The last time these three came together was back in January 2008, which goes to show that we as a market are now onto the second generation of these very cars in a span of just four years. Back then, the Audi A6 emerged the winner in what many saw as a strange twist. The BMW was right behind it, and the Merc E-Class came last. Our test was a combination of a hill climb, a highway blast and a city-test. Interestingly, Bijoy wrote back then that quattro is what India needs, and to this day we hold that as true. But the BMW proved, in true Bavarian fashion, that it was the most fun to steer and the Merc was the most comfortable.
I write this thinking about what a day it was for a young tester like me to understand and appreciate what the three brands really stood for. And it’s strange how things have changed in all that while. The Mercedes E-Class has the most steering feedback of the trio you see on these pages, the BMW 5 Series has the most space; and quattro, well, it continues to keep the Audi’s nose clean. But can quattro alone save the A6 this time around? Has the BMW lost its way or is the Mercedes-Benz E-Class the surprise package of this lot? How I wish I had Bijoy by my side to solve this dilemma! So here’s what I thought of it all – maybe you’ll like the outcome, maybe not.
It’s got to be the Audi A6, not just because it’s the newest and freshest, but because it’s also the nicest looking. We wish Jaguar could have helped us out with the XF S, for it would have surely walked away with this crown. Nevertheless, the Audi’s combination of aggression and athleticism makes it the kind of car that will appeal to younger customers, for sure. Its trademark LED daytime running lamps and sharp lines make it the unexploded powder keg among the trio.
The BMW 5 Series appears restrained next to the A6, something its predecessor wasn’t. Yet its appeal reaches across different age groups and, in effect, it’s more like a shrunken 7 Series than a grown-up 3 Series. The E-Class continues to be a trifle controversial, just like the W210 and W211 were, but it’s more in the vein of the W124 school of design. In simple terms, it’s got that hint of traditional Mercedes-Benz design, and a hint of the Pontoon Mercs around the rear wheel arches is a welcome sign.
The A6 may have won the first round, but it finds itself fighting a hard battle here. The A6 isn’t the roomiest, though it isn’t exactly cramped. The back seat, where most owners will spend time, is a trifle small and the overall comfort is not of the same level as the other two. Yet, wherever the eye can see, the A6 has top-flight leather stitching and quality materials all around. The chocolate brown interiors look and feel rich (there are other options too) and the spec list is pretty impressive. From air-suspension to different driving modes that can be individually set to a rather intuitive connectivity setup and what have you, the A6 has got a lot of stuff that the other cars don’t. For India, Audi haven’t yet offered head-up display, or Wi-Fi or GPS, which are available to our friends in Europe. Our guess is they might trickle down in the next few years.
It’s the 5 Series that runs the A6 close on kit, but beats it on space. In fact, the 5 Series even trounces the E-Class by a slim margin. The rear seat is comfy, the legroom is good and so is the seat design that is wider and can accommodate a third person. Our test car had an overdose of beige, even for the carpets, which can be a pain to maintain during inclement weather, though the overall materials here too are top notch. It’s the attention to detail where the BMW scores over Audi. Take the rubber-coated tips for the paddle shifts for instance, or the way even the seat adjustment buttons and the interiors light up at night. The front seats are nice and wide and they are comfortable for people of most sizes.
The problem is, the 5 Series doesn’t visually give you that feeling of space. Sit in the rear and the front seats, coupled with the higher window sill, makes it a bit cave-like, the only flawed ingredient in an otherwise perfect dish. For India, BMW offer heads-up display as an option and GPS as standard on the 530d, options that Audi may want to bring in quickly.
The E-Class doesn’t have the kind of spec list that the other two boast, nor does it look and feel as bright and cheerful on the inside. Yet, it gives you a sense of richness, where the materials are classic, high quality stuff with some of the best leather stitching we’ve seen on an exec sedan. Despite the heavy use of black and dark grey, our test car with the dark wood inserts still managed to give the insides a classy feel. There is ample space, both at the front and the back, with rather supportive seats. The instrumentation is also arranged differently – take the gear stalk behind the steering wheel or the wiper controls or even the seat adjustments, for instance. Where the BMW and Audi may require some help from the manual to figure out some of the functions, the logic of the controls will immediately fall to hand for 95 per cent of people when they get behind the wheel of the Merc. It’s only the level of kit that makes this rather nice package go home with fewer points, with the BMW staying right on top and the Audi trailing it marginally.
GET UP AND GO!
These cars have very similar outputs, cubes and even torque figures. Their performance is pretty much in a very similar ballpark too. Yet, there are some differences.
