The Big Executive Test: BMW 330e and Audi A6

Motoring correspondent Mark Gallivan takes two flagship executive cars from German carmakers – the  Audi A6 and the BMW 330e – and puts them through their paces.

Buried in the minds of the middle management executive is the biggest prize. Don’t be fooled by the maelstrom of sales targets and monthly quotas. The aspiring manager has an eye on the big prize: the spanking new German company car.

How the current work-from-home policy changes all this remains unclear. For now, nothing says you’re the management top dog so empirically as when the job’s thrown you a set of keys to something German with doors that shut with a fudd-upmh.

Perched at the top are the BMW 3 Series and the senior manager’s Audi A6. Both models have been doing the rounds for decades. The BMW since 1975 and Audi’s been toiling away since the mid-90s. How do the current cars rate today?

2020 BMW 330e M Sport Saloon

White BMW 330e 2020 saloon.

“Limit the expensive options on the 330e and you’ll own not just the best BMW 3 Series on sale but one of the best new saloons on sale in Ireland”

The petrol BMW 330i was the best new car I drove in 2019. At the time I said it was the class best. I liked how it drove, the involvement of the steering, the cabin and controls, balance of the chassis – the list I had went on. I might have mumbled a bit about the design of rear lights and why the door aperture seemed too small to get in and out of. How, I wondered, would the PHEV electrification in the 3 Series improve things? Quite a bit as it turned out.

My test BMW was the 330e M Sport Saloon and it arrived in immaculate Hotpoint white. The price before any options was added came to €52,480. Though the addition of M Sport Plus Pack at €2,900 did seem good value. The final tally came to €55,400.

To explain, the “e” denotes this 3 Series is a plug-in petrol/electric hybrid. Don’t mistake the 330e numerical convention for a three-litre, six-cylinder engine. What you actually get is a two-litre four-cylinder petrol with a lithium-ion battery pack. This mixing of new and old engineering tech sees this 3 Series accelerate strongly from 0-100km/h in 5.9 seconds pushing out 289hp. That’s quick by any standards. BMW tells us it’s actually possible to crack 138mpg with a CO2 emission at 39g/km. The former claim is very thin hope and only possible when fully charged – the latter is a fact. Motor tax is €170 for the year.

What is indisputable is that this particular BMW in 330e guise with fancy electrification has extended the appeal of the 3 Series and made it the best non-performance 3 Series on sale for 2020. So far this year the new Ford Puma is my choice of 2020’s finest car. Yet, the BMW 330e convincingly sets a high point and without hesitation it’s the one I’d pick within the range.

Here’s why: if you have a home charging box you can run on electric power up to around 60kms/37 miles. No sensible and no fun? BMW has added a setting in sport mode called XtraBoost that increases the power provided there’s enough juice in the battery from 249bhp to 289bhp for short spurts. This is increased from the last 330e by 30 per cent. BMW has kept the CO2 emissions low with 38 g/km on the old NEDC testing (registered before April) but stricter WLTP figures weren’t available going to press. It’s still a low CO2 for the level of performance offered. This remains an important factor for company car drivers.

The default decision to pick the 320d with the four-cylinder diesel engine is no longer necessary. If you cover over 20,000 miles a year, then obviously, the diesel will prove less costly to run but the 330e is a far more enjoyable car to pilot. Expect around 2.5 hours to get a charge of around 80 per cent using a 3.7kW domestic charging point.

If you use a domestic three-point plug around 5.5 hours is needed. Be mindful if you are heavy with the accelerator or drive over 100 km or more the petrol engine fires up. You can hold the electric power as best as possible by pushing the electric mode but it’s only as good as the careful driver behind the wheel.

One attribute the BMW scores over the Audi A4 and Mercedes C-Class is the immediate acceleration that is available at any time. A momentary pause blights both the A4 and C-Class when overtaking does not appear in the BMW. The 330e shoes no such hesitation. The suspension never displayed the jittery feedback or subliminal jolts that are a growing phenomenon in sporting saloons today. A second win for BMW over these rivals is how engaging the 3 Series is to drive.

Few cars I tested during 2020 manages a blend of thrills and practicality as well as the 3 Series. If you crave deft responses and a sporting suspension with stimulating steering the 3 Series is the best in the class. Drivers facing long journeys will appreciate the seat comfort. The driving position is first rate. I tested the 330e on a loop from Dublin to Waterford and back and it shrugged off the trip. It’s close but it pips the composed Audi A4 for that prize.

The battery does eat into the boot space reducing it from 480 to 375 litres but it’s worth it when you’re able to ditch the diesel engine and enjoy snappy responses. With the petrol engine engaged, it sounds far better too.

Limit the expensive options on the 330e and you’ll own not just the best BMW 3 Series on sale but one of the best new saloons on sale in Ireland.

