Home / Reviews / Shootout / Hedonistic Excitement E-Class Vs Rivals

 

Which of these four premium limos justify the luxury tag perfectly? Bunny Punia has the answer to the ultimate half crore rupee question

Story Bunny Punia

Photography Sanjay Raikar

 

A segment that had seen a lot of action in the past with either updates or completely new models rolling out in the last year, had finally found itself in a state of equilibrium. That is until a couple of months back when the launch of Mercedes-Benz’s all-new E-class shook up the segment completely. Before I could lay my hands on the new E, fellow journalists from UK termed it to be a far superior, advanced and modern vehicle than its predecessor. Does that mean it makes its rivals, all three of them, feel a generation too old to even stand a chance against it? It won’t be fair to come to any firm conclusion till we pit the four star fighters against each other which did happen eventually on a 200km round trip course that the team at CAR India chalked out including the empty straights of the expressway, the broken stretches of the old NH-4, the sticky twisty tarmac of the road to Amby Valley and finally the congested city traffic of Pune.

The brilliant Volvo S80 has often been termed as the underdog by many in the Indian market. There is a reason why I called it brilliant in the above line without even indulging into facts and figures. Our test car came in black and from the moment we saw it, we fell in love with it. This is a segment where adjectives like luxury, posh, elegance and graceful carry more importance than words like sporty, agile, sexy or even fun. And the S80 seems to do justice to the first set of four words perfectly. It is no modern piece of art with sharp design angles or LED gadgetry to flaunt. Instead, it looks terribly elegant especially when on the move. The low hood with pulled back slim headlamps reflects an understated look while the roof slopes down gently into the boot, which in itself is flanked by squarish tail lamps on either side. Twin exhausts (only the Beemer does with a single one) and the V8 and AWD badges hint at what lies beneath the bonnet but more on that later.

The A6 frankly loses out on looks. It is beginning to look like a car from an era gone by even after getting a nose job in the form of day time running LED lamps and an A4-like split chin. In the company of the other three cars, the A4 somehow appears to be the least alluring. It looks sober – straight forward design lines, basic looking alloy wheels and no sharp angles anywhere. Being the longest and the lowest of the lot, however, helps and lends a classic look to this Audi plus it flaunts the Quattro badges both at the front as well as the rear.

The Beemer has always been associated with being a sporty car and the 5 Series continues to support this point from the outside. The design still looks fresh and the 5 comes with the company’s identity – a typical Bavarian grille, ‘Bangled’ headlamps, et al. See this car from the side and you will appreciate it even more, especially those gorgeous alloy wheels and the shark fin type little roof mounted antenna. It’s got a prominent side crease but does with a single exhaust pipe at the rear.

The challenger here, the new E is simply outstanding. The new twin lamps look fantastic up front, much better in real than in these pictures I must add. The huge grille with three horizontal stacks dominates the front and so does the three-pointed star logo. It has a modern wedge like design and the attention to detail is superb. Take for instance the nicely crafted rear view mirror design with the integrated indicators or the slim wraparound tail lamps with a horizontal running chrome strip in between. Not only does the E end up being the most majestic of the lot here, it also has a certain degree of sportiness in its design – a feature that has till date been missing from the earlier iterations we have seen.

In a segment like this, the interiors play a vital role in the minds of prospective buyers. You don’t spend half a crore for cheap plastics or flamboyant looking interiors. The S80 seems to understand this pretty well or shall I say it did understand this fact well a couple of years ago. Today, the design of the fascia, for instance, looks dated. That said, the quality of the wood, the leather and the plastics is top notch. The steering wheel gets wood along its circumference and the exceptionally comfortable leather seats finished in a shade of brown exude luxury. The steering wheel has no electronic adjustment but you get three memory settings for the seat. The central console between the front passengers slopes down nicely, but the audio and air-con system in front of the lever is a letdown. The display for the music system is too small and the entire design seems out of place on a Rs 50 lakh car. At the back, the comfortable sofa type seats do their duty very well. The rear central armrest not only holds two glasses and a bottle opener with an embossed S80 logo, but also has an access for a small chiller – perfect for those who like to relax back, chill and enjoy their glass of wine on the move. There is no side window blind at the back, however, you do get a manually operated rear windscreen blind. Air-con vents are only present in the B-pillar on this car.

