Audi A7 vs Mercedes CLS 350 vs BMW 650i
Sex sells. It's why Katrina Kaif squeezing and fondling a mango gets your juices going for a Slice; it's why those godawful biscuits need Bipasha Basu to chomp through a pack; it's why these cars are here. After all apart from its sex appeal, and the resultant rush of blood to the wrong end, these cars have no reason for being. Exhibit A - the Merc CLS. Boil it down to the basics and this is an E-Class; an E-Class with less headroom, less knee room, poorer ride and sporting one heck of a sticker price. Yet you take one look at the CLS and all of a sudden the E looks, well, staid and boring.
All rational thinking is replaced by an irrationally magnetic draw to the swoopy lines and svelte haunches. It plays to the gallery in your head that has no business playing any part in purchase decisions; just like Katrina shouldn't force you to choose a Slice over a Mazaa. Yet she does and Mercedes were the first to cotton on to it with the CLS six years ago, the first of the breed, the first of the so-called 4-door coupes. It's nonsense really, coupes have only two doors, yet Mercedes laughed all the way to the bank as customers lapped up the gorgeous CLS. And bosses at Audi and BMW got very angry because their boys hadn't thought of it first.
No matter. Audi now has the A7 that uses the exact, and I mean exact same formula as the CLS. Swoopify the more humdrum A6, take out a fair bit of practicality (oooh, why don't we just throw out one seat and make it a four-seater...) and hear the cash registers ring.
BMW does things a little differently here. So while the CLS is the E-Class underneath and the A7 is a J Lo-arsed A6 the 6 Series has more in common with the 7 than the 5 Series. It also has a unique cabin, unique panels, a drop-top (or a proper 2-door coupe - take your pick), bigger engines and a far more terrifying sticker price.
And so dear Indian customer, you with considerably more spending power than anyone could have imagined five years ago, now have an option to the mundane E-Class, A6 and 5-Series. Imagine 5 years ago anybody calling them mundane...
It all starts here, doesn't it? Take one E-Class, watch it melt in the afternoon sun, lick the ice-cream dripping off the cone and voila you have a beauty. Beauty is not a word used flippantly because the CLS was and now, even more so, is a thing of beauty. This second generation CLS also gets more brawn, which has rapidly permeated through the range after the purchase of Ross Brawn's F1 team, evident in the gaping intakes, a thrusting Merc grille, bulging bonnet, beefier haunches and unique light treatment at both ends. White doesn't do it enough justice because its face is really mad aggressive; don't mess with me son, it says, or I'll break your nose.
The tail is more of the pre-Brawn Mercs - please all, offend none, and here you will find the clearest link to the old CLS. Links to the E-Class are completely absent, that's for sure and unless somebody tells you this is an E-Class you will never know.
This is an E-Class though. It has the same 2974mm wheelbase but is 72mm longer and 55mm lower. There are still four doors but they're sexy frameless numbers. Step inside and this is a Merc with all of the E-Class' attendant high quality materials, handsome lines, logical arrangement of controls but with that half-wood steering wheel ditched in favour of a sporty three-spoke number.
All those swoopy lines have meant the top of the windshield is much closer to the driver's nose making the cabin quite cosy and intimate. Crouch into the rear quarters and you will wonder where all of the E-Class' leg room went. It's not uncomfortable, not by a long shot, but it isn't stretch-out-and-read-the-pink-papers spacious either. And there's the console running the full length of the rear making this strictly a four-seater. Five seats are so last year, dahling.
No matter how good the CLS's cabin though nothing beats the A7. Apart from very minute bits and bobs this is the A6 but that, in no way, can take away from the brilliance of a cabin that is not only specced higher but also feels far more inviting and luxurious. It starts with that 8-inch full-colour screen that displays a ton more information than the CLS's 7-inch screen and Audi's MMI is far superior and intuitive as opposed to Merc's COMAND. Plus the way the whole cabin is laid out, the sense of spaciousness, the quality, everything makes you fall in love with the A7. It is also far less compromised in terms of interior space, mainly because it isn't as swoopy as the CLS.
