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Hagerty
Hagerty Employee

Executive decision: Audi 80 vs. BMW 3 Series vs. Mercedes 190E | Hagerty Media

If you wanted to identify a point in time where BMW and Mercedes well and truly squared up to one another and set out to build the world's greatest affordable executive sedan, you would probably end up at the start of the 1980s.
https://www.hagerty.com/media/car-profiles/audi-80-bmw-3-series-mercedes-190e/
43 REPLIES 43
XXXMIKEXXX
Pit Crew

Don't care how great these cars are !!!! As far as I am concerned there is nothing you can do to make 4 door sedan cool !!!!! Not even if you put a hellcat in it !!!!!!
Tim
Instructor

It depends on whether you have the car to look at or to drive. There are countless examples of four-door sedans that drive better than two-door models of other brands. As well, there are plenty of examples of two-doors that got hit with the ugly stick when separated from their four-door siblings.

That said, my next vehicle will be a two-door, specifically because it looks far better in two-door form than four-door guise. 🙂
MATTMERICA
Instructor

When you need to bring more than one new friend home from the club, you will be thanking the car gods for that second set of doors lol
TG
Instructor

If they are drunk enough they will squeeze into my quasi-back seats without much complaining
stevecobb45
Detailer

Charger Hellcat is cool for sure. As you get older you'll appreciate 4 doors.
Rider79
Instructor

I'm 65, and I don't much like them yet. My dad called sedans "old men's cars", and did not buy a four-door from 1950 until 2002 (guess he finally got old enough).
sclin10
Detailer

Growing up I thought all 4 doors were dorky old-people's cars. Then I got old.
tahend
Detailer

4 door, right hand drive????? NEXT!!!!!!
MattK
Detailer

I'll take the Audi, even with the spoiler. Such a nice looking car.
Numberscruncher
Detailer

Very true. Once upon a time, cars had personality and character, now 90% of them are interchangeable.
F360Spider
Detailer

If for no other reason, I pick the BMW because it has two doors.
MrThunder
Pit Crew

If they were all manuals, the BMW would get my nod...For this trio? Audi.
dooscoop32
Intermediate Driver

NONE of the above!
Sajeev
Community Manager

I'm a sucker for a 190E so I guess that's my choice! 

JohninNC
Advanced Driver

Should have used a 4 door BMW for the example. For me the Mercedes is the winner. All are nice though!
greatscott73
Intermediate Driver

I'd take a Lexus LS...
MattK
Detailer

Yes, but it's still a Toyota. 🙂
DLP
Pit Crew

Totally agree:)
Tim
Instructor

All three of these models are great cars. Not all three of these particular examples, though. A 318i was always the poor man's (or woman's) BMW, and to saddle that under-powered mill with an automatic is an appropriate alternative sentence of house arrest for a white collar criminal. The 325i in manual would be the correct choice.

Likewise, the Mercedes should not be the no-options-checked version. Every Mercedes owner expects all of the best in tech and luxuries--none of which this particular vehicle has. Sure the Cosworth version would never be turned down, but a proper "regular" 190E makes a great compact cruiser.

The Audi is the closest to best as-is example. Uncheck the sport package. Either buy one without the appearance-only add-ons or upgrade to the 90 (U.S.) or even quattro variants. Audi's interiors bested BMW and Mercedes for years (decades?) and is well exemplified in this era, with a single-piece dash with all the right curves, soft touches and quality materials still not found in cars today--even those with price tags heading north of $40K.

I owned two Audis of the era. First, an '89 100 (the larger size), and later a '94 Cabriolet. The Cabriolet's V6 in the later-year 90 makes for a compelling argument even if it might not be as outright sporty as a BMW with a straight six.

Utopia1
Detailer

God help us all if other manufacturers are trying to equal Audi's level of quality control!
bblhed
Advanced Driver

I had a 1993 Mercedes 190E 2.3 5 Speed and while the fit and finish were great it was a **bleep**box in many regards. The Speedo worked when it wanted to, the parking brake and rear brakes for that matter did not work, Cruse only worked when the speedo worked, no reverse lights unless I stuck my finger through the hole in the shift boot and pushed the switch with my finger and the AC did not work at all, the stereo only kind of worked. The car also leaked all kinds of fluids. Finally it took pity on me one Valentines day about 18 years ago when a spring broke in the injection system and it pumped a couple of quarts of oil out the dipstick, that is when I decided to just junk it. Believe it or not I was an adult when I bought that car. I will admit that it did look good parked in the driveway, and oh the solid clunk of the door when I closed it, and it only stranded me that one time.
sclin10
Detailer

"no reverse lights unless I stuck my finger through the hole in the shift boot and pushed the switch with my finger"
Did your nose light up? LOL
Fitz
New Driver

