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Crude burn

Team OD  /
09 May 2013 16:11:06 IST

Quite frankly I'm getting a bit overwhelmed by the German car brigade, not to say a bit exhausted too. I know as an automotive enthusiast and scribe I shouldn't be saying this but just how many cars do the Germans make? I firmly believe that the Germans believe that any variant of a particular car series they offer anywhere in the world must not just have a cosmetic difference. The engine outputs and perhaps drivetrains must also differ considerably. And so you have Audi selling nearly 20 models in India, all significantly different from each other; BMW around 25; and then there's Mercedes-Benz with over 30 if you count the AMG range as well. Effectively then we are looking at least 20 comparison stories between just the big three every issue. And if any one of them updated a model, or even so much as changed an engine on a model six days after we've done a comparison story we've got the 21st comparison test lined up. Did I say this was exhausting?

That brings us to one more, and I've lost count of which of the 20 odd stories lined up for 2011 between the big three Germans this is. And just in case someone notices the absence of Audi, it is shortly going to introduce the all-new A6, so rather than include a car on its way out, we've got an altogether more interesting car - a Brit at that. So is Earl's Grey a better blend than Weiss beer? We brought our tea cups and beer jugs to the party.

THE CARS

BMW has rapidly been expanding its market share in India and a lot of credit goes to their diesel cars. Both the 3 Series and 5 Series are hugely popular and though the X1 will now be the volume driver, it is the 5 Series that attracts the connoisseur, one who truly knows his BMWs. And in that respect the 530d is the cream of the diesel enthusiast Bimmers. It's got all the aggregates of any 5 Series and then packs in a tremendous punch with an engine that is truly remarkable as far diesels are concerned.

Mercedes on the other hand had introduced the E350 CDI quite some time ago, close to a year ago actually. We've driven it extensively, or at least Sirish has, as his long-termer and he's kept gushing over it. The E350 brings cool back to the 3-pointed star with its blend of elegant effortless motoring when its effusive energy isn't required anymore. It's a motor that has been Mercedes' strong suit, the flagship diesel in the Mercedes range and the second most popular E-Class after the E250 CDI only because the 250 is cheaper.

The third car in this pack is the Jaguar XF-S 3.0D. We've never had the Jag taking on the likes of the Merc or the BMW ever before. That in itself is a coup of sorts because trying to get a hold of a car has been as tough as trying to get sight of the elusive cat in the wild. This is also the newest XF introduced in India. The S affixed alongside makes it even more interesting as it hints at a certain little thing called performance, but it's diesel and we're expecting it to be as sensational as its petrol counterpart is. Is it?

THE DESIGNS

When the Jag rolls in, men turn in their tracks, stare and slightly yank the crotch of their pants to make some breathing room. If there were anything as auto erotica, the Jag would be the one you'd pay for to see gyrating live in front of a webcam.

The BMW and the Merc, well, they'd belong in the free download spaces. But that's not to say they aren't attractive. Since their 2010 makeovers both German autos have got a lot younger, dynamic and stylish. The most remarkable makeover though must be that applied to the BMW. After having experimented with everything from geometric lines to flame surfaces, BMW is now trying more fluid expression. It's certainly working in its favour and the new 5 Series is a much nicer and appealing car both stylistically and dynamically. Sirish on the other hand thinks quite the opposite and laments the deletion of flamboyance compared to the old 5 Series. Not a fan of understated elegance is he which just goes to show how polarising styling can be.

Whatever we think though there's no divergence of opinion as far as the E is concerned. It has evolved in a sort of midlife realisation that it's time to hit the treadmill and get rid of the ovals and portly edges. It is now rather nicely chiselled ( perhaps a bit too much over the rear wheel arches) and the square-edged four-lamp look is universally appreciated. It is still a distinguished car but with hints of cardio prepped muscle all over.

After all the gazing and poking around you'd hit alt/tab and jump back to the Jag's live streaming. The XF-S is captivating with its sporty and elegant tones blending to make an alluring cocktail. The chrome honeycomb grille is its most attractive feature topped by slim headlamps and those chromed fins slicing across the air pods on either end of the front bumper.

Even from the rear the XF-S is nothing short of dramatic, accentuated by a thick chrome strip running horizontally across the boot with either end merging with the tail lamp clear lens bits. It's a slinky piece of ornament but immensely seductive like a gold cummerbund around a comely woman's waist.

