The cars you see on these pages are for those looking for a big luxury car, but don’t necessarily feel the need to indulge in a big petrol or diesel motor. Buyers of these cars, and there are many, are more likely to give precedence to comfort, especially at the back. Out-and-out performance and driving dynamics come into focus only on the occasional Sunday drive behind the wheel. Unquestionably, models with small and more efficient diesel engines make the most sense to this lot.
Until recently, the options included the BMW 520d at Rs 38.7 lakh, the Mercedes-Benz E220 CDI at RS 38.47 lakh and the Audi A6 2.0 TDI at RS 37.7 lakh (all exshowroom, Delhi) which from the bulk of sales for these models. But now Volvo has put a spanner in the wheels of the German trio with the introduction of an S80 with the smaller D3 engine. Prices for the big Volvo with a small heart start at Rs 31.9 lakh, which makes the fully imported swede a fair bit cheaper than its locally assembled rivals. But given the changes in the import duty structure announced at the Budget, that situation could soon change. So if not on price, how does the Volvo compare with its more established competition in other areas? We find out.
The S80 is the oldest car here and that can be seen in its design. It’s certainly not boxy like Volvos of old, but it is easily the most conservative here. It does have an understated elegance about it, though, which many will take to. The clearly defined ‘V’ on the bonnet looks great and the broad-shouldered stance does give the S80 good presence.
While it may not look it, the A6 is actually the longest and widest car here. The Audi’s slim pillars and tight skinning help mask its size well. In fact, Audi’s ‘less is more’ approach has worked wonders on the latest A6. Details like the tightly cut grille, sweeping roof and elongated taillights work to give the A6 its distinct design, even within Audi’s own lineup. It’s a pity the brilliantly detailed full-Led headlamps cost a whopping Rs 2.79 lakh extra.
Speaking of which, the E-class’ quartet of headlamps, a look that has been carried over and adapted from the W210 model, means you can identify the car from a mile away. However, the tipped-forward stance, courtesy the rising shoulder and window lines, makes the big E look uncharacteristically athletic. That said, the Merc still somehow manages to look the most elegant here.
The kidney grille, ringed lights, kinked quarter glass and L-shaped taillight are traditional BMW cues you’ll find on the latest 5-series. It may make it look like a shrunken 7-series, but by no means is that a bad thing. Intricate surfacing also lends itself well to the 5 to give it a look of restrained aggression.
The S80 cabin is a nice place to be, but in this company it just doesn’t feel special enough. And it’s really the small things that make all the difference here, like how the plastics on the dashboard top, though padded, still feel firm to the touch. The glovebox opening too lacks the damped movement of the German cars here. There are some nice bits to speak of though. The wafer-thin ‘floating’ centre console is unique, and the buttons for directing airflow, shaped like a human figure, are intuitive to use. But where the Volvo’s simple dashboard looks like something out of an IKEA catalogue, the A6’s wraparound dash is reminiscent of a luxury yacht. All surfaces are swathed in quality materials that feel superior to even what’s on offer in the Bimmer and the Merc. The multimedia screen also has the best resolution here and what’s neat is the way it tucks behind the AC vents when not in use.
The Mercedes cabin may not look as contemporary as the Audi’s but it does have a solid, built-to-last feel. Its dashboard is neat, though there is a mishmash of buttons on the centre console. Also, the Comand infotainment interface only operates the audio and Bluetooth functions; a reverse camera would have made sense here. In stark contrast to the Merc’s busy interior, the BMW follows a more minimalist theme. There are fewer buttons and many functions are controlled by the (now simple to use) iDrive system. If anything, it’s the high dashboard that takes some getting used to.
It’s when you take the wheel that you realise that the Volvo’s front seats are positioned a bit too high up even on their lowest setting. The smartly bolstered seats however are really comfortable. Volvo has cut corners by giving the S80 only manual adjustment for lumbar support and the steering adjust is manual too. Even the A6 does without electric adjustment for the steering. However, finding a comfy driving position is really easy and the front seats, though not too large, offer great support. The slim pillars and low dash also translate to excellent visibility out of the cabin. The three-pointed star seen from the driver’s perch in the E is always a special sight and what adds to the experience here are the terrific seats. Drivers will also love the snugness and comfort on offer at the helm of the Bimmer.
