From the November 2006 issue of Car and Driver.
In 1976, country bard Tom T. Hall summarized the fundamental needs of men advancing into what is politely called middle age. The song was “Faster Horses,” and Hall’s refrain boiled life down to the essentials of the slightly older guy.
The contestants in this comparison seem the equivalent of the faster horses in Hall’s hedonistic lament. In this context, we’re talking faster than the rest of the herd, or at least most of it. The guys who pop for rides such as these aren’t necessarily interested in going faster down twisty lanes less traveled. The occasional joyous stab at the throttle, sure. The carefree draw on deep power reserves when some mouth breather just will not give up the left lane.
Beyond that, it’s the mere possession of a device that’s capable of pinning everyone against the seatbacks. High lateral g and brisk transient response are all very well, but what really matters is a herd of thoroughbred ponies—faster ponies—under the hood of an upscale sedan that looks like an upscale sedan. But not too upscale. None of that Benz S-class or BMW 7-series stuff, rides that make the stockholders nervous. We don’t want ostentation here, y’all. Just a little hedonism—with enough juice under that right-foot faucet to make it interesting.
We found four horses that seem to answer this set of needs very well. They’re not sports sedans in the sense of the real tigers in this size class: the BMW M5, the Mercedes E63 AMG. But when you get into the $50K region, you know they’re far from ordinary. And three of them really are faster.
The BMW 550i, for example, got a new and more potent 4.8-liter V-8 for 2006. Shared with the 7-series sedan, it replaced the previously employed 4.4-liter in the 545i and bumps output from 325 horsepower and 330 pound-feet of torque to 360 in each power commodity (although the change hasn’t altered the arcane logic of BMW’s still-mystifying model designations).
The Mercedes E550 also enjoys a substantial power gain over its predecessor, the E500. Most of the ’07 updates to this bread-and-butter Benz family are understated, but there’s nothing subtle about the robust output of the E550’s new 5.5-liter V-8, which whomps up 382 horsepower and 391 pound-feet of torque, compared with 302 and 339 for the previous engine. And there’s a seven-speed automatic to make the most of the big power increase.
In contrast to its Germanic competitors, the Lexus GS450h is a faster horse of a different techno color, one that’s unique in this class and wasn’t even on the radar screen when Tom T. created his list of must-haves for life beyond 40-something. The little “h” stands for hybrid, an engineering realm where Lexus’s parent, Toyota, has scored big points with the green-minded, far and wide. Powered by a 3.5-liter gasoline V-6 with assist from a pair of DC electric motors, the 450h plays to the environmental proponents and, at the same time, opens up new horizons in performance. Lexus presents this car as a sport model, and the basic theme is road burning with a clear conscience.
Although all the faces here are familiar, the only one that’s a real rerun is the Infiniti M45. As faster horses go, it’s essentially the same steed we tested in a May 2005 comparison [“Spoilsport Sedans”] that involved variants of all the cars assembled here, as well as four others. You might wonder why the M45 made the cut for this smaller field when it’s no faster or newer than our 2005 test car. Here’s the answer: The M45 emerged at the top of the charts in that ’05 showdown, and it returns to defend its title against even tougher competition.
Once our elite little herd was rounded up, we piled in and headed for the green hills of southeast Ohio. With daytime temperatures and humidity cooking near the 100 mark, we rode ’em hard. When we got back to Rancho Hogback and tallied up the score cards, there were some surprises, including a near photo finish. Also, pursuant to Mr. Hall’s advice concerning faster horses, we discovered one big truth: None of these cars will stem the advance of middle age. But any one of them will make the going a lot more pleasurable, some more than others. Which is which? Read on. As for the younger women, etc., we leave those to you.
Fourth Place: Lexus GS450h
In our May ’05 comparo, a Lexus GS430 finished third in an eight-car field, and here its more technically sophisticated stablemate is fourth of four.
It’s certainly not a refinement issue. Like other Lexuses, this one features a beautifully finished interior enhanced by a touchscreen secondary-control collective that makes those of the other cars seem even more unnecessarily complicated. Touchscreen systems have the downside of messy fingerprint accumulation, which can be irritating for neatniks and also affect legibility in direct sunlight. But they’re infinitely simpler to use than BMW’s iDrive or the Mercedes COMAND system.
HIGHS: Uptown interior, user-friendly secondary controls, delivers on performance-hybrid promise.
LOWS: Numb steering, endless cycling of CVT, asthmatic powertrain sounds.