You’ll like: Performance, handling, packaging and the electric range. The optimum 3 Series allowing you to ditch the diesel. Cost efficient for company car drivers.

You’ll grumble: Very little.

2020 Audi A6  

Silver grey 2020 Audi A6.

“You cannot go wrong in choosing an Audi A6. It’s a comfortable executive saloon that takes the exhaustion out of long distances”

If BMW were under the illusion that their 5 Series was the best executive car on sale it was given a reality check when the new Audi A6 broke cover in 2018. Despite the A6 being regarded as the least mercurial of the premium executive saloon brigade, Audi showed it had appreciably stepped up its game. They concentrated on comfort with a blend of hermetic refinement.

Audi’s cleverest idea was not to chase BMW for nosebleed dynamics and there was strong evidence that Audi was positioning the new A6 as a smaller, certainly less expensive, A8. Spotting an A6 from a distance it’s difficult to tell it apart from the flagship saloon. Inside my car the basic main binnacle was fitted with analogue dials. Surprisingly I found these analogue instruments perfectly legible to read at a glance that I hardly missed Audi’s much admired Virtual Cockpit. A surprise that.

Two years after the release how has the standard Audi A6 held its own? My test car was the A6 TDI 40 (204hp) S-Tronic producing CO2 158-145 g/km at €57,065. While the torque produces 400 Nm the weight penalty of 2,255kg impacts acceleration of 0-100km taking over 8 seconds. It lacks the verve found in the BMW 5 Series and to a lesser degree Mercedes E-Class. If you are buying privately the A6 45 TDI with Quattro and 245hp at €63,415 could offer the most satisfying drive.

Prices for the 40 TDI (204 hp) start at €52,910 and €59,600 for the (245hp) TSI petrol. The Avant (estate) starts from €56,515 for the diesel and €62,820 for the petrol engine with S tronic.

When choosing an Audi A6 make sure to check the seating position. At six feet tall I felt like I was slightly submerged in the driver’s seat with the door and dashboard set too high to offer a commanding driving position. That threw up another irritation. When parking, it forced me to peer over the bonnet to judge the front’s extremities. Raising the seat squab didn’t solve it either. When manually adjusting the seat the base squab cantilevers you forward from the back with insufficient under thigh support. Make sure you check this on a test drive. The A5 Sportback I drove a fortnight later with a lower roofline never threw up the same problem.

Maybe I’m getting used to the two centre touchscreens housing infotainment and primary climate controls and deleting primary buttons – this time they were more familiar to use. One favourite feature was the navigation search function for a destination. When activating the navigation it turns the lower touchscreen into a virtual scribble pad that inviting you to scroll each letter of the destination and the system then interprets your handwriting and populates the final address. This is a far more intuitive system than clicking through an alphabetical menu.

Elsewhere the cabin is pure A6 which feels airy with a clinical design that has modernist appeal. Taller drivers are treated to ample headroom front and rear and there is generous legroom. There was a time when the A6 lagged the segment. Now it’s almost on par with the BMW 5 Series. However, objectively, both trail the refreshed Mercedes E-Class and the Merc’s cabin looks like a car landed from a higher price level.

Depending on your driving needs the front-wheel drive A6 without the optional Quattro four-wheel drive is competent and when pushed very hard will understeer wide. This limits the rear wheel drive adjustability of the 5 Series and E-Class when approaching fast bends. Neither is the steering or suspension geared for sporting engagement and it feels closer in spirit to the bigger A8 with agreeable feedback. A choice of suspension options is available with entry level steel springs and dampers including the costly adaptive suspension. If you are a company car driver the residual value will be questionable for the employer. If buying privately and hanging onto the car for years the air suspension option is a recommendation.

Audi sold 935 A6s in 2019 and this year 522 in the first eight months of 2020. This 42pc dip in new sales reflects the Covid factor’s impact in consumer appetite. BMW’s 5 Series only achieved 56 more buyers during the same period. Mercedes only managed 491 sales by comparison. The A6’s boot capacity is the same as the BMW 5 Series at 530 litres.

You cannot go wrong in choosing an Audi A6. It’s a comfortable executive saloon that takes the exhaustion out of long distances. In Saloon or Avant, the A6 will be painless to own. That said, the refreshed Mercedes E-Class has just made things far tougher. Do investigate the new A6 50 TFSIe hybrid option. Priced from a fruity €72,900 it’s a strong alternative within the higher end A6 range.

You’ll like: Sophisticated looks. Upscale cabin ambience. Strong economy. New A6 TFSIe worth considering.

You’ll grumble: 2.0 litre petrol engine’s shortfall of character. Firm standard suspension lacks Mercedes E-Class absorption.

Written by Mark Gallivan

Published: 21 September, 2020