A lot of cars are hugely impressive after a quick first drive, and some continue to impress when we test the wheels off them over an extended period. And then there are cars like the Mercedes-Benz S-class – cars so impressive that, even after a prolonged spell trying to pick holes in their abilities, it’s hard to think anything could possibly be better. But that’s not how things work here at Autocar India, and for the ultimate verdict on just how good a car – any car – is, you need to add a bit of perspective.
And it’s a similar story with the other cars here – the Jaguar XJ, the Audi A8 and the BMW 7-series. All are available with petrol engine options but for most buyers, the six-cylinder diesel is the one to choose. The S-class is all new, while the other three have been given updates recently that have made them a bit more appealing. The BMW got an ever-so-mild update last year, the Audi a similarly light facelift earlier this year, and the Jaguar was given some more equipment and a much better price tag, thanks to local assembly at Pune. So they all bring something new to the table, which is good, because toppling the mighty S is not going to be easy. Time to get pampered.
(Dalal) Street cred
Despite immense length being a common factor on all four cars, necessary to liberate the most legroom at the back, each one has unique styling reflective of the companies that make them.
The S-class uses Mercedes’ wonderful new styling language that blends old-world cues with modern details. There’s barely a straight line in sight, and all its elements – the headlamps, grille, bonnet, roof and boot – flow into one another seamlessly. It’s also got loads of creases in its doors that give its large sides some life. It’s much better proportioned than the last S, and that big grille and visually narrow boot give it a sort of commanding presence that you’d previously have only found on a Bentley or a Rolls. That said, for all its LEDs and chrome accents, its look errs more on the side of old than modern.
In complete contrast is Audi’s facelifted A8, which wears its cutting-edge credentials like a uniform. Those new ‘Matrix’ headlights may not seem like much of a big deal over the old LED lamps, but unlock the car and the way they greet you with a ‘swipe’ of the indicators is just plain cool. The car’s sharp edges and straight lines have a totally different appeal to the S-class’s curves, and the longer you look at it, the more you begin to appreciate the subtle changes to the sheet metal that have come with the facelift. Some might criticise Audi for taking the whole ‘family look’ philosophy a bit too far, making all its cars barely distinguishable from one another and a bit too understated for Indian tastes, but you can’t argue that it looks sharp as a perfectly cut suit.
Facelifts not considered, the 7-series is the oldest car here, and it’s beginning to show. When it did get an update late last year, the changes were miniscule, but the updated grille, new bumper and full-LED headlamps do at least give the traditional BMW face a little more attitude. The company’s characteristic long-nose, short-boot profile is ever present – intended to highlight its sporty abilities – but it does look a little plain from the side, and also appears very, very long. The rear of the car is virtually unchanged from before, and that is a shame.
However, there’s nothing here that looks quite like the Jaguar XJ. It can drop jaws like a sportscar normally would as you cruise around. Like the Audi, it looks thoroughly modern, albeit in a completely different way. It looks low-slung, sleek and powerful, and the smart 19-inch alloys on this version just add to the appeal. Yes, the look is sporty, but it also manages to be elegant, which is what a luxury car buyer will like. There are a few touches we find a bit unnecessary though, like the blacked-out C-pillar and the very blingy grille, but once you look at that roofline, the slim headlamps and the detailing inside each of the LED tail-lamps, all is forgiven.
The Boss's cabin
This is the area in which these cars seriously and very tangibly take things several notches higher than most other cars. This is where owners spend their time and, chances are, these sort of owners won’t settle for anything less than the finest materials, the best comfort and the latest technology. All these cars have fully electric seats, with the ones at the rear able to massage you. Each car has a great sounding audio system from a top-drawer hi-fi brand, and they all get rear screens and their own form of infotainment computer. It’s hard to fault any of them for things like rear headroom and legroom either, because while some are better than others, all of them have more than you’ll ever need. And like the exteriors, each car’s interior brings its own distinct flavour to the table.
The Merc’s old-meets-new philosophy carries on in here, with all the technology (and there is quite a lot of it) buried under a heavy layer of classic luxury. Some of it is more obvious, like the two massive high-res screens that make up the infotainment and instrument clusters, but other things less so, like the electronically controlled air-con vents that are operated by manual twist knobs.
