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Audi A6 3 0TDI vs BMW 525D vs Mercedes-Benz E280 - The Invincibles


Stuttgart, Munich, Ingolstadt – three cities, three ideologies and three brilliant cars. The problem with BSM is that we can have only one winner, so we decided to go... hill climbing!

These cars are the equivalent of chocolate mousse – you just cannot go wrong with them. They are German cars and that means they are not made of cardboard, they are not as long and wide as aircraft carriers (that means they can be driven on our roads) and they are not that small to question the rung you have reached in the social ladder. The E, the 5 and the A6 – to me any of these could be the best all-round machines this side of the International Space Station. They have puny engined variants, they have strong diesels as in this case and, yes, they can come with terrifying prefixes such as AMG, M and RS that can really rock the spaceship. And they normally have four doors and even cup holders, and you don’t need to postpone the acquisition of a loss making company with hidden potential, to buy one. They are real world cars meant to be driven and not polished and garaged. Hundred years from now, if you have to choose one car to represent the state of automotive affairs in 2007, then you would choose one of these (no, the Toyota  Prius will be considered a terrible joke by then – the same way we look at early steamers today). 

For this anniversary special, we collected three diesels. Though Audi sells the 2.7 and 3 litre versions of the A6, they sent the more powerful car for the test. Sensible indeed. BMW builds only the 525d, which features the same inline six that powers the 530d albeit with less horsepower. Hmm, we really wondered what it could do. Mercedes-Benz makes only the E 280 diesel available for its customers. All these motors displace around 3000cc, with the Mercedes and BMW making 190 and 194 bhp to propel the rear wheels while the Audi belts out a whopping 233 bhp to four wheels. Unfair comparison? Not really. There are much more to these cars than numbers, since each car maker has tried very hard to give them an overdose of their engineering gene and design flair. So much so that they are spectacularly different cars – to look at, sit in and to drive. 

Why and how of the BSM HC-T (Hill Climb Test)
Welcome to an all-new form of road testing. The BSM HC-T will now be part of our test schedule for cars along with the established Performance Evaluation Track tests. It may sound like one, but the BSM Hill Climb Test for comparing cars is not exactly an out-and-out performance test. Sure, we mapped the terrain and satellite-tracked the cars so that we could analyse the data, but the idea was to compare the three cars for pace, grace and poise as well.   When three cars are driven aggressively through the same piece of tarmac and the same set of corners, a test driver can gather lot of data through the seat of his pants which in turn can supplement the time-distance data collected by machines. We established pre-determined braking points for all the corners and ensured that the cars, as much as possible, stuck to the legal side of the road. More than that, the test driver was given only a single run in each car so that he didn’t get over-familiar with any one machine. No, we didn’t stick a note on the dashboard saying that ‘it is not a race against time’, but did everything else to keep our sanity intact. 

The beauty of the hill climb course we selected for this drive was that it featured almost all kind of corners – ones that force you to brake well in advance, ones that you can take flat out, once where the cars get totally crossed and ones strewn with gravel. And these corners were connected by tarmac that at times allowed the speedo to touch slightly scary three digit figures. All cars were run with the air-conditioner switched on (told you, we were not really into max performance here) but without assistance from traction management systems (we switched off what we could!) so that the test driver got to the dynamic limits whenever possible. While you may see some tail-happy pics along with this story, we promise you that the timed test runs were run in a more clinical and less flamboyant manner. You do trust us, right?  

Traditional grade
Mercedes-Benz E 280 CDI
What four-odd years can do to the life of a car! It feels like yesterday that we went gaga about the W211 (anyone remember the MIB II debut of this machine?). Sure, it received a facelift in recent times but when seen next to the Audi A6 (already two years old) and the BMW 5er (even older), the Mercedes loses the plot big time. Yes, if seen in the right angle with adequate amount of sunlight thrown at the right places, the E-Class can still stun you, especially in black. Or else you need to transport one to interior Uganda to ensure that people stop in their tracks. The problem is one of plenty – there are too many Mercedes-Benzes on the city streets of Mumbai and Delhi for them to be considered special. Why do you think SRK used a black Audi in OSO? You can still call the Mercedes more royal, regal... the usual clichés, but do you really want to be all that these days?

