You’re probably thinking, wasn’t it just a few months ago that Autocar did this very same test? And you’d be right. But just look how much has changed since then. The 5-series and the E-class were the oldest cars in the class back then, while the XF and S90 were fresh off the assembly line, but today it’s the other way round. Earlier this year, Mercedes disrupted the segment with its new long-wheelbase E-class, which redefined the chauffeur-driven experience at this price point. And now BMW has retaliated with an all-new 5 that’s crammed with tech and the promise of a welcome return to its ‘Sheer Driving Pleasure’ heyday. Then there are the other two – the sumptuous Volvo S90 that was the surprise victor in last time’s tussle, and the sporty-looking Jaguar XF, which too is a hoot to drive. And what of the Audi A6? Well, it’s now the oldest car here, due for a replacement sometime in 2018, and its age really did show in our last group test, so we thought it best to give it a proper fighting chance when the new car arrives.
For this test, we’re considering all these cars with their four-cylinder diesel engines in the highest trim available, and while Mercedes and Volvo just offer one trim, both the Jag and BMW can be had in less expensive lower variants.
There’s no doubt that all these cars follow a family template, but Volvo’s is the newest template here. Before the XC90, Volvo cars looked smart but unexciting, but now they’re quite striking and in-your-face, with their large grilles and ‘Thor’s Hammer’ headlamps. The S90 shies away from being sporty and instead opts for square-edged Scandinavian sophistication.
The E-class is elegant too, but there are no square edges here. This is the first E-class in a long time to mimic the C-class and S-class very closely. The design is very regal with its flowing lines and rounded roof, and since this is the long wheelbase version, it looks visibly stretched. That does mess with the proportions a bit, but then it reminds you that this is the limousine of this bunch and that’s no bad thing at all.
In profile especially, the Jaguar looks very long too, but it’s also by far the sportiest and most aggressive looking of the lot. It starts with that angry grille and the slim LED headlamps, flows into a long horizontal line down the side and ends in a taut, abrupt rump with tail-lamps inspired from the F-Type sportscar. What also helps is the coupé-like roofline that gives it so much more aggression.
On the looks front, in this Luxury Line guise at least, the new 5-series is a bit of a disappointment. It’s not small, but because of its exaggerated details like the large headlamps, tail-lamps and grille, it looks smaller than it is, and a bit ordinary. Also, that classic BMW ‘cab rearward’ sporty stance has been lost to an extent, thanks to a longer, more flowing roof line. But it ticks all the correct luxury car boxes, with generous doses of chrome, a wide stance and some nice detailing in the bodywork.
|BMW 520d||Mercedes-Benz E 220d Avantgarde||Volvo S90 D4 Inscirption||Jaguar XF 20d Portfolio|
|Boot capacity||400 litres||540 litres||500 litres||505 litres|
The interiors are really important in luxury cars like these, and this is an area the BMW really needed to up its game, and the good news is, it has. It borrows much from the 7-series, like the thick slabs of wood on the dashboard and doors, added metallic accents on the dashboard and a generally higher level of quality. Still, we wish things like the metal window and steering switches were borrowed too, and BMW’s dash and interior design still feels a little too business-like.
The E-class interior really feels like a barely scaled-down S-class, what with the knurled metal knobs, swathes of un-veneered wood and the massive 12.3-inch infotainment screen at the centre. There are a few things that let it down though. We wish Mercedes offered the digital instrument cluster option in India (in fact, it’s the only car here without this feature) simply from an aesthetic standpoint, as though the analogue ones are clear, they look a bit plain, and they sit oddly in a rectangular frame that was clearly meant for a second 12.3-inch screen.
The Volvo’s cabin is just stunning and something refreshingly different, design-wise. It centres around the portrait-oriented touchscreen, flanked by tall AC vents, and extends to the thick chunks of wood and large pieces of metal used for bits like the door handles and the speaker grilles. Even the glossy black plastic window switches don’t feel out of place here somehow. As much as we like the clean minimalism of the design, however, we do wish a few basic controls – like the climate control – weren’t consigned exclusively to the touchscreen; it makes them hard to use on the move.
The XF has a nice 12.3-inch touchscreen too, but its vital controls are physical buttons and they’re where you expect them. The gear selector is Jaguar’s signature rotary knob that rises out of the centre console on startup. The dash is wide, as is the central console, and it’s all very neat, but it just doesn’t feel special enough. The materials, especially the plastics and wood trim, don’t feel like they belong in a Rs 55 lakh car launched in 2016.
