Should you buy an Audi, a BMW or a Mercedes?
Three premium German rivals, each with their own character; we help you choose between Audi, BMW and Mercedes
Audi, BMW and Mercedes are brands most of us know very well. Car buyers in the UK hold all three in high regard and it’s not hard to see why; they all have an upmarket image but there’s also a level of design, engineering and quality that consistently makes owning cars made by any one of these three brands a pleasure.
While the styling of their cars is often relatively conservative, they’re generally more sophisticated and imposing than rivals. They also boast cabins that are supremely comfortable, generally superb to look at and typically equipped with all the latest tech. As a result, cars from these brands are as in demand on the used market as they are when new, which means they hold their value in spite of relatively high prices.
The high level of competence shared by the three manufacturers does make it harder to choose between them. With each one offering an entry-level model costing £18,000-£25,000 and the average budget for UK car buyers being a comfortable £22,000, it’s a ‘problem’ many of us will face in our lifetime.
With that in mind, we’ve put together a guide to Audi, BMW and Mercedes. If you want to know all about BMW, click here to be taken straight to the next page, while if it’s Mercedes you’re interested in, click here to go to page three.
This is by no means a definitive catalogue – between them, the three brands produce around 50 different models, and this number continues to grow – but we’ll highlight the reputation and hallmarks you can expect from each, as well as their naming conventions. It’s also worth pointing out that many other manufacturers offer excellent alternatives to these three brands, and we’re merely making a comparison many car buyers face when it’s time to choose a new model.
So, if you’re unsure if your next car should bear Audi’s instantly recognisable rings, Mercedes’ iconic three-pointed star or BMW’s blue and white propeller, we set out what you can reasonably expect from each company’s cars.
Slogan: Vorsprung durch Technik (progress by technology)
Based in Ingolstadt near the banks of the river Danube in southern Germany, Audi can trace its roots back to the early days of the automobile at the turn of the last century. Now under the ownership of the Volkswagen Group, Audi produces a range of luxury cars, from the diminutive A1 supermini to the vast and fast Q7 and Q8 SUVs. The brand has a reputation for beautiful interiors, four-wheel-drive technology and sleek styling.
Saloon, coupe and hatchback models are prefixed with the letter ‘A’ (like the A3, A4 and A5), with higher-performance versions of these replacing the A with an S, such as S3 and S4. Estates are known by the name ‘Avant’ and SUVs are denoted with a ‘Q’ (the Q3 and Q5, for example). The most driver-focused, high-performance models begin with the letters ‘R’ or ‘RS’. The Audi TT sports car exists in a category of its own, while all the brand’s latest electric models (EVs) are badged e-tron.
While individual model ranges get slightly different trim options, entry-level Audis are currently known as Technik, and mid-range models are usually Sport Edition and S line. Black Edition and Vorsprung are the most luxurious range-topping models.
Today, Audi is known for a few things:
A quiet driving experience: with the exception of the R8 supercar, which has one of the most vocal engines on sale, the received wisdom is that Audis offer a quiet and polished driving experience, although they don’t prioritise excitement quite as much as BMW. No Audi is genuinely bad to drive, but some models do have a reputation for stiff suspension. While this is less true than it once was, an Audi with large alloy wheels and sports suspension (a free upgrade with some higher trim levels like S line) can be somewhat uncomfortable over potholes and broken tarmac.
Perhaps the most difficult aspect of potential Audi ownership is working out what’s under the bonnet. Instead of a numbering system that relates to the engines size (so a BMW 320d has a 2.0-litre engine) Audi has settled on a numbering system that denotes a range of power outputs. You still get TFSI (petrol) and TDI (diesel) badges, but these are now prefixed by a variety of numbers - 25, 30, 35, 40, 45, 50, 55, 60 and 70 As an example, a car wearing a 40 on its boot lid could have anything between 165bhp and 198bhp.
Four-wheel drive: Audis bearing the ‘quattro’ badge boast four-wheel drive. This option typically costs around £1,500 and is offered on almost all Audis – though the A1 is a rare exception. Depending on which model and engine combination you go for, you may find that quattro is standard. While many drivers may not need the extra grip four-wheel drive brings (note that it tends to dent fuel consumption by a couple of mpg), it’s a very popular option. Some feel that an Audi offers a better drive when fitted with the quattro system, thanks to the extra cornering ability it conveys. It’s also worth noting that all quattro systems aren’t equal. That used on the A3 is known as a Haldex controlled set-up, essentially running as a front-wheel-drive car most of the time and only engaging the rear wheels when its senses wheelspin. On A4 and above you get a more traditional (but very sophisticated) four-wheel drive that is permanently engaged, helping prevent spinning wheels rather than reacting to them.
Luxurious interiors: with perfectly judged soft-touch plastics and a sense of unfussy style, Audi’s interiors have long been considered up there with the best. Audi is also known for making technologically advanced and intuitive driver controls, from its clever and configurable ‘virtual cockpit’ digital dashboard dials to the chunky automatic gear selector found in higher-end models. Audi owners appreciate the sense of quality and attention to detail their cars feature inside, and it’s a particular brand highlight.
Understated styling: depending on your perspective, this is either an advantage or a disadvantage. For those who like their cars to look sleekly discreet, Audi’s conservative styling holds strong appeal, but others may find it difficult to distinguish one model from another, or wish for a more exciting visual edge. Taste is a very personal thing, but it’s fair to say there isn’t an ugly car in Audi’s range.
Anything else to know?
Audi came 21st out of 30 manufacturers in our 2020 Driver Power customer satisfaction survey but it did beat BMW and Mercedes. Audi’s three-year/60,000-mile warranty is average but is less generous than many other manufacturers’ policies. Be careful when specifying any new Audi, as it’s easy to add many thousands of pounds to the price tag if you tick one too many boxes – although in fairness, BMW and Mercedes are also guilty of this. On a more positive note, Audi’s diesel engines tend to offer an excellent blend of performance and economy, while many models are available with a 1.5-litre petrol engine that features ‘cylinder-on-demand’ technology. This shuts down half the engine when you’re gently cruising, helping you save money on fuel.
Cheapest route into Audi ownership: the competent, efficient and classy Audi A1 supermini starts at around £15,000.
Electric cars: Audi offers a handful of fully electric cars, which wear its e-tron badge. First to arrive were standard and Sportback coupe versions of the e-tron, a full-size SUV that’s almost as big and imposing as Audi’s Q7 SUV flagship. The e-tron GT is the third e-tron model and is a swoopy four-door luxury saloon rivalling the Porsche Taycan and Tesla Model S. A more compact and affordable EV option is the Q4 e-tron, which is also available as an SUV or ‘Sportback’ coupe-SUV.
Most exclusive model: the fearsomely powerful Audi R8 sports car. Ferociously fast, capable of covering vast distances at great speed with untapped excitement; comes with a big price tag and a small boot.
The one you’ll probably buy: the Audi A4 Avant. The estate version of Audi’s popular A4 executive saloon adds an extra dash of practicality to its sibling. It features a beautiful interior, a comfortable driving experience and fuel economy as high as 49.6mpg from the 35 TDI.