Buying used: Audi A4 v BMW 3 Series v Citroen DS5 v Mercedes-Benz C-Class

Buying used: Audi A4 v BMW 3 Series v Citroen DS5 v Mercedes-Benz C-Class
Buying used: Audi A4 v BMW 3 Series v Citroen DS5 v Mercedes-Benz C-Class

Is it a good idea to look beyond the mainstream for your next used executive car?

BMW 320d Efficient Dynamics 

Engine: 2.0-litre diesel
List price when new: £28,080
Price today: £10,500
Power: 161bhp
Torque: 280lb ft
0-60mph: 7.7sec
Top speed: 141mph
Fuel economy: 68.9mpg
CO2 emissions: 109g/km

The executive car market is dominated by three popular German brands – Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz. But for the past few years, Citroen has been trying to get in on the act, with the avantgarde DS5. It’s a mould-breaking machine and a refreshing alternative to the traditional saloon.

Generally, business users in the UK buy models such as the Audi A4, BMW 3 Series and Mercedes-Benz C-Class by the truckload. The dominance of the German brands is absolute, which means there’s plenty of choice if you’re looking for a good-value five-year old model. New car sales of the DS5 are much smaller, meaning you’ll have to hunt that bit harder… is the search worthwhile, though? We bought all four cars together to find out.

In terms of performance, it’s largely even between three of them. We tested an Efficient Dynamics version of the BMW 320d which, despite its eco-focused gearing, pulled strongly even from low revs. The Audi and Citroen can’t quite match its pulling power, but they have different gearing, so actually perform just as strongly and mean you don’t need to be constantly changing up and down the gearbox.

It’s the C-Class that has a clear performance advantage, although it’s less appealing if you fully use this, as the engine is a bit raucous at higher revs. Driven harder, it’s the 3 Series that’s the sportiest, meaning it’s a pity this Efficient Dynamics model was less impressive than you’d expect of a BMW through the corners. It lacked the firm’s impressive adaptive M Sport suspension, so wasn’t as agile as it should be.

Mercedes-Benz C220 CDI SE 

Engine: 2.1-litre diesel
List price when new: £28,270
Price today: £10,000
Power: 168bhp
Torque: 295lb ft
0-60mph: 8.6sec
Top speed: 139mph
Fuel economy: 64.2mpg
CO2 emissions: 117g/km

The Mercedes offers a choice of suspension too; SE models are comfy, Sport models are sharper but firmer. The Audi has a decent balance out of the box, let down only by its lifeless steering, leaving the Citroen trailing the pack because of its terribly hard suspension. Really, it’s inexcusable for an executive car to ride this badly, and vague steering means you can’t even get to enjoy the lack of roll through corners.

At least the Citroen is quiet, helped by a smooth engine and laminated windows that cut wind noise. The Audi has a refined engine too, but things are spoiled by road noise; the 3 Series is less refined still, but the surprise of the pack is just how loud the C-Class is inside.

Interior

You get to enjoy a charismatic-looking interior within the DS5, and a spot-on (and high-set) driving position means the fundamentals are also covered. The others, in contrast, have badly offset driving positons – the BMW’s are positioned too far to the right, the C-Class’s even more so, and the Mercedes also has a seat that drivers feel like they’re tipping out of even in its ‘flattest’ setting.

Audi A4 2.0 TDIe 163 SE 

Engine: 2.0-litre diesel
List price when new: £27,575
Price today: £11,000
Power: 161bhp
Torque: 280lb ft
0-60mph: 8.9sec
Top speed: 133mph
Fuel economy: 64.2mpg
CO2 emissions: 115g/km

The C-Class has a cheaply-finished dashboard too, certainly not something you’d exepct of a Mercedes-Benz. Again, the Citroen surprises thanks to its premium finish. They’re more conservative-looking but both the Audi and BMW are solid as well, delivering the classy feel lacking in the Merc.

Where the Citroen stumbles is with interior space. Headroom is a bit tight for taller drivers, due to its panoramic glass roof, and the seats don’t go back far enough. Knee room is also tight in the rear, particularly in our test car which was fitted with bulky front massage seats. The Audi is worse for rear headroom though, and it’s actually the BMW that has the best balance of overall passenger space.

They’re all similarly matched for boot space, but the DS5 fails to make full use of the practicality advantage afforded by its hatchback tailgate, due to a high load lip. At least it has folding rear seats as standard, like the A4: they’re optional on the 3 Series and C-Class, meaning they may not automatically be fitted to a secondhand model.

Costs

When it comes to prices, you may be in for a surprise. The expectation is that a Citroen will be worth less secondhand than a premium Audi, BMW or Mercedes-Benz, but this isn’t the case. It’s barely any cheaper than the 3 Series, and actually level-pegs the C-Class for prices. As it’s the least fuel-efficient of the three, it’s the one that, on paper, is the least impressive for overall costs.

Citroën DS5 2.0 HDi DStyle

Engine: 2.0-litre diesel
List price when new: £25,900
Price today: £8,500
Power: 161bhp
Torque: 251lb ft
0-60mph: 8.7sec
Top speed: 127mph
Economy: 57.6mpg
CO2 emissions: 129g/km

It is cheaper than the others to service, but it’s also one of the least impressive in terms of reliability – surprisingly, on a par with the unimpressive Audi. The Mercedes fares best of all for reliability, perhaps compensative for its eye-watering servicing costs; the BMW is average on both counts, but is the best of the three for claimed fuel economy.

Verdict

So does the Citroen’s charm win they day? It certainly does on first acquaintance, meaning it’s a pity the appeal fades once you start driving it. The controls are sloppy, cornering is vague, but the biggest failing is its unacceptably hard ride.

The Audi is firm too, but less so than DS5; what lets it down is reliability, somewhere else you’d expect a much better performance for an executive car. The Mercedes is better, but even it is not particularly exceptional, and is let down by its cheap interior and rough engine.

This leaves the BMW as the best overall. It’s the one that delivers that little extra spark, boasting a nice interior, good engine and very impressive fuel economy. Find one with the adaptive suspension option fitted, and you’ll have one of the best executive cars for the money; even without this, it’s still the pick of the bunch here.

Price today is based on a 2012 model with average mileage and full service history, correct at time of writing

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