Close [X]

BMW X5 3 0d vs Mercedes-Benz ML 320 CDI - The Big Fight

img
img
img

Last Sunday, I learnt how to whistle with two fingers in my mouth. Now don’t even try it – it is a dirty learning curve that involves making gory sounds, spraying saliva a good distance and earning confused looks from important people in your life, like your children, and an ‘I knew something was wrong all these years’ gesture from your spouse. But if do you succeed in emitting a slight squeak after repeated efforts, then you feel that you are on top of the world. I should know, as I have been trying without success for close to three decades.

Some seven years back, BMW decided to learn something new too. They made their first attempt at engineering an SUV after promoting the cause of brilliant rear-wheel driven sedans that built an ardent base of followers who didn’t mind paying through their nose for a degree of driving involvement. As some of you might realise, making an SUV is the antithesis of making a road-hugging sports sedan. It is heavier, taller and generally better appointed than most posh houses in South Mumbai. Expecting them to go around corners the way only BMWs are supposed to is like asking P Chidambaram to come up with fresh taxation proposals in an election year. But they managed and the first generation X5 was more than just a 5 Series on stilts. Sure it was a classic case of over-engineering, but the behemoth was a brilliant tarmac bruiser with more than modest all-road worthiness. But the investment banker types who bought the X5 made it an urban icon without ever stepping into the slush, though its all-wheel drive system ensured that its owners reached ski resorts in the middle of winter without hassle. A point that BMW factored in when they made the second generation X5 – heck, they even gave it a double wishbone front suspension system, which is the hallmark of any good sports car.

Mercedes-Benz has been building one of the most capable 4WD vehicles on earth for time immemorial in the form of the G-Wagen. And when they chose to chase cash-rich American SUV buyers, they stayed true to what they knew best – a body-on-chassis vehicle that looked modern. However, with the world changing around them, Stuttgart too was forced to introduce a monocoque SUV that was meant more for the road than the rough – so that soccer moms could trudge through traffic effortlessly on the way to another mall. Of course it was a major improvement over the previous car, but since then, BMW has upped the ante and yet another sportscar maker, Porsche, was already happy chewing the SUV bullet. The end result was a second generation M-Class that was more of an apex hunter than the previous version.We have both the new X5 as well as the new M-Class on sale in India, with the former being a tad newer. For this test, we brought together the diesels – the X5 3.0d and the ML 320 CDI.   Design
Sure, both these cars look very similar to their respective last generation versions as long as you are not a thirteen-year old enthusiast on a four auto magazines-a-month-plus-assorted-website-feeds diet. But step closer and you notice the differences – both are less butch and less aggressive, as if they are part of a detailed plan to please Greenpeace. The ML is typically German and was one of the first cars to feature the current school of styling that you get to see all the way down to the new C-Class. The slatted grill with the big star in the middle and the pronounced wheel arches give it a big dose of character, but not so much the headlamp cluster which could have easily looked the part on a Daewoo Leganza. But there is no mistaking the presence of the ML and it looks every inch a big Merc. Where the BMW is superior is the way its surface is painstakingly detailed and every fold in the metal lends the car a degree of class usually meant for small volume exotics. Those who have seen and appreciated the Fisker creations based on the 6 Series will immediately notice the carefully crafted matt-black plastic insert on the colour coded front bumper. Five surface changes on the bonnet ensure that all the lines gun for that proud kidney-grille. Overall, the X5 looks more stealthy (especially in groovy gun metal grey), more sporty and more contemporary while the ML is like a heavyweight boxer past his prime. But he still may pack a nasty punch. 
X5: *****
ML: ****

