THERE was a time – pre 3 Series and C-Class – when BMW’s 5 Series and Mercedes-Benz’s E-Class were amongst South Africa’s most popular family saloons, taking over from the Valiants and Chevs of the ’70s by offering style, space and dependability with a chunk of status at an affordable price. Inevitably, as time passed by the cars grew bigger, became more sophisticated and priced themselves out of contention for the average motorist. This class of car is more and more becoming a showcase of engineering talent to a more elitist audience who, theoretically, will be attracted by modern innovation. We suggested in our fi rst drive of the new 5 in April that BMW’s decision to err slightly towards the comfort side of the agility/comfort equation will probably broaden the model’s market appeal, bringing it closer in function to its traditional rival from Stuttgart – and slap-bang into Jaguar territory. Mercedes-Benz’s new W212 E-Class models have garnered mixed reactions from CAR’s test team, ranging from sheer boredom to tech-spec excitement. Talk about good designs polarising opinion… The E350 is a mid-ranger in the saloon lineup offering nothing special drivetrain-wise. In a way it epitomises what Mercedes’ of old used to represent: solid conservatism – but nowadays in a (very) high tech way. When looked at on paper alongside the 535i and XF, without the muscle of the other two the E350 is at a clear performance disadvantage, but test data is not the be-all and end-all of evaluating vehicles.
By virtue of its engine size, the (R777 250) Jaguar XF 5,0 is really a rival to the (R835 000) BMW 550i and (R808 000) Mercedes-Benz E500 but when lining-up an example of CAR’s 2010 Top12 Best Buy Executive Saloon – the XF range – we ended up with a V8, which we felt was arguably more of a rival than the only other alternative, the (R599 000) XF 3,0 Premium, which simply would not have stacked-up performance- wise. There is no “in between” petrol-engined XF to pitch directly against the 535i and E350.
What we have here is a redefined 5 against a stalwart E and an exuberant XF – an interesting battle of wits, then. Based on a tweaked 7 Series floorpan, the new 5 is a BIG car. It naturally rally comes as an evolutionary design epitomising BMW’s post- Bangle styling cues. The frontal aspect is aggressive, enhanced by a multi-fluted bonnet, but the design gets less fussy as your eye moves towards the rear. It all looks familiar inside, too, with a flowing facia, and the cabin is spacious thanks to the longest-in-class 2 968 mm wheelbase. The interior ambience is lifted by the application of satin-silver metal finishers. Oh and the “coronaring” running lights were a BMW feature long before such things became fashionable…
E-Class styling is quite busy and, while the jury is still out on the E’s trademark split headlamps’ appeal, the hockey-stick running lights are attractive. The bonnet’s fender shut line is unusual. There are lots of styling creases along the flanks to visually lessen the car’s bulk, although it is the shortest, equal tallest (with the 535i) and narrowest car of these three. The sills curve out noticeably towards the rear wheelarches, which have deep but subtle flares that perhaps make the 17-inch wheels look a bit small. The interior is typically Mercedes sombre. Overall, a solid, conservative design.
If looks are the criterion, then the Jaguar wins hands down, although one tester suggested it might be ageing… Its flowing coupé-like lines have the same organic appeal as the iconic Mk 2 models of the “Swinging 60s” creating arguably the best incarnation of the coupé/saloon genre to date. There is a hint of tradition in the humped bonnet, but the flanks are smooth save for the bold front fender gills that smack of testosterone. The cabin, however, is not the roomiest and the high floor console increases the cocooning effect. A combination of wood and metal trim inserts brightens the cabin, but verges on being glitzy rather than elegant. However, the leather facia top is classy in an Italian way.
Luggage capacities vary from the 535i’s 368 dm³ boot to (optional) folded-rear-seat 1 032 dm³ of utility space, to the E350’s 368 and also optional folded-seat 1 024 dm³ and the XF’s 304 to standard folding seat 1 000 dm³, although the Jag’s boot aperture is a bit restrictive.
COMFORT & FEATURES
XF 5,0 16/20
It has to be stated up front that to try and analyse and compare the features of these three test cars in detail would take up this magazine’s entire editorial page allocation due to the extras – no less than 37 items – fitted to the 535i to create a rolling showroom of 5 Series accessories. The E350 was more modestly kitted-out, while the XF was practically a “what you see is what you get” – which actually means a lot – so our comments will of necessity be more observations than assessments.
On the 535i, smart key entry/ exit incorporating keyless ignition is standard. A fiddly gear selector is mounted on the floor console, supplemented by paddles on the steering wheel. Seat comfort in a BMW can often take a while to set right but once the adjustments have been optimised they offer excellent support: only two memory settings, though. The optional sports seats in the test car were really good with an extendable cushion length being a welcome feature that should be a standard component on all front seats… Also worthy of praise are the pull-out head restraints.
