In 2013, both Mercedes-Benz and BMW updated their respective medium-sized luxury saloon cars – the E-class and the 5-series. Each of these ‘refreshes’ was aimed at injecting some fresh life into cars, as they were starting to look and feel a bit long in the tooth. So what’s new?
Well, with just a glance at the 5-series, the exterior changes may not be immediately apparent. BMW chose to be very subtle with its facelift, and the visual updates are rather few. The headlights are now slimmer, all-LED units, there are new front and rear bumpers with more metallic accents, the wheel size has gone up to 18 inches, and the grille is more upright now and finished in matte silver on this ‘Modern’ trim. It certainly does look more premium and contemporary, but it’s not hugely different from the outgoing car.
The update to the E-class has been far more comprehensive – Mercedes really wanted to transform this car to give it a more youthful appeal and better driving dynamics. The headlamps are now slim, full-LED, single-piece units that have very attractive detailing. And, it’s only available with the sporty grille with the big Mercedes star in the centre; the classic chrome grille is not available in India. The cleaner lines down the car’s sides look more athletic and the LED tail-lamps look modern too. It’s worth noting, however, that this test car is a limited ‘Launch Edition’ model with a bit more equipment (more on that later) and this model has since sold out.
The pre-facelift versions of these cars each had their own strengths and weaknesses – the BMW was more tailored to the self-driven, while the Mercedes was better to be driven in. Let’s see if that equation has changed after the updates.
The 5-series facelift is only available with two diesel engines, the 530d and 520d (and three states of tune), and the one we’re testing, the 520d, is powered by a 2.0-litre, four-cylinder engine that produces 181bhp and 38.8kgm of pulling power. This is channelled through the same fantastic eight-speed automatic gearbox, and as before, the shifts are quick and smooth. The E-class is now only available with one diesel engine – the E 250 CDI, which uses a twin-turbo 2.1-litre, four-cylinder engine that produces 204bhp and a much healthier 50.9kgm of pulling power. It soldiers on with Mercedes’ old school seven-speed automatic gearbox, which though smooth and well capable of finding you the gear you need, is not quite as quick as the BMW’s.
The BMW’s engine lives up to the car’s billing of being fun to drive. It revs very easily, spins effortlessly (for a diesel), and power delivery is quick and snappy, no doubt helped by the gearbox. However, the noise that accompanies this performance is a bit too much for a luxury car in this segment, and we’d have liked more refinement. The Mercedes does much better here, with barely a hum entering its vault-like cabin. In fact, it’s this super-solid build and additional sound deadening on this new version that play a big part here. The 2.1-litre twin-turbo motor has a lot of torque (pulling power), and it builds it up in a linear surge, making it very easy to modulate the car’s pace.
Ride and handling
Here's where it gets interesting. At city speeds, the 5-series appears very comfortable, with only a mild jiggle felt over sharp bumps. The moment you go quicker, however, you notice that it pitches and bobs a lot over road imperfections. Highway expansion joints and lumps in tarmac cause it to rock back and forth like a boat. However, the steering is very accurate, and feels solid at high speeds, allowing you to enjoy the car a bit. It’s still a BMW though, so it responds well if you drive it enthusiastically, but it always feels big when you steer it, which is a bit of a role reversal, that’s normally what the Merc feels like.
This is where the E-class shines. The Mercedes has something called ‘Direct Control’ suspension, which adapts to road conditions, and it works really well. It’s not as ultimately soft as the BMW, but is instead, very compliant and better over a variety of conditions. The steering is light enough at low speeds and secure enough at high speeds, and show this car some corners, and it’s a thrill to drive. Unlike the 520d, it feels compact, agile, light on its feet and rock-solid at speed.
The BMW's cabin has been given a few small updates that help it feel a bit more luxurious. The steering wheel and dashboard top are finished in beige leather instead of black, the wood is a lighter colour, and there are added brushed silver embellishments on the dash and wheel. The 520d gets the smaller 6.5-inch screen for its iDrive computer and misses out on the touch-pad controller that the 530d gets, but all 5-series models get a high-tech instrument panel instead of actual speedo and tachometer dials.
