The cars you see here are for those looking to buy a big luxury car, but don’t necessarily feel the need to indulge in a big petrol or diesel motor. Buyers of these cars are more likely to give precedence to comfort, especially at the back and driving dynamics only come into focus on the occasional Sunday drive.
Until recently, the options included the BMW 520d at Rs 39.9 lakh, the Mercedes-Benz E220 CDI at Rs 40.39 lakh and the Audi A6 2.0 TDI at Rs 38.99 lakh (all ex-showroom, Delhi). But now Volvo has put a spanner in the wheels of the German trio with the introduction of an S80 with a smaller D3 engine. Prices for the Volvo start at Rs 36.8lakh, which makes the fully imported Swede a bit cheaper than its locally assembled rivals. So how does the Volvo compare with its more established competition? We find out.
The S80 is the oldest car here and that is visible in its design. It’s conservative, but does have an understated elegance about it. The clearly defined ‘V’ on the bonnet looks great and the broad-shouldered stance gives the S80 a good presence.
The A6 is the longest and widest car here. However its slim pillars and tight skinning do well to mask its size. Details like the tightly cut grille, sweeping roof and elongated taillights work to give the A6 its distinct design. It’s a pity the brilliantly detailed full-LED headlamps cost a whopping Rs 2.79 lakh extra.
The E-class’ quartet of headlamps have been carried over and adapted from the W210 model, meaning you can identify the car from a mile away. However, the tipped-forward stance makes the big E look uncharacteristically athletic. That said the Merc still somehow manages to look the most elegant here.
The kidney grille, ringed lights, kinked quarter glass and L-shaped taillight are traditional BMW cues on the latest 5-series. It may make it look like a shrunken 7-series, but by no means is that a bad thing.
The S80 cabin is a nice place to be, but in this company it just doesn’t feel special enough. The glovebox opening for example, lacks the damped movement of the German cars here. There are some nice bits to speak of though. The wafer-thin ‘floating’ centre console is unique, and the buttons for directing airflow, shaped like a human figure, are intuitive to use.
The A6’s wraparound dash on the other hand is reminiscent of a luxury yacht. All surfaces are swathed in quality materials that feel superior to even what’s on offer in the Bimmer and the Merc. The multimedia screen also has the best resolution here and what’s neat is the way it tucks behind the AC vents when not in use.
The Mercedes cabin may not look as contemporary as the Audi’s, but it does have a solid feel. Its dashboard is neat, though there is a mishmash of buttons on the centre console. In stark contrast to the Merc, BMW follows a more minimalist theme. There are fewer buttons and many functions are controlled by the iDrive system. If anything, it’s the high dashboard that takes some getting used to.
It’s when you take the wheel that you realise that the Volvo’s front seats are positioned a bit too high up even on their lowest setting. The smartly bolstered seats however are really comfortable. Finding a comfy driving position in the A6 however is really easy and the front seats, though not too large, offer great support. The slim pillars and low dash also translate to excellent visibility out of the cabin. The three-pointed star seen from the driver’s perch in the E is always a special sight and what adds to the experience here are the terrific seats. Drivers will also love the snugness and comfort on offer at the helm of the Bimmer.
Sadly, it’s also the BMW that is least comfortable for rear passengers. And that’s got nothing to do with the seats. It’s the front seat-backs that are too in-your-face, the protruding central hump on the roof and rising window line that are to blame for the claustrophobic feeling here. And that’s a shame, as the 5 actually has the longest wheelbase of these cars.
The Volvo on the other hand feels really airy in the back. It’s got ample width along with a low central tunnel so it is the most comfortable for the middle-seat passenger. The nicely contoured seat also offers great support to your back, though thigh support isn’t all that good.
The Audi is the only car here to feature a separate dual-zone climate control for the back and there is also good space to be had here. The seat is a touch too low, which compromises thigh support and also makes getting in and out a bit of a task.
The Merc’s rear seats as always are very supportive and there is also more than ample leg, head and shoulder room. What Mercedes needs to look into with urgency is the air conditioning for the rear seat. It just doesn’t cool quick enough and that’s a big letdown on hot days.
In terms of equipment, the Audi comes with the longest list of standard equipment, followed by the BMW, Merc and Volvo. All these cars also come with a whole lot of safety features.
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Unity in diversity
The Audi, BMW and Mercedes place their in-line four-cylinder diesel engines along the length of the body and like all other Volvos, the S80 mounts its in-line five-cylinder motor transversely. Volvo claims this arrangement is the safest in a crash. There is no Quattro hardware on this A6, so all the power is sent to the front wheels, just as on the Volvo. It’s the Merc and BMW that stick to the traditional front-engine, rear-wheel-drive layout. Let’s get down to how the cars are to drive.
