From the September 2009 issue of Car and Driver.
On comparison tests, the cars with genetically ingrained faults—sometimes glaring, sometimes subtle and varied—will usually have confessed their sins by cocktail hour on Day One. The editors often won’t say anything initially—each man is free to vote without persuasion or influence from his obviously ignorant peers—but we individually already know who won’t be spraying the Dom Pérignon on the podium.
This time ’round, that didn’t happen. It wasn’t until late on Day Three in the Hocking Hills of southern Ohio that various of us ceased saying, “I don’t know who’s gonna win—I like ’em all.”
“They’re all winners,” gushed assistant technical editor K.C. Colwell, who then added, “Did I just say that? I sound like one of those parents who tell their ADD-afflicted kids, ‘Just say “yes” to life—winning doesn’t matter.’”
But he was right. The last-place car in this group is a seductive gem of modern transport that any of us would love to own if we had a spare $50,000, which we don’t so won’t.
Here we’ve gathered a quintet of luxo-sports sedans, with equal emphasis on both adjectives. We included the five big names—the brands that really lead the niche. But there are other, softer-core $50,000 luxo-sporters.
Our contestants’ engines are as all over the map as a senator’s expense account. The Audi’s V-6 is supercharged. The BMW’s inline six is twin turboed. The Benz E350 settles for a naturally aspirated V-6, while the Infiniti M45 and Jaguar XF cling to the aristocratic tradition of small-displacement V-8s. Three came with performance rubber, but the Jag and the Benz, bless their practical souls, arrived with all-weather mud-’n’-snows.
Luxury sedans are purchased overwhelmingly with automatic transmissions, so that’s what we requested. Alas, we must apologize for the BMW’s surpassingly wonderful six-speed manual, which came to us after BMW searched the whole of North America and even parts of Alabama for an automatic but came a cropper. “You can’t always get what you want,” sang Mick and Keith, who then went on to get everything they wanted, especially Keith, who received the medical attention he so sorely needed after falling out of a coconut tree.
At the conclusion of comparos, we sometimes ask, “If you had to drive from New York to L.A. tomorrow, which car would you choose?” It’s a tricky question because traits we sometimes underestimate suddenly take on greater weight: ride, visibility, fuel economy, tank size, number of 12-volt outlets, even all-wheel drive, which could come in handy, say, just west of Denver. Here’s how we landed on that issue: One vote for the Benz, four for the Audi. One last thing: Our five contestants finished in alphabetical order. We have no idea what that portends.
Fifth Place: Mercedes-Benz E350
Even in a group of vehicular all-stars, someone has to strike out, although it’s rare that a top-billed batter whiffs first time up, rarer still if his cap is embossed proudly with a three-pointed star. And with that, we’ll lay off all further sports analogies.
A stern German named Friedrich Nietzsche wrote earnestly about “the will to power.” Fred should have willed some to the new E350. In hills and streetlight drags, the Benz’s V-6 was overwhelmed, and for good reason: It comes up 32 horsepower shy of three engines in this group, 57 horsepower shy of the fourth. The Mercedes was the slowest to 60 mph and in our rolling start—in both cases, 0.7 second behind the victorious Audi. It likewise spent the most time covering the quarter-mile, concluding that event with the lowest trap speed.
HIGHS: Strong long-distance cruiser, muscular styling, vault-solid platform.
LOWS: Wants 32 more horsepower, too easily upset on turn-in, overeager stability control.
We might have forgiven it all—a 3967-pound sedan that nails 60 mph in 6.3 seconds is no tortoise—but the engine was also a trifle coarse and gritty when it was working hard, which was pretty much always. Don’t get us wrong: The NVH was never egregious. Indeed, the Benz tied the Audi for quietest idle and was below the group’s average for noise at wide-open throttle. Also, the Benz delivered an observed 20 mpg, best of the group.
In Ohio’s hills, the E350 insisted on being bent into corners with care and deliberation to avoid inducing a big initial moment of body roll. And if you remained heavy-handed, the stability control would smack you with a heavier hand, flashing warnings about five times per “Hocking Ring” lap. Terminal understeer was preceded by ever-increasing tire yowl, another warning that the Benz intended to mow down honeysuckle bushes.
There were other errors, too, chief among them the steering, which offered all of the deep and contemplative feeling of Dick Cheney at a bris. It felt numb, vague, and a little heavy at all speeds, supplying slim information. Certainly the mud-’n’-snow tires might be complicit in this, and so might they have contributed to the E350’s 0.84-g skidpad grip and its lengthy, 183-foot braking distance. But we live in a state where that which falls from the sky simply cannot be believed. So M+S tires are preferred by some.
