Clouds roll in, wispy and grey, obscuring our vision. We slow to a crawl. Then, just as smoothly as they roll in, they dissipate, revealing a slick section of moist black tarmac. It twists, it turns, it bends, it loops, it dives and it climbs. It does everything but travel in a straight line. It’s why we love this road; it’s a proper roller coaster.
The constant drizzle, however, means the road up to Ambavane near Pune and the surrounding greenery are leaching moisture. In places, tiny rivulets trickle across the road and in others there are small pools of standing water. Not ideal conditions in which to unleash a collective 1,102bhp through the rear wheels. So I exercise a bit of caution as the M5 chases the E 63 through a tunnel of green. I caress the throttle instead of giving it a progressively firm shove and I’m smooth with my steering inputs.
As confidence builds we start to go harder and faster. Up ahead I can see Hormazd through a haze of spray having a ball, the tail of the E 63 stepping out occasionally. Though we’re not using more than 3,500 or 4,000 rpm in each gear, it still equates to approximately 380bhp; much more than you can put down cleanly on a serpentine wet road like this one.
The rear of the M5 is already doing a bit of a jig. It steps out in small increments as I squeeze the throttle a bit more in tighter corners, and initially it is fun. But the BMW doesn’t really transmit a lot of confidence on a slippery surface and I find myself always on edge, with one half of my brain cringing while the other prepares to execute a synaptic, Bruce Lee-quick steering correction. You’re seldom aware that the car is spinning its wheels on a wet road. And once the rear wheels are goaded into letting go by 69.3kgm of torque from just 1,500rpm – particularly easy considering the traction control is switched off – it takes more than feathering the throttle to get them to grip again. So after a few heart-stopping moments, I’m happy to switch to the less frisky MDM mode and have the electronic nannies take over some of the workload. The way the DSC cuts in by cutting power and activating the brakes is quite intrusive, but it provides a much-needed safety net in the wet.
The M5 is no lithe sportscar, but it is a blisteringly quick sports saloon. It’s been designed to go ballistic without compromising on all the creature comforts expected in a luxury car that seats four (even five) passengers with their luggage. The net result is a car which, in unladen form, tips the scales at 1870kg. But it’s not just the weight (the E 63 too weighs a hefty 1840kg) that is the issue – it’s also the way you feel it when transitioning through corners and accelerating hard. There’s considerable weight transfer, and the way the ultra-responsive twin-turbo V8 spools up makes the big M5 quite a handful on twisty and slippery roads. To their credit, BMW engineers could’ve played it too safe by injecting an overdose of understeer into the chassis, but they didn’t. The result is a car that constantly keeps you on red alert.
The E 63 AMG has almost the same amount of firepower but is far less intimidating to drive. To begin with, the driving position is better. Unlike in the M5, where the high dashboard gives you the feeling of sitting low, the E 63 offers much better visibility and you can gauge the extremities of the car more easily too; important when apexing from one corner to the next.
Then there’s the E 63’s electromechanical steering, which feels so much nicer than the M5’s helm. And that’s surprising, because the M Division has swapped the regular 5-series’ electric power steering system for a hydraulic unit that promises more of a natural feel. No doubt, the M5’s steering is quick, accurate and has little slack, but it’s covered in a veil of numbness that doesn’t quite transmit every detail of the road to your fingertips. The AMG’s steering, on the other hand, is more communicative, and though it is a bit lighter, it weighs up in a wonderfully fluid way.
Further establishing the friendlier dynamics of the E 63 AMG is the flat and consistent ride. There’s less heaving and diving over bumps and the Merc has far less vertical movement than the M5. The inherent stability of the air-sprung rear suspension with its automatically controlled ride height also allows me to push the car harder and harder, until the rear begins to slither in a friendly manner; a Nascar-like fluttering V8 bark from the exhaust ricocheting across the walls of the mountainside. There’s no doubt, the Merc feels lighter on its feet than the BMW and is the easier to drive of the two.
The rain has stopped and with the road now drying out, we can completely open up these V8s. Pushing the envelope of the E 63 only cements its reputation. It now feels brutally quick when the engine is extended to 6,000rpm on the short straights and the rear’s lack of roll and quick steering make it a car you can enjoy kilometre after kilometre. What I love most about the 550bhp E 63, however, is how it just shrinks around you when you drive it hard. It may have the external dimensions of a full-size luxury car, but on the move, down this mountain road, it feels not much larger than a C-class.
I jump back into the M5 after a good long stint in the AMG, and immediately, on the dry road, it feels much more connected than before. The transition has transformed how much I can enjoy this car and I can put down the power much more confidently. You still need to concentrate, but unlike in the wet, you can carry absurd speeds through corners, all accompanied by the Kalahari lion bellow from the V8.
Both cars come with automatic transmissions, but the conventional torque-converter slushboxes used in their more pedestrian counterparts have been dropped in favour of performance-oriented, seven-speed twin-clutch units. Both these gearboxes have been programmed to suit the various driving modes in each of the cars, but it’s the M5’s gearbox that’s more enthusiastic and does a better job of extracting the best out of the engine. In manual mode, the E 63’s ’box changes up a gear with an annoying lag at the redline. Hence it’s best to pull the right paddle 200rpm earlier for a quicker upshift. However, it’s the Sport+ mode, where the gearbox automatically and unhesitatingly shifts up at the redline, that yields best results.