The electronic park brake is an increasingly popular and effective control, especially when combined with auto hold. The E350 requires the key to activate ignition and starting, which, along with the tiresome sop-to-Americans foot-operated park brake and the big analogue clock in the instrument binnacle are somewhat old-fashioned in this company. The driver’s seat has full electric adjustment with three-position memory and a cubby underneath the short-ish cushion. The 7G-Tronic gear selector is mounted on the steering column, with paddles attached to the wheel. Also column mounted are the cruise/ speed limiter wand and Mercedes-Benz’s established multi-function stalk.
Climbing into the XF, you are immediately aware of the cockpit- like driving position that makes the car feel cosseting if slightly cramped. An engine start/stop button is supplied that, once depressed, causes the unusual rotary gearshift knob to rise from the console and the facia air vents to open up – all a bit dramatic but it certainly creates a sense of occasion. The allelectric seats (with two-position memory) are noticeably small and do not offer enough support. Like the 535i, an electric park brake and wheel-mounted gearshift paddles are standard. Some concerns were expressed over trim quality/durability.
All three models offer electric four-way steering wheel adjustment and satellite controls, comprehensive climate control systems, and ’phone and quality audio equipment/portable music device connectivity.
RIDE, HANDLING & BRAKING
XF 5,0 17/20
We have often criticised run-flat tyres, which are standard on all BMWs these days, but this 535i dispelled most of our ride quality concerns. The car was fitted with an optional four-setting dynamics control that may account for the improvement, but certainly in Normal setting the Beemer offered a firmly balanced yet comfortable ride. The electric-assisted variable ratio steering verges on the heavy side, which suits some but not others. Turning circle is rather large at 11,95 metres. Overall, though, the dynamics are excellent, helped by rear-steer technology, and even though BMW has moved its marketing catchline away from “sheer driving pleasure”, the sentiment still holds true.
You will not see an E350 touted as a “performance” vehicle, rather sticking to its raison d’être of being a premium executive saloon. The suspension set-up is quite firm but road irregularities do not penetrate the cabin. Steering is hydraulically assisted and sensibly geared at 2,7 turns lock to lock. The turning circle of 11,25 metres is the best of these three. The E-Class does not offer the most involving driving experience around, but in the context of everyday motoring it is very easy to live with. It simply does not excite.
“Grace, Space and Pace” was the old Jaguar by-line and the XF – having so successfully broken the retro mould of its predecessor, the S-Type – has taken the attributes into the 21st century. Different modes are available at the push of a button and each offers a sporting drive in different levels of fi rmness. Jaguars were once noted for over-light steering, but the hydraulically-assisted set-up does provide some feel. XF matches the E350 with 2,8 turns lock to lock and a reasonable 11,48-metre turning circle.
All three cars deliver excellent braking performance, each having ventilated discs all round and full-house ABS control. For the 10-stops-from- 100 km/h test routine, the 535i averaged 2,88 seconds, the E350 an impressive 2,78 seconds and the XF an even marginally better 2,76 seconds.
XF 5,0 18/20
Powering the 535i is BMW’s acclaimed in-line six, one of the best engines in automotive history, almost limitless in its versatility. With its 3,0-litre capacity, variable inlet and exhaust valve timing, turbocharging and direct fuel injection, this version pumps out 225 kW at 5 800 r/min and 400 N.m of torque over a 1 200 to 5 000 revs plateau. Combined as it is with an eightspeed Steptronic autobox, the motor is almost continuously “on the cam”, in other words operating at its optimum. The octet of ratios is there to satisfy economy/emissions targets, of course, with top gear so high that the car travels one metre at each single engine revolution! This really is a remarkable powertrain.
With no performance-enhancing aids to increase its capability, the naturally-aspirated yet throaty 3,5-litre V6 in the E350 is always going to lag behind the other two in power and performance But again when put into context, the 200 kW at 6 000 r/min and 350 N.m of torque delivered between 2 500 and 5 000 r/min is more than ample for most everyday driving needs. M-B’s 7G-Tronic seven- speed transmission does its bit to help powertrain effi ciency although it is still is not one of our favourite autoboxes as it is not the smoothest shifter.
