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Comparo: 2009 Mercedes C300, Saab 9-3 Aero, Audi A4

May Wheels interest you in this trio of entry-level luxury sedans.

  • salon of expensive car new luxury

Is the worsening economy causing you to scale down your luxury sedan budget? Money’s a little tight, but you don’t want to give up the features and conveniences you’re accustomed to?

May Wheels interest you in this trio of entry-level luxury sedans?

They offer a little less elbow and legroom compared to larger sedans, but at least all three of these five-passenger, junior-executive four-doors deliver plenty of kit, plus available all-wheel-drive (it’s Canada, eh?) with MSRPs for just under $50,000.

Which one, though, is the best pick for those who love to drive?

THIRD PLACE: 2009 Mercedes-Benz C300 4MATIC

There’s no sport package available, but $4,290 worth of 17-inch AMG wheels and all-season rubber, premium package and metallic paint boosted the Mercedes’s $44,900 base price to $49,190.

A seven-speed automatic – one more gear than either of the slushboxes in the Audi or Saab – is standard. But the power of the C300’s 3.0-litre V6 (228 hp and 211 lb.-ft.) and fuel economy ratings (city 12.0 L/100 km, hwy 8.0 L/100 km or 23 m.p.g. and 35 m.p.g., respectively) are midpack.

Like the rest of the fourth-generation C Class, this model’s steering is a joy compared to previous models. Wickedly quick off centre, the finger-light effort can find the driver turning into corners earlier than expected, but it’s easy to get used to.

Former mid-size E Class owners girding for bad economic times won’t be disappointed. The compact C300 delivers a sumptuous ride with a nearly mute engine. Whatever the road conditions, the baby Benz feels solid and refined.

Pushing the C hard, though, reveals its true colours as a luxury sedan. It simply can’t match the more sprightly dynamics of the 9-3 or A4.

Blame an overly sensitive stability control and the C300’s 4MATIC AWD system, which isn’t as sophisticated as the others here. For the C300, engine torque is fixed at 40 per cent to the front wheels and 60 to the rear.

WHY BUY? Big (luxury) car ride and refinement.

WHY NOT? Needs a tauter suspension package to be considered a sports sedan.

SECOND PLACE:

2009 Saab 9-3 Aero XWD

The 9-3 is finally available with Saab’s first AWD system in the firm’s 60 years of making cars. Dubbed XWD – or Cross Wheel Drive in Saabspeak – the exclusive-to-Saab fourth-generation Haldex system turns the normally torque-torn front-drive 9-3 into a better-balanced foul-weather driving machine.

The drivetrain sends power (up to 90 per cent) to the rear wheels, where a limited-slip differential can lock the rear differential as needed. It allows drivers to easily engage in controlled, four-wheel drifts without the system’s integrated e-nannies cutting in and spoiling the fun.

But the 9-3 Aero (as-tested $49,345) isn’t only about practising your best snow rally drifting moves.

Its turbocharged 2.8-litre V6 pumps out 280 hp and 295 lb.-ft. of torque – the most power of this trio, making it the quickest from 0-to-100 km/h in 6.9 seconds (0.2 and 0.4 seconds quicker than the Audi and Benz, respectively).

The downside? The Saab sucks the most dino juice: City 13.98 L/100 km, hwy 8.3 (20 m.p.g., 34 m.p.g.).

Beyond its hot-rod tail-out proclivities, the 9-3 Aero XWD’s supportive front seats, light but accurate steering, and quiet and composed ride over pothole ravaged Canadian roads makes it an easy car to live with day to day, season to season.

WHY BUY? Torque finally meets traction; nice balance of ride and handling.

WHY NOT? Relatively thirsty; the GM brand’s uncertain financial future isn’t helping Saab’s residual values.

FIRST PLACE: Audi A4 2.0T Quattro

Compared to the last A4, the 2009 iteration is wider on the outside and larger on the inside, making the mid-size Audi A6 almost superfluous.

Whereas the Benz and Saab need V6s, the $49,300 as-tested Audi does just fine with its blown 2.0-litre four-cylinder. Its 211 hp and 258 lb.-ft. are no match for the muscle-car 9-3 Aero. But with the lightest curb weight, the A4 is no slouch from 0-to-100 km/h, taking 7.1 seconds. Even better, the A4 2.0T is the most fuel efficient of these junior-exec expresses – rated at 10.1 L/100 km (28 m.p.g.) in the city, 7.4 L on the highway (38 m.p.g.).

Of the nearly $10,000 of six-speed automatic tranny, sports and premium packages, the most valuable option may be the $2,500 Audi Drive Select system.

It allows the driver to pick personalized settings for suspension dampening, steering feel and throttle response via in-dash buttons.

If not as sophisticated as Saab’s solution, Audi’s all-wheel-drive system can allocate power front or back, and sends 60 per cent of the power rearward in dry driving conditions.

It’s a major contributor to blessing the A4 with the most balanced and liveliest chassis of this trio when Drive Select is set to its sportiest settings.

Not perfect, the A4’s steering can be a bit slow at turn-in and overly light in feel. But even with the suspension set to its tautest setting, ride is excellent, with a bend-not-break nature.

WHY BUY? Roomiest and best-handling A4 yet.

WHY NOT? Feathery steering; need to first pop for Premium package to get desirable Drive Select.

Freelance writer John LeBlanc can be reached at editors@straight-six.com

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