Which premium German compact sedan deserves your money?
Call it a head start, if you like; whenever an automaker launches a new entry-level sports sedan, the target is pointed at Germany. Since the 1970s, small sedans from Germany's Audi, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz have been the gold standard of this class. And today, more than four decades later, the respective A4, 3 Series, and C-Class four-doors still lead the segment when it comes to innovation, competence, refinement, and status.

German power brokers(Photo: John LeBlanc)

Arguably, BMW's 3 has been the pick of the trio for those who like to drive, the C-Class for those who prefer their small sedans to coddle, and the A4 for the automaker's legendary Quattro all-wheel-drive system. But the rivalry between the Teutonic trio means those stereotypical differences aren't so different anymore. Leading-edge luxury features, all-wheel drive, and lively driving characteristics are no longer exclusive to just one German make.

With an all-new 3 Series arriving this year, MSN Autos felt it was time to check in on these class leaders, and ask: Which is the best small German sports sedan you can buy?

Third place: 2012 Mercedes-Benz C 300 4Matic

2012 Mercedes-Benz C 300 4Matic(Photo: John LeBlanc)

To keep things fresh, the current generation C-Class gets its first major re-do this year since arriving for 2008: new front and rear exterior styling, an updated interior, and a new base model C 250 that reintroduces a four-cylinder to the lineup for 2012.

Realistically, the turbocharged and rear-wheel drive $36,700 C 250 can't compete with its starter Audi and BMW rivals with only 201 horsepower. That means you need to step up to the mid-range $45,200 C 300 4Matic, which comes with standard all-wheel drive and a naturally aspirated 3.0-litre V6.

Despite the extra coin you have to spend over the $43,600 328i Modern (with mandatory auto), the C 300 4Matic engine's 228 hp and 221 lb.-ft. of torque comes up short to the leading BMW. With its standard seven-speed automatic transmission, the baby Benz is also the slowest sedan here, taking 7.2 seconds to go from zero to 100 km/h.

2012 Mercedes-Benz C 300 4Matic interior(Photo: John LeBlanc)

A least the 2012 C-Class's interior is finally up to par. Soft plastics, new driver instrumentation and central digital display, and more comfortable seats improve the Mercedes' interior atmosphere considerably. Too bad the four-door's backseat is still cramped.

One quality that's also consistent is the C 300 4Matic's bank-vault feel. Of the three sedans here, the Benz is the quietest. But that comes at the cost of less-than-sporty handling. The Mercedes is the least likely German sedan to egg you on when entering a highway on-ramp, mainly because its comfort-first suspension refuses to convey what's going on down at road level, and its steering is the least communicative here as well.

Buy this car if: ... you want a quiet and comfortable German sedan; you want/need the Mercedes badge.

Don't buy this car if: ... you're looking for a "sports" sedan; your wallet is thinner than you let on.