The sun has barely risen, as three sets of distinctive LED headlamps cut through the darkness. The BMW 6 Gran Coupé’s eyes are blazing, whitening out the entire width of the highway. The rear-view mirror has automatically adjusted itself to the lights of the Mercedes-Benz CLS and the Audi A7, which really stand out in the darkness. The CLS’ swoopy form and the A7’s clear lines are distinctive, but they are not as aggressive and purposeful as the BMW’s feline eyes. And that goes for the rest of their overall design as well.
These cars are all about style and presentation, so it’s important for them to look just right. They must look svelte and sensual without losing out on practicality. Not easy, but well, automotive designers are paid nicely, aren’t they?
Four-door coupés, as everyone knows today, are a quirk of the marketplace. In an attempt to create sub-segments, Mercedes brought out the first generation CLS in 2004, based on the W211 E-Class platform, and called it the four-door coupé – it was a bizarre idea and I am sure many of its competitors laughed at Mercedes behind closed doors. Who needs a four-door coupé when you have a sedan or a coupé? But funnily enough, despite its rather expensive price tag, the CLS sold well and appealed to the lifestyle crowd thanks to its very seductive, coupé-like lines and luxurious offerings. Following the three-pointed star, Volkswagen got one out based on the Passat and Audi too introduced the A7 in 2010. By then Mercedes also retired the first-generation CLS and introduced the more muscular second-generation version, which you see on these pages. You would expect BMW, which is a pioneer in creating sub-segments (X6, 5 GT) to have thought about introducing its own four-door coupé earlier, but they took it easy, introducing their own 6 Series Gran Coupé at Geneva in March 2012. Will the last one out be the first one in then? Let’s find out.
We park the three cars for a coffee break just as the sun breaks through the early morning darkness. The few people on the highway stop and get their camera phones out. It is not easy to ignore these cars – they stand out, not just from their saloon brethren, but by their sheer presence too. And when seen together, it is like a Miss Germany contest.
In the light of dawn, the aggressive cuts and slashes on its sheet metal make the BMW look aggressive and muscular. What makes it even more attractive is a matte finish brown paint scheme – the signature colour for this car. Add to that the lovely detailing on the snout and all around the car and you know that this car is not cheap. There’s something to be said about the nose-heaviness of the BMW – the long nose signifies potent performance and it also is the centre point for the rest of the car’s lines to follow. It is not a beautiful car, but it is very attractive.
The A7, on the other hand, is beautiful. Unlike the snout-driven BMW, the hallmark of the Audi is its elegant profile – especially the crisp and well-defined greenhouse. The shoulder line – what Audi calls the ‘tornado line’ – plus the arc described by the roofline and the sharp cut of the C-pillar all come together to give it a lovely silhouette. You could nurse a cup of coffee and keep staring at the rear three-quarters of this car – it’s that good. The sporty angle of the rear hatch which ends in the stubby rear-end (it has a cleverly hidden deployable spoiler) gives it the Sportback name. But the disappointment is at the front. It is typical Audi and is distinguished from the rest of its siblings by the LED strips in the headlamps – but frankly, I am now quite tired of the Bulgarian beard.
The previous generation CLS was an original; we called it the banana car because of its prominently curved appearance. The new one does not have the fluidity of its predecessor and instead has exaggerated lines and pronounced wheel arches as highlights. As with all these cars, the doors are frameless, allowing them to cut a sporty silhouette. The roofline of the CLS is the one that is the most coupé-ish of them all – if you hide the shutlines of the rear doors and enlarge the front two, it looks like a proper coupé. But while the CLS is hot to look at, it looks as if it’s wearing extra makeup to stand out. Think Megan Fox and you’ll know what I mean. As for the other two, the BMW can be compared to Scarlett Johansson (attractive but not beautiful) while the Audi is like Monica Bellucci (beautiful, but could do with a nip-and-tuck). The above points are no reflection of which actress I like, it’s only the cars!
So they had better be gorgeous inside too, right? Let’s see. The Mercedes follows the same principle as the last-gen CLS, with huge wood veneer panels dominating the interiors. The switchgear is all borrowed from other models in its lineup – perhaps they could have taken the extra effort to make it special considering the price of this car is closer to the S-Class rather than the E-Class. Though there is no arguing with the quality and sophistication of most of the stuff that’s gone into it, it still looks and feels too familiar – I am sure the prospective CLS owner would have spent quality time in one Merc or the other. Plus the dominance of black makes it a dark place to be in.
Audi, on the other hand, has given its interior design department a little bit of freedom. The interior, though using common switchgear, has more flamboyance than in most other Audis. The quality of stuff going in is top-notch, there is great attention to detail and it is quite loaded too in terms of features. You get start/stop, an MMI that governs all the functions of the car and the way you’d like to drive, a touchpad that will understand even your Chinese supplier’s handwriting and more.
But the one that surprisingly takes the cake here is the BMW. Surprising because BMW interiors generally tend to be sober and dark. But this time, BMW cleverly sent us the Gran Coupé wearing the optional Individual trim. And lo and behold, a cheerful, bright and stand-out Beemer. The shades of brown and ivory go wonderfully with the exterior paint finish of the car. The baseball stitching, the acres of hide clothed over the regular BMW stuff and even the roof lining make you stare and stare at it. The Gran Coupé is loaded with features too, including the various driving modes governed by the iDrive controller.
If these sorts of cars are all about style and lifestyle, then their interiors also should reflect that fact. So...
