Lumping together all of the ‘premium bruisers,’ as we’ve nicknamed them, is not a big stretch thanks to the commonality between them.
This Performance Car Of The Year article was first published in MOTOR Magazine January 2013.
All share a bent eight-cylinder count, mid-four-second 0-100 potential, four-plus accommodation, plus-four-star luxury and appointments and are priced from a serious $160k through to a quarter-mil. Oh, and they’re all – surprise, surprise – German. Well, not so surprising perhaps.
Despite sometimes fanciful claims by rival nations, the Deutsch establishment remains, by most measures, untouchable. Audi, BMW and Merc-Benz continue to push one another hard, nudging the collective solid gold standards for high-performance luxury forward beyond, well, the rest of the world’s reach.
Ever shrewd and resourceful, the Germans are the undefeated champs of creating full-fat thrill-machines from humbler medium- to large-car donors. That’s not to say this group lacks variety.
BMW’s M5 and Merc-Benz’s E63 hi-po flagship large sedans are arch rivals, the former a reinvented twin-turbo 4.4-litre V8 version of the M5, the latter supplanting the previous E63’s 6.2-litre naturally aspired eight with a 5.5-litre twin-turbo V8 ported over from its CLS AMG cousin.
The $11k more affordable M car, at $229,500, steals the power march too, its 412kW playing 386kW, though its 680Nm cedes 20Nm to the Merc.
Straightforward, that is, until you add options… While a handful of niceties (such as satin paint) lift the BMW to within $45 of the AMG’s base price, our E63 gets AMG’s Handling pack ($13,200) and Performance pack ($17,900), the latter lifting outputs to 410kW and 800Nm. Call it (gulp) $276,680.
They’ve faced-off in our pages before, the Benz taking first blood back in March. Ingolstadt has no current-gen (C7) RS6 to counter these. Yet. There is a new S6 out, though its near-identically underpinned five-door twin, the S7 Sportback ($179,990), gets the 2012 PPC nod in lieu of stronger grip and sportier ambience.
It launches the all-new 309kW and 550Nm 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8 which, like the BMW M engine, has its huffers in the valley between the heads, flowing the combustion process ‘backwards’ in a sense. Hedging Audi’s bets is the least expensive of the group, a properly hard-core Rennsport-fettled quattro wrapped in a fat, two-door A5 bodyshell.
The RS5 is yours for $161,400… without the 20s, Dynamic steering and buff race seats. Ours, then, is $176,140 as tested.
Same naturally aspirated 331kW and 430Nm 4.2-litre eight as last year’s PPC entrant, but the face-lifted version gets new bits from the upcoming RS4 such as completely new electromechanical steering and a crown wheel centre differential benefitting its quattro system.
Judging primo bruisers in PCC is quite involved because leaders in this segment exude multifaceted talent. Buyers demand luxury, convenience and comfort one moment, surreal pace, dynamic ability and driving enjoyment the next. There’s subtly at play.
There’s complexity in balancing their attributes. And while they’re rarely at the bottom of timesheets, they only occasionally make benchmark performances as they go about their elaborate Jekyll and Hyde juggling acts. Thing is, the M5 wasn’t playing Mr Conventional.
Down the strip, it fired off blistering 4.41sec 0-100 time, nailed 400m in just 12.26, setting the fastest terminal speed of the entire field, a hyper-driven 197.69km/h, in the process. The M5’s thrust is breathtaking, the numbers it spits out equally so.
Its 80-120km/h rolling acceleration? Just 2.2sec. Only the SLS could beat that. And BMW’s top-shelf sedan was the only steed of the entire field to breech 240km/h down the main straight at Sydney Motorsport Park. The E63 was tardier – and slowest of the four – to 100km/h (4.72sec), though it’s equally as rapid as the M5 into triple-figure speeds, posting a 12.61 over the quarter.
Meanwhile, the S7 scorched to the 400m mark in just 12.69sec. And it nailed 100km/h on its way there over a tenth quicker than Audi’s claim with a time of 4.57! Its naturally aspirated coupe stablemate, the RS5, also harnesses all-paw traction to hit 100km/h five-hundredths quicker and hit the traps in 12.66sec.
