Just four years ago, the W212 Mercedes-Benz E-class was the freshest executive luxury saloon around, but pretty soon it became the senior-most citizen of the segment. This highlights the relentless push there is for the latest products, despite the small size of the luxury car market in India.
Manufacturers aren’t waiting anymore and within months or even weeks of an international debut, a new model finds itself on our shores.
Within a year of the E-class’s launch, BMW came out with the new 5-series in the form of 520d and then a year on, Audi brought out its latest A6. And finally, the latest update on the Jaguar XF was introduced last year.
The time is ripe then for Mercedes-Benz to fight back, and it’s doing just that with this luxury saloon, the new E-class. Mind you, the new E-class is not entirely new – it’s still very much the W212 from 2009, but the mid-life updates are quite substantial. The facelift, for example, isn’t just a change of bumpers and headlights. Mercedes has made expensive sheet-metal changes too and given it a few interior upgrades as well. With this facelift, the engines have been rationalised as well. Sadly, the slow-selling E 350 CDI, with its creamy V6, has been discontinued (though there are rumours of it being launched at a later date) and there’s a choice of just two motors now – the E 200 CGI and the E 250 CDI, both four-cylinder motors that do the job without the extra expense and thirst of the V6es.
The fact is that in the Indian market, the chauffeur-driven Sahib is more interested in the image these cars project than how many cylinders they pack under the hood.
It is because of him that the Audi A6 2.0 TDI, for example, outsells its 3.0 TDI sibling by a huge margin. It’s why the Jaguar XF 2.2 diesel helped push its sales up in India by a whopping 68 percent, and why BMW has two lesser diesel engines in its range that sit below the quick but expensive 530d.
It’s all largely to do with price, of course. On average, this Audi A6 2.0 TDI, BMW 520d and Jaguar XF 2.2 cost approximately Rs 10 lakh less than their six-cylinder counterparts, and that puts them all within shouting range of the Mercedes-Benz E 250 CDI’s Rs 44.4 lakh (this Launch Edition we’re driving, which is almost sold out, costs Rs 49.9 lakh). Obviously, we had to bring them together again for a rematch.
Looks and styling
Nothing has presence like an oversized three-pointed star on the nose of a Mercedes-Benz, and that’s exactly what the new E-class has. This is the first time an E-class gets its logo on the grille and the absence of the earlier car’s hood ornament (a big disappointment for badge thieves we’re sure) is part of Merc’s effort to appeal to the younger generation. It’s why the old car’s rather retro ‘pontoon’ flanks have been flattened into tighter, more pert haunches, and the headlamps, tail-lamps and bumpers have been restyled (successfully, if we might add) to make the car look less stately and a lot younger. It’s an interesting look and one that is better proportioned than the generic A6 or rapidly ageing 5-series. Arguably though, the XF still has it. Apart from the 2.2’s slightly weedy looking wheel and tyre combination, the XF still looks contemporary and eye catching.
Under the skin, the Mercedes-Benz E 250 CDI, BMW 520d and Jaguar XF 2.2 follow the traditional big luxury saloon layout of a longitudinal engine powering the rear-wheels, while the Audi A6 sticks with a longitudinal engine that powers the front wheels only. The XF and the 5-series use ZF’s widely acclaimed eight-speed torque-converter automatic, the A6 has an eight-step continuously variable transmission and the E-class comes with Merc’s familiar 7G-tronic seven-speed torque-converter auto. And for those loathe to changing a wheel, this is important – only the Jag comes with a full-size spare wheel; the Audi and the Mercedes have a space saver, while the BMW continues to put its faith (and yours) in run-flat technology.
On the inside
At first glance, the new E-class’s interiors may not look or feel too different from before, but then your back will tell you that the seat cushions aren’t as firm as before, and your eyes will start picking out the subtle details. The COMAND screen, for instance, is now bigger and has a much higher resolution with sharper graphics. Then you’ll notice that pressing the Navi button will actually activate the new satellite navigation system, and that there is now a DVD player. You’ll also notice that this E-class, like the old one, is built like a tank. The doors shut with proper heft and, once that’s done, the outside world gets sealed off. That’s not all. You’ll love the three-spoke AMG steering wheel and the panoramic sunroof (only on the Launch Edition) and the fantastic build quality of everything on the inside. But because the basic dashboard design hasn’t changed, there’s still a hint of tradition in here – the parking brake, for example, is foot operated, unlike the electronically operated ones in the other cars. And, of course, the mass of buttons that plagued the centre console is still there.