Sadly, it’s also the BMW that is least comfortable for rear passengers. And that’s got nothing to do with the seat which, with its scooped-out backrest and thick squab, cradles your body very nicely. There is ample head and kneeroom too. It’s the front seat backs that are too in-your-face, the protruding central hump on the roof and rising window line that are to blame for the claustrophobic feeling here. And that’s a shame, as the 5 actually has the longest wheelbase of these cars. The Volvo on the other hand feels really airy in the back. It’s got ample width along with a low central tunnel so it is the most comfortable for the middle-seat passenger. The nicely contoured seat also offers great support to your back, though thigh support isn’t all that good.
The Audi is the only car here to feature a separate dual-zone climate control for the back and there is also good space to be had here. The seat is a touch too low, which compromises thigh support and also makes getting in and out a bit of a task. Moreover, the seats could also offer more support.
We’ve always loved the comfort afforded by the Merc’s rear seats and they continue to be the best. They are very supportive and there is also more than ample leg, head and shoulder room. You get a great view out, which furthers the feeling of space inside. What Mercedes needs to look into with urgency is the air conditioning for the rear seat. It just doesn’t cool quick enough and that’s a big letdown on hot days.
In terms of equipment, the Audi comes with the longest list of standard equipment, followed by the BMW, Merc and Volvo. All cars do come with a whole lot of safety features, however. Worth a mention here is the Volvo City Safety system that uses a sensor to detect a possible collision upto 30kph, and can automatically apply full brakes to avoid or at least minimize the impact. Brilliant.
UNITY IN DIVERSITY
The Audi, BMW and Mercedes place their in-line four-cylinder diesel engines along the length of the body and like all other Volvos, the S80 mounts its in-line five-cylinder motor transversely. Volvo claims this arrangement is the safest in a crash. There is no Quattro hardware on this A6, so all the power is sent to the front wheels, just as on the Volvo. It’s the Merc and BMW that stick to the traditional front-engine, rear-wheel-drive layout. The A6 is the only car to use an eight-step CVT (Multitronic in Audi lingo) while the remaining three come with torque-converter automatics. Before we get sucked into more permutations and combinations, let’s talk about how the cars are to drive.
We’ll start with the S80. The D3 motor is nicely refined and you won’t notice any of the vibrations normally associated with a five-cylinder setup. There is decent power in the mid-range too and the bottom end isn’t all that bad either. Add to that a muted but throaty growl for a soundtrack (easily the sportiest here) and it’s easy to like the D3 motor. The trouble starts when you drive the Volvo after a stint in the other cars. Its six-speed gearbox suddenly feels a tad slow and this is most apparent when the opportunity to explore the top end presents itself. The timings collate our findings. The Volvo is a full three seconds slower than the German to 100kph and far from the quickest in the 20-80kph and 40-100kph runs.
The Audi, BMW and Mercedes are much closer to each other on performance. In fact, they are within half a second of one another up to 100kph. The gap isn’t much wider in the 20-80kph and 40-100kph bracket either.
Again, the differences become clear when you drive them back to back. A 181bhp makes the Bimmer the most powerful car here and it also feels the punchiest of the lot. Its excellent eight-speed gearbox is always up to the job if you choose to drive hard, and downshifts are super quick when you floor the throttle (especially in Sport).
The Audi also impresses on this front, but there is a slight hesitation to downshift when you want instant power. However, power delivery is extremely linear with a strong build-up right from low revs. Audi’s Drive Select system also allows you to switch between Comfort and Dynamic settings to alter engine and gearbox performance to suit your driving style.
The Mercedes does without any such electronic gadgetry but what impresses is the engine’s nice and predictable build of speeds. Its five-speed automatic gearbox may be down on ratios and may not be the fastest either, but it’s in its comfort zone so long as you are not pushing hard. What isn’t nice is the sharp clatter from the engine that is always audible and breaks the monastery-like silence of the E-class cabin.