For the record, your Honour, neither the FPV nor Chrysler muscle cars were as quick as this German quartet. Think about that for a moment: mid-4s and mid-12s are now the average expectation for want-for-nothing four- and five-seater luxury cars with a go-fast bent!
And yet the only other competitor in the field to match the serene all-round comfort levels of three (S7, M5, E63) of this group of four was the 300 SRT8. And, perhaps, maybe the 911.
The RS5, however, has decent, rather than overly pleasant, cross country manners – the ride is always a touch jiggly over less than perfect surfaces, its new steering is always quite weighty, its aggressively bolstered buckets supportive rather than comfortable.
But the judges felt this was an acceptable trade for how much it oozes character and purpose – from the rich roar of its vocal engine to the all telling sensation the chassis transmits from the road to your spine – that never wanes as you wash the pace off to sane public road speeds.
That said, there’s certainly enough polish, compliance and forgiveness in the RS5 package that you could live with it every day. Even before any of the group hit the circuit, the two-door Audi was winning hearts in the way it balanced its key elements out on the road loop component that’s so crucial in appraising luxo-performers.
Manic roadholding, idiot-proof predictability, resolved bump compliance, a playful chassis tune and a sweetly matched engine that never feels to overpower the complete package combine to urge the driver to dig in and have some fun. The S7, though, is quite the opposite.
It’s fast alright, particularly for its considerable 1945kg heft, but it gobbles up the hotmix with comparative detachment and numbness. Its free-revving engine is a gem but it lacks anything like character, and once you throw it some curves the chassis struggles a little to contain all forces – engine output, dynamic weight shifts – at play.
Unlike its stablemate, you’re always getting out of the throttle, easing out of the chassis, pouring cold water on the experience. What’s evident is that Audi specifically plugs a sizeable wedge between its approach to S and RS variants (gotta leave room for an RS7, now, don’t we?).
And what the impressive times and specs don’t translate is the overbearing sense that the S7’s been smothered in a big wet blanket when it comes to driver connection and fun factor. The evidence isn’t in the ten-tenths heroics either, but that as an all-rounder experience it’s a pretty dull, characterless car.
Evidence such as its so-called Dynamic drive mode, which seems to be specifically tuned to present a softer holistic character than that of the RS5’s Comfort mode. Yes, we ‘get’ that an S isn’t ostensibly RS-lite.
And given the choice to clock big distances across our great land, or any land for that matter, the S7 nudges the E63 as the grand tourer of choice among the PCC flock. It just needs more soul. And it’s a lack of mojo, above than anything else, that convinced three of the five judges to give it their respective wooden spoons.
Cue the E63. Firstly, it is more comfortable in cruise mode than the S7. Better yet, as a mild-mannered, cosseting, around-town prospect it really is the class of the field bar none. And yet it always feels, and certainly sounds, buff – like it’s tensing up its muscles within, ready to man the battle stations the instant you flex your right foot.
Its MCT seven-speed, the only true automatic in its group, is simply brilliant, noticeably smoother and more refined at the low-speed stuff than Audi’s or BMW’s twin-clutch self-shifters, yet just as responsive, intuitive and quick-shifting in its aggressive Sport+ mode.
Nor is the actual feel of the E63 encumbered by technical complexities beneath the skin, such as the Ride Control suspension’s air-sprung rear and its variable assist electromechanical steering.
There’s proper clarity at the controls. Add a well-honed stability control system with a nice, broad oversteer window and strong grip from its generous footprint and you’ve got an engaging, driver-focused experience that points, responds and feeds back like no opulent 1840kg fat cat German missile should.
And it keeps on giving right up to the red mist racetrack stuff, which is a marvel unto itself. The M5 is actually quicker around the circuit than the E63, though consensus among the judges was that it didn’t necessarily feel so, and that it wasn’t connecting with its driver quite as successfully.
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Where the E63 is engaging and playful, sniffing out the outer limits – and in the case of Mr Cleary in one instance, a few steps beyond – the M5 felt more like you’re guiding a torpedo. Oh, the M5 does the business. Effortlessly so. As a comfy executive rocket ship with humongous real-world on-road flexibility it wants for very little.