The Jag then is a remarkably refreshing change from the designs that leave the clinical beehives of Stuttgart and Munich. And that same dramatic exuberance is instilled without any filtration inside the obscenely dramatic cabin. This is phallic salutation of the most intense kind. Press the starter button that throbs with a dim red glow like blood pumping through this car's veins to unwrap the air con vents while simultaneously the fairly large in diameter gear selector knob slowly rises out at the base of the centre console. Viagra moment!

In comparison the 530d and E350 CDI pale into insignificance. There is no drama in either theatre and the only hints of anything remotely sensational are some bits of chrome, wood and lots of leather. Hold it, that isn't dramatic. It is if anything run-of-the-mill and for these cars which cost nearly half a crore, I'd now expect to see a lot more fairground-ish bells and whistles. After having gone through dozens of comparisons between the Germans I'm so familiar with these cabins that I can almost tell you if the texture and grain on the leather has changed or if a stitch is out of place.

But design is an aspect that is seldom subtle nor does it stand in a corner of the room by itself. It is loud, shouty and hankers for attention. It's often one of its kind and practicality often finds it silly and pointless. I mean do you really need stuff twirling and rising and throbbing inside your car. Not if you're German you don't! But I love it, and you know what? Manufacturers are slowly veering towards a light and sound show inside their cars. Case in example the new A8 with its adaptive mood lighting and that executive rear seat package and I'm certain future models of the 5 Series and the E-Class will include certain special effects.

So when practicality, utility and convenience raise their voice, design and style in the Jag take a back seat. The multi-function interface is a sore point in the XF. It's not a simple system to navigate through and while it utilises a touchscreen to go through the motions, accessing menus and getting things to work isn't easy. In this respect the E Class and the 5 Series are vastly superior, though the BMW's second-gen iDrive is still more user friendly and vastly more comprehensive than the Mercedes COMAND system by a large margin.

The E350 CDI though has the least interesting dashboard layout. The structured appearance with the sharp lines and protruding edges complements the exteriors but is neither invigorating nor cheery. The nearly traditional design lends a sombre air to the cabin which I don't see being appreciated by a younger audience, particularly in the black and brown scheme of our car.

On the other hand the 530d's dash is much more energetic and continues being centred around the driver. You really don't have to fiddle with much in here and the iDrive controller is simple to operate. The screen is much bigger, the graphics are better, it has TV reception, plays DVDs (there are also screens at the back) and it is the only car to allow Bluetooth audio streaming from your cell phone while still keeping your telephone services ready at hand. I loved the feature (heck, it even shows album covers) and hope other cars get it pronto.

The XF though is just from another realm really. The dashboard wraps itself around the front passengers scintillatingly and the bright shades of both the upholstery and the dashboard inserts give the cabin a roomy spacious air. The controls seem minimalistic though it has everything you'd need close at hand. I quite liked the simple twin dial instrument binnacle which uses a large central LCD screen in between the speedo and tacho to display all relevant information such as engine temp, fuel gauge etc. The Merc and BMW units in fact look a lot more cluttered with four dials each which include the fuel and temperature gauges. So where dynamic interior styling is concerned the Jag rules the roost.

Now each of these cars also has plush and luxurious seating. But where the BMW has supportive and sporty seats for the driver and passenger that hug and fit well, the XF's seats are slightly expansive with the bolstering not close enough to well, bolster occupants adequately at the front. The E350 on the other hand makes no sporty statements. The seats are wide to accommodate every size of frame, comfortable, well padded and luxurious without bothering with the sporty accents.

Where build quality is concerned the BMW and the Merc have the science down pat. The Merc especially was most impressive since our test car was also our long termer and despite all the abuse it shows no signs of wear or fade. That is not the case in the Jag, which despite showing just around 8000km on the clock already looked a few years old. The sheen on the aluminium embellishments had faded and there were signs of age in the leather and wood bits. The BMW on the other was just too new though gauging from previous experience I'd vouch that it too, quite like the Merc, will be impeccable.

POWERTRAINS

The XF-S theatrics stop at the touch of a button, the starter button that is. Thumb it and a dull high frequency staccato emerges from the twin pipes at the rear before settling into a low volume deep rumble. It's a nice note, one that promises exciting things in the future when you step on the gas, much like its petrol counterpart. But note here, the two chrome exhaust tips are dummies with no exhaust vent in them. The true exhaust pipe ends poke out just before the extensions and release their contents towards the ground. Having noticed that is not a good place to start especially for a car with such impressive credentials.