The S80’s D3 motor is nicely refined and you won’t notice any of the vibrations. There is decent power in the mid-range and the bottom end isn’t all that bad either. Add to that a muted but throaty growl for a soundtrack (easily the sportiest here) and it’s easy to like the D3. The trouble starts when you drive the Volvo after a stint in the other cars. Its six-speed gearbox suddenly feels a tad slow. The timings collate our findings. The Volvo is a full three seconds slower than the Germans to 100kph and far from the quickest in the 20-80kph and 40-100kph runs.
The Audi, BMW and Mercedes are much closer to each other on performance. In fact, they are within half a second of one another up to 100kph. The gap isn’t much wider in the 20-80kph and 40-100kph brackets either.
Again, the differences become clear when you drive them back to back. At 181bhp, the Bimmer is the most powerful car here and it also feels the punchiest of the lot. Its excellent eight-speed gearbox is always up to the job if you choose to drive hard, and downshifts are super quick when you floor the throttle.
The Audi also impresses on this front, but there is a slight hesitation to downshift when you want instant power. However, power delivery is extremely linear with a strong build-up right from low revs. Audi’s Drive Select system also allows you to switch between Comfort and Dynamic settings to alter engine and gearbox performance to suit your driving style.
The Mercedes does without any such electronic gadgetry but what impresses is the engine’s nice and predictable build of speed. Its five-speed automatic gearbox may be down on ratios and may not be the fastest either, but it’s in its comfort zone so long as you are not pushing hard. What isn’t nice is the sharp clatter from the engine that is always audible and breaks the monastery-like silence of the E-class cabin.
While we couldn’t test the E220 CDI and 520d for fuel economy, we expect them to match the Audi’s overall figure of 12.5kpl. The Volvo was good for an overall economy figure of 11.8kpl. And it may be still some time before green credentials become a deciding factor among Indian buyers, but worth mentioning are the efficiency-enhancing technologies on the Merc and BMW under the Blue Efficiency and Efficient Dynamics names, respectively. The 520d is the only car here with automatic start-stop.
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The cars here are more likely to be chauffeur-driven so, if you’ll excuse the pun, handling takes a backseat to ride comfort. The Volvo’s suspension does clunk over bumps but manages to do a good job of filtering out surface imperfections, at least at low speeds. But as you go faster the Volvo wallows and the up-and-down movement, though smooth, takes away from the whole experience.
The BMW bobs a fair bit too and this only increases with speed. To its credit, the 520d boasts an excellent low-speed ride. It smoothens out surface imperfections with ease and that’s despite the disadvantage of the stiff sidewalls of its run-flat tyres.
Surprisingly, it is the Merc that feels the stiffest at slow speeds. However, up the pace and the E-class comes into its own. The ride becomes utterly flat and the suspension goes about its business with minimal noise. Set the Audi’s air suspension to Comfort and it will steamroll all but the sharpest bumps, and it’s on these where you can feel the Audi’s light aluminium body shudder. In the sportier Dynamic mode, the ride becomes flat and that makes it better suited to highway use.
Selecting Dynamic also adds weight to the A6’s steering which is good when you are looking for some fun behind the wheel. The Audi also holds its line well through long sweeping corners, though the front-wheel-drive layout does bring with it more than a hint of understeer the faster you go. The other front-wheel-drive car here is the Volvo S80 and it feels a touch nose-heavy and the soft suspension setup also takes its toll on handling. The steering has a dead zone at the straight-ahead position but manages to offer a fair amount of feedback. You can even adjust the level of steering assist to your liking and the system works quite well too.
BMWs are legendary for the way they drive and the 520d doesn’t disappoint. It’s just that it doesn’t feel quite as entertaining as its predecessors. There is an inconsistency in the way its electric steering weights up and the steering doesn’t feel as communicative as you’d like. Expectedly, the Merc steering isn’t the quickest, but there’s a certain fluidity with which the car changes direction that inspires so much confidence at all speeds. Entertaining? Maybe not. Comfortable? Absolutely.
Viewed in isolation, the Volvo makes a compelling case for itself. Unfortunately, when benchmarked against the best, the S80 does not shine in any particular area, which is why you wouldn’t mind paying the extra few lakhs to buy into the more premium brands here.
The BMW 5-series has much strength. Chief among these are its well-built cabin, fantastic engine-gearbox combination and an engaging drive. But for all its positives, the Bimmer doesn’t feel all that spacious in the back and that’s where most owners are likely to spend a whole lot of their time.
If rear-seat comfort is your number one priority, look no further than the Mercedes-Benz E220 CDI. The big Benz manages to really pamper occupants though the air-conditioning is just too slow to cool. It also lacks some features available on the other cars and its noisy engine isn’t the best either.
That brings us to the Audi A6. Rear-seat comfort could be better, but on almost all other counts, the A6 is at the top or close to the top of the charts. Its brilliantly executed cabin is sure to make every journey all that more special and overall ride comfort is second only to the Mercs. It is good fun to drive too. So whether it’s the front seat or back, it’s the Audi that will feel like money well spent.