These even change their appearance depending on if the car is set to Comfort, Sport or Eco Pro mode. The driving position is nice, but the dashboard top and window sills are a bit high, which takes a little getting used to.
Step in to the Mercedes immediately after and you’ll feel like you’re driving a greenhouse; the visibility is great. The interior hasn’t been updated as extensively as the exterior, but you’ll notice a few things. The dash trim is better, be it the metallic look on our Launch Edition car or the dull wood finish that comes as standard. The COMAND computer system is better than before, but it’s still not as effective or easy to use as BMW’s iDrive, and the dashboard still has too many buttons on it. The three hooded dials, however, look sporty and are easy to read.\
In the rear seat, it’s the BMW that’s more generously bolstered, offering great support all round. However, the downside of this is that, combined with the sharply angled rear door, this excessive cushioning makes getting in and out a bit tricky. A big change over the old car is that the front seats have now been made slimmer, so you don’t feel as cooped up sitting in the back.
The E 250 CDI’s rear bench may seem flat and uninviting in comparison, but it’s actually very comfortable over time. In fact, despite offering less support than the 5’s seat, the cushioning is actually softer. It’s wider too, and the transmission hump running through the centre isn’t as wide, so it’s a better bet if you often carry three in the back.
The two cabins are closely matched on quality, but the Mercedes has that extra feeling of solidity Mercs are famous for, it will wear better for sure. It’s a matter of preference, but we feel the 5-series looks and feels more luxurious and while the E-class gets its luxury basics right, it’s just a touch dated.
Equipment and safety
The standard for equipment in this segment is very high and, with their facelifts, both cars have raised their game. Both get eight airbags, full leather interiors, sunroofs, paddle shifters for the gearbox, electrically adjustable front seats with memory, electric steering adjustment, Bluetooth and USB support, fuel-saving engine stop-start systems, screen-based interfaces and rear-view cameras.
This should be enough to keep any luxury driver happy, but there are a few differences. The BMW gets an aux-in port, which the Merc eschews for an SD card reader. Both have automatic climate control, but while the 5-series has a two-zone system, the E-class uses a three-zone unit, so rear passengers can set their own temperature.
The 520d gets an electronic parking brake, while the E 250 CDI persists with an old-school, foot-operated mechanical one. A big difference, given our road conditions, is that the Mercedes gets a full-size spare wheel, while the BMW has run-flat tyres, and therefore, doesn’t get a spare at all.
Buying and owning
The 5-series range is now diesel only, with three options – the 520d (in Modern and Luxury trims), the 525d in Luxury trim at Rs 54.90 lakh, and the six-cylinder 530d in special M-Sport trim at Rs 59 lakh. The E-class is available in this E 250 CDI trim for Rs 47.66 lakh.
Mercedes offers a slightly better warranty at 36 months/unlimited km to the BMW’s 24 months /unlimited km. On fuel economy, the 520d managed to hit 10.3kpl in the city versus the Merc’s 9.2kpl. The Mercedes’ smaller, 59-litre fuel tank (the 5 gets a 70-litre tank) further limits its overall range.
BMW and Mercedes launched these updated versions of their cars soon after their global launches; they know the luxury car business is at its tipping point in India, and they are playing every advantage. BMW has concentrated on updating the interiors of its bestseller, and it’s clear, it has succeeded big time. The insides of the car are no longer just attractive but now feel genuinely rich and plush. The car has plenty of power and the fantastic eight-speed gearbox helps make it very flexible to drive too. BMW has, however, made the suspension too soft. It is floaty once you get up to speed and this means it is too bouncy to drive with any confidence.
Mercedes went much further in updating the E-class, not only redefining the look of the car, but also refining the tech, mechanicals, comfort and equipment. The result is an altogether more complete luxury car that delivers in the areas that matter. It’s more comfortable over long distances, the engine is more useable, it’s easier to drive, it’s well equipped and although it doesn’t feel quite as plush as the BMW, it certainly has the tougher build. And, it costs nearly Rs 2 lakh less than the 520d, and that seals the deal.