The XF-S is easily the most powerful engine in this test and it comes from a V6 engine that displaces 2993cc. That's the same displacement as the 530d though slightly larger than the E350 CDI. But the XF S packs in a twin turbo system which jacks up power output to 275PS with max torque rated at 600Nm. Those figures are way stronger than either the 530d or the E350 CDI by a fairly hefty margin. Yet step on the throttle and you don't get the sense that this is the most powerful engine by any standard. On the contrary power delivery feels lazy like spinning the rear wheels was just too much effort for the XF. Lazy yes, but it's not the engine as much as the 6-speed ZF gearbox which is to blame. In standard drive mode this is a relaxed performer and shifting it into sport mode elicits marginally quicker shifts and a louder exhaust note because the gears shift closer to the redline but it does not translate to more momentum.

This lethargic character is even more emphatic when you realise that the XF-S also has the strongest power-to-weight ratio. At 151PS per ton it's a whole 10PS stronger than the 530d and 26PS more than the E350 CDI.

In the XF-S nearly 500Nm of torque is claimed to be delivered in 500 milliseconds from when the throttle is kicked in while max torque of 600Nm comes in at just 2000rpm. But despite all this, and despite the twin turbos you just don't feel a strong shove from the off. But get past 1800rpm where most conventional single turbo units fire their salvo and the car positively flies off the handle. There is a reason to this and it is the VGT primary turbo that just does not seem to spool quickly enough initially until the rev climbs up to around 1800rpm. And then at 2800rpm the second but smaller fixed geometry turbo kicks in delivering a real shove in the pants.

The Mercedes E350 CDI is in comparison the smallest engine here (2987cc, so you'd expect this to be a E300, no?) and its 228PS and 540Nm pales in comparison to the XF. However all 540Nm is available at 1600rpm, the lowest in this category and that helps the E pull ahead strongly and rapidly from standstill. The 7G-Tronic transmission is also nicely matched to the engine's torque curve and power delivery is seamless, gear changes unruffled and quick and the biggest draw remains its refinement. This has got to be one of the quietest diesels we've driven permitting the most relaxed long distance cruising. And it is deceptively quick; until you look at the clocks you don't realise the speeds the E is doing and with a 0-100kmph time of 7.4 seconds it is a fraction quicker than the Jag.

That leaves us with the 530d which on paper is a middle order diesel with around 20PS more power but the same torque as the Merc. Yet if there was one car that amply demonstrates the advantages of a variable geometry turbo, the 530d is it. From nought it accelerates so rapidly you'd mistakenly think there was an effusive twin scroll turbo petrol under the hood. This in-line six diesel is so amazingly quick to respond to throttle inputs that it rapidly leaves both the Jag and the Merc dazed in its wake.

The drivetrain also works in more ways than BMW's Efficient Dynamics mantra which focuses on cleaner tailpipe emissions and a frugal nature. The 8-speed gearbox is testimony to BMW wanting to stretch the litre of crude the furthest it could go, but what the manual available on the iDrive system does not tell you is that from the word go this transmission lights an extremely short fuse to a highly explosive engine. For a diesel the 530d could easily shame petrol rivals into submission, such is the ferocity with which it accelerates off the mark and get to 100kmph in 6.37 seconds - a whole second quicker than the others. If it weren't for the copious wheelspin when launching it, we might have got a quicker time. One of the reasons why the BMW is this quick is also because it's lugging around nearly a 100kg less than the XF S or the E350 CDI.

All three cars however are an absolute pleasure to motor in any driving situation. They go about raising hell in their own manner but raise hell they do. One clear indicator of them being much more than just regular luxury diesels is the fact that all three cars sport paddleshifters. While I firmly believe flappy paddles are very convenient for urban use, they predominantly hint at a sporty disposition. They also indicate that this breed of car is self driven because admit it, when did you ever buy a more expensive automatic and less efficient variant just so your chauffeur could drive a bit more comfortably?

Nevertheless in the performance runs the BMW is a clear

second ahead of the Merc, and the E350 CDI thanks to its torque coming in early is just a fraction of a second quicker than the Jag. However the Jaguar is not to be belittled as it too clearly demonstrates that when it comes to in-gear overtaking acceleration it is clearly ahead of the pack.

On the fuel efficiency front the BMW once again indicates its dominance, stretching a litre of diesel well beyond what either the XF-S or the E350 CDI can even hope to achieve. But these are diesels with the kind of performance their petrol siblings crave to have. And then thanks to the Indian government subsidising diesel, I really shouldn't be saying this, but does it really matter just how long your tanks will stay full? Enjoy it while it (both prices and natural reserves) lasts.

