When it comes to combining performance and comfort in the automotive sphere, few marques are quite as adept as the performance arms of the Mercedes-AMG and Audi Sport. Throughout the years they’ve managed to take their respective parent firms’ more workaday models and infuse them with a healthy dose of power and visual panache without leaving behind a Frankensteinian mess. Their latest offerings in the guises of the Mercedes-AMG E53 Coupé 4Matic+ and Audi S7 TFSI Sportback quattro are perfect cases in point. Yet, for all their technical similarities, they present two distinct sides of the balanced performance car coin. We drove them back to back to see which one comes out on top.
WHAT ABOUT THE CLS?
There will no doubt be readers taking in these two cars pitted against one another and asking: why didn’t the CAR team put the S7 up against Mercedes-AMG’s CLS53 4Matic+? It’s certainly a fair point. At R1 683 320, the CLS53 sits squarely in the S7’s price bracket and its four-door coupé packaging is a closer match to that of the Ingolstadt car.
Given that the CLS53 shares so much of its mechanical DNA with the E53, including its powertrain and a mildly stretched version of Mercedes’ MRA modular platform, we felt their buyer profiles folks with a budget of R1,5 million, searching for a gentleman’s express with a sporty edge with no need for an SUV’s space were so closely matched that a comparison between the two would still prove a worthwhile exercise. Not to mention the alignment of the press fleet planets that saw the updated coupé’s launch coincide with that of the S7.
Whether you’re talking about their soundtracks or their styling, Audi’s S models have never been the ones to stand on any degree of braggadocio. Like the closely related S6 we tested last year, the S7 is an exercise in subtle purposefulness. Yes, it may not have the same Kamm-tailed verve as its predecessor but the new S7 is still a decidedly handsome vehicle. Despite its considerable dimensions and finished in our test unit’s gunmetal hue, rolling on a fetching set of optional 21-inch rims and subtly adorned with such S-line addenda as deeper, more sculpted air dams and lower bodywork, it’s a stealthy means of fast transit that shows off to the crowd only when you press the central locking button on the key- fob to unleash a maelstrom of swirling LEDs to mark its powering down. The S7 seems content to hide its muscle under the coach-building equivalent of a well-tailored suit. On the other hand, the E53 has few qualms about flexing its muscles in public. From the twin power domes on the bonnet to the DTM-aping wheelarches and prominent exhaust ports, there’s little to visually separate this “AMG-lite” model from its V8 stablemates. Our time with the updated E63 S left the team divided as to the merits of the midlife updates Mercedes had doled out to its E-Class sedan. Although its more muscular tail and coherent front end managed to charm pretty much everyone.
ANOTHER AUDI MASTERCLASS IN INTERIORS
No matter how many times you do it, slipping behind the S7’s wheel is always deeply satisfying. We’re not just talking about how the supportive and suitably low-slung sports seats cradle you, or the ease with which you find a good driving position. It’s the wealth of clean surfaces, beautifully hewn from high-grade materials that make you feel as though every penny of your R1,5 million has been well spent. We’re still divided on the virtues of replacing most of the buttons and dials for the ancillary buttons with haptic-feedback touchscreen panels. Like the frustratingly hit-and-miss touch controls on the E53’s new steering wheel, they’re fiddlier and less intuitive on the move than their analogue equivalents but the clean look does mesh well with the cabin’s aesthetic. The E53’s cabin, with its vast MBUX digital infotainment/instrument panel, turbine-inspired eyeball air vents and illuminated trim seams also oozes visual drama.
Thankfully, it seems to have deftly sidestepped the perceived quality issues that have affected some recent Mercedes models, so everything feels suitably premium. The low-slung AMG sports seats are more form-hugging than the S7’s less bolstered items but they’re supremely comfy and conspire with the car’s deep doors and narrow glasshouse to serve up a very sporty driving position. Given its fairly compact dimensions, the E53’s cabin is still reasonably spacious, with a generous-by-coupé-standards 804 mm of headroom and an acceptable 678 mm of kneeroom for those in the rear. Nevertheless, access to those rear pews still necessitates that undignified squeeze past the front seats; something that doesn’t factor in the S7’s four-door coupé arrangement. Rear passengers in the S7 enjoy marginally more headroom and a sprawling 717 mm of kneeroom, as well as a generous boot that accommodates 352 to 936 litres of loadspace. That’s not to say the E53 is altogether impractical, as its 296 to 752 litres of luggage space is still pretty handy.