Typical of Lexus, the GS450h excels in small details. Damped lids ease open to reveal small nooks, hinged panels enhance the usefulness of door pockets, variable-transparency glass covers the instruments to keep them legible in all ambient light conditions, and a kilowatt meter replaces the tach—not particularly useful, but along with the hybrid monitor’s graphic display in the center-dash screen, it undoubtedly reinforces the owner’s decision to go the gas-electric route.
Speaking of that, the system works well, lending electric-motor power when demand exceeds the 292-hp max of the 3.5-liter V-6. The transition from power assist to battery regeneration and back is totally transparent, with one caveat: Prolonged full-Monty draw on both power sources erodes max system output (339 horsepower), something we encountered during our test-track acceleration runs and in our blitzes around our 13.5-mile Hocking Hills driving loop.
However, when all the ponies and volts are online, the 450h is capable of respectable haste. Those electric motors and batteries add up at the scales—at 4183 pounds, the Lexus was the heaviest in a hefty foursome, and 303 pounds heavier than the GS430 we tested in May 2005—but for all that it sprinted to 60 mph in 5.5 seconds and covered the quarter-mile in 14.1 seconds at 103 mph. This was a shade quicker than the M45, as well as the GS430, and more important, the 450h posted the best 30-to-50- and 50-to-70-mph times in the group, performance that made it impressive in back-road passing maneuvers. And reinforcing its hybridity, it rang up the best real-world fuel economy: 20 mpg over the course of our 650-mile ramble, 3 mpg better than the next-best BMW and Benz.
So what’s the problem? In a word, dynamics. Dismal dynamics. The GS450h’s logbook was full of praise for its smooth deportment and quiet cruising on freeway stretches. But on the Hocking Hills byways it was a different story. The total absence of feel in the electric power steering reminded one tester of an early-’80s Lincoln Town Car. In active driving, the continuously variable transmission never stopped hunting, and in league with the waxing and waning of the power system, it created a sonorous racket described by another chronicler as “somewhere between a gas turbine and a vacuum cleaner.”
The absence of steering feel made it tricky to position the Lexus for hard cornering, and its mass didn’t help, either in transient response or braking. The GS450h was only 101 pounds north of the M45, the next-heaviest car here, but it felt heavy, something reflected in the longest braking distances in this group.
THE VERDICT: Engineering that’s easy to appreciate in a car that’s hard to love.
In the end, the GS450h doesn’t strike us as a Tom T. Hall kind of faster horse. It’s smooth, it’s meticulously crafted, it’s packed with technology, and it may reflect the future of the automobile. But soul is conspicuous only by its absence here.
2007 Lexus GS450h
292-hp (gas); 197-hp (electric) V-6 and 1 DC electric motor, CVT, 4183 lb
Base/as-tested price: $55,595/$60,069
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 5.5 sec
100 mph: 13.3 sec
1/4 mile: 14.1 @ 103 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 160 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.85 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 20 mpg
Third Place: Mercedes-Benz E550
It’s hard for us to dislike a car that can hurl itself to 60 mph in 4.8 seconds and cover a quarter-mile in 13.4 at 106 mph. Not so long ago those numbers would have rivaled a Corvette’s, and they’re better than the sprints posted by the first-generation E55 AMG, not to mention the best in this test. The updated E-class Benz achieves this the old-fashioned way: It has more muscle and a torque curve whose topography is similar to Nebraska’s—long and flat.
Mercedes powertrain engineers created this additional thrust by more displacement, expanding the V-8’s bore by 1.0 millimeter and stretching the stroke from 84.0mm to 90.5. Variable valve timing on all four cams helps, too. And check the valve and spark-plug count here—four and one per cylinder, respectively, in contrast to three and two, a configuration Mercedes once touted as The Answer to future emissions and power demands. Uh-huh.
HIGHS: Megawatt muscle, understated good looks, seven-speed automatic.
LOWS: Flaccid handling responses, noisy HVAC system, seven-speed automatic’s arrogant manual mode.
The 5.5-liter V-8 sends its power to the rear wheels via a seven-speed automatic that’s a real smoothie in full-auto mode but prone to make its own decisions when the driver attempts to use the manumatic function, an irritation that cost the Benz in the points tally. Nevertheless, from a standing start, nothing in this group—or, for that matter, in this class—can touch the Benz for getaway, and it was the only car to accompany its efforts with some pleasant backbeat from the exhaust.