Unlike the E 63, the BMW’s gearbox has a separate multi-stage setting to alter the shift response. In its most aggressive setting, shifts are lightning quick and accompanied by a mild jolt to play to your mood.
Off the ghat and onward to Pune via the ultra-fast expressway, BMW’s twin-turbo projectile is really delivering the goods. What the M5 does phenomenally well is mask speed. Even on a gentle throttle, it can cruise effortlessly at ridiculous speeds and the numbers on the speedo almost always make you do a double take. Unlike the AMG, which starts losing steam after 5,700rpm, the M5’s V8 pulls hard all the way to its 7,200rpm redline. I click down a couple of gears, mash the throttle at 3,000rpm and the M5’s two saucepan-size turbos deliver an elephant-sized kick to my lower back. The M5 accelerates so hard, it keeps my shoulders pinned to the wide and well-bolstered seat even after I’ve flicked up to the next gear.
In the real world, it’s the BMW that feels much quicker though, thanks to its freer revving engine and more brutal delivery of torque. The AMG, with its narrower powerband, feels less exciting in the lower gears. You encounter the relatively conservative redline more often in comparison and you miss winding the engine as much as the BMW’s. The lusty pull of the motor, however, is more evident as you go quicker. In the higher gears, the AMG comes into its element. The surge from 180kph to 220kph feels so quick, it’s scarcely believable.
The E 63 and M5 run neck and neck when driven flat out, but surprisingly it’s the AMG that’s actually marginally quicker against the clock. 100kph is despatched by the Merc in just 4.86sec, with the M5 just a fraction of a second behind. The Merc keeps its nose ahead till 200kph, but only just. The BMW reaches the double-ton mark in 14.87sec – only 0.31sec behind the Merc; an indication of just how quick these cars are.
The low, rumbling soundtrack of the AMG sounds deliciously menacing. The BMW is more audible thanks to an exhaust note that’s pumped in the cabin via the speakers! The strange thing, however, is that you just can’t tell. However, it’s the Merc that sounds better overall; the BMW’s exhaust note doesn’t reflect its true sporting intentions. In fact, the M5 is unfortunately louder in an undesirable way – road noise is significantly higher than in the Merc.
The high speeds we are doing bring the brakes of these cars into focus too. The M5 has the more confidence-inspiring ones, so good in fact that I don’t pay them much attention initially. The huge 15.7-inch rotors are larger than the wheels on many cars and a good squeeze is all they need to haul the M5 down from speeds in excess of 200kph. They don’t feel grabby in the least, they have a ferocious bite and they are superbly weighted. The AMG’s brakes feel well up to the task too, but often call for a second harder squeeze when you are running really quickly.
But let’s take a break from the lead-footed, supercar-rivalling performance for a moment; which of these cars is more practical for everyday use? Neither, when it comes to fuel bills. These V8s pay lip service when it comes to fuel economy with their stop-start systems; the fact is that they guzzle more than any tippler at Oktoberfest. And it’s not beer, but super expensive 97-octane at an average rate of 3-4kpl. But if you have the wallet for it, these two super saloons are otherwise amazingly practical as everyday cars. With both cars set in their most comfortable suspension, throttle and gearbox settings, and with the most economical driving mode selected, these cars feel comfortable and relaxed, and seem to take suburban Mumbai in their stride. At low speeds, the M5’s seven-speed feels a touch jerky and it’s here that we really miss BMW’s traditional ZF eight-speed torque-converter gearbox. No such issues with the Merc, which has a less abrupt power delivery.
When we hit the rough patches, as you always do in and around Vashi, it’s the Merc that feels the more comfortable of the two. The M5 thud-thuds more noticeably over the rough stuff, shuffles around a bit more and feels less settled. No, these cars are not as comfortable as a regular E-class or 5-series over poor roads due to their stiff springs, and you do get thumped around, but ride quality in general is pretty acceptable. Should you need to be chauffer-driven, the back seats are just as comfortable as the regular cars as well, with the E-class being the one with the slight advantage. Both also manage to clamber over the large speed breakers in Vashi quite easily, with neither scraping its belly or chin. Yes, we were a little extra careful, but we didn’t have to baby them over like you would a supercar.
You can only order the E 63 AMG in one trim, and, for Rs 1.29 crore, Mercedes pretty much gives you all the bells and whistles you expect. If you wish to spend a bit less, BMW gives you the choice of dropping plenty of inessential kit, with a ‘base’ price of Rs 1.17 crore. But specify the M5 with the same fully-loaded hardware and its price will shoot up too.
Both these cars are triumphs of engineering in their own right, combining supercar-rivalling pace with everyday usability. The BMW M5 is clearly the more exciting of the two. A long, lusty pull to the redline in this car is all it takes to get you beaming and the kind of grip and cornering speeds the M5 generates in the dry are simply stupefying. The AMG may not be quite as exciting, but is the more confidence-inspiring of the two. It is easier to drive hard and is certainly the more user-friendly of the two. So the more rounded AMG wins. Still, we just wish it had a bit more of the M5’s rocket sled-like raw appeal and a lower base price.