DYNAMICS

In the natural order of things I'd get into a BMW, shut the doors and forget about everything else. But 2010 changed all that, Mercedes woke up, said it had had enough and showed why a star is a star.

Make no mistake, the BMW is still the most dynamically focused and rewarding car in this segment. Its ability to provide immense fun out of even the most mediocre drive is truly remarkable. Mercs were the fat cat caravans, soggy handling but immensely comfortable. That sort of crap is history with a capital H, mile to mile the E350 CDI will stick to the tail of the 530d, like a dog after a moving car. And there are times when the BMW will loose its cool in the pursuit, the rear will kick back in protest and yet the Merc will track a true line without as much of a hint of a nasty little thing called oversteer.

The BMW feels highly flickable and maneuverable with a package that is deliciously light but a ride that contradicts its once stiff Teutonic nature. Here is a BMW that's gone soft but retains enough latitude in its suspension to inspire paeans to its dynamic character. It has superb aggregates but what makes a difference in my opinion is its steering - light as in highly tactile without feeling lifeless. It's not as communicative as the Merc's steering but it's precise to the point where it sets up a vernier caliper to measure its perfection before drawing the line.

The Merc has a bottom heavy character that enables it to stick, stick and stick to tarmac. There is body roll in this car but it makes the older W211 feel prehistoric, a big dinosaur swaying from side to side as it hops along on its rear legs. And this generation's traction control system is so sublime you barely sense it working apart from a slight twitch in your butt muscles occasionally that reminds you that yes there is a whip keeping that rear in line.

The Merc also outshines the BMW because it can do the comfort thing much better without compromising on handling. There is a stiff suspension setup in the E350 CDI, stiffer even than in the petrol Merc to compensate for the additional diesel engine weight. Yet at no point does it let you forget that what you're perched in is the king of the high rollers, one of the most comfortable cars on the planet.

The XF-S on the other hand is also a very comfortable car. In standard drive mode this car comes very close to the E350 CDi's state of butt cushioning and the Jag can easily give Mercedes a run for its money. Of all the three only the 530d and the XF-S allow you to completely switch off traction control, the E350 CDI like all traditional Merc's never completely lets go. And yet the Jag does this a bit more sensationally replacing the traditional DSC off switch for a chequered flag. When pressed lightly it activates stage 1 control which allows the DSC system to cut in at the extreme limit, press the button longer and a small chequered flag appears on the instrument window, no holds barred race mode time. And there is a perceptible shift from drive to sport mode: the suspension firms up noticeably, the steering ratio tightens up and the dynamics sharpen considerably.

But if you really want to see what difference adaptive suspension can effect you need the BMW. Select Sport and everything - engine responses, throttle responses, gearbox shift points, suspension stiffness, even the leeway that the ESP allows sharpens. Select Sport + and things get amped up to a level that the 530d can be chucked sideways ESP only intervening when it realises you aren't going to catch it. And if you think you're a hero then you can switch ESP completely off and go hell for leather.

Nothing offers the thrills of the 530d. Nothing.

VERDICT

I am a man of extremes. There are times when I'm at peace with myself, my inner Zen in a state of stasis. But flick the switch and I'm completely off the handle. And the 530d complements my turbulent aura. It does cool very coolly, but then it does hot like only a 'habanero' could. For one of the most intense thrill-a-minute oil burner rides in the world, the best engine, the best dynamic package, the most laughs per mile, I'd pick the BMW.

If you enjoy driving you should too (and look at the plus side - it is just Rs 10,000 more expensive than the E350 CDI yet it has the most equipment).

The XF-S though entices me and yet it doesn't. It looks like a rock star, performs like one and has that sense of occasion that I absolutely adore. But how can it justify being the most expensive in this test and that too by an insanely huge margin? Particularly when the cabin isn't as sophisticated or well built or spacious?

Which leaves us with the Merc. Let's be clear - it used to be, but no longer is the default choice. Ever since BMW came to India, it has been besting Mercedes in all comparos and here too the BMW is faster, more entertaining and better value. The Merc is conservative and that isn't me. But at the end of the day let's be rational. These cars are meant to cover huge distances at speed and in absolute luxury and over Indian roads nothing rides as well nor covers distances as quickly or as effortlessly as the Merc. That's enough for it to win this test. That the E now sports impeccable build, a fantastic cabin and is rather stylish too are just bonus.

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