Mirror, mirror on the wall, which is the best executive luxury sedan of them all? It’s the one question that just begs to be answered, doesn’t it? Even though many of us will never have the means to buy one of these Teutonic treats, these three, the Mercedes-Benz E-Class, the BMW 5 Series and the Audi A6 that is, represent the quintessential automotive aspirations for most of us – out of reach, yet bearing a hint of attainability. And while these three cars might don different badges and sport different lines, they symbolize pretty much the same auto-ethos – luxury, practicality (in context of course) and a great driving experience. The launch of a new replacement model in this lot, then deserves the other two to be dragged out of bed in the wee hours of the morning and thrown into ring for a right old fight. And if we’re going to have a tussle on our hands, we might as well get the most fun engines, the V6 petrol motors that is, which are on offer.
The car that has prompted all this is the new A6 from Audi. After the highly capable, but rather staid looking previous generation of the car, this follow up is all set to correct the shortcomings of its predecessor. But the competition isn’t exactly long in the tooth either. The latest E-Class is barely a couple of years old while the 5 Series only just arrived last year. And while all three might have similar capabilities, each has its own unique appeal. So if you’re the sort of person who is in the market for a luxury sedan and has about 50-odd lakh rupees to spare or if you, like most of us, are a keen auto enthusiast who just wants to know which one of these stands above the rest, the answer isn’t so cut-and-dry. Nevertheless, the following point-by-point comparison should lift the veil on this mystery once and for all, or at least until the next iteration of one of these comes along and ups the game a notch.
Beauty, as they say, is in the eye of the beholder. And that brings us to a dilemma because there is absolutely nothing wrong with the way any one of these cars looks. The current generation of the E-Class, the W212, stands head and shoulders over the last couple of generations of the car. Gone are the strange oval headlights, replaced by what almost look like gigantic diamonds set in the front fascia. The overall lines have been sharpened up a bit too, ditching the gentle, and rather ungainly, curves for edges which not only carry the shape of what is now accepted to be a modern E-Class saloon, but bring back memories of the E124 from the mid-80s – the best looking E-Class of all time in our opinion.
In terms of its looks, the current 5 Series on the other hand has been taken a notch down, if you ask us. With designer Chris Bangle’s design language notably absent, the 5 has lost a bit of its edge. Gone are those curvaceous headlights and that famous “Bangle-butt”. But all of this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. While the earlier 5 was a “love-it-or-hate-it” affair, this one is much more palatable and far classier. The move to more traditional design cues seems to have rather helped this car’s case, and it pretty much stands on equal footing in comparison to its traditional rival, the E-Class. However, in our opinion, this Bimmer scores just a smidgen more than the Merc, thanks to its slightly sleeker proportions.
The new A6 on the other hand is a whole other story. Had this story been done a couple of months back, when we still had the earlier A6, the Merc and the BMW would have utterly trounced it in terms of looks. The problem with the A6, and most of Audi’s sedans, was that it looked like just ‘a car’ – any generic car. But this new car has really upped the ante by a large margin. Sharper, more muscular lines, a new front air-dam, all-LED head lights and even a redesigned rear end with an integrated spoiler lip make the new A6 really stand apart in this company. And one doesn’t have to say too much about it either – just the sight of this car standing amidst its competition should be enough for anyone to see which car has the upper hand. And if we need to spell that out for you, it’s the A6.
Pedal to the metal
Granted that these executive luxury sedans are mostly going to be enjoyed from the comfort of the rear seats, but since we’ve got our mitts on the most exciting engines that they offer, we might as well have a full-on performance comparo. The Mercedes-Benz E350, true to its name, sports a 3.5-litre V6 direct-injection petrol engine, which is the only naturally aspirated one of these three. So obviously, engine outputs are nothing to write home about – 272PS of power and 355Nm of torque. When trying to propel a car that has a kerb weight of 1732kg, the zero to 100km/h time is 7.49 seconds. But the E-Class isn’t really about neck snapping acceleration figures. With the 7-speed G-TRONIC automatic gearbox, the E simply wafts about, in a manner most becoming of a luxury saloon.
The 535i on the other hand comes equipped with the traditional BMW inline 6-cylinder engine featuring direct injection and a twin-scroll turbo charge to ensure that the 2,979cc petrol motor manages a power output of 306PS which is sent to the rear wheels through an 8-speed automatic gearbox. But the power delivery of the new 5 has been significantly smoothened compared to its predecessor. So even though it might have E-Class beating performance, it feels like BMW is trying to make its own E-Class. And this means that even though the car is highly capable, it goes a long way in offending BMW purists.