The story remains the same old one on the interiors as well. Maybe my eyes are getting jaded, but the wood trim surround and spiral gauges (they looked damn good at the launch, alright) fail to impress you when you walk into the car straight out of an Audi. And hey, no electrically adjusted seats and no Comand module yet? Trust me, when the all-new C-Class hits the road, the current E is going to look a lot older. Compared to the E-Class, the Audi A6 is way more contemporary and the BMW 5 series is cosier. The only area of solace where the E-Class still scores is when it comes to interior space, especially the rear legroom. The ride quality on offer is still the stuff benchmarks are made of and BMW should exchange notes with engineers from Pimpri to understand how Indian roads can be smothered using some good, traditional suspension setup and thick sidewalls.    Unlike the Audi and the BMW, you still crank a key to bring the Mercedes to life. The 190 bhp V6 of the test car felt so smooth on the idle that you could easily mistake it to be powered by a slick hybrid powertrain. With 44.9 kgm developed between 1400 and 3200 rpm, this motor carries the energy to propel the machine to 100 kph in 8.7 seconds – a shade quicker than the BMW, but we got to admit that the figures were obtained by two different test drivers. But oh boy, did the hill climb circuit come up with a nasty surprise for the Merc or what!

The E280 CDI was quick off the line with the gear selector riding on sport mode but the first corner exposed the supple suspension setup somewhat. The slight hint of body roll was enough to send ‘caution’ notes to the right areas in one’s brain.The otherwise brilliant steering felt vague as the car powered out of the corners with rear wheels laden with torque. But once the star was pointing straight, the motor efficiently transferred the torque to sheer acceleration. There were a couple of corners where the car needed to shed speed much before the real braking markers (thanks to loose gravel at the apex) and that is where the Mercedes started behaving badly. With no assistance from the stability programme, aggressive steering inputs into those corners resulted in a hint of understeer wash-out first and then a copious dose of oversteer, almost as an afterthought – in short, a nice lesson in vehicle dynamics for those who are not well versed with it. The oversteer bit can be fun if we drive the car on a wet skid pad where you can become a champion drifter on a diesel diet. But such nervousness didn’t do the car any favour in the hill climb and, as they say, the stop watch never lies. The Mercedes was a whole six seconds off the pace when compared to the BMW and the Audi. Sigh. 

Physics of speed
BMW 525d
Sure it looked odd at launch, but you’ve got to give it to BMW’s designers for the way the 5er has aged. Actually it hasn’t. Its eyebrows still raise human ones and the tail lamps remain an euphoric celebration of sheer style. Park this trio next to each other and the word ‘flamboyant’ can be used to describe only one – the BMW. For best effect, see the car in twilight with its corona rings lit up. That is stuff automotive poetry can be written on. The problem, if it can be termed one, is the fact that the 5 Series does not look big enough for the kind of money the suits are asking for it. While the Audi apes the bigger A8 in every little way, this BMW likes to be related to its smaller brother rather than the 7 Series.

Inside the BMW, you get to see what the Mercedes-Benz once was and what Audi wants to be. You do get a classy bit of wood (or aluminium, which is more apt) panelling but the instrumentation is more driver focused than anything else. You start the car by thumbing a button but the 5 Series is yet to get that magical electronic parking brake. A proper handbrake lever is something you’d love to see in a BMW and the firm obliges in their mid-sizer. Once you settle into the comfortable yet sporty seat you get the best driving position amongst the threesome. Brilliant ergonomics, the pistol grip gear selector (great, once you get used to it) and serious dials raise the sense of anticipation. On the negative list is the thick rimmed steering which is heavy at parking speeds – more obvious when you walk into the car from the Audi. Obviously, developing markets were not part of the brief when the rear legroom was allotted to the 5 Series. But again, the majority of Indian BMW buyers are not backseat drivers and thank God for that. Therefore they make cars that have only intent in life – plastering a wide grin on the face of lucky drivers. 

The ride quality, as in the case of the 3 Series, varies from being brilliant on good surfaces to unpardonable on bad ones. The culprit, again, is the combination of BMW’s rough road package and run-flat tyres. Sure run-flats are the future but BMW India should consider the ground realities (literally!) and provide a solution for the thrashy ride that is on offer. The same terrible roads demolished by the Audi and Merc threaten to break the struts of the Beemer. This is perhaps one reason why we are getting to see brand new BMWs in used car classifieds already.