That means, viewed from up front, this is an Audi. A4, A6, A8, A7 the casual by-stander won't know the difference as it comes at him, but he will definitely know it's the A7 as it drives past. That ass, like J Lo's, deserves a separate insurance policy. In the automotive firmament, particularly when you consider what's available in India, these are the best hind quarters in the business. I love it. But I'll also have to admit that on overall exterior style the CLS is more unique; more sexy; more eye-catching.
Which leaves the 6 Series, well, in a class of its own. It doesn't look like a scaled up 5 Series, neither is it a scaled-down 7 Series. The 6 is its own car and mercifully has lost all the wanton quirkiness of its predecessor. It's now sharper, more elegant, more athletic with crisp detailing and ample flamboyance. Stand all three together and whether the 6 has it's roof up or down it will hog the lion's share of attention, after all it is singular in its purpose - of being a fast and good looking grand tourer.
The cabin too is unique, though very much in the BMW mould, with sportier and more expensive touches like leather on the top of the dashboard, deep red seats and sexy black chrome controls. Why then did BMW give it the smaller 6-inch screen with those ugly blanks on either side totally baffles me.
Space up front is ample but throwing adults at the back is just being cruel (though rear space is more than the previous generation). It's best sampled with your significant other, top down, the eyes of the world on you.
The CLS gets MacPherson struts up front and multi links at the rear with standard Airmatic air suspension with switchable sport and comfort modes. It rides on 17 inch wheels, the same size as the E, yet it runs a firmer setup that does give it a sportier touch but also gives the ride quality a harsher edge.
The A7 gets the A6's MacPherson struts and trapezoidal link at the rear but there has been no (unnecessary) fiddling around and so in comfort mode the ride is just as amazing as on the A6 (which we said was almost as incredibly good as the E-Class). I can't see why you would buy an A7 to be chauffeured around but if you do you will be more comfortable in the A7. A Merc being trumped on ride quality? Now that's a first.
The A7 also has standard quattro four-wheel-drive and the grip and reassurance, especially in wet and changing conditions, is most satisfying. However in terms of purity of feel and feedback the CLS shoots ahead. The steering is more fluid and responsive unlike the A7's that weighs up unnaturally in Sport mode and gets far too heavy while not delivering any more feedback. The rear-wheel-drive CLS is also more exciting and entertaining to punt round the twisties, primarily because its feedback and lines of communication are more transparent. ESP cannot be fully switched off in either car but at the limit the A7 understeers and pushes the front more eagerly than the CLS.
ESP can be fully switched off in the 6-Series and there's so much power that massive powerslides can be pulled off till the transmission overheating warning pops up. BMW being BMW the chassis is the most sophisticated of this bunch with 7 Series derived four-wheel-steer, various ESP and traction control settings to adjust the degree of looniness and a steering and seat-of-the-pants feel that encourages drifts and permits an easy catch with a touch of opposite lock.
Unlike what we're used to the 650i rides relatively well too - relative to sporty grand tourers. It never gets uncomfortable and you can do serious distances without developing a hernia. At the end of the day while the 650i will plaster a stupidly wide grin on your face the A7's cabin is a far more relaxing place to be in.
With 245PS and 500Nm from its 3.0-litre V6 diesel sending power to all four wheels via a 7-speed twin-clutch gearbox, the A7 is identically specced to the A6. Which is no bad thing. It is, in fact, a damn good thing considering this engine is just brilliant delivering a scintillating 6.84second 0-100kmph run, providing unbelievable flexibility and elasticity in any gear and being so silent and refined that passengers will never know its a diesel. Even when flogged there is no intrusive diesel clatter, just a deep, low rumble from the front, so much so that even you might forget it's a diesel. Until you get to the pumps and realise the A7 can go 390km on a single tank of gas delivering 6kmpl overall. It's a freaking awesome engine and a hard act to follow for the CLS.