A quick word on luggage space; while all cars offer a massive capacity on paper, there is the not-so-small matter of how they treat their space-saver spare tyres. Both the Jaguar and Volvo have been designed from the word go to house their spares under the boot floor, so there is no intrusion into the luggage area. In the European markets, the Germans have done away with the spare altogether, in favour of run-flat tyres, but in India, that’s not a solution. But since the boot was never designed to hold a spare, the E-class, disappointingly, still has its space-saver sitting in the boot, held down by straps, eating into your luggage area. BMW has at least made a different arrangement for Indian cars with a covered casing that holds the spare and tool kit. This eats up a lot more space, but at least you get a flat loading bay, and it’s still enough to hold a couple of suitcases.
|Checklist||BMW 520d Luxury Line||Mercedes-Benz E 220d Avantgarde||Volvo S90 D4 Inscription||Jaguar XF 20d Portfolio|
|Electric steering column adjust||Yes||No||No||Yes|
|Wireless phone charger||Yes||No||No||No|
|Apple CarPlay/Android Auto||No/NA||Yes/Yes||Yes/No||No/No|
|Auto climate control||4-zone||3-zone||4-zone||2-zone|
|Reclining rear seat||No||Yes||No||No|
As with the interior quality, equipment is something that’s reached a new standard in this class these days. Things like powered front seats, push-button start, LED interior ambient lighting, dual-zone automatic climate control and LED headlamps are par for the course here, but as ever, each carmaker tries to one-up the competition with something extra. Here’s a quick rundown of how they stack up.
The Volvo and BMW get four-zone climate control, the Mercedes gets three-zone, and the Jaguar gets two-zone. The Jag and Volvo offer vast adjustments for the front seats, and the S90 adds heating and cooling too. The XF and 5-series are the only ones with power-adjustable steering columns, and the S90 the only one with a powered tailgate. All cars offer large infotainment screens, but the Merc’s is not touch-sensitive, while BMW’s iDrive is now not only touch-sensitive, but you can use the traditional click-wheel, touchpad and even gesture controls (which is still a bit temperamental). While all cars have hands-free parking assist features, the BMW also gets the cool ‘remote’ parking system, letting you start and move the car from outside. The Bimmer and Jag are also the only ones to get 360-degree cameras, while the others make do with rear cameras and sensors all round.
Ironically, only the E-class – the one car without a touchscreen – gets both Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, although the S90 does offer the latter. The S90 and the XF are the only ones to get a heads-up display too, and though our test car didn’t have it, Volvo says it’s started rolling out its ‘Intellisafe’ suite of radar-guided safety systems, including pedestrian and vehicle detection, traffic sign recognition, adaptive cruise control and auto emergency braking. Jaguar’s party trick is the All Surface Progress Control, which is basically a clever cruise control for low-traction situations, borrowed from Land Rover, and BMW gives you adaptive dampers as standard on all 5-series models. The E-class, meanwhile, gets you a crucial few extras in the back seat, like reclining backrests, electric window blinds and the ability to move the front passenger seat. There are even controls for the sunroof and rear sunblind on each rear door. There are, however, some odd omissions on the equipment list, like seat memory at the front, and cupholders at the rear!
Much has been said about Mercedes’ decision to not offer ‘real’ leather upholstery on the E-class, so let’s just get it out of the way at the start – it really doesn’t matter, the seats feel as sumptuous as any of the others’. The front seats are relatively snug, though, and while you can adjust lumbar support, you can’t adjust the side bolsters. On the Jaguar and the Volvo, you can adjust the squab length and side bolsters, and these cars offer the widest breadth of adjustment of them all. They both also use slightly firm cushioning but the chairs themselves are well designed and support you in all the right places. The BMW’s front seats are big, soft comfortable things that will suit any body shape, but for some reason, though they have a memory function, they have very limited adjustability; you can’t even fiddle with the lumbar support.
Arguably, what’s more important is the back seat experience though, and in our last group test, we said the XF had the best one of the lot. It’s not hard to see why either; despite the heavily sloped roof, you get a lot of headroom, legroom is excellent too and support is just fantastic. The trick is the position of the seat, which is low, pushed far back and angled so that you sink into it. The Volvo too has loads of space in the back seat, which is just enhanced by the light cream colour of the cabin. It’s just that the seat itself isn’t great on thigh support, and like the front, the cushioning is a tad firm. The 5-series’ back seat is really comfortable too. The cushioning seems a bit flat, but once you’re sat here you’ll find that both back and thigh support are really very good. Legroom and headroom are ample, although some might find the backrest a little too upright. But, let’s face it, if you’re looking for the best back seat, you can’t beat the long-wheelbase E-class. If we must level some criticism at it, it’s probably that the seat frames, like the front, are a bit slim, and because they’re individual seats with reclining backrests, there’s a big trade-off for the middle passenger, who won’t be as comfortable here as in the other cars. Some might find stepping through the relatively narrow door and leaning back into the chair a bit awkward, but really, these are just minor grouses. The space is unbeatable at this price, and the sensation is only amplified by the massive panoramic sunroof and the recline function. Sink your head back into the soft pillow on the headrest and you’ll realise this isn’t a chair, it’s a throne.