SIX OF THE BEST
While there are many mechanical similarities under their respective bonnets, these two engines are very distinct in their characters. Both cars mount six-cylinder units with 48 V electrical systems supporting clever boost-aiding technologies for their respective induction systems.In the E53’s case, it comprises the 3,0-litre M256 inline-six petrol unit supplemented by Mercedes’ 16 kW/250 N.m EQ Boost mild-hybrid system, an electrically assisted supercharger and a turbo. The S7 uses Audi’s EPC (Electrically Powered Compressor) setup, which works at low speeds to spool both of the 2,9-litre V6’s turbochargers up to 70 000 r/min. In both cases, the aim is the same – to all but banish the curse of low-speed turbo lag – and they do so with aplomb, rewarding a jab at the throttle with an impressive burst of power, regardless of the speed at which you’re travelling. Despite being down on power (320 kW and 520 N.m vs. the S7’s 331 kW and 600 N.m), the E53 creates the impression of being more powerful. Dial the drivetrain to its most aggressive presets and the cacophony of snarls and percussive cracks from the optional sports exhaust makes the odd upshift whump from the S7’s tail sound positively demure. The Merc’s impression of carrying more firepower is furthered by a transmission less insulated from the driver and is palpably more responsive to manual inputs from the paddle shifters than the otherwise silky and unflappable eight-speeder in the Audi.
Similarly, in terms of throttle response, the consensus was that the E53’s setup was the more alert, regardless of the myriad drivetrain management presets selected. This may account for its better performance off the line; its 4,83-second zero to 100 km/h sprint made the S7’s 5,24-second posting look comparatively pedestrian. However, once the wheels were rolling, it was the S7’s extra 11 kW and 80 N.m of torque that reeled in the E53 before eclipsing it at every 20 km/h increment of our in-gear acceleration tests.
They both have their respective charms, yet, it has to be said the Audi’s powerplant is the more refined. Although typically straight-cylinder smooth, the E53’s powertrain – with its more pronounced transmission action and more vocal tail – can never quite emulate the S7’s sense of long-legged calm that lends it a more balanced demeanour.
PUGILISM or EQUILIBRIUM
In the case of Audi’s S models and Mercedes-AMG’s 53-series offerings, the proviso is the same: to offer a sound balance between seat-of-the-pants entertainment and a means of rapid but refined transit. In all honesty, neither car completely nails that balance, but one does come closer. Although it can waft along sedately when asked to, the E53 prefers a fight. On top of its more raucous demeanour, with 107 kg less coachwork to shoulder, a noticeably firmer suspension setup and a more direct feel to the gearing of its power steering, the Mercedes feels more involving when driven in anger. Tackling the twists and elevations of the Overberg’s Clarence Drive, the chassis felt marginally more fluid and quicker to correct itself after brisk lateral adjustments than that of the S7, while the soundtrack and the transmission’s quickfire manual override further the impression of driver involvement. That’s not to say the S7 is a pudding in the dynamic stakes, though … far from it. It may not have the E53’s rip-snorting soundtrack and more aggressive transmission mapping but it still manages to cover ground at an astonishing lick. Opt for the dynamic steering package that utilises a combination of subtle braking and torque vectoring and it neatly tucks in that nose under tight cornering. The S7’s longer wheelbase and more pliant ride also allow it to slightly better negotiate mid-corner bumps that can occasionally unsettle the E53.
Both cars feature formidable braking systems with sizable 300 mm-plus discs all-round and garnered “excellent” ratings in our 10-stop deceleration testing runs. The E53’s 2,73-second 100 km/h to zero braking time marginally edged the Audi. As is often the case with powerful Audis, the brake pedal modulation can prove a bit sensitive and grabby at lower speeds but it boasts incredible stopping power; the Ingolstadt car’s 37,56-metre average stopping distance bested the E53’s by just under two metres. In either car, you’ll battle to discern when the rear-biased AWD systems are apportioning torque between the axles and there’s no denying the impressive reserves of mechanical grip they serve up. While such B-road antics are great fun, they don’t account for the majority of daily driving. Once removed from such motoring nirvana, the E53’s relative shortcomings come to the fore. Town and motorway driving revealed a surprising amount of tyre roar permeating the cabin, and some noticeable wind whistle from both of our test unit’s A- pillars. It suggests the sealing on those frameless doors isn’t quite up to standard. The E53’s ride also comes in for some criticism from the team, with some unwelcome low-speed crashiness on anything other than billiard table-smooth road surfaces. By contrast, the S7’s air-suspension system – although firm and working through slim 35-profile rubber – proved far more composed on blemished road surfaces. The Audi’s trump card has to be its craftsmanship and engineering. Refined as it may be by most standards, the E53 simply can’t emulate the S7 cabin’s ability to isolate you from environmental noise and vibrations.