Back in the day - or even today actually -, one would 'upgrade' to a German automobile to display an upward trajectory in life. Of German cars, the perennial contenders would be from Stuttgart (mostly Pekan nowadays), Munich (read Kulim) or Ingolstadt (still..... err Ingolstadt actually).
I am of course talking about Germany's big three: Mercedes, BMW and Audi. Three premium luxury brands who interpret luxury and driving experience in their own ways. So, how do they actually differ? What is the X-factor for each brand? We attempt to unravel that today.
Mercedes - A first-class lounge
My childhood were filled with memories of Mercedes-Benzes. They pretty much dominated my family's garage. My parents owned the W201 190E and also the W124 260E. I had uncles who've owned the W123 E-Class and W126 S-Class.
The overarching theme? Well, yes they were incredibly well built, inside out. The cabin reeked of quality and class. The Mercedes cars of today are all about the cabin 'bling' factor, even if the touchpoints and build quality cannot quite match the ones from the 'over-engineered' era.
Mercedeses of yore also rode with a majestic suppleness on the roads. Of the 3 carmakers here, it's the best. They were decent to drive, but weren't the most dynamic cars on the market (the 190E was the exception, yes I am biased).
Does this sentiment still hold true today? It has been more yes than no. Recent Mercedeses have gone back to being pretty good at the comfort part (the the W205 C-Class being the obvious exception). Our recent experiences with the A250 sedan (AMG Line no less) and the GLE 450 showed that Mercedes is able and capable of delivering ride comfort.
As with the handling bit, it's good, but not great. Mercedeses have lacked that final bit of dynamic sparkle that BMWs have, and it is still true. Sure, the modern-day Mercedes is blessed with punchy engines and slick transmissions, but even today, nobody would buy a Mercedes expecting it to outdrive a BMW. Mercedes buyers very much prefer to lounge in comfort and serenity.
BMW - A great steer, everytime
Make no mistake, BMWs have always nailed the fundamentals of sporty driving, even in regular, cooking models. As a teenager, I sat in the E46 3-Series and marvelled at just how driver-centric everything was inside (the center stack was angled towards the driver, super cool!).
Today? Well, it would seem that some of the essence of what made BMWs so lovely to drive is kind of lost on the inside. Don't get me wrong, BMW's driving position is still the best of the 3 here, but in pursuing a new design direction, some of that 'driver centric-ness' faded into the background. What you get with modern BMW interiors: sombre, functional, with not much flair.
The driving experience? Yes, BMWs mostly still excel at that. BMW took to turbocharging like duck to water. Engine (the M340i's B58 is a treat!) and transmission harmony is wonderful. You flex your foot, the gearchanges of the now-ubiquitious ZF 8-speed automatic is seamless, snappy and synapse-quick. This attribute, BMW hasn't lost.
What's more, BMWs still have sharpness infused into its handling. If you're looking for a incisive and precise steer, BMW does it better than its Teutonic brethrens here. The trade off is that, the ride is also pretty sharp, especially in the G20 330i.
BMW seems consistently undecided on the pliancy on the 3 Series. The previous generation F30 seemed to strike a nice balance between ride and handling, only for the G20 to be unnecessarily firm. In fact, the G20 feels much like the F30's predecessor, the E90. Would it matter to one who loves driving? Probably not, ultimately.
Audi - The middle ground
Well, Audi, what of Audi? Then and now, Audi has forged a reputation for being well built, but a little staid. This is as German as German cars could get: straight-laced, fast, and very solid. It strikes a very interesting middle ground compared to Mercedes and BMW.
Nothing middle ground about how Audi does interiors though. It's understated (much like its exterior), classy and oozes quality everywhere you touch. Knobs and switches click expensively, touchpoints and haptics are right on the money. Mercedes? Too over the top. BMW? Pales in comparison.
The driving experience is where the middle ground is. Audis of old were never magically cosetting to begin with, nor were they scalpel-sharp to drive. This trait is still seen in modern Audis, like the A5 Sportback or TTS I sampled recently. They both ride with a firm edge, but without the occasionally-jarring sharpness of say, a G20 BMW 330i.
Grip, is the overwhelming theme when it comes to the handling behaviour of Audis, old or new. It's safe, weather-proof, and mostly nose-led. Nothing wrong with that, as many buyers actually prize this attribute when buying an Audi. Just don't expect a playful chassis that will set your backside on fire.
The automotive world would be a very boring place if everyone did things the same way. It's remarkable that, from the same country can come 3 carmakers whose philosophies and approaches to carmaking differ so significantly.
At the end of it, there's no right or wrong in how these marques express their vision in the form of cars. Find the one that speaks to you the most. Take me for example. Because I prize driving involvement over most things, BMWs speak to me more than the other two. Ride comfort, and a posh interior be damned.