The 2014 BMW 3 Series is the best-selling entry-level luxury car in America, and it generally bests the sales numbers of the 2014 Audi A4 by a 3-to-1 margin. Given the 3 Series model lineup's greater complexity, the fact that it offers five different engine choices compared to Audi's relatively simple powertrain approach, and the BMW's three different body styles to the A4's single sedan model, perhaps this isn't much of a mystery. After all, people like to have choices.
But does choice make the BMW the better car? That's what we're going to try to determine. First, let's outline the changes for the 2014 model year.
2014 Audi A4
Audi gives the 2014 A4 a slight bump in terms of its horsepower rating to 220 hp while adding standard Bluetooth connectivity and executing minor cosmetic changes.
2014 BMW 3 Series
BMW introduces new sport wagon and Gran Turismo 5-door hatchback body styles to the 2014 3 Series lineup, debuts a fuel-efficient new turbo-diesel engine option in the 328d model, installs new iDrive 4.2 technology with an integrated touch-pad controller, and makes minor equipment changes this year.
Take a look at reliability data sourced from Consumer Reports and J.D. Power, and it's clear that the 2014 Audi A4 is expected to be more reliable than the 2014 BMW 3 Series. Each market research firm rates the Audi better than average in terms of quality and reliability, while the BMW earns average ratings from these two companies. As a result, Audi takes the victory in this area.
Every 2014 BMW 3 Series is equipped with an automatic stop/start system that shuts the engine off while the car idles in traffic or at intersections. This certainly contributes to the BMW's ability to earn impressive fuel economy ratings, along with the fact that the 3 Series lineup offers a turbo-diesel model,a hybrid model and three different gasoline engines. As a result, the mileage ratings spread from a low of 20 miles per gallon in the city for a 335i xDrive model to a high of 45 mpg on the highway for the 328d turbo-diesel with rear-wheel drive.
Compare that to what Audi offers with the A4 lineup. The least fuel-efficient version of the car is also the most popular: the A4 2.0T quattro with an automatic transmission that gets 20 mpg city. The most fuel-efficient A4 has front-wheel drive and a continuously variable transmission, good for a total of 32 mpg hwy.
Though the company's mainstream models are well matched in terms of gas mileage, BMW offers buyers who want to maximize mpg a couple of alternatives that excel in this regard. Therefore, victory is BMW's to enjoy.
When it comes to protecting occupants, both the Audi and the BMW get the highest overall rating of five stars from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The A4 earns a 4-star rating for driver protection in a side-impact collision, while the 3 Series gets a 4-star rating for driver protection in a frontal impact. In all other assessments, each vehicle earns a 5-star rating.
We'll have to consult the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety for a tiebreaker. Here again, the A4 and 3 Series are evenly matched, with a single exception. The Audi earns a Poor rating in the small-overlap frontal-impact test, while the 3 Series gets a Marginal rating in the same test.
Therefore, the BMW just barely nudges the Audi to get our nod for safety.
Audi technology supplies the 2014 A4 with available Google Earth 3-D navigation mapping (which employs actual satellite images) and the ability to transform the car into a mobile Wi-Fi hot spot. We're big fans of the Bang & Olufsen audio components, and the A4 offers both an adaptive cruise-control system with stop-and-go capability and a forward-collision warning system.
On the other hand, BMW offers full speech-recognition capability for composing text messages and emails by voice while driving, supplies Facebook and Twitter access through its BMW Apps system, and offers global Internet radio access along with BMW Online services. The list of available tech on the 3 Series is lengthy: BMW Assist eCall technology with automatic collision notification, automatic engine stop/start capability, an ECO PRO driving mode for improving fuel economy, a brake-powered energy-regeneration system, automatic high-beam headlights, a head-up display, a lane-departure warning system, a parking-assistant feature, a surround-view camera system and more. It's clear that, with a wider range of options, the BMW 3 Series is overall the more technologically sophisticated automobile.
You can save $1,850 by choosing a BMW 320i rather than an Audi A4. Of course, the 320i is not as powerful, which means you might prefer the 328i, which costs $2,800 more than the Audi. Consider that Kelley Blue Book (KBB) expects Audi buyers to pay less than the invoice cost for a new A4 while 3 Series buyers are likely to pay more than invoice, and the Audi starts to look like a pretty good deal.
Where the BMW makes up some ground, according to KBB, is with regard to ownership costs during the first 5 years that the car is sitting in your driveway. A 328i is expected to save its owner $3,300 during that period, in part due to BMW's free scheduled maintenance program. That sure helps to equalize the difference in purchase price.
What secures a victory for the BMW is its residual value rating. According to ALG, the 3 Series does a better job of holding its value over time than the Audi does. That's why we give the nod to the BMW.
Though the BMW bests the Audi in four of our five category assessments, the A4 isn't dramatically far behind the 3 Series despite a design that dates to 2009. In the end, BMW pulls ahead thanks to a wider degree of powertrain variety, slightly better crash-test performance, more modern technologies, free scheduled maintenance, and superior resale value -- all characteristics that make the 3 Series the better car.