Old-world cabin design juxtaposed with huge twin hi-res screens. Quality and fit are pretty much faultless.
The quality in here is faultless, and this is brought out more by the simple and uncluttered design of the cabin, and also the beautifully finished metallic switches. The A8, for example, is just as good, but its overload of buttons and controls tends to distract you from it. A trait that’s common to the three German cars is that they all use slightly firm cushioning on their seats. We’re nitpicking, of course, but comfort is a big priority in a one-crore luxury car, after all. The Mercedes, however, masks it best with a softer top layer over the primary cushioning and lovely pillows for rear passengers to sink their heads into. The front chairs in the S-class are big and accommodating, though the tall digital dial display impedes your view of the three-pointed star on the nose a bit if you’re not very tall. At the rear, you get a ‘chauffeur mode’ that lets you push the front passenger seat all the way forward at the press of a button and also releases a footrest. The Audi A8 gets this feature too, but frankly, it’s a bit gimmicky, as you can operate the front passenger seat of any of these cars using the rear seat controls. It’s also a bit annoying to have to go into the COMAND system using the remote to use the Merc seats’ massage function. Ah, first-world millionaire problems!
The A8 comes closest to the Merc on cabin comfort, although its seats are just a touch more snug; very supportive and far from anything approaching uncomfortable. Mention has to be made of the dials in the Audi – it’s the only car with conventional analogue dials, but frankly, they look the best and are the easiest to read on the move. The central console is a tech fest full of buttons, and though this makes it easier to use the MMI system, the way the backlit controls light up the cabin at night is more suited to a sportscar than a limo. Our test car was fitted with both of Audi’s option packs – the Luxury Pack (Rs 15.56 lakh) and the Elite Pack (Rs 16.55 lakh). The latter gets you even more leather-wrapped bits in the cabin, while the former adds equipment, including the executive rear seat. This makes the A8 the only one here with a split rear cabin with two individual seats; not an option to tick if you might sometimes have a fifth passenger. The S-class’s ‘hot stone’ massage function comes close, but we’d say Audi’s version is more effective; the Jag and the BMW’s massage, on the other hand, are quite basic.
Button-heavy centre console looks more A380 than A8. Quality, fit and finish are on par with the Mercedes.
‘Basic’ is also the first sensation you get when you step into the BMW’s cabin, though you’ll discover soon enough that it is anything but. It suffers heavily from generic BMW family design, and it just doesn’t look sufficiently different from the interior of a 3-series; this is particularly true of the rather plain, all-black steering wheel. The materials, though better than lesser Bimmers, lack the overall richness of the ones in the Audi and the Merc. Fit and finish, however, is faultless, and the 7 feels the most solid of all the cars here. The seats offer superb thigh support, but they are also the firmest. One unique feature in the BMW is the ability to adjust the seats for better shoulder support, crucial for typically small Indian frames. The fact that the front seats were made slimmer with the facelift also makes the cabin feel a lot airier than before. The overall sensation, however, is that the 7-series cabin doesn’t have the same pizzazz as the Merc, Audi and Jag.
BMW cabin feels solid, materials are top notch but it just doesn’t look special enough for a one-crore sedan.
Speaking of the XJ, like the outside, the interior is like none of the others here. Like the Mercedes, it too blends old-world class with modern touches, but in a very different way. There are retro-futuristic bits like the voluptuous, turbine-like air-con vents, and cool touches like the ‘pulsing’ starter button and the rising rotary gear selector. But then there are also bits of old-school luxury, like huge slabs of wood on the doors and chunky bits of chrome all over the cabin. Purely for a sense of occasion, it has the potential to upstage the Germans, but sadly it can’t compare on quality and fit and finish. Again, in isolation, it’s not that bad, but when you’re up against this lot, every last micrometre counts. While it’s difficult to spot any plastic trim in the other cars, there’s a fair bit in here. The screens are relatively low-res, the steering buttons feel a little flimsy, and the touchscreen feels old and clunky compared to the sci-fi systems in the German cars. You will, however, love the seats which, in complete contrast to the others, use a tauter upper layer and a much softer lower layer, so you really sink into them. Rear legroom and headroom aren’t as good as the rest, but it’s surprisingly good, given that low roofline. You might feel a little hemmed in by the slim windows, however. What spoils the view forward on all the cars is the rear entertainment package, and unless you actually use it frequently, we feel it should have been kept optional. Higher segment standards, however, have made it a standard feature on all cars, and in the S-class, it’s actually the only way to access key features like the rear seat lumbar support and massage.