The Benz’s ride is excellent, the car tracks like a locomotive, and the exterior styling—at once Teutonic, regal, vaguely angry, and boasting a Cd of only 0.27—trumps the field. What’s more, the seats are firm, with side bolsters that clamp like man-eating clams.
Like the Jaguar, the Benz proved better on the highway than in the hills. But no other car in this group feels as solid, untwistable, and reassuringly unbreakable—traits Nietzsche would have loved. Well, until he went insane.
THE VERDICT: The car most likely to impress your neighbors. As always.
When asked by the valet which car is yours, no one has ever regretted saying, “Why, my man, it’s that big gray Mercedes.”
2010 Mercedes-Benz E350
268-hp V-6, 7-speed automatic, 3967 lb
Base/as-tested price: $49,475/$55,455
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 6.3 sec
100 mph: 15.9 sec
120 mph: 24.6 sec
1/4 mile: 14.7 @ 96 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 183 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.84 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 20 mpg
Fourth Place: Jaguar XF
Jaguars have historically evinced a strong whiff of femininity—graceful, elegant, and unwilling to dabble in the baser preoccupations of adolescent hoi polloi, who would be us. As such, it’s impolite to deride a Jaguar, even as it is catching fire, refusing to start on moist morns, or shedding parts on I-94. Imagine our delight when the XF—the most solid, brilliantly sorted Jaguar ever—landed on our 2009 10Best list. Since then, our ardor has only waxed, given the 33,000 miles we’ve invested in a long-term sample.
HIGHS: Heavenly ride, a cabin fit for Prince Charles, the face of an angel.
LOWS: Cramped back seat, body roll, hockey-puck shifter from hell.
The XF is the longest of our five competitors and rides on the most generous wheelbase, perhaps accounting for its 18-cubic-foot trunk—best of the group. The Ian Callum styling—a nubile Aston Martinish wedge of cake that induces goose bumps from any angle—nonetheless makes riders feel as if the floor is too high and the roof too low. Indeed, two succinct divots have been carved into the rear headliner to accommodate craniums, but as one editor put it, “Who wants to ride around feeling like your head is jammed into a salon’s hair dryer?”
The cabin is otherwise an amalgam of costly-looking surfaces—gooey-soft leather, burled walnut, chrome, and a pebbled aluminum “bridge” that stretches between the A-pillars. The turn signals emit a deep “tick-tock,” like a grandfather clock. Speaking of throwbacks, let’s throw back the XF’s pop-up gear selector, a counterintuitive dial that is the childproof lid of shifters. On this XF, it ratcheted obstinately from gear to gear and proved to be the nemesis of three-point turns. What’s more, the dial once became befuddled, unable to select any gear, requiring a restart to clear the system. What if the electric motor that raises the dial one day dies, leaving you with a fist full of no-go? Also, the magic push button on the glove box does, in fact, open that appurtenance but on only one of three tries.
In all of its moves—at least on the all-season tires—the XF is biased toward luxury and ride rather than lap times. When you mash the throttle from rest, the XF rolls out silently, soothingly, for five feet before the V-8 gets the message—then produces the loveliest howl this side of a Cosworth DFV, after which speed gathers subtly and deceptively, à la S-class Benzes. In the hills, however, the Jaguar’s reflexes proved less catlike than we’d hoped. Although the steering is informative, the Jag’s body motions weren’t well controlled, and that ever-shifting mass could disrupt the assigned path. What’s more, the V-8 felt not much stronger than the Benz’s six. The transmission’s “sport” mode, in concert with the paddle shifters, was mandatory for keeping the 4.2-liter V-8 on the boil. Of course, if that offends, you can purchase another 85 horses for $5000.
THE VERDICT: An elegant sedan most at home on interstates and Rodeo Drive.
The base XF is more a grand tourer than a road racer. It’s what Princess Grace would drive if she hadn’t driven off that cliff. We shouldn’t have brought that up.
2009 Jaguar XF
300-hp V-8, 6-speed automatic, 4061 lb
Base/as-tested price: $49,975/$58,850
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 6.1 sec
100 mph: 15.0 sec
120 mph: 22.3 sec
1/4 mile: 14.6 @ 99 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 174 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.79 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 19 mpg
Third Place: Infiniti M45
In luxo-sport comparos, Infiniti’s thundering M45 finished first in 2005 and first in 2006. As time passes, however, priorities change, bang for one’s buck remains an increasingly mobile target, and more of our hair falls out.
So it was with this latest M45, which is beginning to feel a little old. The car, that is, not its titanium-valve V-8, whose 325 horses topped the field. This gloriously howling engine churns out 78 more pound-feet of torque than the Mercedes. No surprise that, of the automatic-transmission cars, it was the quickest to 60 mph and outgunned everybody in 50-to-70-mph passing potential.