...& THE DRIVE
By now, the sun is warming up the concrete of the Mumbai-Pune Expressway. I have been driving the 6er so far, profoundly impressed with its twin-turbo oil-burner. The 2993cc straight-six with 309 bhp and 64.2 kgm of torque packs a wallop; the straightline acceleration is brilliant and the motor just doesn’t let go. As Rohin puts it in perspective, it’s as quick as the twin-scroll turbo petrol Z4! Sending power to the rear wheels is an 8-speed auto that can offer terrific shift times if you’re in the right mode. Truly, this is a magnificent diesel engine, but inside you wouldn’t know it. Not just the insulation, but the engineers have incorporated a sound module that makes the revs reverberate inside as if it’s a petrol engine! Okay, it may be artificial but it makes you feel good every time you step on the pedal and watch the horizon being reeled in. Who needs a Yankee V8?
As expected, there are four modes to choose from: Eco Pro, Comfort, Sport and Sport+ and each offers visibly different characteristics. In Comfort, I was shocked by the unexpected ride quality! It was really Comfort-able, and the heft of the car helped in smothering all the paver blocks that the Mumbai municipality thinks is best for road surfaces. It damps all the bad patches thoroughly and I strongly recommend this mode for the city commute – the engine is controlled, the transmission is smooth and all is okay with the world. Heading off to our favourite bunch of twisties, the 6 gets a new life. Sport mode is perfect here, as Sport+ switches off the traction control. The shifts are held longer, the engine is buzzier and the car manages to hide its near 1.8-tonne kerb weight very well. The steering feedback is just right – tightening up only when necessary. Thanks to weight saving materials like aluminium for the doors, hood and axles, the GC’s bulk is not too intrusive and it offers measured handling that gives you just enough rear-power thrills without going overboard.
The Mercedes, by the way, comes with a handicap over here – to some, it’s not a negative, even so. And that is, it has a petrol V6 doing duty, and not a diesel. The 3498cc V6 puts out 302 bhp and 37.7 kgm – which by itself is not bad. But when I exchanged the 6er for the CLS with Pablo, after a point of time the Merc felt breathless trying to play catch-up. The engine is refined, really smooth and classy (and sounds naturally satisfying too) but it’s just that the Beemer’s ferocious high-torque diesel leaves the Merc’s petrol V6 found wanting. So don’t try drag-racing with a 640d – let it go while you bask in the seamless gearshifts and the linear power delivery of the CLS.
Out on the twisties, the CLS surprises with its grace and poise. It may have lost out to the BeeEm on the engine front, but it all comes together when you push it. The engine takes up the slack easily, the steering feel is beautiful and the handling is never twitchy or the electronics too intrusive. The Merc may not have the multifarious driving modes like in the other two cars, still it acquits itself very well – this proves how good the fundamentals of the car are. The Airmatic suspension ensures it rides well even in Sport mode while the handling is just what you’d expect a large rear-wheel driven sedan to be like – approach the corner rapidly, shed speed quickly, turn in beautifully and accelerate. The weight transfer may be a little more pronounced in the Merc vis-a-vis the BMW, but it’s all balanced and in control. I expected it to be wallowy, but Merc proved me wrong.
And control is what the A7 is all about. With power from the 2967cc V6 turbodiesel going to all the four wheels, the A7 is all about making it easy for even the worst driver. Aluminium contributes to around 20 per cent of the body and it is used in other chassis components too. So while its 1,770 kg kerb weight is comparable to the other two, it feels lighter. The engine’s 242 bhp may be outclassed by the Merc and the BeEm, but you can’t argue with the 51 kgm of torque that it offers. And the torque makes all the difference in varied driving conditions. Oh, then of course you have a multitude of options on how you want the engine to behave, how the gears should shift, etc. So in the city, simply keep it in Auto mode and let the car take the decisions. Out on the highway, the Dynamic mode gives you unfettered access to the engine’s potential while the gearshifts are accomplished more rapidly. But the weak link is the steering feel in any mode – it is just too artificial and staccato in the way it suddenly tightens up.
The ride quality is not bad, though a little bouncy in the Comfort mode – leave it in Auto, and it’s much better. The A7’s Quattro system typically sends 60 per cent of the power to the rear wheels, but when necessary it can dispatch 70 per cent to the front or 85 to the rear. Clever one, that. But that need not necessarily translate into a great driving experience – it makes the car surefooted, but does not make it as enjoyable as the other two rear-wheel driven cars around corners. In other words, the A7 is much more forgiving and all sorts of drivers can drive it, while the other two need a more skilful set of limbs.
Look, it’s really down to what you want from your four-door coupé. I could write reams about them, but it comes down to an individual choice. And the three cars are equally accomplished and all of them are attractive too. Okay, Mercedes has the disadvantage of not having a diesel version, which is a pity really. But don’t worry, I am not taking the easy way out as there will be a 3-2-1 over here. Here goes...
At Rs 81.95 lakh, the CLS is certainly not cheap. I really wish Mercedes-Benz would give it a burly diesel engine and some more knick-knacks on the inside. It is dynamically sound, but that’s not enough. At ` 74.12 lakh, the A7 gives you access to the four-door coupé club more easily. Plus it is good looking, has all the thingamajigs you want to fiddle with and you can give it to your wife to drive too (beg your pardon, ma’am). But it is overwhelmed by the other Bavarian over here – the newest four-door coupé around, the BMW 6 Gran Coupé. It has everything going for it – a mind-blowing diesel motor, cutting-edge aggressive looks, brilliant interiors, features, etc – except the price. At ` 86.4 lakh, it’s the most expensive one out here. But these cars belong to the have-it-flaunt-it school of thought, so why don’t you?