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 Ultimate Driving Machine
Founded in 1917, BMW was originally an aircraft manufacturer before turning to motorcycle production in 1923 and car production in 1927, assembling a version of the Austin 7 of all things. Short for ‘Bayerische Motoren Werke’ (Bavarian Motor Works), BMW has long held a reputation – as its slogan suggests – for building cars with the driver in mind.
BMW’s naming strategy is somewhat involved. Its standard range of hatchbacks, coupes, estates and saloons starts with the 1 Series hatchback, covering all intervening numbers until you reach the large 8 Series luxury coupe. Models prefixed by the letter ‘X’ and featuring an odd number (the X1, X3 and X5) are SUVs, while even-numbered ‘Xs’ (the X4 and X6) are coupe-inspired SUVs. Whereas, BMW’s ever-increasing range of electric cars are instead identified with the ‘i’ designation (the i4, iX3 and iX).
Performance BMWs are prefixed with the letter ‘M’, which denotes ‘Motorsport’ (see the M2, M3, M4, M5 and M8), while the two-door coupe version of the 3 Series saloon is now known as the 4 Series and the two-door 1 Series is referred to as the 2 Series Coupe. Essentially, with the exception of the ‘X’ cars (and the MPV Active Tourer models) BMWs with an even number are two-door models, while odd-numbered cars have four or five doors – although the 8 Series Coupe is also available as a four-door Gran Coupe saloon! If that’s not complicated enough, BMW estates are called ‘Touring’, and the Z4 sports car is a bit of an outlier, being the only BMW in production wearing a ‘Z’ moniker.
Again, this is only a rough guide, but SE Pro is BMW’s entry-level trim, rising through Sport Pro, and on to top-spec M Sport and M Sport Pro trims. BMW SUVs also come with the option of ‘X-Line’ trim which features off-road inspired styling additions.
You should expect to find the following attributes on nearly all BMWs:
Rear-wheel drive and an enjoyable driving experience: it wouldn’t be much good if BMW didn’t live up to its slogan. While ‘ultimate’ may be ambitious (and subjective), almost all BMWs are good to drive. The hugely popular 3 Series saloon and Touring estate models are arguably all the car you could ever want: desirable, practical, well built and hugely entertaining to drive. Only the 2 Series Active Tourer and its bigger brother, the Gran Tourer disappoint slightly. Even so, they’re still good to drive by the standards of their people-carrier rivals.
Front-wheel drive is something BMW buyers have started getting used to, as it now features in the 1 Series hatchback, several 2 Series models and the entry-level versions of the X1 and X2 SUVs.
For extra grip, a large number of BMW’s are offered with xDrive four-wheel drive. While this usually increases the starting price on regular models, some of the brand’s larger SUVs and sporty ‘M’-badged cars are equipped with xDrive as standard.
A driver-focused dashboard: climb aboard a BMW and you’re greeted by a dashboard that’s unapologetically angled towards the driver’s seat. While the heating and infotainment controls are easily accessible by the front-seat passenger, BMW’s bias towards the driver is clear from the moment you get in.
An excellent infotainment system and standard sat nav: when it first launched in 2001, BMW’s iDrive infotainment system came in for a lot of criticism, as buyers struggled to get to grips with what it did and how it worked. Since then, our expectations have changed, and the latest version of iDrive is one of the better systems on the market. It may have more options than you actually need, but the iDrive set-up features an intuitive and quick user experience, a sophisticated control wheel and a crystal-clear screen. This system can be controlled via the touchscreen or by a rotary dial located in the centre console for added flexibility. BMW’s decision to fit all of its cars with Apple CarPlay is welcome too, because older models were not compatible.
Anything else to know?
BMW had to give way to Mercedes in our 2021 Driver Power customer satisfaction survey, with a 21st-place result out of 29 car makers, which is a disappointing result for a brand with such a strong image.
Like many car makers, BMW has turned to turbocharging in a bid to meet CO2 emissions and fuel-economy targets. That’s not so much of an issue for some manufacturers, but it means BMW’s famously smooth non-turbocharged six-cylinder engines have all been replaced by turbocharged versions, which aren’t as characterful but are far more powerful and efficient. The three-year/unlimited-mileage warranty all BMWs come with is decent if not exceptional.
Cheapest route into BMW ownership: an entry-level BMW 1 Series hatchback will set you back around £27,000. Despite the 1 Series’ recent shift towards a front-wheel-drive set-up, it is still fun and engaging to drive. It’s significantly more expensive than the cheapest Audi, but the 1 Series sits in the class above the A1, making it a more natural rival for the similarly priced A3. Some also consider a MINI to be a ‘junior’ BMW, because this iconic British make is now owned and overseen by the German brand, with prices starting at a little more than £17,000.
Most exclusive model: BMW M8 Competition. At the time of its release in 2019, the M8 Competition was the most powerful BMW ever built. Today it still remains as the pinnacle of the BMW line-up with its sleek and imposing design, luxurious interior and blistering performance. Available as either a two-door coupe, a convertible or as a four-door ‘Gran Coupe’, the M8 offers a mix of performance and usability that’s rivalled only by models such as the Audi A8 and Porsche 911.
The one you’ll probably buy: BMW 3 Series Touring or saloon. Eyebrows were raised in the early 2000s when the 3 Series began to outsell the Ford Mondeo. Today, while SUVs are stealing sales from traditional saloons and estates, the 3 Series’ image and driving experience are still strong enough to tempt many. It is for many the complete car, with the latest version delivering the space, comfort and quietness of a new 5 Series for a lot less cash.