MUCH TO RIDE HOME ABOUT
But what good is a comfortable seat if the suspension doesn’t do a good enough job, right? Well, the good news is that none of these cars can really be called uncomfortable in isolation, and it’s only when driven back to back that some differences can be felt.
The E-class has a ride quality that befits its ‘stretch limo’ status. It’s definitely tuned on the softer side and so bump absorption at lower speeds is really very good. It’s just that as you pick up speed, it does float about quite a lot, and if your driver doesn’t slow down when the road gets bumpy, you will feel a slight heaving motion. The E-class is pretty refined in isolation, with a very quiet idle, but overall noise levels are the highest of this group. Whilst cruising, the engine is pretty silent but that only accentuates the road noise. Also, in our sound level tests the E 220d proved to be the loudest at speed. The AC too makes quite a bit of noise at full blast, which is a shame considering it takes a while to cool the cabin.
It was the 520d that truly impressed us with its refinement, which was a pleasant surprise as both the previous car and this ‘B47’ 2.0-litre engine in other BMWs have proven to be more obtrusive. In almost every parameter – stationary or on the move – it tested the quietest! As for comfort, it has the unique advantage of adaptive dampers, and the good news is that both the ‘Comfort’ and ‘Sport’ settings offer nice ride characteristics. On uneven roads, vertical movement is more frequent, but of much smaller magnitude than you’ll feel in the E-class, so they’re less of a bother, and perhaps it’s best to stay in ‘Sport’ out on the highway so that it stays better tied down.
The Volvo, uniquely, has air springs, but only at the rear, and this endows it with a soft, cushy ride along the same lines as the Mercedes. It too moves around quite a bit, but the bigger concern is its low ground clearance, which on our test caused it to scrape its belly on big speed breakers that even the longer E-class sailed over. The motor was the noisiest of the bunch at idle, but it smoothens out and quiets down once you get moving, with impressively little road noise coming into the cabin.
The Jag XF certainly feels the firmest sprung of this lot, but as we said at the start, it is far from uncomfortable. You just feel a bit of lumpiness over an uneven road, and should you hit a sharp bump, it will really make itself felt in the cabin. The flip side is that it feels the most tied down at speed, with hardly any up-and-down movement. The motor gets quite noisy, however, being the loudest at idle and at maximum revs – pushing our sound meter to 70dB with the throttle mashed! But when it’s not revving hard, the car itself is pretty quiet on the move, registering less road noise than the E-class.
When it comes to handling, these cars fall into two very distinct camps, as is befitting their respective brands. The BMW and the Jaguar are definitely the ones you want to pick if you drive yourself from time to time. The new 5-series is a marked improvement over its predecessor on this front, and you can feel it in the sharper steering and the much better body control, especially in Sport mode, and more so the harder you push it. It feels wide from behind the wheel and the steering still has a bit of mushiness built into it, but once you get it into its stride, it really is a lot of fun.
However, the XF is actually a little better on this front. The steering has more heft, but it feels sharper and gives you more confidence, and even the chassis tuning makes it feel a lot more agile around the bends. But then when you factor in the engines, it’s the BMW that ultimately makes you want to push harder. The 190hp, 400Nm motor enjoys being revved and gives you a nice, strong hit of power that stretches across the rev range, especially when you put the car and the gearbox in their Sport modes. Jaguar’s new Ingenium engine, with 180hp and 430Nm, feels strong low down and it gets off the line briskly, but shortly after, it starts to run out of breath and the noise starts to overtake the acceleration. You also have to consider that BMW’s version of ZF’s eight-speed automatic gearbox feels a bit smoother and quicker to react than Jaguar’s.
Talking numbers, the BMW is the quickest from a standstill, getting to 100kph in just 7.74sec, which is even more impressive when you consider it was tested in slightly damp conditions. The Jaguar is actually the slowest, taking a full 9.04sec to do the same sprint. The E 220d cracks the ton in 8.81sec and the S90 in 8.5sec, but all the cars are much closer matched in kickdown acceleration. Interestingly, it’s the big and heavy Merc that is the quickest from 20-80kph, and we’d put that down to its nine-speed automatic which has more ratios to play with and is impressively quick and intelligent with its gear shifts.