The 5,0-litre V8 of the XF works on the “ain’t no substitute for cubic inches” principle of performance and pushes out 283 kW high up the rev range at 6 500, with a beefy 515 N.m of torque peaking at 3 500 r/min. With this amount of grunt it is little wonder that “only” a sixspeed transmission is required to deliver the sporting goods. No fuss, just whoosh…
So much for the background, the fi gures tell it all: the thundering V8 of the XF provides a benchmark 0-100 km/h time of 5,9 seconds, with the kilometre marker reached in 24,89 seconds at 220,9 km/h. The naturally- aspirated V6 of the E350 managed a still respectable 7,21 seconds and 27,52 seconds at 192,2 km/h, respectively. In between lie the 535i’s fi gures of 6,24 seconds and 26,12 seconds at 204,3 km/h. All are limited to a maximum speed of 250 km/h.
For overtaking, using kickdown, the 535i will accelerate from 60 to 120 km/h in 5,79 seconds in Comfort mode, and 5,37 seconds in Sport. The E350 takes 6,28 seconds irrespective of which driving mode is selected, and the XF dispatches the increment in a rapid 4,81 seconds.
XF 5,0 15/20
No real surprises here. The BMW offers the best compromise in this company by providing the performance of a V8 with the relative economy of a six. The CAR fuel index figure (ie, real-world overall consumption) of 10,1 litres/100 km is excellent for a car of this capability, and with a tank capacity of 70 litres practically 700 km is possible between fill-ups.
The V6 in the Mercedes is as straightforward as can be in modern terms, so its index figure of 11,2 litres/100 km can be classifi ed as reasonable at the very least. Despite the greater thirst, with its 80-litre tank the E350 will go as far as the 535i on a tankful.
Which leaves the Jaguar suffering at the pumps with its bigengined capability. The torquey V8 consumes 13,3 litres/100 km from a 70-litre tank, meaning fill-up frequency and range (526 km) are considerably inferior to those of the 535i and E350.
VALUE FOR MONEY
XF 5,0 17/20
A tough one to rationalise due to the incredibly high-specced BMW having R278 350 worth of options (enough to buy a 120i 5-door…). In fact, BMW acknowledged that noone would ever spec a 5 to this level, but it made our assessment of the car a little diffi cult. The reality is that, at a base price of R646 000, it is actually R1 000 cheaper than the base Mercedes-Benz E350. BUT, and it is a BIG one, for even the most rudimentary of comfort and convenience features that most buyers in this class would want, it is a case of tick the appropriate boxes on the options list, cough and betaal…
Mercedes-Benz adopts the same approach as BMW: offer a basic yet still relatively sophisticated vehicle with an options list as long as your arm for buyers to custom-spec their new purchase. It makes for a personalised car, of course, but there is always the argument that the extra outlay is hardly ever recovered when trading-in on another vehicle. That is the cost of individuality. The Avantgarde-spec (R23 600 over the base Elegance) test car came with a reasonably sensible R77 150 worth of what amounted to mainly high-tech safety-related packages, many being nice-to-haves rather than need-to-haves. Most testers are of the opinion that modestly- equipped E-Classes are somehow “nicer” to live with on a daily basis than gizmoladen tour de force examples, and this E350 merely highlighted the point.
By comparison, a set of 20-inch alloys, a sunroof and rich oak veneer were all that was added to the comprehensively- equipped-as-standard XF, adding just R22 250 to the R777 250 sticker price. Yes, it is the most expensive car here in basic form (and remember that, engine-wise, it is a couple of places further up the comparative pecking order), but the discrepancy narrows as soon as the other cars are specced similarly. In its own right, the XF 5,0 is good value.
XF 5,0 17/20
So you think it is a draw between the 535i and the XF? Well, yes and no. These three specifi c models have very distinct characters and in real terms we would not expect a prospective buyer to dither between them. Without trying to state the obvious, one will appeal much more than the other two by virtue of your particular preference.
Starting with the Mercedes- Benz E350, we did not expect it to win this battle but the fact that it came so close is perhaps a little surprising. The Mercedes is the least sporting car here, but in terms of easy-driving, spaciousness and presence combined with a healthy dose of technology, an E owner can hold his head high in any “who drives what” discussion. Tasked with taking three mates to a faraway venue for a golfi ng weekend, the E350 will be the most relaxing and comfortable choice of these three. It represents classic Mercedes-Benz maturity, which can count for a lot. The threepointed star still shines brightly.
Even though BMW has concentrated more on the comfort side, in truth the dynamic side has not lost out in any way. The new 5 is a surprisingly big car though, a fact that you are always aware of from behind the wheel, although it is far from tank-like thanks to some high-tech steering technology. Sporty drivers will revel in the Beemer’s dynamics and the performance delivered by the iconic straight-six engine under the w-i-d-e clam-shell bonnet. The 535i falls neatly between the executive qualities of the E-Class and the outright sportiness of the XF. As with the Merc, though, you really do have to spec this car carefully and realistically to arrive at a features level that complements what is fundamentally a great driver’s car.