Except the CLS takes the petrol route, getting a new 3.5-litre direct injection petrol V6 developing 310PS of power and 370Nm of torque. This is not the same V6 petrol engine as in the E350 (which makes 275PS and 355Nm), delivering more power, better efficiency, improved responsiveness and fruitier acoustics. It's mated to the de riguer 7G-Tronic 7-speed auto that is a joy to use though isn't as quick (or jerky) as the A7's twin-clutch. Performance is hot with 0-100kmph taking 7.2seconds, a massive 1.2seconds quicker than the E350 while top speed is restricted to 250kmph. Which neatly brings us round to the raging petrol vs diesel debate.
There's no denying that a petrol engine, especially the CLS's V6, is incredibly intoxicating and massively rewarding when caning the hell out of it but with 500Nm of torque coming in at just 1400rpm (the CLS's 370Nm only peaks in at 3500rpm) getting to serious speeds in the A7 is absolutely effortless; breathe on the throttle and you're at the end of the straight. No need to rev the nuts off the engine, just ride the wave of torque and be amazed at the fact that it accelerates to 100kmph 0.4seconds quicker than the CLS. Once in its stride the petrol does catch up but such is the A7's head start (thanks also to quattro grip delivering harder launches) that it is only at the standing kilometer that the CLS nudges ahead, and that too by just 0.01seconds. Considering the price of diesel, the amazing refinement of modern diesels and this astonishing performance, making a case out for a petrol does become quite a task.
But if you really must have a petrol why not go the whole nine yards and make a proper dent on your bank balance and the nation's fiscal deficit. Presenting the 650i with 407PS from the twin-turbocharged V8 petrol topped by 600Nm of torque (flat from 1750 to 4500rpm). This is un-f***ing-believable. On our performance runs with traction and stability control switched off she smoked her tyres all the way in first and most of the way in second gear, half a turn of opposite lock required to keep her pointing ahead, 100kmph taking just 5.47seconds. It's a mental engine, delivering slug after merciless slug of torque like a diesel while also revving like a properly maniac petrol. Sure fuel efficiency will fall to the sixes, even fives, but behind the wheel of the 650i, pedal mashed into the firewall, it's difficult to imagine how life can get any better.
Plus if petrols don't rock your boat BMW has just launched the 640d Coupe which marks the debut of sport diesels in the country, the 3.0 -litre diesel engine making 313PS of power, 613Nm of torque and delivering a claimed 0-100kmph time of 5.5 seconds. Even if on our roads with our fuel it takes a second more to 100kmph that will still make the 640d one of the quickest accelerating diesel cars in the country. We will of course verify it in next month's road test.
There is no clear winner or loser in this test, particularly since the 6-Series is a clear segment above the other two. Visibly it shares little with either the 5 or 7 Series, has meatier engines, more sophisticated underpinnings, brilliant dynamics and at Rs 95 lakh demands 7 Series money. The more practical though no less scintillating diesel engined coupe costs a saner Rs 75 lakh but with its less than commodious rear quarters and significantly more sporty focus you won't really use this as a daily driver.
With four doors and more spacious cabins the other two are daily drivers that will turn more heads and start more conversations than your humdrum German luxury saloons. But you really have to be obsessed about style to fork out the premiums, Rs 19.54lakh over the E350 for the CLS and Rs 15.81 lakh over the A6 for the A7. The CLS of course looks nothing like an E-Class which gives it more exclusivity but pushed to the wall I'd have to take the A7 for its awesome derrière and equally awesome cabin. The fact that its diesel engine is quicker and cheaper to run and its sticker price is Rs 5 lakh cheaper only sweetening the deal.
Then again if you're a rational person you'll buy an A6 and be very happy. Just like after blanking out images of Katrina doing the aam-sutra with a bottle of Slice, the more mundane Maaza actually tastes better.
Starts Rs 84.7 Lakhs