From the May 2009 issue of Car and Driver.
So you had to say goodbye to the Gulfstream, the corporate retreat in the Napa Valley, and your custom wastebasket—the decoupage job trimmed with pages from a Gutenberg Bible. Times are hard, and it just won’t do to be perceived as excessively self-indulgent—especially if you’re high up in the echelons of a publicly held corporation.
The new corporate Puritanism extends to automobiles, too, but in this area you have a little more latitude. Consider these two execucruisers. Yes, they’re flagship sedans with prestige brand names. But even in an age of austerity, top execs are still allowed some personal-transportation indulgence. You don’t want to be flaunting it with a Bentley, of course. But they don’t expect you to drive an econocube, either. We admit that greenies won’t approve. Both cars carry gas-guzzler taxes, and their mpg during our test—17 for the Mercedes, 16 for the BMW—is pickup-truck poor. And yes, pricing for both cars is a little high for public approval—more than $88,000 base, well over 100 large as tested—but who knows that?
See, that’s the good part. To casual observers—not you or us, of course—one BMW sedan looks pretty much like another. That goes for Mercedes sedans, too, with the added benefit of looking like a Hyundai—though we’re pretty sure no one in Stuttgart perceives any advantage in this.
So, elegantly subliminal and not too likely to attract a lot of invidious attention. With cars bearing price tags like these, you expect more than understated grandeur. You expect power. Comfort. Upscale interior appointments. Technical sophistication. Dynamic competence. Even night vision.
Check. Both cars deliver on these expectations, and neither is likely to disappoint its owner. But of course there are distinctions, and in at least one category, the distinction isn’t particularly subtle.
There are other high-end sedans that meet our (relatively) low-profile criteria—the Audi A8L, the Maserati Quattroporte, the Jaguar XJ Super V-8, and the Lexus LS460L, or even the LS600hL hybrid, which adds a greenish tint to your comings and goings. But we confine ourselves here to the Bimmer and the Benz, the former because it’s new, the latter because it prevailed in our most recent comparison of long-wheelbase luxosedans [“Chauffeur Showdown,” January 2007]. Here’s how the games played out.
Second Place: Mercedes-Benz S550
In 2007, we judged the S550’s blend of bridge-girder solidity, advanced technology, pulse-raising performance, distinguished interior, quiet operation, and all-day comfort to be tops in this class—and depending on the owner’s driving priorities, that judgment is still defensible. Okay, the steering doesn’t deliver much information, particularly on center. We didn’t achieve test-crew unanimity on the active front-seat side bolsters—definite love-hate polarity there—and those front fender flares are still an acquired taste: a little too much Mazda RX-8 for some.
HIGHS: Gorgeous interior, terrific transmission, brisk throttle response, lovely V-8 noises.
LOWS: Absence of on-center steering feel, resolute understeer, RX-8-like front fender flares.
But those are minor asterisks. On serpentine roads there’s not really much to pick between the steering systems of the Benz and the Bimmer, at least in terms of feel. You can shut off the auto bolsters—or refrain from ordering them—and styling that doesn’t provoke a little controversy isn’t worthy of the name. As far as that goes, Mercedes styling has inspired plenty of competing designers over the years, most recently from Korea.
Like the BMW, the S550 is a big car with rear-seat space worthy of a stretch limo (suitable for having yourself chauffeured—politically incorrect, though exceptions are made for parking-hostile burgs such as Manhattan). Also like the BMW, the Benz’s center rear seat isn’t a place we’d care to perch for long. There are, of course, the usual goodies available: video screens set into the backs of the front-seat headrests, rear-seat climate controls, and a power source for laptops. It’s quiet back there, too, though not as quiet inside as the BMW, whose hushed interior rivals Lexus LS sedans.
One area where the big Benz still holds an edge is the overall look of the interior. The new 7-series is improved in this regard. But the simple design of the Benz’s saddle-tan interior, augmented at night by soft ambient lighting, is the height of automotive good taste.
Incidentally, Mercedes is planning some S-class updates for 2010, including a front-end face lift with LED running lights (reducing the Hyundai similarity), multihued interior lighting, a new variable-ratio steering option, and a hybrid version, the S400.
So what kept the S550 from the top step on the podium? Dynamics. The Mercedes was almost as quick as the more powerful (and heavier) BMW—5.3 seconds to 60 mph versus 5.2—and its midrange throttle response was a smidge better, the benefit of its seven-speed automatic and its naturally aspirated V-8 versus a turbo engine. And its exhaust note, though subdued, was distinctly more satisfying. The Benz stopped almost as well, too: 173 feet from 70 mph versus 171, fade-free. Adaptive damping and active body control kept cornering attitudes flat, without a hint of compromise in ride quality. And straight-line high-speed stability was above reproach.
THE VERDICT: Still a first-rate executive express.
But in our favorite game—back-road pursuit, no speed limit—progressive understeer limited the S550’s cornering speeds, and it couldn’t quite keep pace. One logbook observation summed it up: “The Benz is competent. The BMW is compelling. The Benz is willing. The BMW is eager.”