But the suspension setup relies on aluminium subframes front as and rear, and it comes to its own when combined with the gem of an engine to provide a thrilling dynamic package. Of the three cars that you see in these pages, it is the BMW that transforms itself to be a much better car as speeds increase. You get the picture, right? Where the Merc and the Audi start losing their composure, the BMW gets into its element. The 525d is powered by a classic inline-six motor that displaces 2993cc to develop 194.5 bhp at 3750 rpm and 40.8 kgm of torque between 1300 and 3250 rpm. That means the BMW loses out nearly 40 bhp to the Audi in this comparison and naturally would have lost out to the latter in the hill climb, right? Ahem. You will be surprised to hear that the BMW beat the Audi (by a very slim margin, but still). How did it manage that?    You see, the confidence of a test driver depends a lot on how much he trusts the car underneath him and this is where the BMW scores. Heck, it is almost as if the driver’s brain has established some sort of Bluetooth connectivity to the ECU of this car. That means you are powering into corners, braking a lot later and accelerating earlier out of them. Forget the numbers – if we were asked to take one of these cars to tackle any winding road, we would all gun for the BMW. It is so focused to the driver that it enables him a degree of tunnel vision which is oh-so-important when it comes to finding speed where there isn’t any. When it is strutting its stuff, it feels as if every nut, bolt and plastic panel of the car is aiding the driver in his pursuit. This car is married to speed and minor distractions like luxury do not come in its way.  
Avant garde
Audi A6 3.0 TDI
The Audi A6 is not your quintessential luxury car. It stands apart and looks spectacular without being colourful. It is more contemporary industrial art rather than automotive design and you will be hard-pressed to find an unwanted line anywhere in the car. While I can continue in that vein for a long time, what works in favour of the Audi in India is its size. It looks big and we love the idea of getting a lot of car for our money. And it makes you feel special, especially when you get inside. The cabin is drenched with rich materials and a sea of red lights. Ambient lighting, electronic wizardry in the form of the Multi Media Interface, trick parking camera and large comfy seats all combine to make an impression that only the S-Class and the 7 Series can compete with as of now. The E280 interior feels a bit downmarket in comparison and the 525d occupies the middle path between being sophisticated and being traditional. So there, even before the wheels turn, you are impressed by the Audi. And when they do turn, the A6 impresses you even more. 

Right from the tactile delicacy that its steering is to the near locomotive surge from that magnificent diesel motor, everything about the A6 3.0 TDI borders on the superlative. It is as if the engineers at Audi were given a free hand to create a car that is meant to occupy a class above the established benchmarks that the E-Class and the 5 Series created and it becomes obvious when you drive these cars back-to-back. This Audi has learnt the art of luxury from Mercedes and merciless performance from BMW and is all the better for that. 

Want numbers? It is the quickest car to 60 kph (3.77 seconds) and 100 kph (8.03 seconds) and stomped tarmac at a velocity of 222.10 kph making it not just the quickest but also the fastest of the trio. Powering all wheels through the brilliant Quattro driving gear is a V6 diesel which in all probability is possessed by the ghost of Auto Union racers of the past. Floor the pedal at a signal change and the Audi will dismiss a standing km run in 28.8 seconds flat (yes, quicker than the BMW and the Mercedes) and will be doing a neat 192.2 kph by then. Individual piezo injectors and a variable geometry turbo ensure that the heaviest car in this bunch is not short on performance. But hey, then why did it lose out to the Beemer in the hill climb?

Actually it was almost a tie. While it is commendable that the underpowered BMW could match the Audi, it also needs to be said that you need time to get familiar with the Quattro powertrain. Imagine hauling a heavy, tilted-towards-luxury mobile into corners and the tendency is to back off more than floor through. It is another thing that with power going to all wheels, the Audi was more surefooted than the other two – just that it takes time before you trust the unfamiliar and eerie. That should account for the time it posted in the hill climb – in short it was not the car, but the driver who failed to live up to the car whom one should blame.

When it comes to ride quality the Audi comes out with flying colours again. Despite running on 17-inch wheels like the BMW and unlike the Mercedes (16 inch), the Audi can tackle bad roads and – this is even better – good roads with the occasional mother of all potholes thrown in. Bring on the ridges on tarmac, seams between concrete blocks and similar tram-lining inducing stuff and the Audi will sail through as if they don’t exist. 
New players will come and go, but buying a Mercedes is still a milestone in one’s life, at least in India. So to reach that level and then decide against it needs conviction and automotive knowledge of the supreme kind. And then you should be able to rationalise your decision to everyone, from your nosy neighbour to the watchman in your office and everyone in between.  But the game has been played before by BMW and Audi. Every time Mercedes builds a car, BMW makes one that goes quicker and, lately, Audi builds one that goes quick as well as pampers the occupants even more. If that star still matters to you (don’t worry, we understand), then the Mercedes is a proven compromise that you can justify making. If  you intend to drive rather than be chauffeured, then the BMW offers a rewarding experience which needs commitment and an intimate ownership experience to fully comprehend it. But if you want to go blindfolded and buy the best car in this league, then it is the Audi that you will bring home. It may have lost out to the BMW in our hill climb, but we know enough on the subject of automobiles not to judge these contenders by mere numbers. Audi is a more comfortable car, has more goodies and is as sporty and safe as its competitors – and hence it is our clear winner.