If you want simplicity, you have to step into the XF. Its dashboard looks empty, but that is no bad thing in this case. Everything you need is activated via the simple-to-use touchscreen, leaving precious few buttons on the centre console. What’s also apparent is the Jag’s low dashboard cowl, which makes it easier to see out of. There are plenty of nice touches too. As always, there’s that Jaguar ‘handshake’ when you switch the car on – the air-con vents flip open and the rotary gear selector rises out of the centre console. Other bits like the cabin lights that are turned on by brushing a finger across them, the-soft touch glovebox release and the blue backlighting for the cabin are all nice. Still, the XF’s dash does feel a bit old fashioned and nothing like the ultra-modern dashboard of the A6.
We love the Audi’s dials in particular, with their raised effect – they are easy to read, there’s a properly big digital screen between them and the whole layout of the dashboard, with its pop-out screen and easy-to-use, modern driver interface, really stands out. But it’s at night that the Audi’s interiors really come into their own; the intensity of the red backlighting for the buttons makes you feel like you’re in an airplane cockpit. The fit and finish in the A6 interiors is faultless and easily edges out the BMW and Jag for cabin quality (the Merc comes close though), and the only complaint we have with the A6 is to do with its light build, which simply doesn’t have the heft
of the others.
Which leaves us with the BMW and its driver-focussed interiors. BMW cabins have always been a place of business, but in this company, the 5-series dashboard does look a bit too familiar and, dare we say it, boring. For starters, the 520d’s iDrive screen is quite small and not as big as the ones you get in its more powerful siblings. Then there’s the thin-rimmed steering wheel, which doesn’t have the tactile feel of the others here. And, while the others offer quite a lot of storage space in their centre consoles, the BMW’s cubbyhole between the front seats is quite small.
Positives include the hugely accommodating front seats and the spot-on driving position; but, in most cases, it’s the chauffeur that will benefit most from this.
The chauffeur-driven, on the other hand, will find an impressively comfortable rear seat in the BMW. The cushioning is generous, especially under your thighs, and there’s decent legroom as well. But it’s the front seats that spoil it for rear passengers. They are too big, and the seat backs arch rearwards to give rear passengers an ‘in-your-face’ feeling and block their view.
Step into the XF’s rear seat and again you are greeted with decent legroom and good ambience. It’s just that you sit a tad low and the sloping roofline eats into headroom. Also, the windows are particularly small and thigh support, though not as insufficient as in the A6, is still not as good as we would have liked.
After the Jag’s confines, the A6’s rear seat feels properly spacious. The cabin feels wider and airier and there’s lots of legroom and good headroom. But even our medium-height testers found the seat lacking in thigh support and that’s not good in a car where the back seat is such an important place.
It’s the E-class that has the best rear seat. The new cushions are really comfortable, the slightly short seat squab makes for great legroom (even more than the A6 and the 5-series), and the squarish profile of the C-pillar gives you a few vital extra millimetres above your head. Visibility from the back is great as well, and this only adds to the comfort levels in here.
As for equipment, all come with a sunroof, some form of driver interface system, Bluetooth connectivity and powered driver’s seats with seat memory. The E-class and the Jaguar offer satellite navigation and reverse cameras as standard equipment, and the E-class even has seat memory for the front passenger seat. The Audi’s party trick is its four-zone climate control, which none of the other cars offer, but otherwise it’s missing a few trick bits like electric adjustment for the steering wheel.
All these cars have decent power and won’t leave you wanting for more. They all make north of 170bhp, but that figure is less significant than the bags of torque that common-rail power and turbocharging twist out. Take the A6’s 1,968cc engine. It makes the least power and torque here (it’s also the lightest car here by a considerable margin) and yet, it feels plenty quick. More importantly, it responds best to small throttle applications and this helps immensely when you’re driving in traffic. Its eight-step CVT gearbox is also one of the best of its kind in that it behaves like a regular torque-converter if you use the shift paddles, and that unwanted rubberband effect comes to the fore only when you give it full throttle. That the engine is the smoothest and quietest here only makes it more relaxing and effortless to drive. However, the A6 has just its front wheels with which to put its 38.7kgm of torque down so, under hard acceleration, you do get some chirping from the tyres and some torque steer.
The 520d, on the other hand and true to BMW tradition, is a hardcore rear-wheel-drive car and has no problems transferring its 38.8kgm of twist to the road. In typical BMW fashion, it’s the most free-revving diesel here (it will happily spin to 5,000rpm) and its mid-range is particularly strong. This, along with its supremely talented, quick shifting, eight-speed gearbox, make for snappy, alert performance that belies the car’s 1625kg kerb weight. But this is not the most refined of engines and tiny vibes come through the pedals and the gearlever at idle. Also, there’s a constant but very muted diesel clatter that filters into the cabin.