The Audi A6’s 3-litre V6 direct injection petrol motor uses another form of forced induction to bump up its output – supercharging – and manages to make 300PS of power. Now while that is less than the BMW 535i, Audi’s brings a 7-speed twin-clutch gearbox and Quattro permanent four-wheel drive to the fight. So off the line, the A6 is much quicker, making the dash to 100km/h from naught in just 6.46 seconds. And it’s not just the quarter-mile where the Audi trumps the rest. The same gearbox and 4WD system give the A6 unparalleled grip when the going gets twisty and that coupled with the brilliant dynamic steering system inspire great confidence when chucking the car around corners.
The inside story
Practically speaking, very few folks are ever going to care if one of these is 0.1 seconds quicker to 100 than the other. The larger part of the appeal of these cars is how they make you feel, and a big chunk of that comes from the view from behind the wheel, or maybe from the back seat. In this department though, it is the BMW that tends to suffer a bit. Mind you, there’s nothing wrong with the interiors of the 5 Series. But then again, there’s not so much to write home about either. The Spartan appointments might work for the performance enthusiast, but don’t do much for anyone looking for a real premium feel from their luxury sedan.
The Audi A6 manages to much better in this department. The cabin is absolutely filled to the brim with toys and the lovely walnut brown, black and wood finish interiors are such a welcome change from the standard luxury beige. But the inherent problem with the A6’s interiors, even though they’re extremely fresh and modern is that they already feels like they’ve been done to death. After having been inside the new A8 and the A7, you’ll be hard pressed to tell what they’ve changed in the A6 – it’s that similar.
So as strange as it might seem, we think that the Mercedes-Benz E-Class has the best interiors of this lot. They don’t really feel sporty or modern, but if you ask us, they don’t need to. A luxury car should have luxuriously appointed interiors and the E-Class manages this really well. The choice of colours, materials and textures is extremely tasteful and while it might not have the ‘space-ship’ feel of the Audi, it feels elegant in a way neither of the two others can manage. And if you peel away all the old-school veneer, you’ll see that the E-Class does in fact have almost all the goodies that the other two have.
Verdict: The new kid takes the crown
In this segment of executive luxury cars, it is somewhat difficult to narrow down to one car and say this is the better one of the lot, this is the one you must buy. Here, most of the buying decisions happen based on brand loyalty or badge value. So you’ll rarely see a Mercedes-Benz buyer considering walking into a BMW or Audi showroom. But when we’ve got such a podium ceremony lined up, a winner we must choose.
Let’s start with the Mercedes-Benz E-Class then. This latest generation is a solid car and manages the luxury bit better than the other two. Where it loses out in performance and good looks, it makes up for in sheer opulence. Driving the Merc was definitely the most luxurious experience of this lot and it’s something that will appeal to a lot of folks. And let’s not forget the power of the 3-pointed star badge on the nose – that itself is worth its weight in gold for many.
The BMW 5-series on the other hand is a slightly confusing proposition. Sure, it’s better in most ways than the Merc, but if you’ve tasted the previous generation 5, one can’t help feel a slight disappointment about the direction in which BMW has decided to go with this new car. But it’s a great package overall – brilliant performance, handsome looks and then there’s that wonderful straight-six motor which just stands apart from the standard V6 formula.
But the runaway winner of this comparison has to be the new A6. Of course, it has its share of flaws, most important of which is the fact it doesn’t do too much, especially on the insides, to distinguish itself from the other Audi sedans of this generation. But then again, it is the quickest one of this lot, has the best handling, the most modern interiors and is utterly gorgeous to look at from the outside.
What Audi has done very cleverly with this new A6 is not try and change the formula for what makes its sedans so delectable. That perfect harmony of handling and ride quality, confidence inspiring grip of the four-wheel drive system and clever, yet very useful gadgetry is all maintained. What’s been given the boot is the rather staid looks which had come to be associated with the previous model as well as that ridiculous automatic gearbox which totally ruined the experience of the exhilarating supercharged direct-injection 6-cylinder petrol motor. So in a nutshell, if it’s an executive luxury sedan you want, then you really can’t go wrong with any of these. But if it’s a complete automotive experience you crave, then the choice doesn’t get clearer than the new Audi A6.