The Audi’s interiors, on the other hand, are the complete opposite. The usage of light colour imparts an airy feel but at the same time, this ain’t the A4. This is the A6 that belongs to a segment that values luxury and classiness. Though the dash is attractive and the white backlight works well at night, this car doesn’t impart a luxurious touch like some of the others. The quality of plastics is very good on this car and there is also a similarity with other models from the family like the familiar dials. The big screen works well and also doubles up as a display unit while reversing. The seats are supportive and good touches include a button for opening the glovebox that also holds the CD/DVD changers. The steering wheel doesn’t have an electronic adjustment and unlike the Volvo, you get two memory settings for the seat. At the rear, space is pretty good but the seats aren’t as comfortable as say the Volvo’s. The rear windscreen blind can be electronically adjusted by the driver and you get air-con vents in the B-pillar as well as down, between the front two seats.

The Beemer’s insides seem to be a perfect mix of sportiness and luxury. There is a mix of colours including black and the fascia has the best quality of plastics here. Like the Audi, the overall design is reminiscent of other BMW models. There is a lot less clutter in the BMW with fewer buttons as the iDrive system takes care of most functions. The small sporty gear lever is lovely and works well, especially the one touch parking brake operation. The steering looks sporty with a flowing V design, however, it does without any usage of wood and the dials in front of it are big and simple. Everything seems to be well put together in a fuss free manner. At the rear, you do sit low and the seat seems strictly for two – the transmission tunnel is very high to be comfortable for the middle passenger. What is interesting is the way the central armrest flips down and opens up to liberate a lot of space for knick-knacks and two cups. The side blinds, like other cars, are manually operated though the rear blind has an electronic adjustment. There are, however, only two air-con vents stacked away in the pillars on either side.

I made it a point to experience all the three cars from the inside before stepping into the cabin of the Mercedes. Black is the colour of luxury and rightly, you find it in abundance in the E. The dash, the roof and even the seats are finished in dark shades. The way this car feels from inside is in a different league altogether. There is an aura of elegance, an ostentatious appeal and a swanky feel. For instance, the five pods in the speedometer console are designed with top level craftsmanship. The shining wood surrounding the headlamp switch, the lacquered steering wheel, the chrome around the air-vents, everything seems to have been designed keeping only one theme in mind – sumptuosity. Even the small shiny knob for the Comand system looks awesome. With the absence of the gear lever from its usual position, a lot of room gets freed up front which is used as storage space. One more aspect that we loved about the E was the soft touch buttons for the air-con system – simple to use as well. The central console is placed a little higher which lets you rest your arm nicely on long journeys. At the rear, things get even better. The view of the black colour around, in my opinion, helps ooze lavish appeal. No other car here seems to pamper you so well.

At the time of testing and comparing the four cars, the Mercedes was only available in a petrol engine option and hence it seemed wise for us to compare the top end petrol variants of each car here. The Volvo S80 is the only car in this segment to come with an eight cylinder engine, all in vee configuration. Yes, there is a 4414cc V8 monster nestled under the long hood. It churns out 319PS of power along with 440Nm of torque, making it the most potent motor here. The way it howls towards the redline in each gear is purely intoxicating, making you repeat the act with the windows down just for kicks. There is immense torque on offer but all that is laid in a civil manner onto the tarmac courtesy the all-wheel drive system which only the A6 can boast here. Naught to hundred comes in just xx seconds, which is on par with the four ringed car but keeping in mind that this one weighs more, these figures are very impressive. Where the Volvo cannot keep up with others is the handling. There is no getting away from the fact that the S80’s suspension is tuned more for comfort, a characteristic that has more importance in this segment. The steering isn’t very direct and communicative for spirited driving, but the company does offer three different driving modes namely, comfort, sport and advanced. Body roll is evident, but the car never feels nervous around corners thanks to the AWD. However, while performance testing at speeds close to 200km/h, the cement slabs of the expressway made themselves felt pretty strongly. The S80 has a purpose and it goes around delivering that perfectly. It absorbs bumps and undulations nicely and the occupants are often cocooned from the outside world.