However, it just feels a little too soft-edged, a little too encumbered by techno-electronic trickery, outside its big party trick of pummelling acceleration. The judges didn’t warm to its slightly detached feel and a dynamic character that seems to inhibit driver connectivity and favour safe, surefooted passage.
It doesn’t point as assertively as its rivals. It doesn’t change direction with much agility. Good stuff for the autobahn, perhaps, but not exactly a barrel of laughs on track. Unless you’re tearing the horizon a new one, the engine is a bit dull, loping around in the depths of the rpm range, nonplussed, not just cruising highways but chasing back road curves.
This velvet-trimmed cannon approach isn’t befit the ultimate driving machine mantra on which its nameplate’s reputation rests. “I’d trade a chunk of the M5’s output for just half of the RS5’s character,” one judge said… The two-door Audi wasn’t simply content to win feel-good points, either.
It stomped around the circuit like a demon, its 2:11.6 drawing whistles from the judges once it transpired that it was 2.6sec quicker than the M5, 4.3sec swifter than the E63 and 5.7sec faster than the S7. Only the 911 and SLS clocked a lower lap time. Little wonder, then, that the RS5 climbed up the ladder, scoring a well-deserved fourth place outright.
Overall Rank: 13
Andrew Maclean - 14th: “Looks fantastic, goes like the clappers, but not all that exciting”
Curt Dupriez - 12th: “Swift, comfy belter, but feels as if Audi pulled its reins back too hard”
James Cleary - 10th: “Rocket ship disguised as five-door hatch. Bring on an RS7”
Nathan Ponchard - 14th: “Fast, but not a track car. Relies on its torque split to combat understeer”
WARREN LUFF SAYS
“It lacks emotion and feeling. It does it all too easy, as a driver you don’t feel like you’ve got a lot of input into anything it does. Which is a compliment to the car because it does everything so well, but as a driver’s car, you want to feel like you’ve got a bit more input into what’s going on around you ”
Overall Rank: 10
Andrew Maclean - 11th: “It can shift the axis of the earth, but it’s all out of balance for me”
Curt Dupriez - 10th: “A great car, but too much of a lead-tipped torpedo in this company”
James Cleary - 11th: “Lacks mongrel. More executive express than performance sedan”
Nathan Ponchard - 9th: “Ballistic and luxurious, but heavy. Begrudging steering”
WARREN LUFF SAYS
“It’s too edgy, it requires such finesse and that’s not what an M5 is about, it’s meant to be a big, fast luxury sedan that you can push hard on the limit, but it should be forgiving – this car on the limit could catch you out, so it’s a car you’ve got to give a lot of respect to. It’s meant to be a little bit more tame”
Overall Rank: 6
Andrew Maclean - 7th: "Lost some of the charm of the atmo 6.2, but none of its devastating speed”
Curt Dupriez - 7th: “It’s a lot of coin. Has more soul and driver focus than its M5 arch nemesis”
James Cleary - 5th: “More agile than M5. Sounds like a NASCAR at Charlotte”
Nathan Ponchard - 6th: “Less complex than M5, and much more charming and capable"
WARREN LUFF SAYS
“For such a big car, it’s amazing that something like this can be so fast around a racetrack. You can’t get away from the fact that it’s a big, heavy car, you can feel it in the corners – you’ve just got to slow it up, if you go in too fast you get a lot of understeer on the way in, but it’s surprisingly driveable on the throttle”
Overall Rank: 4
Andrew Maclean - 3rd: “Felt like a racecar on track, cruised with class everywhere else”
Curt Dupriez - 5th: "Soul, agility, race pace. It flogged the blown V8s around the circuit”
James Cleary - 3rd: "Every link in the chain is strong. Ergonomics near perfect”
Nathan Ponchard - 4th: “How it should’ve been from the start! Everything the S7 isn’t. Really like it”
WARREN LUFF SAYS
“Such an easy car to drive on the limit. The engine is awesome, it sounds so good inside, loads of torque, revs to 8250rpm in every gear. Dynamically, the chassis works so well, you just stay off the throttle, let it settle and the moment you feel you’ve got grip at the front you can get hard on the throttle”