In the new E-class, Mercedes has worked on making the gruff, twin-scroll-turbocharged diesel more silent, but it still isn’t as quiet as the A6’s motor. So what you get is a motor that’s sufficiently rid of clatter and rattle at normal driving speeds, but you still hear it when you extend it to its redline. It’s not the most silent of engines, but its performance more than makes up for this little blemish. The E-class makes the most torque here – 50.9kgm to be exact – and does it as early as 1600rpm. So there’s fantastic grunt right from the get-go. Like the 520d, the E 250 CDI offers seamless gearshifts, but unlike the BMW, the gearbox isn’t as responsive even when it’s set in Sport mode. Using the paddles brings a sense of urgency, but it’s best to let the E-class change gears on its own. The E-class excels with its smooth, measured power delivery, which is ideal when you’re chauffeur driven.
Like the E, the XF also comes with a 2.2-litre engine, and it makes a healthy 45.8kgm of torque. And, like the 5-series, it has an eight-speed, ZF-sourced ’box. While it’s a smooth, quiet engine, the gearbox doesn’t seem to shift as quickly as the 520d’s unit. There’s also a noticeable lag when you floor the pedal and the way the power flows is nowhere near as seamless as in the Audi. However, the engine’s peaky nature means there’s a nice surge around 2,000rpm, which makes it quite entertaining to drive.
0-100kph times really aren’t too much of a concern here, but for the record, it’s the E 250 CDI that’s the quickest of the lot.
Ride and handling
The E-class’s new Direct Control suspension has made a world of difference to the Merc’s dynamics. Gone is the low-speed stiffness of the car and in its place a pliant, well-controlled suspension that really improves the way the car rides. Even on the low-profile, 35-section tyres of this Launch Edition, the ride was truly impressive. Up the speeds and the E-class really comes into its own with a flat, supremely well-controlled ride, and that’s more than what you can say of the 520d.
A drive in the 5-series will initially lead you to believe it has a very pliant ride. Unlike the BMWs of old that wanted you to feel every pebble on the road, this one, especially at low speeds, isolates you from the road properly. But then you’ll notice some American luxo barge-like float and a ride that never settles down, and that’s a shame when you consider that this car is the only one that offers adaptive dampers. The 520d has Sports and Comfort modes, but shuffling between them really doesn’t find the right balance.
As for the Jaguar, it’s strange that despite its relatively high-profile, 55-section tyres, it picks up a lot of road imperfections at low speeds. It’s the only blemish in the ride quality of a car that otherwise takes sharp intrusions in its stride and has a well-controlled high-speed ride.
But it’s the Audi that has the best ride – its suspension betters the E-class’s pliant characteristics at low speeds, it has none of the high-speed float of the 5-series and it absorbed every pothole we drove into as if there were pillows strapped onto the wheels. And for the occasional times you do decide to drive, you’ll find that the 5-series’s steering still offers you the most connected experience. It’s really responsive and has an intimate way of communicating the road surface to your fingers.
The XF’s steering is not as quick and a little too damped, but it gives a lot of confidence for high-speed driving, which is what most owners will want. The A6 feels rather inert when you drive it hard, but it’s the E-class that surprised us with its vastly improved steering. It is more direct and quicker than before, and though it’s now electrically assisted, it still retains the fluid feel of the previous hydraulic unit.
The XF is rather exclusive and offers an interesting alternative to its more mainstream German rivals. It’s got a potent engine, charming interiors and standout looks. However, it isn’t the most comfortable of the lot when it comes to cabin space and the low-speed ride isn’t the best either. It’s also the most expensive car here.
The 520d is still the most engaging car to drive thanks to its responsive engine and gearbox, but it doesn’t give the soothing experience we expected, especially if you’re sitting in the back seat.
It comes down to the A6 and the refreshed E-class, and we were really hard pressed to choose between these two. The A6, with its plush ride and smooth, refined engine is a particularly relaxing car for everyday use and the cabin is a truly special place to be.
The new E-class with its refreshed looks and better road presence has a bit more emotional clout. It’s more exciting to drive too, thanks to its improved dynamics and a strong engine. On the practical side, it fares well, with the
best back seat and a cabin that cocoons you from the outside. Isolating you further from the road is the linear power delivery and the smooth shifts of the 7G-tronic ’box. Overall it’s a best all-rounder, combing emotion and practicality rather well.