The crew was also favorably impressed with the Benz’s subdued good looks, inside and out, awarding best-in-test marks in both scoring categories. Although the E-class lacks the flash of the sexy CLS sedan, its platform mate, the proportions are sweet and the various design elements handsomely integrated. As noted, the exterior updates to this car for ’07 are subtle—new bumpers, revised headlights, tweaks to the going-away view. Visible newness is always desirable in the car biz, but as with the BMW 3-series, Mercedes has a good thing going with the E-class sedan and clearly didn’t want to mess with it.
Inside, the tidy, integrated look of the dashboard design, including its dark color scheme, was applauded, although there was some speculation as to whether the oddly hued wood trim was fabricated from a petrified tree. Forward sightlines were best in test, and the seat coolers were welcome in the cactus-wilting heat.
But for all their good looks and broad range of adjustability, the seats came in for some kvetching from at least one crew member, as did the complex array of buttons and menus that make up the COMAND system. Why is it necessary to have the audio on in order to use the nav system? We don’t know. Maybe it’s not, but we couldn’t figure out how to separate the two functions. We don’t know why the HVAC system had to be so noisy, either. Also, the center console interfered with some right elbows, and its stylish little roll-top cover made a pretty stern sort of armrest.
But the Benz drew its sharpest criticisms on the Hocking Hills loop. A chassis that had seemed competent on less-challenging roads felt a little flaccid in this more demanding environment, and the air-spring suspension simply didn’t do a good job of controlling body motions compared with the Bimmer and M45. The steering seemed a little less than accurate to some, and adding braking to a turn-in maneuver on corners with an elevation change (read “whoop-de-do”) produced some exciting moments.
THE VERDICT: A superb cross-country ride but hold the decreasing radii.
To be honest, in this foursome the Benz is probably best suited to our notional faster-horses guy, a guy whose idea of fun to drive pretty much ends with lots of style backed by lots of thrust. But try as we might, we can’t factor agility out of our scoring. As a device to whisk you across the wide-open lonesome between, say, Salt Lake City and Reno, the E550 is tough to top. But if the road is gonna throw you some curves, other rides will serve better.
2007 Mercedes-Benz E550
382-hp V-8, 7-speed automatic, 4039 lb
Base/as-tested price: $61,075/$66,815
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 4.8 sec
100 mph: 11.8 sec
1/4 mile: 13.4 @ 106 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 170 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.84 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 17 mpg
Second Place: BMW 550i
In our 2005 comparo, a 5-series BMW came home sixth in a field of eight cars. Say what? Sixth! Of eight! A BMW!
At a glance, this seems almost incomprehensible, but a look at the fine print is revelatory. In one of our frequent fits of economic egalitarianism, we asked for a BMW 530i with a 225-hp, 3.0-liter straight-six instead of the more expensive 545i with V-8 power. The results were predictable. The Bimmer was slowest in many acceleration categories—not a good toy to bring to a power-hungry party.
HIGHS: Unerring dynamics, seductively smooth power, superb seats.
LOWS: Exasperating iDrive skimpy small-object stowage, clutch-your-heart price.
The 550i does not suffer from a power shortage. With a zero-to-60 time of 5.2 seconds and a quarter-mile run of 13.7 at 104 mph, it trailed only the swift Benz in acceleration, and its six-speed transmission had the best manual operation of the bunch (although a dual-clutch tranny like Audi’s DSG would improve the performance of any of these cars).
Predictably, the Bimmer was a favorite in the Hocking Hills. The logbook was filled with praise: “The definite back-road champ—always composed, wholly certain, pretty much unflappable.”
The BMW’s braking was consistent with the rest of its athletic skills, just one foot shy of the M45 in absolute 70-to-standstill terms—161 feet versus 160—and fade-free, stand on ’em as we might. If the steering drew some niggles for excess effort at speed, which is a bit annoying on the freeway, it was everybody’s friend elsewhere, praised for its accuracy and feel.
There were no surprises in all of this; everyone expects this of BMWs. Nor were we surprised that the 550i’s optional front seats were the best in the group: power front buckets with articulated upper backrests, active head restraints, and adjustable thigh and torso bolsters.
The 550i is quick on the track, quick on the road, and smooth on the freeway, and it scored the highest fun-to-drive rating in the group. Yet the BMW missed the top spot on the podium. By a point. Hmm. So where were the demerits?
There were a few complaints sprinkled amid the generally glowing logbook mini-reviews—a shortage of storage spaces for small stuff, a rather high cowl, not enough downward travel in the steering rake adjustment, the absence of seat coolers, a nav screen that irritatingly displayed duplicate maps (one big, one small). But they amount to just annoying asides. The deal breakers had to do with money and a device we unanimously love to hate.
