Before the bell sounds, let us first introduce the two burly contenders. On the left, bouncing up and down with the confidence of several knockouts is the W212 Mercedes-Benz E-class, the current luxury car king in the Indian market. On the right is BMW’s spanking F10 or new 5-series that looks menacingly calm and quietly confident, like it has an ace tucked in somewhere. Ding Ding Ding!
It’s clear from the outset that BMW’s new 5-series has been designed to appeal to a wider audience. Looking more like a shrunken 7-series, this is BMW’s softer level-headed take on a luxury car. This is actually a BMW that wants to be more Merc-like. The Merc too wants to ape the Bavarian. Driving pleasure is now such a high priority for the E-class that its steering, dampers, springs and suspension components were given priority at the time of development.
What these cars have in common are their striking looks. The new 5-series may not be as radical as the car that preceded it, but you’d never say this car looks anything less than very attractive in the flesh. We think it’s stunning, and it has all the once-instantly recognisable BMW design cues, double-barreled headlamps, prominent kidney grille, long bonnet, short front overhang and Hofmeister kink in the rear. The tipped-forward stance of the new E-class, those jewel-like lamps and the aggressive slashes and cuts mean the Merc draws even more attention to itself.
Step into the massive rear of the 5-series and it’s clear that BMW is out to snatch customers right off Merc’s showroom floor. This is after all a mini 7-series, built on the same platform and with a wheelbase that’s substantially longer than that of the E-class. There’s almost as much width in the rear of the BMW and seat comfort is right up there too. However, there’s less thigh support than on the earlier Five and the large front seats spoil visibility for back seat passengers a bit.
Back in the Merc’s cabin, things are just as good, if not slightly better. This car’s build strength is far superior to that of the lighter-built BMW, and you can feel it in every panel and door. There’s a heft to the interiors of the E that the BMW lacks and this helps deliver plenty of robust, built-to-last old-world charm. Despite having the shorter wheelbase, there’s slightly more legroom here too and the overall seating position is slightly better; it’s a little more upright and there’s more lower back support.
Like the exterior, the dash of the new Five is understated. Very similar to that of the 7-series on which it is based, the new Five uses neat organic shapes with several rows of tightly packed buttons. The iDrive screen on this version is small but works well, and there is BMW’s attractive-looking fully electronic joystick in place of the gearlever.
In contrast, Merc’s Comand system feels distinctly antiquated, only controlling the music system. Other bits don’t work either. The dials are hard to read at times, there is no electronic parking brake as on the BMW and some hidden-away plastics are not impressive. What impresses, however, are tastefully executed chrome bits that help lift the otherwise subdued cabin.
While these two cars run neck and neck for cabin space and comfort, the BMW clearly has the superior engine and gearbox. Under the hood of the new 5-series sits one of BMW’s sweetest – its 3.0-litre common-rail straight six, mated to an eight-speed automatic. The E-class in contrast has a heavily massaged 2.2-litre four-cylinder motor, force-fed by twin sequential turbos, power transmitted through to the rear wheels via just five gears.
BMW’s six is clearly the smoother and more refined of the two engines. This is a diesel that purrs when cruising, even managing a sporty snarl when you put your foot down. Idle is shaft-silent, and even from the outside you’d be hardpressed to tell this is a diesel. The Merc, in contrast, is smooth for the most part but you can tell it’s a diesel.
BMW uses a variable geometry turbo for linear throttle responses and the motor responds instantly to a tap on the accelerator. It feels very light and free-revving, and throttle responses are almost instant in any part of the powerband. The Merc, with the help of a brace of sequential turbos, puts out almost the same horsepower and even more torque, but the manner in which it makes this power is not as effortless. It’s clear that the Merc motor is in its highest state of tune, while the BMW is much more relaxed. What makes Merc’s four-cylinder seem to work so hard is the fact that the E250 CDI uses only a five-speed gearbox, so the motor has to make larger steps when shifting gears.
Gears on BMW’s eight-speed ’box are all but imperceptible, and you always seem to have a choice of a better gear to shift up or down to. And it’s blisteringly quick for a diesel. Zero to 100kph on the BMW comes up in just 7.3 seconds and 160kph takes only 20-odd seconds. The Merc is quick too – 0-100kph takes 8.6sec – and it has bags of torque as well, even more than the BMW in some parts of the powerband.
On the fuel economy front, the 525d proves to be more efficient with BMW’s EfficientDynamics and regenerative braking winning over Merc’s BlueTech. Following back-to-back tests, we recorded 8.8kpl and 8.4kpl in the city respectively.
If you’re already a BMW owner, then first impressions from behind the wheel of the 5-series are slightly confusing. The steering is light and easy to twirl, ride quality is supple and absorbing, and refinement levels very high. Blindfolded, you could easily mistake this for a Mercedes! The real Merc is a very impressive cruiser too. The steering feels light and friction-free, the cabin acoustically shuts you off from the world outside and this is one of the best riding Mercs ever.
There’s no easy way to say this but the E-class’ steering actually delivers more feel. But you can’t lay all the credit at Merc’s doorstep for it’s the new Five that is more luxury oriented now. However, it’s the new 5-series’ electric steering that makes the Merc look comparatively better. The new electric steering lacks feel, turn-in isn’t as sharp and body control isn’t as good either. Sure, the new Five displays high levels of grip and is very willing to corner hard too. It’s just that the experience feels a bit detached and inert.
The E-class is a fantastic luxury car. Beautifully built to Merc’s highest standards, it delivers tank-like strength, limousine comfort, and high levels of equipment. The weak link for this E250 CDI, however, is its four-cylinder engine and five-speed gearbox. These just don’t stand a chance against BMW’s larger 3.0-litre straight six and eight-speed automatic. This barely shrunken 7-series also has a large comfortable cabin, is extremely refined and has a modern air to it not found on the Mercedes-Benz. Though BMW will only begin assembling and delivering the 525d in September in India, it is both better equipped and Rs 1.6 lakh cheaper, which pretty much seals the case in its favour. Who would have thought that the best Mercedes for decades would be beaten by a BMW that doesn’t even drive like one?