Interior and comfort
A few months back, we drove the ML for a standalone test and I thought its interior was brilliant. Alas, get into one just after getting off an X5 and er, Stuttgart, wir haben ein problem. The X5 interior is a classic blend of new and old – excellent wood veneer finish (though I prefer metal finish inserts) and a textured form-moulded dash take the X5 into a league the ML can only aspire to. Then comes more metal in the form of the pistol-grip gear selector, which takes a while getting used to, and then of course, the iDrive dial. The ML, on the other hand, is more in-your-face plastic with quality leather compensating for the rest of the fare. Large aircon ducts and wood inserts on the steering wheel are things that you either love or hate. The steering column-mounted shifter is typical of luxury sedans and hence highly inappropriate in a full-blown SUV. But it works well, nevertheless. The BMW’s seats are meant for long hours behind the wheel while the ML has better rear seat accommodation. In short, the X5 offers a very personal and intimate ambience with more than a fair dose of sportiness, while the impetus of the ML is to try and pamper you with luxury and space – lots of space. But the prospective luxury SUV owners would expect more goodies and it is the gadget-laden X5 that impresses the most. Alright, the iDrive settles the interior war here!
X5: ****
ML: ***   Powertrain and performance
Which is the quicker car here? The BMW X5. Which car has better brakes here? The BMW X5. So do we need to go further here? Yes and no. Well, the argument is simple. If you are looking for sheer performance, then you can spend the same amount of money on a sports sedan and be happy about the sterling rear-wheel drive performance that it would guarantee, right? Hidden beneath the SUV exterior of the X5 is a sportscar of immense ability. It is as if BMW has taken for granted that those who are buying a BMW – from mountain bicycles to SUVs that can shame mountain goats – expect their machines to straighten corners as if it is their birthright. The X5 delivers and how. By the end of a week with the X5, I was getting so familiar with it (and hence too fast for comfort) that I decided to park it for a day and take a more modest piece of transport to reach my office. The X5 shrinks around the driver and you drive it at insane speeds where no sane person would think of doing insane speeds. And it has got magical brakes that you don’t apply – you think about shedding speeds and you come to a halt. Sure, the last generation car did all this too – but it was more ponderous and offered less feedback while at it. 

Remarkable as it may seem, the new ML tends to behave like the last generation X5 in more ways than one. It has got a potent motor and it refuses to misbehave at most speeds. But if you scrape some paint off the ML and inspect it under a microscope, you will find that its genes come from a luxury sedan rather than a sport sedan. That means you don’t ‘feel’ the urge to attack corners in it. Instead you soon end up cruising in it and that, it does extremely well.

The BMW inline-six and the Mercedes-Benz V6 displace close to 3000cc and develop 230 and 224 bhp each. Torque figures are similar too, at 53.5 kgm and 51 kgm at around 3800-4000 rpm.  Both engines breathe through 24 valves and both engines have similar specific output. Even when you check the power-to-weight ratios, there is little that differentiates these gentle giants. The Mercedes lets its hair down through a seven-speed auto’box while BMW manages with a six-speed number. Alright then, what makes the BMW a better driver’s car than the ML? We will come to that soon.
 
The X5 dismisses the 60 kph run in 4.89 seconds while the ML takes 5.26 seconds. The BMW is a shade quicker to 100 kph too, with 10.43 seconds (stunning indeed for a diesel SUV, who would have thought...) while the ML is no slouch either at 10.82 seconds. Both cars achieved 230 kph before we decided that spending time in a jail or a hospital is not worth it and lifted off. The X5 is a clean second faster than the ML in passing speeds, thereby establishing the performance advantage without any doubt. But again, it is just a second or two that differentiates these machines. But we can tell you that it is the BMW that is more fun to drive. It is that inline-six that makes the sporty snarl that only these type of engines can make. Slot the gear selector in DS (Drive Sport) mode and the X5 comes alive in a way the ML cannot match in its Sport mode. Finish. End of the matter. Period. 
X5: *****
ML: ****

Ride and handling
The Mercedes is a clear winner when it comes to ride quality, but the BMW is not too far behind. Remember, feedback is something you look for in a car with the performance intent of the X5 and you get truckloads of it. Call it bad ride, well so be it. But while at it, the X5 feels one with the driver and makes him tackle corners with the effortlessness of a Sukhoi-30 pilot entering a barrel roll. Both machines feature double wishbones up front (first for a BMW) while a four-link setup at the rear makes the ML look good, at least on paper. But somehow the ML feels a tad too top heavy as you pitch it into corners and there is a fair amount of body roll too. The BMW, on the other hand, is all about composure on tarmac – it refuses to behave like an SUV till you decide to challenge the basic fundamentals of physics with it. That said, it is the ML which handles broken roads and no-road situations better. We could increase the ride height and wade through some tough rocky terrain which we were not so comfortable letting the BMW through. On gravel, again, the composure of the BMW will ensure that the Mercedes is sitting in its dust. 
X5: ****
ML: ****

Verdict
As you have seen, it is the BMW that has pipped the big Merc to the post in most of our parameters. And sure, if you ask me which one to buy – I will wag my tongue and go after the X5 – it offers a sinfully personal driving experience for me to even think twice. But going back to that argument of SUV over a car, the ML makes a compelling choice. It may not be as quick as the X5, but it is close, as safe and equally luxurious. Add to that a price difference of Rs 10 lakh on the ex-showroom price and you do have an unlikely winner here.