the only one not to offer an auto ’box.

Security equipment

Because of their hatchback rear ends and soft luggage covers, these cars don’t offer the same protection against opportunist thieves as their saloon counterparts. That said, each features a visible VIN and marked mechanical parts. The alloy wheels of all four are secured by locking bolts, but only the Mercedes has etched windows.

The C-Class is the only car without deadlocks, however. This feature stops the doors being opened even if a window is smashed, but Mercedes believes this could hamper the emergency services in the event of an accident.

What Car? Verdict

BMW moves the game on to stay ahead

Let’s cut to the chase: none of these cars is a brilliant load-carrier. If ultimate luggage capacity is your top priority, look elsewhere. However, if you want to blend a prestige badge with pace, practicality and economy, then any of these four would make fine buys.

The BMW is best, though. The saloon’s brilliant refinement, fine quality and sharp drive are largely undiluted and while the Touring is pricey, long-term costs are affordable. If you buy it as a more versatile version of the saloon rather than workhorse estate – as most buyers will – you won’t be disappointed.

Second spot goes to the Audi A4 Avant. It’s the least spacious car here, but its boot is well shaped. It offers outstanding quality and a decent drive, too, but it’s the A4’s financial argument that’s hardest to ignore. Not only does it have the lowest list price, it also has the lowest company car tax and contract hire bills, the lowest insurance and servicing and high resale values.

We’ve always rated the X-type estate highly, so it might come as a surprise to see it finish third here. The fact is, we can’t see many reasons for choosing the 2.2D rather than 2.0D, since there’s not a major gain in performance and costs are higher.

The X-type is still the most practical estate here and massive discounts boost its appeal, but its cabin looks low-rent compared with its rivals’ so the cheaper of the two diesel models makes more sense.

The C-Class finishes fourth. It’s big, practical, well equipped and makes a superb long-distance cruiser, but there is too much engine noise at low speeds and it’s costly to buy and run.
 
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