The attraction of the premium Germans is still strong — and so is the rivalry
BMW and Mercedes-Benz once had the luxury car market to themselves but today’s wellheeled buyer has more choice than ever. If you’re after a large luxury sedan, you can pick from Audi, Jaguar, Lexus, Infiniti or Volvo. Most still pick a 5 series or E-Class, though, which makes the arrival of Benz’s new E-Class big news. But can it put its biggest rival in the shade?
In a declining market, it takes bravery to jack up the price by $10,000 but that’s exactly what Mercedes has done with the E220d. The brand says the new model has roughly $13,000 of additional “value” over the previous model, including an all-new diesel engine.
That new engine is a pearler, too. Smaller and more efficient, it’s more powerful and quieter. The numbers don’t lie: fuel use is down from 4.9L to a hybrid-like 4.1L/100km and power is up from 125kW to 143kW.
It’s the pick of the entry level engines for performance, too, reaching 100km/h in a claimed 7.3 seconds compared with 7.7 for the carry-over petrol E200.
Combined with a nine-speed automatic, it makes light work of hills and overtaking, barely raising a sweat — or a murmur — when asked to kick down. It’s pretty quiet, too, although you can still hear a faint diesel rattle around town.
The auto’s not perfect, though. In traffic it could slur its gear changes better.
The new E-Class’s headline act is the cockpit. Dominated by two huge 12.3-inch screens and lit throughout by classy ambient lighting, it is the most impressive cabin we have seen in recent memory.
Controls are hi-tech — there are sensor patches on the steering wheel to scroll through the various entertainment and navigation menus — and refreshingly simple to use. The party trick is choosing from a wide palette of ambient lighting colours to change the mood. It is to the Mini but has a wider range of choices.
The unseen technology is even more impressive. Standard equipment includes “Drive Pilot”, which can maintain a safe distance between you and the car in front at up to 210km/h. It can also steer for you through gentle bends on the freeway and change lanes automatically when safe to do so. Other driver assistance includes pedestrian detection and automated emergency braking, automatic parking, lane departure warning and blind spot monitoring.
If a crash can’t be avoided, the E-Class will prepare the cabin for impact. Air chambers in the seat sides will push you away from the door and the audio will deliver a frequency designed to protect your ears from the sound of nine airbags exploding.
On the road, the Mercedes is a mixed bag. The steering has a meaty, precise feel and on smooth roads it carves through corners with the best of them.
The standard suspension — matched with the (optional) stiff-walled 19-inch run-flat tyres on our test car — can get upset by road joins and midcorner corrugations, skipping about rather than ironing out the wrinkles and sharp edges.
The 5 Series comes to this contest with an $8000 price advantage. However, a lengthy options list blew the price of our test vehicle to $109,000. The current 5 Series was launched in 2010 and, despite a 2013 update, it is looking tired — if a year is a long time in the car industry, six years is an eternity. A new model is due early next year.
Against the E-Class, it loses the showroom showdown. The interior feels dated and too closely linked to cheaper cars in the BMW range.
From the graphics to the ambient lighting and the functions available in the menu, it has been left behind by the new Mercedes — and Audi’s latest A4.
That said, it all works well and the virtual instrument panel adds a modern touch.
The cabin may be a bit dated
but the seats are real leather (unlike those of the E-Class) and they still provide superb comfort and support. The various screen menus are easy to navigate, while the boot is better than the Mercedes for long items.
The 5 Series diesel matches the Mercedes for power and fuel efficiency, pumping out 140kW/400Nm, while using a claimed 4.3L/100km and taking slightly longer for the 0-100km/h sprint, 7.7 seconds.
Slightly more noticeable under acceleration, the diesel has a sportier note than the E-Class. The eight-speed auto loses nothing to the E-Class’s nine-speed, as ninth doesn’t come into play at legal speeds.
Driver assistance technology is a nocontest, though. The cruise control has a braking function, the car will dial emergency services if it senses an accident but it can’t match the E-Class for assistance tech.
Lane departure warning, automated emergency braking and pedestrian avoidance technology cost extra, as do automated parking and the head-up display. Adaptive headlights add cost. The 5 Series brochure has four pages of standard equipment and nine pages of options. Expect some pencil sharpening soon.
What the BMW loses in the cabin and on paper, it gains on the road. It is still the pick of the class for road holding ability and steering feel. The E-Class matches it for effortless, refined freeway motoring but the BMW pulls away on twisting, pockmarked back roads.
The ride may border on too firm around town but on a country back road it comes into its own, feeling more settled and secure than the Benz.
The BMW may look dated but it retains the driver’s car mantle. It’s the most accomplished performer through the bends and over bumps. But the Benz still wins comfortably. The cabin is superb, the level of technology available is class-leading and the new strong, silent diesel just shades the BMW.
Photo location courtesy of Belgenny Farm reception centre, Camden South, NSW. (02) 4654 6800.