XJ cabin mixes retro-futuristic with classic British charm. Beautiful design let down by a few low-rent bits.
The diesels are the sensible choice, but that doesn’t mean they can’t pack a decent punch. All the cars use 3.0-litre, six-cylinder units, the BMW of course laying out its cylinders in a straight line. The Jag’s engine makes about 20bhp more than the others, though it’s just about pipped by the Mercedes on torque; 63.2kgm beating 61.2kgm. The S-class sticks to the tried-and-tested seven-speed auto, while the other three now all use an eight-speed automatic. In fact, the XJ, A8 and the 7-series use derivations of the same ZF unit.
The Mercedes has the most refined engine, although the Audi and Jaguar aren’t too far behind. It’s a very relaxed motor, getting off the line smoothly and surging gently through its powerband. In Sport mode, it is a bit more responsive, but not by much, though this isn’t a bother in everyday driving. When it might be, is during overtakes, as the gearbox isn’t the quickest to respond to inputs. This certainly isn’t the car to have if you’re late for a board meeting and need to get there in a hurry.
The Jaguar’s gearbox responses also aren’t the quickest when you’re going slowly, but once you pick the pace up, it charges through the ratios quickly and smoothly. The engine is a gem, not only being the most powerful, but also just begging to be revved and belting out a soulful tune when it is. Put the gearbox in Sport and things sharpen up a fair bit, and this is when you first see what people mean when they call the XJ a ‘sports limousine’.
But of course, the sporty one has traditionally always been the BMW, and at least in the engine department, that still holds true. The engine is super responsive and darts off the line at the merest tap of your right foot. Of course, this is affected by which mode you have the car set to, although it is very sprightly in all but Eco Pro, which dulls engine responses considerably. A big issue, however, is refinement, and the straight six is audible in the cabin at all times.
Audi’s 3.0 TDI motor has always impressed us, and it does even more so now that it’s mated to the eight-speed automatic gearbox. There is a bit of a hum at idle, but that soon goes away once you’re on the move. The gearbox seems like the best executed of the lot, and unless you’re in a hurry, you can hardly tell it’s shifting gears.
Not that these cars will ever be entered into a drag race, but their performance figures are interesting to compare. The BMW and the Audi are the lighter ones (1,900 and 1,935kg respectively). The 730d is more responsive and the A8 has the benefit of AWD traction, and both of them post identical 0-100kph times of 6.61 seconds. It’s hardly shocking that the big, heavy Mercedes is the slowest at 7.92sec, but what is a surprise is that the XJ only manages a 7.91; it doesn’t feel that slow.
The big Jag somewhat redeems itself with decent kickdown overtaking times, 5.08sec from 20-80kph and 5.44sec from 40-100kph. Overall, however, the BMW and the Audi are quicker cars.
As with the cabin comforts, there is a certain standard of ride quality that you need in this segment, and so none of these cars could really be called uncomfortable. Still, how do they compare to one another? Well, they fall into two distinct camps, namely the soft and plush ones (the Merc and the Audi) and the sporty handling ones (the Jaguar and the BMW).
The S-class has the best ride here, that’s for sure, and it really makes you wonder why Mercedes even bothered developing the illegal-in-India Magic Ride Control radar-guided suspension. Even in Sport mode, the car just forces everything that rolls under it to submit, and quietly. In fact, the suspension is so cushy that you run a greater risk of hurting the underbody on speedbreakers if you go over them too fast, as the car will pitch on its springs a little. It also does thunk through really sharp bumps, but frankly, it still manages them better than the others. This is not a car for corners, and the steering is light and somewhat lifeless. Its size is also very apparent when you turn the wheel, and while it will get around a bend quickly, there’s no real pleasure to be derived from doing so.
Merc's Airmatic suspension rides superbly on any surface.