Nicely done road test.Motoring journal at its best!
Eric2
Intermediate Driver

At first glance, if you remove the badge off the cars they all look the same? I'm not so sure I could drive a manual left hand shift? Definitely would take awhile getting use to. Guess I'll go with the two-door BMW.
JSievers
Detailer

I beg to differ regarding the Mercedes instrumentation. IMO Mercedes instrument panels of this era, with large gauges having orange needles on a black background with clear white markings, are the most readable (and attractive) analog dashboards ever made. For similar reasons, the C6 Corvette ranks high in my estimation as well.
MATTMERICA
Instructor

I agree - the old school MB instruments were great. Better than what they changed them to, and now everything is digital so seeing the older stuff brings back good memories.
AlfasAudis
New Driver

I lived with a 1988 Audi 80 for 4 years. The model I had was an 80 quattro, It looked like an 80, without the interior wood and leather, body colored bumpers and cost of a 90, but had the 5 cyl engine, 5 spd transmission, rear suspension and quattro system. As this was just after the CBS "unintended acceleration" hack job it was also much less expensive than a BMW 318 or Mercedes to buy and operate (free 3 yr maintenance). Audi of America also added a guaranteed resale plan that limited depreciation.
That car had all the wonderful features of the 4 cyl front wheel drive 80 but was dynamically far superior. My pick then and now would be an Audi 80 quattro.
SJ
Advanced Driver

Next.
83ragtop50
Intermediate Driver

None of them!
chrlsful
Instructor

Y not go 190Ecosworth (2.3/16) & beemer M? Did Audi have a match? There's be 3 to read on...
AetheraNobis
Pit Crew

What a great story!
Around 1990, I was looking for a car for my new family and I went to test drive a variety of makes and models. I tried a manual version of the BMW in the article, an Audi 90 Quattro (I actually wanted to drive a Coupe Quattro but no dealer had one in stock), and the Mercedes-Benz. Your observations about the three are spot on. I found the BMW to have a great driving position and decent steering feel, but it felt a bit flimsy, not especially fast, and - while fun - the lift throttle oversteer and limited wheel travel wasn't ideal for the rough roads of northern New England where I lived at the time. The Audi was sleek and promised great winter traction, but the steering lacked feedback and it felt like there was a lot of inertia in the drivetrain and even with the 5-cylinder engine it wasn't especially lively. The Mercedes-Benz was as solid as a bank vault, had no issues at all with frost heaves or rough roads like the other cars, but for me the seats were a bit uncomfortable. I also drove some other cars, a Merkur XR-4 that was very softly sprung and loud, but fascinating to look at and fun with the turbo - but by that time Merkur was dying and resale was a worry. Some Japanese cars that the press was favorable towards at the time, none of which left any positive impression on me - and few of the committees that designed them to be inoffensive seemed to have considered my 6'2" frame in their brief. A VW Corrado that I really enjoyed, a Ford Probe and SHO Taurus which both felt loose but quick. I did finally find the ideal car for us, a Saab 900 turbo 16-valve. I still have it, and I still love it. What a great variety of cars there were, and each so different. Thankyou for bringing the memories back!
SteveNL
Intermediate Driver

Some of the greatest cars ever made came out of Germany in the 1980s. These cars were light, had good looks, good performance and great handling. Build quality was also very good, They had many modern features but were still fairly simple. As a result, they were generally easy to service and repair. German engineers knew how to get great performance out of relatively little horsepower. German cars from the '80's also tend to be great fun cars to drive.

I've always loved the aerodynamic look of the Audi, although I've never owned one. Two things tended to keep me from buying one. Even in the '80s, they seemed more complex than the Benz or BMW. In 2003 I had my heart set on a TT until I looked at the complexity under the hood. But the most perplexing thing about the Audi is that I've seen so many beautiful examples in the junk yards. Almost everything that you see in a pick & pull yard had been beaten mercilessly prior to its arrival. But I've seen numerous beautiful Audis in the junk yards. I've often wondered why they were there. Something caused well maintained cars to be scraped, so I've stayed away.

This article would certainly be more relevant if the Mercedes 190e was a 2.6 liter and the BMW was a 325i. As someone who owns and restores these cars, I can tell you that they are both fantastic. The Mercedes is just a nice driving, high quality machine. It isn't as thrilling to drive as the E30, but when I'm looking for a car to take out, its often the Benz. Dependable and rock solid. Also very durable. The E30 BMW is probably the last great BMW. When properly set up, they are a blast to drive.

