Munich quietly steals a march on everyone else
Sometimes it’s actually quite hard to see the progress from one generation of car to the next. It’s fairly easy to spot on paper because manufacturers can usually be counted upon to find a way of making each new car at least appear to be faster, cleaner and more economical. But to drive? In
the mainstream market where manufacturers live in terror of surprising their customers, they often feel remarkably similar.
And then someone will take a deep breath and move the whole game on. Mercedes-Benz did this last year with its new E-class and produced the best mass-produced large saloon I’d driven. Dripping with technology, yet with a beautiful and classically styled cabin, it was faster, more frugal, quieter, more comfortable and even more fun to drive.
For BMW, whose 5-series was not quite as good as even the old E-class, this was a gauntlet twice slapped about its face and laid squarely at its feet.
And when I saw its replacement, I doubted very much the company had appreciated – or risen to – the size of the challenge it faced. Its looks are entirely derivative of its 7-series big brother whose platform it shares, and which itself has failed to dislodge the Mercedes S-class as the best luxury car on sale for the umpteenth time in succession. Moreover, while the 7-series is made lighter by the clever but expensive use of carbon fibre in its construction, the cheaper 5-series has been denied such refinements.
So much for appearances. The fact is this is not merely the best 5-series since the E34 version was launched four generations and almost 30 years ago, it is so by far. In truth I was probably even more surprised by the advances made by BMW than those of Mercedes last year, if for no other reason than that the BMW had a greater distance to travel.
What is so remarkable about the newcomer is that BMW appears to be trying to play Mercedes at its own game. This is a strategy that almost always fails as Mercedes itself has found out to its cost with all those generations of C-class compact saloons that until the current one were never as good as the equivalent 3-series whose lead they always followed. But here is a BMW with Mercedes-Benz ride quality (just be careful about which suspension and wheel options you choose), a cabin every bit as plush and appealing as that of a Benz and world-class refinement too. The car I drove also came with a creamy 3-litre straight-six diesel offering effortless performance and at times implausible fuel consumption.
There’s very little on the downside either: rear legroom is more adequate than generous, it looks dull and I guess those who buy a 5-series for the way it handles might find this one a little less exciting. I’d not bother with four-wheel drive, either.
But that’s it. BMW’s response to the E-class threat is totally convincing, and the cars are now so close in ability I’d need the two together for a day to say for certain which one I preferred. Everything else in the category from the Audi A6 to the Jaguar XF can now count itself thoroughly outclassed.
3.0 litres, 6 cylinders, turbocharged
457lb [email protected]
eight-speed automatic, four-wheel drive
POWER TO WEIGHT
147bhp per tonne
TOP SPEED 155mph