Should you buy an Audi, a BMW or a Mercedes?
If you’re in the market for a premium German car, choosing between the top contenders can be tough. We explain what each brand is about
Slogan: The Best or Nothing
While BMW and Audi have long and illustrious histories, Mercedes (or Mercedes-Benz, if we’re being formal) can go one stage further, arguably laying claim to the invention of the petrol-powered car way back in 1886. If Audi can be said to prioritise technology and subtle design, and BMW focuses predominantly on developing driver-focused models, Mercedes has a long-held reputation for building luxurious cars. While they’re not considered to be as subtle as Audis or as thrilling as BMWs, Mercedes’ cars hold a certain cachet some feel the competition can’t match.
Mercedes’ hugely diverse lineup doesn’t make choosing a model easy - BMW’s naming strategy is simple in comparison – so hold onto your hats.
The Mercedes range starts with the A-Class hatchback, before moving up through the B-Class MPV, the C-Class saloon, Coupe, Cabriolet and Estate, the E-Class saloon, Coupe, Cabriolet and Estate and on to the flagship Mercedes S-Class executive saloon, Coupe and Cabriolet – although note that these last two are significantly more expensive than the S-Class saloon. Sitting above all this is the hugely opulent, and eye-wateringly expensive, Mercedes-Maybach saloon, which is based on the S-Class and aims to challenge the likes of Rolls Royce and Bentley.
Running roughly parallel to that core crop of cars are Mercedes’ SUV models. These can be identified by the ‘GL’ moniker and include the small(ish) GLA-Class, the mid-size GLC-Class and the larger GLE-Class. Top of the SUV tree is an even larger seven-seat model known as the GLS-Class, as well as the rare (and expensive) G-Class – an enthusiast’s 4x4 that’s been in production since 1979 and is a bit like a posh (and more powerful) Land Rover Defender.
In addition to these traditional SUVs, the GLC-Class Coupe and the GLE-Class Coupe are medium and large coupe-SUVs that aim to blend practicality with sleek looks. Further bodystyle blends can be found in pair of stylish four-door coupe-inspired saloons known as the CLA-Class and CLS-Class.
You can also choose from the SLC convertible and its bigger brother the SL-Class. Both of these come with a folding metal hardtop, although the SL is over twice the price of the SLC. There’s also a luxurious people carrier known as the V-Class that looks like a van from the outside but feels like a limousine inside.
Mercedes absorbed a tuning company called AMG in the 1990s, and today performance Mercedes are known as Mercedes-AMG models. The high-performance C-Class saloon, for example, is known as the AMG C63. There’s also a standalone performance car called the Mercedes-AMG GT, which rivals the Porsche 911. You can now buy a four-door coupe version of the GT called, imaginatively, the Mercedes-AMG GT 4 Door Coupe. Yet despite its name, it’s actually based on an E-Class saloon.
Broadly speaking, SE is Mercedes’ cheapest trim, Sport is its mid-range offering, and AMG Line tops the range. If you see a BlueEFFICIENCY badge on a Mercedes, then the car features tweaks to improve economy and emissions - although these days almost all mainstream models feature this badge and these tweaks. Despite this vast range, you should generally look out for the following features when you’re test-driving a Mercedes:
A cosseting driving experience: as long as you avoid larger alloy wheels and stiff sports suspension, a Mercedes should offer you a degree of comfort that BMW and Audi arguably cannot match. Driving a Mercedes is, above all, a relaxing experience. All the dashboard controls tend to work with minimal fuss, while Mercedes’ seats are known to accommodate a vast array of body shapes and sizes thanks to the amount of adjustability they offer. Mercedes also tends to feature creature comforts that are very intuitive to use and easy to get used to. The ‘Hold’ function that comes with many automatic Mercedes is a case in point: when you’re waiting in traffic, a sharp prod of the brake pedal brings up the word ‘Hold’ on the dashboard, and keeps the car stationary as you relax with your feet off the pedals. A small detail, maybe, but one some owners are said to miss if they switch brands.
A sumptuous interior: much like their exterior design, Mercedes’ interiors aren’t held to be as subtle as Audi’s, but they’re certainly luxurious. Soft leather, elegant switches and excellent stereos combine with a host of other neat touches (like a dedicated stalk for cruise control that’s more intuitive than many other systems) to make travelling in a Mercedes a special experience, particularly on more expensive models. While Mercedes’ interiors are unquestionably sumptuous, with some models the infotainment screen perches on top of the dashboard in a manner you may consider ungainly.
Pioneering safety systems: many buyers think of Volvo when it comes to safety, but Mercedes has been at the cutting edge of protecting occupants for some time now. Safety systems like airbags and anti-lock brakes (although BMW would take exception to this as essentially Mercedes broke an agreement that both brands would launch the jointly funded system at the same time. And don’t mention the Sixties Jensen FF) were first introduced to European drivers by the flagship S-Class saloon, a car that has long been at the forefront of driver safety aids; the current S-Class offers advanced protective equipment including rear seatbelt airbags and a night-vision camera, for example. Mercedes was also instrumental in developing crumple zones and occupant ‘safety cells’ way back in the 1950s.
Anything else I need to know?
Mercedes did worst of the three in our in our 2019 Driver Power customer satisfaction survey, finishing one place behind BMW in 26th place. Some older models that are still on sale also feature a foot-operated parking brake. This is easy enough to use, but in cars with a manual gearbox, hill-starts can be tricky. Also be aware if you see the word ‘Artico’ mentioned in the literature, this means the seat leather is synthetic, rather than authentic - although for environmentally aware buyers this could be seen as a positive Mercedes offers the same three-year/unlimited-mileage warranty as BMW.
Cheapest route into Mercedes ownership: the Mercedes A-Class hatchback starts at just over £23,000. It’s a little more cramped inside than mainstream models, but it looks great and features one of the very best interiors in its class in terms of both style and quality.
Most exclusive model: there are a few models that meet this criteria, but the Mercedes-Maybach is probably one of the most exclusive Mercedes you can buy today. Aiming to deliver unrivalled luxury, refinement and equipment, it has a price tag of at least £178,000.
The one you’ll probably buy: the new Mercedes E-Class saloon is an incredibly accomplished car. Mercedes has pulled out all the stops both above and under the metal, making the E-Class a genuinely luxurious and technologically advanced executive car that can return as much as 51.4mpg as an E220d or 201.8 if you opt for the diesel-electric plug-in hybrid E300de.