As the imaginary lights go green, it’s the E-Class that gets off the lights and gets to 60 kph the quickest, with the A6 just a 10-size shoe behind, the BMW’s nose just parallel to the Audi’s wing mirrors. Then, the 245 bhp Audi starts to gain a lead, the BMW hot on its heels and the E-Class slowly losing its advantage but staying close to the duo. The BMW sticks with the A6 all the way to 160 kph, post which the Audi gains that slight lead and stays there. So if you want to win a traffic light drag, you now know which one to drive. Traction, it seems (quattro, ladies and gentlemen) gives the A6 that ever-so-slight edge.
The A6 has good mid-range and that shows when it goes from say 80 to 120 kph to overtake that container truck. It takes just 4 seconds, so does the E-Class, and the BMW takes 4.3 seconds. The Audi continues to stay the quickest even when you go from 100 to 140 kph. The thing to remember is that the BMW is the lightest of the trio; the E-Class and A6 are another 50-70 kg heavier. While the A6 has a dual-clutch tranny, the E-Class and 5 Series resort to a traditional auto ’box. The A6 shifts that trifle quicker on the upshifts, but the BMW takes the cake on the downshifts. The E is the one that massages your back – it’s that simple.
At high speeds, the BMW exhibits significant wind roar, the A6 and the E-Class less so – maybe it’s got to do with those large mirrors after all. Fuel efficiency is best with the BMW, but the difference here too is too small to notice – 10.2 kpl overall versus the E’s 10.1 and the A6’s 9.8 kpl.
With performance near identical, something has to give when the going gets tough, right? The A6 uses a multi-link setup with a compound axle at the rear. Running on 17-inch wheels, the new A6 rides with a hint of plushness and yet there’s just that ever present sliver of firmness. Unlike the last car that felt a bit too stiff or too loose, this one is just right. It has a commanding presence on bad roads and it’s just the odd large bump that unsettles what is otherwise a car with very fine manners. Given how quattro works, the 40:60 split helps the A6 develop enough grip to put a leech to shame. Show it a fast corner and the A6 will just hold its line, thanks to the use of torque vectoring that makes it more neutral and, on that rare occasion, a touch oversteery. The steering is light at low speeds, but builds up weight more predictably as speeds rise and is pretty accurate. But feelsome it ain’t, and it’s easy to confuse its weighing up for feel.
This is something the E-Class has in spades. It’s probably the most natural-feeling and driving car of the lot. The steering is probably the sportiest setup on a Merc saloon to date, which is saying a lot, considering its recirculating ball setup in the past never made many friends. Not only does it provide good feedback, it weighs up the best of the lot. The ride quality too is what one expects from a Merc, but with a slight hint of being stiff. The E-Class revels on pockmarked roads and it just doesn’t unsettle its occupants, unless you are doing absolutely crazy speeds. However, it doesn’t have the kind of grip levels either the Audi or BMW have and that takes away from some of the fun. But on a winding road, when the birds are chirping and the clouds set their eyes on you, the Merc is what you would want to be in.
BMW generally wins this round, but not this time. Its steering does weigh up well, but the actual process of weighing up feels unnatural. There isn’t as much feedback from the steering as on the E60, which is a shame. Sure, it does have some pretty good road manners and it does have lots of grip and traction for a rear-wheel driven car, yet the ride quality isn’t its strong point. It’s way better than the sometimes crashy and sometimes uber-stiff last-gen, but it still thumps around a bit and there’s too much road noise that filters through. Strange, but true, the BMW comes last in this department – who would have ever thought that!
WILL YOU DRIVE ME HOME?
Didn’t I tell you that this comparison may throw up some surprises? The BMW 530d is a sweet car on any other day. The engine is firecracker material, the space and features are good too and the dynamics on the whole make it a more grown-up, sophisticated BMW. But in the process it’s lost what it was – it’s no longer a bit of a ruffian. You see, the E60 didn’t do comfort well, but it drove like Elvis leaving the building like his pants were on fire. This, the F10 generation, won’t leave that impression on you. It will disappear into the annals of time as the BMW that was the most un-BMW like, as the company tries to please a wider audience. Great for business, but bad for enthusiasts.
The top spot battle was a hard-fought one. The E-Class is the more soulful car. It may not have the gizmos, nor do the interiors look like a U2 concert and yet there’s something utterly charming about this car that makes you want to drive it some more. It appeals to those with mature tastes, but strangely enough once you get behind the wheel, it does remind you of your youth. Finely built and otherwise hard to fault, the E-Class has to take second place because this game demands a winner. Maybe Mercedes-Benz needs to kit her up and throw her into the ring again.
Until that happens, the A6 is it. It doesn’t win because it’s the newest, but it wins because it tries to appeal to the senses of those who want a comfortable yet sporty, loaded yet fast diesel saloon. It’s the most capable car of the lot – a bit like that kid who went to an Ivy League college, got all the girls and sits in his comfy office in Manhattan every day, overlooking the rest of New York. It may not have the E’s charm, but it has a sense of occasion the others just can’t live up to. For all that, it is our winner. I hope Bijoy approves.