HIGHS: 325 horses, powerful brakes, take-no-prisoners manumatic.
LOWS: Funeral cockpit, nonlinear steering, flinty ride.
In a straight line to southern Ohio, the Infiniti felt like NHRA Pro Stock material, but once we reached the hills, a funny thing happened: The heavy steering spoiled the show. Well, it wasn’t wholly the rack’s fault. The $1650 Sport package includes active rear steer, which toes the rear links in or out for, uh, brisk turn-in. Did we say brisk? It’s more like, “Hang on, Newt, she’s headed for the alfalfa!” One second you’re setting up for a corner, the next second you’re kicking up gravel on the berm, short of the apex. Until you learned the sequence, that on/off steering characteristic would place you on the slow line through a turn, so you’d compensate on the succeeding short chute with full power, which then similarly became an on/off proposition. It was hard to establish a rhythm in the M45, although the rocket-sled rides on straightaways no doubt kept its lap times as quick as any.
The sport-tuned suspension also did damage to the ride, occasionally crashing and pounding over frost heaves and potholes. If you live in a road-ravaged state, sample the base suspension first. You can get slapped around for less than $1650. Your kids will do it for free.
The M45 lost a few more points for its aging cabin, which was cold and hard to the touch, eschewing wood accents in favor of five or six shades of Addams Family black. We called it the Undertaker’s Special. Plus, its complicated “aluma-pod” center stack, perched almost horizontally, was a piano keyboard we played quite badly.
By way of compensation, this sedan—roughly two inches taller than its colleagues—delivered the greatest front and rear interior room, as well as the greatest rear-seat comfort. Moreover, its brakes dispelled 70 mph in 163 feet, and its transmission, even with the fewest gears, was disciplined about reading throttle inputs in sport mode, holding gears longer, and supplying much-appreciated engine braking. Indeed, once you selected a gear via the manumatic, the transmission would hold it—banging against the 6700-rpm limiter—until Christmas. Or until you ran out of fuel.
THE VERDICT: More sporty than luxurious, a sedan in need of a freshening.
Overall, the M45 feels massive, imposing, a little brutish, and occasionally a handful. It’s the Rocky story: The newer, more refined upstart challenges the slightly flabby champ, who . . . uh, wait a second. Rocky doesn’t always win. This time, he finished midpack.
2009 Infiniti M45
325-hp V-8, 5-speed automatic, 4053 lb
Base/as-tested price: $53,015/$60,815
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 5.5 sec
100 mph: 14.4 sec
120 mph: 22.2 sec
1/4 mile: 14.2 @ 99 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 163 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.84 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 18 mpg
Second Place: BMW 535i
BMW has, of late, gone a little berserko with its pricing. Witness this 535i: It didn’t even come with an automatic—for which we apologized earlier—yet carried the dearest as-tested price by far. BMW’s Sport package—with 18-inch wheels, not 19s—cost $2900. That’s $1250 more than Infiniti’s Sport package, $1400 beyond the Audi’s. The oughta-be-standard iPod and USB adapter cost an extra freakin’ $400. And the “Comfort Access” package cost another $1000. We don’t even know what Comfort Access is [Keyless entry and starting—Ed.], but accessing comfort in any device costing $63,820 oughta be, you know, an unavoidable part of the deal.
HIGHS: Smoothest driveline in the business, a chassis balanced to perfection.
LOWS: Small trunk, pricey options, styling that could benefit from an update.
On the other hand, this is a BMW, on whose sedans we’ve now officially expended every glowing adjective and surplus superlative known to POEM, the Professional Organization of English Majors.
So let’s just hit the highlights. This 535i was the lightest car in the group, was the quickest to 60 mph, exhibited by far the greatest lateral grip, managed the most velocity through our lane-change test, was the quietest at a 70-mph cruise, and tied the Audi for best steering and brake feel.
Would it still have won the 60-mph dash were it fitted with the correct gearbox? As Alaska’s guv would say, “Yewbetcha.” An automatic 535xi we tested in 2007, weighing 160 pounds more than our 535i, nailed 60 mph in only 5.4 seconds. That’s quicker than any other car in this group. And BMW’s legendary throttle tip-in—like pouring 50-weight Castrol into a shot glass—is, well, legendary.
“Blasphemy,” we raved, when word first leaked that the Bavarians were attaching two small turbos to their N52 inline-six. Let us dispel all fears. Three days’ worth of public-road punishment proved positively that the turbos are transparent. Can’t feel ’em, can’t hear ’em, can’t see ’em, can’t find a turbo insignia. And the force-feeding didn’t seem to affect fuel economy, either. The BMW’s observed 19 mpg matched the naturally aspirated Jag’s, with both producing identical horsepower.