First Place: BMW 750Li
In its last comparo appearance, the 750Li not only missed the winner’s circle—in itself a rarity for a BMW in C/D showdowns—it finished short of runner-up honors, too, placing third behind an Audi A8L and barely ahead of a Jaguar. Wow. What’s up with that?
In order of scoring magnitude, the offending elements were ergonomics (read: iDrive), exterior styling, interior styling, and, shockingly, fit and finish.
HIGHS: Robust power, outstanding high-speed reflexes and composure, serene interior.
LOWS: SUV curb weight, hints of turbo lag, gas-gobbler at high speeds, no side-mirror turn signals.
That was generation four in a family that dates to 1978. Here’s generation five, which not only addresses our gen-four demerits but adds some techno goodies that actually enhance the car’s safety index, as well as its basic BMW virtues—athletic reflexes in particular. The dreaded iDrive secondary-control collective has been overhauled and augmented with some auxiliary buttons that make it far more navigable, even to the staff’s card-carrying Luddite. The slab sides and “Bangle butt” that made the previous 7 hard to love have been replaced by strong horizontal character lines and a going-away view that’s still BMW but more cohesive—enhanced by clusters of LED turn signals, front and rear.
Inside, the BMW’s front seats get the edge for comfort and support, the optional head-up display ($1300) is a plus, and the night-vision system with pedestrian detection ($2600) is remarkable. There were a couple of other extras in our loaded test car—a ceramic shifter ($650) and the $2500 Luxury Seating package (heated wheel, power rear sunshade, rear side-window sunshades, ventilated front-seat upholstery, driver-seat massage, heated rear seats)—that wouldn’t be missed if omitted.
But having experienced the Sport package—it includes active roll stabilization, 19-inch wheels wearing Goodyear Excellence run-flats (245/45 front, 275/40 rear), and BMW’s latest variable-ratio Integral Active Steering system that now includes speed-sensitive rear steering—we’d hate to leave home without it, even though it’s the priciest option ticket on the list at $4900. More on this in a minute.
This is a bigger car than the fourth-generation 750Li, which was far from petite. The wheelbase has grown from 123.2 to 126.4 inches, the track is wider, and overall length is up 1.4 inches, to 205.3. That’s a little bigger than the Benz. The only bigger car in this segment is Jaguar’s Super V-8, but the aluminum-intensive Jag scales in much lighter. The new 750Li is heavier than its 2007 predecessor—4760 pounds versus 4600. Heavier than the Benz, too.
Getting all that mass moving requires carrier-takeoff thrust, supplied by a twin-turbo, 4.4-liter V-8—a little more horsepower than the previous naturally aspirated 4.8-liter V-8 (400 versus 360) and a lot more torque (450 pound-feet versus 360). That’s enough to produce 0-to-60 sprints in 5.2 seconds, and if there’s a hint of turbo lag, it’s only in contrast to the immediacy of the Benz V-8.
More impressive, though, is what this big Bimmer can do on a fast back road. The combination of a new multilink front suspension (replacing the previous struts), a redesigned rear suspension, electronically controlled damping with four driver presets (comfort, normal, sport, and sport plus), active roll stabilization, and rear-wheel steering gives this car a level of cornering power and transient response that’s nothing short of phenomenal.
Though grip is modest at 0.82 g, the steering system, which turns the rear wheels in the same direction as the fronts (up to three degrees) at speeds over 37 mph, enhances turn-in. This is reflected in the lane-change test, where the Bimmer had a decided edge, and was even more dramatic on mountain roads. The faster we went, the better the BMW performed and the more confidence it inspired.
THE VERDICT: An understated, high-tech CEO sedan with sports-car soul.
Is this sort of driving important to many of the execs who shop the cars in this price realm? Probably not. But it should be.
Afraid of the Dark?
Big, expensive sedans such as the 7-series and the S-class have night-vision features, but they go about helping drivers see better in the dark in different ways.
BMW’s night-visibility system uses a thermal-imaging camera mounted in the front bumper. The heat given off by warmblooded humans and animals that may be up the road, or on the side of it, shows up as bright spots on the display (the dashboard iDrive screen). This is supplemented by a new pedestrian-detection system that highlights potential hazards on the screen with bright yellow triangles and sounds audible warnings.
Mercedes-Benz uses a near-infrared camera, which requires a special set of lights in the headlamp cluster, to produce an eerily luminous image on the same instrument screen that contains the speedometer, so it’s right before the driver’s eyes where it’s easiest to see. The picture is sharp, and the camera can see farther than the human eye. Still, it would be better were there some kind of flashing warning on the obstacles.
In a less than ideal location, the BMW night-vision display—and the odd heat-based picture—takes some getting used to, but the pedestrian detection works and is an obvious safety bonus. The BMW device seems to illuminate more of the landscape. That yellow warning triangle also will appear on the windshield of a BMW equipped with an optional head-up display.
You can’t drive either car by just staring at the night-vision screens—the systems are supplements to the headlights and the driver’s eyesight. The prices are not outrageous in these already expensive cars: $2600 in the 750Li and part of the $4990 Premium 3 package in the S550. —Michael Austin
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