July 10, 2009
When it comes to the Rs 50-lakh sedan market, it’s a face-off between three German powerhouses. Who’s going to come out on top?
What’s not to love about a Rs 50-lakh sedan? It’s just perfect combination of class, safety and luxury that speaks volumes but doesn’t shout, a blend of comfort and performance. It’s not an unwieldy limousine, it’s not a statement of extravagance— it’s a sports car in an Armani suit. And India can’t get enough of them. Sales have jumped from 6,201 units in 2007-08 to 8,313 units in 2008-09. The Rs 50-lakh sedan is a jack of all trades and master of some. It’s a smooth ride, but without the suspension set so softly that it wallows when cornering; large enough for five adults, but still sleek; and it has the full complement of features— keyless entry, leather seats, remote security, antilock brakes and a navigation system. And let’s not forget 0-100 kmph stats of about 8 second. Most manufacturers struggle to find the right balance between luxury and performance— there have been many pretenders and few worthy incumbents, despite the advance of Jaguar and Lexus (which are only available via import because of limited demand, the brands just don’t have the cachet as yet). But in today’s turbulent auto market, the luxury sedan market is firmly in the hands of three German titans, their reputations precede them—Mercedes, Audi and BMW. It’s a battle for pole position. The German heavyweights have led the field for good reasons—reliability, a tough build and technological innovation are a few. But brand prestige is critical—the rich have always seen Mercedes and BMW as symbols of wealth and sophistication, with the four-ring warrior Audi breathing down their neck. So, just to narrow it down, let me pick a shortlist—my favourites, over a career of test-driving cars. The Audi A6 3.2, BMW 5-series 530i and Mercedes Benz E-class E280. It’s a tough call, picking between them—like determining who is better among the reliable Raul González (the Merc), the magician Zinedine Zidane (BMW) and the mercury-footed Cristiano Ronaldo (Audi). The rivalry between the heavyweights from Stuttgart (Mercedes) and Munich (BMW) is over six-decades old. It’s a littleknown fact that the Bavarian car maker (BMW) was about to be put out of commission in 1959 when Mercedes-Benz was all set to buy out the car maker. But BMW dealers and small shareholders refused to throw in the towel and by 1962, BMW introduced the 1800 and 2000 models, which began the fight back. By the 1980s, the 5-series E28 changed the luxury car segment with its high performance, and ever since BMW has stuck to that DNA. The 5-Series E39, which stopped production in 2003, was regarded as the best sedan of its segment. But then Benz struck back in 2002 with the W211 E Class, the official car used in Men in Black II. In 2003, BMW’s image changed forever, thanks to its Chief of Design, Chris Bangle, a former chief of design at Fiat. Bangle’s radical design for the E61 5-Series split the BMW fraternity—some saw Bangle as a visionary, others wanted him fired for disregarding the company’s heritage, even putting up petitions online. He silenced his critics when he Bangled the competition. It’s hard to believe that the 5-Series, after some nip and tuck, still retains the 2003 design and looks more futuristic than the competition to date. Audi has always been the last in the trio, but its rise, ever since Volkswagen took over in 1964, has been steady. In 1980, Audi launched its all-wheel drive technology called Quattro which revolutionised its technological capacity. Audi was the first to produce 100 per cent galvanised cars to prevent corrosion, and the body’s durability surpassed all expectations, causing Audi to extend its 10-year warranty against corrosion to 12 years. The idea of an all-aluminium car came from Audi in 1994 with the Audi A8. Where Audi’s reputation is its engineering, Mercedes is in its mature demographic—it has always been a chauffeur’s car. The ride quality is exceptional, the seats are lush, and the dashboard has a wooden trim that has an old-school luxe feel to it. If there is a drawback to the three-star sedans, it is the somewhat dated look, perhaps the reason for dipping sales figures for Mercedes of late—the company must hope that the E-class will halt the BMW juggernaut. BMW’s 5-Series, on the other hand, is for those who love driving in a sea of bling. Its in-your-face presence and sporty attitude often complement its owners. Despite the poor press it has received after some unsavoury celeb accidents, BMW has still logged the highest sales figures of last year, and the 5-Series is the key—not only the most contemporary looking sedan in its segment but also the fastest. The handling is terrific, and its sporty steering wheel is small but provides great feedback. It’s a hotrod with 18-inch alloy wheels. And when it comes to technology, the BMW iDrive takes the cake—a computer system which controls most secondary features in the car, allowing both driver and front-seat passengers to tweak the climate, audio and navigation systems. The ride quality isn’t a match for the Merc, and the run-flat tyres will give you a headache if the roads are inferior to the Autobahns. The interiors are youthful, with comfortable front seats but a low-rear bench, which means that it’s actually quite cramped in the back. Three adults sitting in the rear get claustrophobic. The Audi A6 has always been seen as a bridge between the other two. It provides comfort and driveability that can make anyone blaze through the traffic thanks to the Quattro technology. The imposing front grill makes quite an impression. As the A6 is not a hardcore sports vehicle like the 5-Series, it has a comfortable ride quality though it still does not push the Merc E-class. The cabin feels big and the knobs, switches, instrument panel and central console are well laid out. This is the best equipped car in terms of safety and seat support. So, all three cars excel in certain departments. And people tend to buy the brand they believe in, as though they were raised with a brand loyalty. If your uncle drove a Merc and you admired it as a child, then Merc will be your dream car. You’ll forsake the driveablility of the 5 Series for ride comfort. And similarly, an Audi worshipper will not be convinced by the refinement and technology of the E-Class and the 5-Series. To bite the bullet, I’ll pick the Bimmer. Blame it on my upbringing in Germany or being 28—I want a hands-on feel of the car. Germans prefer driving their own car, no matter how old or young you are and the 5-Series is more of a drivercentric car. The 5-Series is like Nike’s Air Jordan—a legend that will always be a benchmark for years in one field or the other. Call me greedy, too, as only the top-of-the-line 5-Series generates the power that comes close to the thrust that lifts a plane. Plus, if you are driving in the Autobahns then why not drive a car that excels in power. Do I have to say more? Actually yes, I do. Just one more small detail: the 5-Series is also the most fuel-efficient of the lot.
Arup Das test-drives cars
for Autobild magazine.