The 550i’s base price of $59,195 undercut the Benz’s a bit, but it was already some $2500 more than the M45’s as-tested ticket. Add the $2800 Sport package, the $1800 Premium Sound package, an $1800 nav system, a $1000 head-up display, a $2200 night-vision system, the $750 Cold Weather package, a $575 power rear sunshade, heated rear seats ($350), Sirius satellite radio ($595), and split-folding rear seats with a ski sack ($475), and you have the most expensive car in the test. No positive points for that distinction.
THE VERDICT: A flawless driving machine diminished by pricey options and an infernal device.
The other culprit, of course, is the maddening iDrive, which cost the 550i in the ergonomics scoring, as well as in the gotta-have-it category. Quoting from the logbook again: “Whenever I figure out some part of iDrive and start thinking that maybe it’s not so bad, I run into something that stymies me completely and causes me to curse the ancestry of all involved in its creation.”
Are you listening, Munich?
2007 BMW 550i
360-hp V-8, 6-speed automatic, 4048 lb
Base/as-tested price: $59,195/$71,540
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 5.2 sec
100 mph: 12.7 sec
1/4 mile: 13.7 @ 104 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 161 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.89 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 17 mpg
First Place: Infiniti M45 Sport
In our 2005 derby, the M45 enjoyed a big advantage. It had one of the two most powerful engines in the group and had the best power-to-weight ratio. As a consequence, the M45 dominated in acceleration, as well as other dynamic scoring categories.
The composition of this test group is considerably different. Although this M45 test car, like the ’05, was a Sport model, its 325-hp V-8—same engine as in ’05 but down 10 horsepower because of the ’04 SAE protocol—ranked last on the power charts. Predictably, the M45 went from first to last in the sprints—zero-to-60 in 5.9 seconds and the quarter-mile in 14.5 at 100 mph, both times a tad slower than in ’05. It also slipped in skidpad performance, winding up just behind the BMW and just ahead of the Benz at 0.85 g. However, the 19-inch Bridgestone Potenza RE050A sport-package tires did help the M45 to best-in-test braking performance: 160 feet from 70 mph, which is close to sports-car territory.
HIGHS: Playful spirit, sports-car steering, excellent chassis, lots of room, best buy of the bunch.
LOWS: Cheesy alumalook plastic dashboard trim, lane-departure warning system.
In any case, numbers are only part of the story. The M45 prevailed for two big reasons. First, there is its character. The logbook commentary seemed to favor the Infiniti for its eagerness—a light steering touch with good feedback, brisk turn-in, quick transitions, a general sense of being quick on its feet that made the Bimmer’s responses seem a tad heavy and, well, Teutonic. Yes, we gave the 550i a one-point edge in fun-to-drive, a tribute to its superb competence. But of the two cars, the M45 seemed the more exuberant and ready to play.
The M45 also enjoyed small advantages in the department of details. For example, its secondary-control collective, perched on an odd little inclined plane near the top of the center stack, was easier to use than BMW’s iDrive. Switches had a nice feel and were legibly labeled. And we were delighted to discover that the lane-departure warning system could be switched off. This latest techno trick’s constant chirping had several drivers ready to pull the wiring loom. (Now, if Infiniti would just install an off switch for the adaptive part of the adaptive cruise control . . .)
More plaudits: There’s lots of room, even though the rear center seat is just as uninhabitable as any of ’em. Good marks for a seat-to-pedals-to-wheel relationship that at least one driver identified as “perfect.” Good marks for the seats—not as form-fitting as the BMW’s, but comfortable and cool (literally) in the bargain.
THE VERDICT: Even without the price advantage, a top-notch, no-excuses player in the luxo-sports-sedan game.
Ah, yes, bargain. Although it’s hard to attach that word to a car costing more than 50 large, it’s applicable here. M45 pricing starts at $49,750. The Sport version—19-inch wheels and tires, firmer suspension tuning, interior and exterior trim distinctions—starts at $51,200, and our test car was optioned to $56,730, by far the least expensive car in the group and almost $15,000 less than the as-tested price of the 550i. We’re regularly accused of profligacy with money we’re not really going to spend. But that’s a disparity too large to ignore.
2007 Infiniti M45 Sport
325-hp V-8, 5-speed automatic, 4082 lb
Base/as-tested price: $51,200/$56,730
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 5.9 sec
100 mph: 14.5 sec
1/4 mile: 14.5 @ 100 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 160 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.85 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 16 mpg
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