Luxury car showdowns don't come tougher than this. A decade ago, to own a Mercedes meant you had sailed in with success on your right arm. But those days are history.
Today the competition from BMW and Audi is too close for comfort and both brands have rightly taken up station as credible rivals. These Rs 50 lakh luxury saloons won't be the ones selling in the largest numbers but a large amount of a brand's success depends on just how much of a buzz these cars can generate. These cars help lift the aspiration bar and it's these high-end versions that generate the greatest amount of interest and banter. And let's face it, if you are going to dump a sack full of cash on the showroom floor, you might as well toss in a bit more and go for these range-toppers.
In the new E, the sharply defined nose, the suggestion of the four-headlamp arrangement, the exaggerated tipped-forward stance and the W120 ‘ponton'-like flying bulge over the hips help this Merc stand out. Mercedes has loaded the car like no E-class before in India. It gets Merc's top-of-the-line ‘Avantgarde' trim that is brimming over with top-notch features as well as a big 350 magnum of a motor. Shared with the S-class, the 272bhp V6 however is not a direct injection CGI motor.
The suspension system has been designed specifically to iron out road imperfections and the front suspension can even adapt to some extent for tyre imbalances. But the biggest change is the inclusion of the amplitude-dependent shock absorbers.
Comfort and ride
BMW has recently refreshed the 5-series as well. The eagle-eye headlamps, the strong bonnet ‘V' and the tight skinning with sharp creases look fabulous. The BMW's sublime straight six features direct injection and pumps out an impressive 258bhp. Unlike the Merc, which majors on comfort, every molecule of this car goes into making it a better driver's car. It has a very sporty suspension set-up, near-perfect weight distribution achieved by using lots of aluminium and plastic near the nose and a unique braking system too.
Audi's A6 has been on sale in India since early 2009. The car maker has added new LED lamps to both the front and rear lights and there's a new A4-like split chin, but the basic design with its classic inverted bathtub shape remains. The big Bulgarian beard, the strong shoulder line, the perfect arch of the roof and those offset spoke alloys however still look great in isolation but not in this company.
The A6 has the most power and the most sophisticated motor. The direct injection supercharged V6 pumps out a very strong 290bhp and while the Merc and especially the 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 are pampered with the maximum 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 the temperature and fan speed. The Merc's cabin design may be a touch traditional with straight, solid 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 materials you come in contact with - the lacquered steering wheel, real aluminium bits and quality door pads - make this car feel extra special. Also, the trip computer readout sits in the instrument cluster but should have been integrated into the Comand screen which controls mainly the audio functions.
The BMW's cabin feels good and the materials feel the richest, especially the wood finish and the plastics but some of the buttons and switches are just too small. The electronic gear selector with a parking brake button conveniently located on top of it and the iDrive controller shows how BMW gets so many of its basics right.
The front seats with generous bolstering are snug-fitting and give a sporty feel. The rear seats are comfy too, thanks to some very generous thigh support which extends all the way behind the knees. What makes you feel short on space is the front seatbacks, which are very in your face, and the high window line which makes you feel hemmed in. Also, while the door pockets up front are large, there is a general lack of storage space on the inside.
The Audi interiors look the most attractive at night. The manner in which the wood, brushed aluminium and bright red illumination work together fits in well with the car's cool and techy image. Getting a comfortable driving position is easy and the reversing camera with its markers is marvellously engineered. There's a wee bit less space in the rear than the BMW but the rear seat suits its purpose sufficiently. Rear seat passengers get a fully integrated MMi remote control as well, so you don't have to bother the driver. But the build of the A6 feels light and it doesn't give the impression of being as solid as its rivals.
For relaxed and leisurely driving, the Merc is way out in front. The steering feel is great and weights up brilliantly with speed, feels direct and gives you consistent feedback. The 3498cc V6 motor is honey-smooth and the effortless manner in which the E-class eats up poor roads with a flat and consistent ride immediately puts you at ease.
The BMW also makes the driver work harder with its heavy steering at low speeds. The new direct injection engine needs to be worked hard too. Like most of BMW's naturally aspirated in-line six-cylinder motors, the mid-range is particularly weak. It's only once you are above 4000rpm that this motor wakes up.
The Audi, with its supercharged engine and cannon-shot throttle responses, is the other extreme. There's possibly too much of a good thing here and if you're looking to keep up a relaxed pace, forget it. You have to be very precise in modulating the throttle, the car lurches and jerks forward if you push the pedal only slightly harder and driving in flowing traffic is often a tap dance between brake and accelerator. 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 doesn't fail to impress. The active dampers firm up the suspension when they sense the car rolling, the quick and accurate steering gives the car a sense of agility and works up a rhythm. The quick-thinking seven-speed gearbox encourages you to drive the E-class with aggression. The paddle shifts work brilliantly and we loved the way we could aggressively downshift.
Though the Merc motor has a very strong midrange, its top-end performance isn't as good as that of the 5-series.
The 5-series' steering delivers a very connected feel and is brimming with information. The 3-litre straight six is at its best past 4000rpm where the power delivery is very strong and enthusiastic all the way to its 7000rpm redline.
With its instant sledgehammer throttle response, manic acceleration and huge grip, the Audi is a barbarian. Put pedal-to-the-metal, and instantaneously your face muscles will respond with a smile.
The A6 clocks 0-100kph in 6.6 seconds or 150kph in 13.3sec. The BMW takes a second longer to get to 100. The Merc is the slowest here but not by much and in isolation feels quick enough.
None of the owner's of these cars would probably even think of considering fuel efficiency figures. It's the Merc that consumes the least followed by the BMW and A6. The A6 is quickest and most powerful because of the vice-like grip of the quattro 4WD system. What makes this car a-grin-a-minute is the engine, which is super-responsive and unrelenting. The BMW offers a much nicer blend of driving pleasure, comfort and quality. Though its suspension has been softened and ride quality is much improved, it remains the best driver's car. The new E-class has an astonishing range of talents. On one hand, it feels utterly relaxed thanks to a magic-carpet ride and refinement. On the other, it can play the sporting saloon pretty well too, thanks to a new-found agility.