While we couldn’t test the E220 CDI and 520d for fuel economy, we expect them to match the Audi’s overall figure of 12.5kpl. The Volvo was good for an overall economy figure of 11.8kpl. And it may be still some time before green credentials become a deciding factor among Indian buyers, but worth mentioning are the efficiency-enhancing technologies on the Merc and BMW under the Blue Efficiency and Efficient Dynamics names, respectively. The 520d is the only car here with automatic start-stop. An Eco Pro mode that tailors the transmission and aircon to deliver the best efficiency is also on offer here.
The cars here are more likely to be chuffeur-driven so, if you’ll excuse the pun, handling takes a backseat to ride comfort. And there’s quite a variation in how each of these cars deals with undulations. The Volvo’s suspension does clunk over bumps but manages to do a good job of filtering out surface imperfections, at least at low speeds. It’s as you go faster that the Volvo’s soft setup gets caught out. The car wallows and the up-and-down movement, though smooth, takes away from the whole experience.
Just like the Volvo, the BMW bobs a fair bit over undulations and this only increases with speed. To its credit, the 520d boasts an excellent low. Speed ride. It smoothens out surface imperfections with ease and that’s despite the disadvantage of the stiff sidewalls of its run-flat tyres.
Surprisingly, it is the Merc that feels the stiffest at slow speeds and sharp edges do make their presence felt in the cabin. However, up the pace and the E-class comes into its own. The ride becomes utterly flat and the suspension goes about its business with minimal noise. Set the Audi’s air suspension to Comfort and it will steamroll all but the sharpest bumps, and it’s on these where you can feel the Audi’s light aluminium body shudder. In the sportier Dynamic mode, the ride becomes flat and that makes it better suited to highway use.
Selecting Dynamic also adds weight to the A6’s steering which is good when you are looking for some fun behind the wheel. It may not be the most feelsome but it does give you good enough feedback The Audi also holds its line well through long sweeping corners, though the front-wheel-drive layout does bring with it more than a hint of understeer the faster you go. The other front-wheel-drive car here is the Volvo S80 and, truth be told, it more boulevard cruiser than corners carver. The car feels a touch nose-heavy and the soft suspension setup also takes its toll on handling. The steering has a dead zone at the straight-ahead position but manages to offer a fair amount of feedback. You can even adjust the level of steering assist to your liking and the system work quite well too. BMWs are legendary for the way they drive and the 520d doesn’t disappoint. It’s just that it doesn’t feel quite as entertaining as its predecessors. There is an inconsistency in the way its electric steering weights up and the steering doesn’t feel as communicative as you’d like. Expectedly, the Merc steering isn’t the quickest, but there’s a certain fluidity with which the car changes direction that inspires so much confidence at all speeds. Entertaining? May be not. Comfortable? Absolutely.
Viewed in isolation, the Volvo makes a compelling case for itself. Unfortunately, when benchmarked against the best, the S80 does not shine in any particular area, which is why you wouldn’t mind paying the extra few lakh to buy into the more premium brands here.
The BMW 5-series has many strengths. Chief among these are its well-built cabin, fantastic engine-gearbox combination and an engaging drive. But for all its positives, the Bimmer doesn’t feel all that spacious in the back and that’s where most owners are likely to spend a whole lot of their time.
If rear-seat comfort is your number one priority, look no further than the Mercedes-Benz E220 CDI. The big Benz manages to really pamper occupants though the air-conditioning is just too slow to cool. It also lacks some features available on the other cars and its noisy engine isn’t the best either.
That brings us to the Audi A6. Rear-seat comfort could be better, but on almost all other counts, the A6 is at the top or close to the top of the charts. Its brilliantly executed cabin is sure to make every journey all that more special and overall ride comfort is second only to the Mercs. It is good fun to drive too. So whether it’s the front seat or back, it’s the Audi that will feel like money well spent.
Source: Autocar April 2012