It’s a similar story in the A8 which, like the S-class, feels big, but thanks to a near-200kg weight advantage, feels a little lighter on its feet. Quattro gives it immense grip through corners, which means you can carry in a lot of speed, but in true Audi form, the steering is lifeless. The primary ride is solid, but the car does feel a little juddery over smaller bumps at lower speeds compared to the S. What’s more apparent is a feeling of hollowness in the aluminium spaceframe chassis as you go over bumps and expansion joints; it just takes away that ultimate solidity from the ride. Since the vehicle settings have a customisable ‘Individual’ mode, it’s best to set the dampers to Comfort but everything else to Dynamic if you’re driving the A8 yourself.
So what about the driver’s cars then? The 7-series comes as standard with BMW’s perfect weight distribution and finely honed chassis, and the results are there to see. The steering is a touch on the heavy side, but it’s superbly accurate and full of feel. As a result, this car is great if you’re driving up to your farmhouse in the hills and want to attack some corners on the way. Trouble is, for everyday driving, it just feels too big and heavy to be really enjoyable. It’s a similar story with the ride. With the car in Sport+, you’ll love how it keeps the body in check through fast bends; but in city driving, the ride is neither here nor there. In any of the five modes – Eco Pro, Comfort+, Comfort, Sport or Sport+ – it can never find a happy compromise between primary and secondary ride. It’s either too stiff or too floaty.
And here’s where the XJ surprises – it’s everything we would have liked to have seen in the BMW. It feels light on its feet, and can be a lot of fun just chucking around in town at low speeds, and it works well when you’re really nailing it too. The chassis feels stiff and the car shrinks around you quite quickly. The best bit is that this isn’t at the cost of ride quality, and though not quite up there with the S-class, the Jaguar rides really well – more so when you consider it’s wearing bigger 19-inch wheels. Strangely, in Normal mode, the steering feels quite light around the centre position when you go faster, but this improves considerably when you shift to Dynamic mode.
The One-crore question
Each of these cars serves up so much luxury that you wouldn’t be disappointed if you rang up a luxury taxi service and any one of them turned up at your door. However, when it’s your money on the line, deeper consideration would be prudent. For one, as the owner, there might be a chance of you driving yourself, and here’s where BMW’s famous driving credentials should give it an edge. Trouble is, a lot of the time they don’t, not unless you’re tearing up a ghat road in anger. The seats are stiff and the ride is inconsistent in any of the suspension modes. The engine, however, is really responsive, BMW’s i-Drive computer is still the best system around, and it feels solid like a big German car should. In this company, however, it needs to up its luxury quotient a bit more.
The Audi is a hugely accomplished car – it’s got the space, the comfort, a punchy engine, and it’s practically overflowing with tech. It’s not very involving to drive, but it gets the job done. However, its major issue is price, and being a direct import from Germany (which attracts hefty customs duties), means it costs nearly Rs 15 lakh more than the Jaguar. And that’s before you consider that a lot of equipment that’s standard on the other cars is optional on the A8, and not included in the base price; our test car had over Rs 32 lakh worth of extras. We can also see how its resemblance to smaller Audis could be an issue for some owners.
The Jaguar XJ is the car that connects with you on an emotional level. It’s fantastic to drive, the engine is smooth and sounds great and the seats are plush. And, of course, there’s the way it looks. But it’s not quite as polished as the others when it comes to build quality and technology. Also, Jaguar’s service network is not as well developed as the others. Still, it is the most affordable one now, and though your head might make you pick one of the Germans, your heart will regret it every time you see an XJ at the lights.
So the S-class wins this test, and that’s because it does ‘luxury limousine’ better than any of the others. It’s not the best to drive, and some of the driving aids have been cut from the equipment list, but these are shortcomings that will affect your chauffeur more than you. The back seat is fantastic, it rides better than the rest, the quality is top notch and the cabin is super refined – just what you want in a luxury car. What gives it an edge is the sense of freshness and the cutting-edge tech that makes it truly special. That Mercedes has managed to price it competitively is only a bonus. Though the much-improved competition has made it a far narrower victory than it has been in the past, the S-class has wafted its way back to the top of the luxury ladder.
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