The Audi A6 is the complete opposite to the Volvo here. The TFSI V6 motor, a 3.0-litre unit, produces 290PS of power with a maximum torque of 420Nm, figures second only to the Volvo. The A6 is very quick and this combined with the Quattro system makes it a hoot to drive, be it arrow straight highways or hilly roads that we encountered in abundance. There is no drama from the car and hardly any body roll. The steering is very communicative and is complimented well by the terrific throttle response. The engine sounds great, but those two extra cylinders on the Volvo sound even better. The A6’s ride quality is very impressive over most roads though you do feel sharp imperfections easily.

The Beemer is true to its heritage as a complete driver’s car. It is the only one to sport an in-line cylinder configuration and while it might not be the most powerful of the lot, the 5 makes up with its handling capabilities. The steering, though quite heavy for parking speeds, feels the best here and the car’s directional abilities cannot be matched by anyone. It’s a pity that it comes with a rear-wheel drive and hence doesn’t have the control of Audi’s Quattro or Volvo’s AWD system. However, this also means that switching off the DSC completely has its tail overtaking the front if you do get over enthusiastic. BMW reworked the suspension sometime back but the low profile run flat tyres rob the vehicle of a good ride quality. Nevertheless, it isn’t bad either if you want to be chaffered around but then, you won’t be doing justice to the blue and white logo on the hood.

Mercs were never meant to be a driver’s car, especially in a segment like this. With a 3.5-litre V6 engine that develops just over 270 horses, you really can’t expect much in terms of outright performance as compared to the competition. What you get instead is a smooth, fuss free operator with oodles of torque across the rev range. It doesn’t have the manic power delivery of the Audi or the eye socket popping power of the Volvo’s V8. Instead, what the E delivers is a diesel locomotive type seamless pull. The engine is butter smooth and if you do wish to indulge in fun, the paddle shifts are always there to change down gears as per your requirement. Further, the way this Merc glides over bad roads and undulations is simply unmatched by the other three cars including the Volvo. The suspension is rightly biased towards outright comfort than handling which is evident once you throw the car around a set of corners. Its not that the E is a bad handler, the others are sharper.

VERDICT

When a person is on the lookout for investing in a car of this segment, a price difference of a few lakh rupees doesn’t really matter. All the cars here cost upwards of Rs 50 lakh (on-road) and a lot depends on the equipment list that an owner ends up stretching – special leather for the seats, entertainment packages, et al. To begin with, the Volvo S80 is a fantastic car for this segment. It rides pretty well, is luxurious from the inside, looks classy and comes with an engine that can not only smoke the BMW and the Merc in a straight line but also make the Audi (with the fantastic TFSI motor) shiver. But there are a few downfalls here. The interiors look dated and with a handful of dealers across India, the reach of this car among the affluent in non-metros is very limited. Those who will eventually go for this car won’t really have a reason to complain though.

The Audi A6 is beginning to get old, but at the same time, this is the car for enthusiasts. It is powerful, quick and with the Quattro system, offers a leech like grip. You get top quality interiors that are designed perfectly, however, they seem somewhat out of place in a car worth almost Rs 60 lakh. The A6, to an extent, misses out on the plush appeal that is very significant here. It does pamper you and makes its owner feel special, but something seems to be lacking when you bring the other cars into the picture. Probably the new 2010 A6, due for launch next year, can help turn the tables in its favour.

The BMW offers a much better blend of driving pleasure and pliant ride. It seems to be a mix of the other three cars. It is fast, agile and comfortable but yet couldn’t soothe me in a way I would expect a premium luxury sedan to. It might be very involving to drive, but when you want to be chauffeured around, it just doesn’t feel like a Mercedes which is in a different ballpark all together. When you are behind the wheel of a car that possesses the three-pointed star on the hood, you do feel special. Be it in the driver’s seat or at the back, the new E-class indulges you in lavishness that is hard to match by the other cars. This car makes your money feel well spent and even has gizmos like Attention Assist and safety bits like Pre-safe and Neck-pro systems. It rides like a dream, is super silent and smooth on the inside and has enough bits and pieces that shout quality to keep owners happy and satisfied. Aren’t cars of this segment supposed to do exactly that? It also feels relaxing to drive and doesn’t intimidate its occupants on the move. In short, it is genteel in its nature and seems to be the epitome of luxury, style and status in this segment.

 

 

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