After the early '90's, German cars became porky and complex. They became difficult to service or repair and generally expensive to keep. You can't go wrong with a German car from the '80's. But they are now over 30 years old, so some restoration and on-going service should be expected.
Marcsten
Pit Crew

I remember my mom having a similar vintager Merc (OK, it was a 1979) and we called it the Zamboni. It felt stately, like a tank but accelerated like one. You didn't need the brake pedal as once you lifted off the gas, the engine pretty much pulled you to a stop. And the delay on kick down described by the author was a nuisance. It didn't help that our other car was a 1973 240Z. I remember thinking at the time that all these german 4 door sedans were awful to look at and to drive.
40Ford
Detailer

So they have graffiti in the UK too.
TG
Instructor

Front wheel drive and two automatics... I'm out
Before reading that though i would have gone with the BMW. Not necessarily because I think it's the better car, more because I have already been through a few rounds of disassembling and reassembling BMWs to perform relatively minor repair work - and I would stick to the enemy I know
Rider79
Instructor

None of these boxes, thanks. If the 1989 BMW was a convertible, well, now let's talk.
97Cobra
Intermediate Driver

Couldn't afford them new certainly can't afford the maintenance bills now. Even if I could I wouldn't a have either in my driveway or garage. Built in North America and I'm interested.
DLP
Pit Crew

Having spent nearly a half century in the automotive business, I truly enjoyed this article. I have worked for all three franchises, spending my last 25 with Audi. Hard to find a fault with any of them. But in regards to 2 door vs. 4 door, do what we did. Have one of each. My wifes A5 Cabriolet, and my A4 Avant are perfect for us. And if I really get bored, I work on my 69 Dodge Charger. Also had a 911 in there at one point.
Kewina50
Intermediate Driver

I have and enjoy my '87 e28 535is. I bought it new. It was built in Germany back when BMWs were of the highest standard. It never broke. I found no need to replace it. A fabulous machine that was never available in a 2-door. Still kicks ass and takes names and it looks like a BMW. 250k miles. No oil leaks. starts at the touch of...yes, a key. The new BMWs have cured me of the marque. I'm still stuck with my wife's '09 650 coupe...but, that's the last one for us. You couldn't give me a new BMW. The Ultimate Headache Machine. Nice goin' BMW. Build passed products that were second to none. Now slap the name on junk and ruin it for all time. I'd rather have a Yugo. At least we all knew going in that is was a turd! Happy Motoring!
timp1600
New Driver

I was baffled by the references to the Audi quality. Consumer Reports rates new Audis quite high in reliability but Audis in the 80s were notoriously unreliable. Maybe that is the reason that you still see e30s and 190s on the road today but it is a very rare sight to see any 80s Audis. I will grant you that the Audi was the nicest looking of these three cars.
sclin10
Detailer

I've never owned an Audi or Benz, but I DID own a BMW 320i. I HATED IT. Everything that was wrong with it was described by the BMW mechanic as 'They all do that.'. I finally got fed up and sold it for a 914 Porsche 2.0 and never looked back.
JRJones
Intermediate Driver

My last autocross experience was actually a BMW promotion, sent to me as a BMW owner and car magazine subscriber. In the mid-nineties BMW set-up a fair-park parking lot with a wet straightaway, and a dry AX course. They had a Volvo, Mercedes, Acura and the BMW 3-series. I expected the BMW would be quicker. A Pro gave us an in-car demo then we took turns. The Volvo was a yawn, the Merc was better and the Acura was spirited for a couple of turns, then the power steering pump ran out of pressure. I finished with shear muscle. The BMW was marvelous and I was flying on the pre-ultimate straight into the last hard left, to a short chute and finish. I late-braked wide and turned-in. the Beemer was totally hooked-up. Crap! I underestimated the car and let-up on the brake. Wrong. The weight transfer and ABS had the front tires hooked up but when I lightened the brake the Beemer understeered through the cones.
02-orignal-ownr
Detailer

I own a couple of BMW 2002s (the ancestor of their 3 series) and have owned a pair of E30 3ers--one of those much maligned eta-engined sixes--an '87-- and a 91 318is.

The eta engine was all torque and no horsepower--121 hp, but 177 lb/ft of torque--mated to a 2.87 final drive and an overdrive 5th gear. Surprisingly good acceleration and over 30 mpg on the highway--with a 2.7 liter six and early 80s EFI technology. Those engines are known for well over 250k miles before any attention other than timing belts.

The 318is is a whole 'nother story: same engine as the test car (1766 cc, 134 hp twin cam, 4 valve four) but with a 5 speed and a 4.11 final drive--and it loves to rev. In the US, the M42 engine wasn't even available with an automatic, either in the 318is, the 318i 4 door sedan or the 318i convertible. I was surprised to learn it was so offered in Europe. Had that test car had a 5 speed, it would have been a completely different car. The M42 simply wasn't happy with an automatic unless you shifted the automatic by hand. BMW marketed the 318is in the US as "the 2002 of the 90s" and they were right. Among BMW folks, the E30 3 Series is generally conceded to be the best of the 3ers.

A final comment on the test--at least in the US: go to a car show, cruise in or even a German marque meet and count the Audi 80s, MB 190s and BMW 3ers...bet there will be more E30s than Audi 80s and MB 190s combined...Then check BAT to see what they're bringing...