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buying used

I drove a Chevy Aveo through grad school. I just turned 30, finally have a good-paying job and I feel like I need a fancier grownup car, like a BMW. But the most I can afford is about $32,000. I want a sedan with all-wheel drive, but I don’t know which one. I’m a little overwhelmed by all the different numbers and letters. – Emily, Ottawa

It might be easier if cars had names like Fast, Really Fast and Fastest, We Mean It.

But there can be an internal logic to some complicated-seeming numerical names.

For BMW’s entry-level 3 Series sedan, it used to be that the number corresponded directly to the size of the engine – the 2000 328i had a 2.8-litre gas engine.

But not anymore. These days, as the numbers go up, so does the engine power and the list of available options. Then, there are letters after the numbers, including i for fuel-injected (gas), d for diesel and e for electric. xDrive is all-wheel drive.

So, for 2015, the entry-level 320i xDrive ($26,297 used, according to Canadian Black Book) and next-level 328i xDrive ($28,818) both had a 2.0-litre, turbocharged four-cylinder gas engine (the 320i delivered 60 fewer ponies than the 241-hp 328i). The 335i xDrive ($37,654 used) had a 3.0-litre gas engine (a 300-hp turbocharged inline six).

It gets more complicated than that, but, basically, the higher the number and the more words after it, the more a 3 Series cost – before adding options. There were exceptions, like the performance M3.

To stick with German brands with complicated nomenclature (our favourite Jeopardy category), we’ll pit the 2015 320i xDrive against the redesigned-for-2015 Mercedes-Benz C300 4Matic.

Note: The 3 Series, redesigned for 2019 sales, was introduced at the Paris Auto Show on Oct. 2.

2015 BMW 320i xDrive

The BMW 3 Series sedan.

  • Sixth generation: 2012-2018 (facelift for 2016)
  • Average asking price for base: $26,297 (Canadian Black Book)
  • Original MSRP for base: $39,980
  • Engine: 181-hp, 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder
  • Transmission/Drive: Eight-speed automatic/All-wheel drive
  • Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 10.3 city, 6.7 highway; premium gas

With a base four-cylinder engine, the 2015 3 Series was fast and frugal.

“The ‘ultimate sipping machine’ just doesn't have the same ring to it,” Globe Drive said. “Yet that's the more fuel-efficient direction BMW is taking with the [sixth-generation] 3 Series, a vehicle that has literally defined what it is to be a sport sedan.”

Rivals like the Mercedes C-Class, Audi A4 and Lexus IS 350 couldn’t “quite match the BMW's combination of efficiency, fantastic road manners and outright refinement,” review site Edmunds said.

Consumer Reports liked the 3’s “engaging handling and responsive powertrains,” ride comfort, comfortable and well-finished cabin, and available manual transmission (with rear-wheel drive only).

It didn’t like the tight rear seat and complicated controls. Plus, adding options like a rear-view camera could quickly boost the sticker price.

Consumer Reports gave the 2015 3 Series four out of five for reliability. There were three recalls.

2015 Mercedes-Benz C300 4Matic

The 2015 Mercedes-Benz C-Class.Mercedes-Benz

  • Fourth generation: 2015-present
  • Average asking price for base: $31,059 (Canadian Black Book)
  • Original MSRP for base: $43,000
  • Engine: 241-hp, 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder
  • Transmission/Drive: Seven-speed automatic/all-wheel
  • Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 10.1 city, 7.8 highway; premium gas

The 2015 C-Class wasn’t Mercedes’ smallest sedan – and that was kind of the point.

“No longer the baby Benz sedan, the new larger, safer C-Class is more sophisticated, efficient and expressively styled,” Globe Drive said. “It’s an adult car – they fit much better than in the CLA – without making me feel old and wondering where I left my cufflinks.”

The C is still technically Mercedes’ entry-level sedan; the automaker calls the smaller, cheaper CLA (the 2015 CLA250 4Matic is $28,149 used, on average) a four-door coupe.

“Simply put, the C300 delivers the driving pleasure people expect from the brand,” Consumer Reports said. “For those new to Mercedes-Benz, we think you'll find the C300 comfortable, quiet, agile and altogether well done.”

There was also the C400 4Matic, which had a 3.0-litre, six-cylinder V-6 ($34,749 used).

Consumer Reports liked the “stunning” interior styling and finishing and “gratifying balance of cushy ride and handling agility.” But the car could get expensive as you added features, and it had complicated controls.

It gave the 2015 C-Class two out of five for reliability. There were eight recalls.

Send your used car questions to with the subject: “Buying used.”

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