Luxury car showdowns dont come tougher than this. Today, both BMW and Audi have taken up station as credible rivals of Mercedes. And if youre going to spend a sack full of cash, you might as well toss in a bit more and go for these range-toppers.
The new Mercedes E350s sharp nose, four-headlamp arrangement, exaggerated tipped-forward stance and the W120 Ponton-like flying bulge over the hips make it stand out. It gets Mercs top-of-the-line Avantgarde trim with top-notch features as well as a big 350 magnum of a motor.
Its V6 is not a direct injection motor. The front suspension adapts to tyre imbalances though the biggest change is the inclusion of amplitude-dependent shock absorbers.
BMW recently refreshed the 5-series too. The 530is eagle-eye headlamps, strong bonnet V and tight skinning look fabulous. But next to the Merc, it looks relatively understated! It features direct injection and unlike the Merc, which majors on comfort, every molecule of this car goes into making it a drivers car. It has a sporty suspension, near-perfect weight distribution and a unique braking system.
Audis A6 looks the least alluring of the lot. Even with new LED lamps for the front and rear lights and a new A4-like split chin, the basic design with its classic inverted bathtub shape remains. And the big Bulgarian beard, the strong shoulder line, the perfect arch of the roof and the offset spoke alloys dont look great here.
The A6 has the most powerful and sophisticated motor and while the Merc and BMW send drive to the rear wheels, the Audi sends power to all four.
The new E-class is the most comfortable car to cover ground in. Rear seat passengers get a huge amount of space and a high seating position. The backrest is well angled and the seat is not over-contoured. Rear seat passengers also get individual controls for temperature and fan speed.
The Mercs cabin design may be a touch traditional with straight lines but the ambience is superb, especially at night when the full effect of the warm waterfall lighting can be experienced. The luxury of the lacquered steering wheel, real aluminium bits and quality door pads make this car feel extra special. The trip computer readout sits in the instrument cluster, though it should have been integrated into the Comand screen.
The BMWs cabin feels the best put together. The materials feel the richest, especially the wood finish and the plastics, though some of the switches are too small. But the electronic gear selector with a parking brake button located on top of it and the iDrive controller show how BMW gets so many of its basics right.
The front seats with generous bolstering are snug and sporty. The rear seats come with generous thigh support. However, the front seatbacks are very in your face, making you feel cramped and the high window line also makes you feel hemmed in. Also, theres a general lack of storage space in the car.
The Audis interiors look the most attractive at night. The wood, brushed aluminium and bright red illumination fit in well with the cars cool image. Getting a comfortable driving position is easy and the reversing camera is marvellously engineered.
Theres a wee bit less space in the rear than the BMW but the rear seat suits its purpose sufficiently and passengers even get a fully integrated MMi remote control at the back. But the build of the A6 feels light and doesnt give the impression of being as solid as its rivals.
For leisurely driving, the Merc is right in front. The steering feels direct, weighs up brilliantly with speed and gives you consistent feedback. The motor is honey-smooth and the E-class eats up poor roads effortlessly. It glides over surfaces where the BMW and Audi would bump and thump.
The BMW 530is ride is absorbent but not as relaxing as the Mercs. It makes the driver work harder with its heavy steering at low speeds. Like most of BMWs naturally aspirated in-line six-cylinder motors, the mid-range is particularly weak. Its only above 4000rpm that this motor wakes up.
The Audi, with its supercharged engine and cannon-shot throttle responses, is the other extreme. You have to be very precise with the throttle, the car lurches forward if you push the pedal slightly harder and driving in flowing traffic is a tap dance between brake and accelerator. However, the steering is nice and light for city use.
When you really want to get a move on and enjoy the car, the E-class doesnt fail to impress. The active dampers firm up the suspension when they sense the car rolling, the accurate steering gives the car a sense of agility and works up a rhythm. The quick-thinking gearbox encourages you to drive the E-class with aggression. The paddle shifts work brilliantly and you can downshift aggressively.
However, when it comes to ultimate handling, the E-class is no BMW. Though the Merc motor has a very strong midrange, its top-end performance isnt as good as that of the 5-series. The 530i is still the best drivers car. The steering feels connected and is informative. Its at its best past 4000rpm, where power delivery is strong, and is enthusiastic all the way to its 7000rpm redline.
But with its instant sledgehammer throttle response, manic acceleration and huge grip, the Audi is the barbarian among the bunch. It hits 100kph in 6.6 seconds and 150kph in 13.3 seconds. The BMW comes close and takes a second longer to get to 100 but its three seconds adrift by the time you get to 160kph. The Merc is the slowest here but in isolation feels quick enough.
None of the owners of these cars would probably think of fuel efficiency figures, but still, everybody hurts when running costs are high. Its the Merc that consumes the least followed by the BMW and A6, the last with an unfriendly 5.7kpl in the city.
The car for thrill seekers is the A6. Its not just the fact that its the quickest, most powerful car here or because of the vice-like grip of the 4WD system. What makes it a-grin-a-minute car is the super-responsive engine hugely addictive, granting you all that power instantly. But apart from the engine, the light steering and jittery ride make the Audi feel quite ordinary. Its also the most expensive of the lot.
The BMW offers a much nicer blend of driving pleasure, comfort and quality. Even with its softened suspension, it remains the best drivers car. The steering is deliciously direct and its driving manners are faultless. However, the 530i lacks the ability to provide a soothing driving experience, which a lot of owners also want.
The new E-class has an astonishing range of talents. On one hand, it feels utterly relaxed thanks to its magic-carpet ride and refinement. On the other, it can play the agile, sporting saloon pretty well too. What tilts the balance in Mercs favour is just how much more refined, spacious and classy this car feels. In many ways, its as well-mannered and cultured as an S-class, and thats what ultimately puts it one step ahead.
• Engine: Petrol, 6-cyls in-Vee, 2995cc, direct injection, super char-ged, front, longitudinal
• Maximum power: 290bhp at 4850-6800rpm
• Maximum torque: 42.8kgm at 2500-4850rpm
• Gearbox: 6-speed automatic
• Tyres: 225/50 R17, tubeless, Bridgestone Potenza RE050A
• Suspension (F/R): Independent, upper and lower wishbones, anti-roll bar/ independent, multi-link, anti-roll bar
• Brakes (F/R): Ventilated discs/ solid discs
• Engine: Petrol, 6-cyls in-Vee, 3498cc, front, longitudinal, multi-point fuel injection
• Maximum power: 272bhp at 6000rpm
• Maximum torque: 35.6kgm at 2400-5000rpm
• Gearbox: Seven-speed automatic
• Tyres: 245/45 R17, tubeless, Conti-PremiumContact 2
• Suspension (F/R): Independent, MacPherson struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar/ independent, multi-link, coil springs, anti-roll bar
• Brakes (F/R): Ventilated discs/ discs
• Engine: Petrol, 6-cyls in-line, 2996cc, direct-injection, front, longitudinal
• Maximum power: 258bhp at 6500rpm
• Maximum torque: 30.5kgm at 2400rpm
• Gearbox: 6-speed automatic
• Tyres: 245/40 R18, run-flats, Dunlop SP Sport 01
• Suspension (F/R): Independent, double joint tiebar spring strut axle, aluminium, anti dive/ independent, multi-arm axle, aluminium with anti-squat and anti-dive
• Brakes (F/R): Ventilated discs