The 535i is the shortest car in the group (a good thing) but offers the smallest trunk (a bad thing). And its rear seat, loaded with three adults, is best experienced by siblings who grew up sleeping in the same bed. Come to think of it, that was true of all the cars here, save the Infiniti. Is it just us, or should 50-grand luxo sedans all happily accommodate five American-size citizens?
THE VERDICT: A balanced sports sedan that makes its driver look like a hero.
In the hills, of course, the BMW was a ballerina, its minor flaws a distant memory. You could get it six ways out of shape then lightly tap the brakes, and the suspension would hunker as if sucked to the pavement. A millisecond later, it was perfectly planted and balanced again. Like a protective parent, the driveline and chassis almost instinctively compensate for the driver’s mistakes. How often in life does someone else take blame for your brain-box bogies, then fix them? Maybe that is worth 60 grand.
2009 BMW 535i
300-hp twin-turbo inline-6, 6-speed manual, 3882 lb
Base/as-tested price: $51,925/$63,820
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 5.2 sec
100 mph: 13.0 sec
120 mph: 19.5 sec
1/4 mile: 13.8 @ 102 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 165 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.89 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 19 mpg
First Place: Audi A6 3.0T Quattro
This Audi possesses a permit to carry a concealed weapon. Like the .44 Magnum tucked casually within Inspector Callahan’s Brooks Brothers blazer, this A6’s cannon is cleverly cached within the 90-degree V of the cylinder banks. It’s a Roots-type supercharger that, in concert with two intercoolers, forces the V-6 to cough up all 310 pound-feet of its torque at as low as 2500 rpm. And although we may be inveterate whiners, the V-6’s supercharger isn’t. Aurally invisible. The Audi tied the Benz for quietest idle to boot.
HIGHS: It’s a rocket by 2500 rpm, steering that speaks, brakes that listen.
LOWS: tire boom, unexpected ergonomic glitches within.
Throttle tip-in is deceptively gentle, but if you keep your right foot extended, there’s a contained explosion—your lucky day, punk—when the tach and speedo converge on 25. That’s when the A6 leaps like a startled ferret. Check out the 2.8-second 30-to-50-mph report. Even the two V-8–powered cars can’t match that. Thing is, it isn’t the quantity of power that so impresses as the ease with which it’s accessed.All-wheel drive requires extra hardware and weight, but we were incredulous that this was the heaviest car in the group. It feels ever light, nimble, agile, balanced, and willing. Much of the greatness can be credited to the steering, which surpasses the BMW’s because it is so much lighter—a boon in parking lots—and is also better at revealing road textures. Bonus kudos to the brakes, tied with the BMW’s for best feel.
Body motions are expertly controlled, yet the ride is as compliant as the Jag’s. The suspension feels as if it offers huge travel and has no trouble taking a deep, calm breath for long interstate treks.
The Audi further endeared itself with a transmission that, in manual mode, was prescient about adapting to the driver’s inputs. It held onto gears rather than upshifting mid-turn, and it kicked down with machine-gun rapidity. We flicked at the paddles and slapped at the manumatic. But in the backcountry, simply leaving the shifter to do its own thing in sport mode proved scary fast around our 15-mile Hocking Ring. We didn’t record lap times—hey, it’s a public road—but all five voters agreed that the Audi was on the pole.
All was not four-ringed roses, of course. The 19-inch P Zero Rossos were thrummy, occasionally boomy. In fact, the Audi made the most racket at a 70-mph cruise—maybe that’s the rubber talking—and was noisiest at full throttle.
Plus, there were some ergonomic excrescences: The push button to start the V-6 is round and silver. The push button to stop the V-6 is trapezoidal and black. Adjusting fan speed is a neuron-numbing process requiring a twirl of the temperature dial. And the button to open the glove box is not on the glove box but on the center stack.
Otherwise, what we have here is power perfectly posited to pavement, directed from a tasteful and luxurious cabin situated behind a gaping maw of a grille.
THE VERDICT: The Jag’s luxury, the Infiniti’s strength, the BMW’s balance.
The full complement of speed, luxury, and prestige. Or, as associate editor “Tall” Jared Gall called it: “Comfy without being cushy, sporty without being aggressive.”
2009 Audi A6 3.0T Quattro
300-hp supercharged V-6, 6-speed automatic, 4183 lb
Base/as-tested price: $50,925/$58,265
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 5.6 sec
100 mph: 14.2 sec
120 mph: 21.5 sec
1/4 mile: 14.2 @ 100 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 168 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.85 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 18 mpg
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