Both the Mercedes and Volvo’s engines make their power in a far more relaxed and linear manner than the Jaguar or BMW. The E 220d’s motor does at least give you a slightly noticeable shove once it hooks up, but in the Volvo, you can barely tell how fast you’re going until you look down at the speedo; and rightly so, as both these cars focus far less on the experience from behind the wheel.
Similarly, the S90’s steering does nothing to make you want to push harder, and though it’s quite direct, it doesn’t feel quick nor does it give you a lot of feedback. The car also rolls around quite a bit through bends, so it’s best to keep the pace slow. Yes, expectedly, the big Benz isn’t one for corners either, with considerable body roll even at not-too-high speeds. But unexpectedly, the steering is actually very good. It manages to be light enough to shrink the big car down to size, and yet it’s really quick and sharp, so you can actually make the nose dart between lanes quite easily. Still, you’d be silly to expect sharp dynamics from such a big car. In fact, owners will have to get used to the massive length, whether weaving through a crowd of cars or parking in tight spaces.
|Powertrain and performance|
|BMW 520d Luxury Line||Mercedes-Benz E 220d Avantgarde||Volvo S90 D4 Inscirption||Jaguar XF 20d Portfolio|
|Type||Inline, 4-cyl, turbo-diesel||Inline, 4-cyl, turbo-diesel||Inline, 4-cyl, turbo-diesel||Inline, 4-cyl, turbo-diesel|
|Max power||190hp at 4000rpm||194hp at 3800rpm||190hp at 4250rpm||180hp at 4000rpm|
|Max torque||400Nm at 1750-2500rpm||400Nm at 1600-2800rpm||400Nm at 1750-2500rpm||430Nm at 1750-2500rpm|
|Transmission||8-speed automatic||9-speed automatic||8-speed automatic||8-speed automatic|
|20-80kph (in kickdown)||5.13s||4.98s||5.29s||5.26s|
|40-100kph (in kickdown)||6.20s||6.52s||6.55s||6.70s|
While the Volvo S90 came along last year and moved the game forward by leaps and bounds, Mercedes and BMW have come back in 2017 and pushed the threshold even further. Luxury and technology are now at a scintillating new level in this class, and with the recent GST price reshuffle, they’re even more closely matched now.
Let’s start with the two older cars, if you can even call them that. The XF, in true Jaguar fashion, brings the flamboyance. It looks both elegant and aggressive, and it has the chassis to match, inching ahead of even the BMW in dynamics and agility. However, it’s on the luxury front that it can’t quite keep up. Sure it’s got the space, great seats and decent equipment, but the engine isn’t very refined, the ride is a bit lumpy and the interior just doesn’t feel special enough.
What does feel special is the Volvo’s interior, which continues to make you go ‘wow’ every time you step in. With the S90, they’ve really not pulled any punches, and there’s little surprise that it won our test the last time. Yes, the performance and handling are a bit underwhelming, and rear seat comfort is not as good as the others, but it’s just so competent everywhere else. In fact, it’s really only because its two newer rivals have taken the game even further that the S90 doesn’t rank higher.
Yes, Germany is once again boldly staking claim to the segment that it popularised, albeit in two very different ways, and it’s really down to a photo finish between these two. Mercedes knows the E-class’ audience – the chauffeur-driven – and it took a bold and expensive risk in bringing the long-wheelbase version to India, and if the sales numbers are to be believed, it’s really paid off. The back-seat experience is like nothing else at this price, and it’s enough to let you forgive its few shortcomings, like the absence of some important features.
The BMW has improved in every single area to the point that there’s very little to find fault with. It’s absolutely loaded with tech, it’s far more luxurious with far better quality, it’s more spacious and comfortable than before, and it drives better too, although falling a little shy of that ‘Ultimate Driving Machine’ moniker.
The BMW doesn’t have one big killer advantage but several smaller ones. But do they all add up for it to nose ahead in this race? The fact is, when it comes to four-cylinder diesel engines in this class, most owners care more about back-seat comfort than gizmos and driving pleasure. And at this price, back seats don’t get much better than the one in the Mercedes. It was a close tussle but in the final round, it’s the E-class’ one big trump card that wins the hand.
|BMW 520d Luxury Line||Mercedes-Benz E 220d Avantgarde||Volvo S90 D4 Inscription||Jaguar XF 20d Portfolio|
|Verdict||More tech and luxury, yet also better to drive now.||Falls short in some areas, but back seat just seals the deal.||Uniquely Scandinavian luxury experience, but a bit dull.||Sexy to look at and to drive, bit not quite as polished.|