Warren, Pennsylvania - The BMW 3-series has long epitomized the sport sedan, but that's a situation that rival carmakers are increasingly unwilling to live with. Most recently, Lexus has taken a blatant run at the genre with the very convincing IS300, and Mercedes-Benz has made the 3-series' traditional rival, the C-class, much sportier with its latest redesign. Meanwhile, as if to demonstrate how the auto industry often behaves like a dog chasing its own tail, the current-generation BMW 3-series edges away from the sport sedan ideal, as BMW has made it larger, heavier, more refined, and, in essence, more like a 5-series. These disruptions to the sport sedan order meant it was time for us to gather a 330i, a C320 Sport, and an IS300. We set out from Michigan for the back roads of Pennsylvania's Allegheny National Forest.
Even on the somnolent Ohio Turnpike, it quickly became apparent that these sedans stand at a convergence point of driving enjoyment and value. You can spend lots more for a car, but it won't provide much more driving enjoyment. Of course, they don't provide value in precisely equal measure. Unsurprisingly, the Japanese have a better grasp of the concept than do the Germans. To wit, the IS300 starts at a low, low $30,805, a price that, in addition to the expected power windows and locks, auto-temp A/C, ABS, and traction control, includes such niceties as a six-disc in-dash CD player, xenon headlamps, and seventeen-inch alloy wheels. With dual power seats, leather-and-faux-suede upholstery, seat heaters, a sunroof, and other minor bits, our test car came in at a still-reasonable $34,635.
You'll need $34,000 just to start the ball rolling with a 330i. Of course, you'll want the sport package (M-style alloy wheels, suspension tuning, performance tires, aero kit, sport seats, etc.), a sunroof, power seats, and a CD player. Metallic paint and destination pushed our total to $38,430, and we were still sitting on vinyl.
The C320 is more expensive still at $36,950. In addition to the $2950 Sport package (suspension tuning, five-spoke wheels with performance tires, leather, sport seats), our car had an integrated phone, a ski sack, and metallic paint, for a total of $43,390. Ow.
To see where some of that money goes (or doesn't go), peek inside the three cars. See how the IS300, for instance, makes greater use of hard plastics than the others, but skillful design saves it from looking low-rent. The Lexus interior tells you this car is aimed at a younger buyer. The sport-watch-style gauges, the chrome ball shift knob, the perfect black leather steering wheel--we love it all. The only question is: How long will it stay in style?
A newfound stylishness has found its way into the C-class cabin, formerly a repository of sober, blocky shapes. The new interior isn't exactly sporty--the smallish tach in the corner of the instrument cluster can be hard to see--but neither is it likely to look dated a few years hence.
The BMW interior is plusher than the Lexus's and more businesslike than the Benz's. The large, round, white-on-black gauges are an easy read. The philosophy driving BMW's interior design is not so much to entertain with neat details or interesting shapes but rather to aid the driver in his or her task.
"Task" makes driving sound like work, but in all three of these cars, the left front seat is the place to be. Credit first their six-cylinder engines, which mellifluously emit a sporty snarl or a contented purr as the occasion warrants. BMW and Lexus opt for the classic in-line configuration and 3.0 liters of displacement, while Mercedes uses a V-6 of 3.2 liters. Their outputs are remarkably similar, with the Lexus and Merc making 215 horsepower and the Bimmer 225, all between 5700 and 5900 rpm. Peak torque ranges from a low of 214 pound-feet in the 330i to a high of 221 in the C320 (with all three engines hitting their max between 3000 and 3800 rpm). Aggressive throttle tip-in helps give the IS300 great initial response; it feels lively around town but less so at higher speeds. The 330i feels less sparkling on takeoff, but that's only because it has more linear throttle response. On the highway, the BMW still has deep reserves of power. The C-class snaps off the line and continues to feel strong as speed builds.
Mercedes and Lexus tie their engines to five-speed automatic transmissions, both of which feature manu-matic shifting. The IS300's driver can shift via buttons on the steering wheel and the C320's by slapping the gear lever from side to side. But sorry, guys, it's not the same as driving a true manual. The lack of a manual transmission is particularly off-putting in the IS300, which so obviously desires to be the hard-core sport sedan, the one for the import-tuner guy ready to move up in price and door count. We really don't expect a manual from Mercedes-Benz, but the company does offer one in the C240, and Mercedes' SLK320 combines the 3.2-liter engine and a six-speed, so perhaps a six-speed C320 isn't so far-fetched. The BMW, of course, has a true stick shift, and, as expected, it's a great one. In fact, the 3-series gearbox offers as sublime a gear-shifting experience as can be found in autodom.
The 3-series steering used to be on the same level, but BMW mucked it up recently by increasing the power assist. Now sadly overboosted, the Bimmer had the lightest steering of the bunch, but, to its credit, it retains its precision and some degree of feel. (Whoever it was at BMW who pushed for the lighter steering should be kept away from the 3-series and pointed toward the X5.) The garden-variety C-class has steering that is similarly lite-'n'-easy, but the Sport raises efforts considerably. The IS300's has good weighting and nice progressivity in daily driving, but as you approach the cornering limits, the lack of steering feel becomes an issue.
Still, when the road gets challenging, any of these cars is a welcome partner, eagerly turning in, gamely hanging on, and goading the driving on to further bad behavior. The chassis wizards in Munich have not only imbued the 3-series with an athlete's reflexes but also managed to provide a supple ride. Nice bonus. The Benz takes a slightly more heavy-handed approach to suspension tuning, its stiff springs and dampers providing iron-fisted chassis control and a more strident reporting of bumps. The ride is saved by Mercedes' use of sixteen-inch wheels where the other cars have seventeens. The Lexus most faithfully telegraphs bad pavement, its engineers probably figuring that they've got the magic-carpet thing covered with the ES300. We thought Pennsylvania's devilish Route 666, with its heaving pavement, sudden dips, and surprise hairpins, would sift out this trio. But after repeat runs, we found them to be closely matched when handling in extremis. The Lexus can get ragged, with lots of understeer, the Mercedes is composed, and the Bimmer is the most playful.
Clearly, in this class, choosing a winner has never been more difficult, and anyone shopping this bunch is lucky indeed. The Lexus IS300 is an exciting new entry, lively, fun, and a hands-down bargain. But its persona won't be complete until its manual transmission arrives next year, and we'd also like more road feel from the otherwise excellent steering.
The engineers at Mercedes-Benz have made the new C-class both more youth-ful and more beautiful. Furthermore, the C-class--in Sport guise, at least--exhibits the Germanic solidity missing from some of the company's recent efforts. The 3.2-liter V-6 is unassailable (although the European 2.7-liter turbo-diesel torque monster is even better, if you can believe it), but a manual transmission is offered only with the C240's 2.6-liter engine. The C320 Sport will cover ground as quickly as the 330i but at a cost of a slightly firmer ride. And, not insignificantly, the Mercedes is the most expensive car here.
The 3-series has the lightest steering and the most comfortable ride, which sounds like an inauspicious start to a great sport sedan. But the supple ride extracts no penalty in cornering ability or body control; the 3.0-liter straight six is a jewel, as is the five-speed gearbox; and the driver's environment is beyond reproach. The margin of victory is narrow, but the 3-series retains its crown.