Corporate downsizing: BMW 520i vs Audi A6 2.0 vs Mercedes E200 vs Lexus 250
Smaller engines don't necessarily mean less luxury.
Buyers craving a prestige badge have never had it so good.
Luxury brands are increasingly chasing volume at the expense of exclusivity, bringing in new cheaper models designed to tempt people to make the leap from mainstream to prestige motoring.
Until now, most of the attention has been focused on small hatches and compact SUVs, but the latest pricing battleground is big sedans.
Mercedes-Benz's E-Class, BMW's 5-Series and Audi's A6 have all dipped to less than $80,000, thanks to new models with less powerful engines. Japanese rival Lexus has followed suit with the release of its new GS range, launching a GS250 model priced at $77,900, exactly the same money Audi and BMW are asking for their cheapest models.
All three get less equipment and a smaller engine - a small-capacity V6 in the case of the Lexus and turbocharged four-cylinders in the Audi and BMW.
Mercedes-Benz's new E200 also gets a turbocharged four-cylinder engine and starts at $79,900.
It also misses out on quite a bit of standard equipment.
Audi A6 2.0 TFSI
In its far more expensive all-wheel-drive diesel form, the A6 took the gong for Drive Luxury Car of the Year over $80,000 in 2011. So is the cheapest version of the car nearly as good?
Sliding behind the driver's seat, you'd be hard pressed to pick many differences.
The classy dashboard screen and instrument cluster with digital speedo give it a technological feel, and at night there's mood lighting in the doors and footwells.
As with all Audis, the quality of cabin materials is top-notch and the media system is very simple to use. But you need to pay about $100 for a cable to connect your MP3 player to the audio system and our test car also came with more than $7000 worth of options, which disappointingly didn't include foglights. Audi is also the only brand here that charges extra for classier looking wood inlays (from $600 to $1960).
Otherwise, the storage is good and safety package sound, with eight airbags standard.
The seats are comfortable up front and in the rear, while the back also has good headroom and back support but does feel a little tight for knee room.
The boot is the biggest here and the rear seat split folds for extra space but doesn't have a ski port. A space-saver spare is standard.
Our car was fitted with optional 18-inch alloys and sports suspension, and as a result the ride was far from perfect.
The car jiggled over corrugations at low speeds and was sharp over bigger bumps at all speeds. The electric steering tended to weight up oddly at times, too, and it was noisy inside at speed.
The engine of the A6 is rated second thirstiest here, but during our testing it proved impressively thrifty, especially on the freeway. It was ranked second quickest in our 0-100km/h test, which was slightly uphill with three people on board.
The continuously variable transmission kept the engine in its sweet spot on the open road, especially when asked to overtake. But it felt a little clumsy at low speeds, as it hesitated and lurched at times.
Engine 2.0-litre 4-cyl turbo
Power132kW at 4000rpm-6000rpm
Torque 320Nm at 1500rpm-3900rpm
Transmission Continuously variable transmission with sport mode; FWD
Fuel use 7.7L/100km
Claimed 0-100km/h 8.3 sec
Our test 10.9 sec
The prospect of a cut-price 5-Series soon evaporated when our test car arrived.
Our 520i had $12,400 worth of options, including a sunroof, bi-xenon headlights, an upgraded satnav system with internet connectivity and a bigger screen, electric front seats with driver's seat memory and steering adjustment, and metallic paint.
The 520i is powered by a 2.0-litre petrol four-cylinder turbo engine teamed to an eight-speed automatic transmission, with 135kW of power and 270Nm of torque sent to the rear wheels. It was the second quickest car here in our 0-100km/h testing, but it feels quicker than it is.
The engine offers a commendable amount of shove from low in the rev-range and the gear shifts are generally smooth and precise, but we did find the eight-speed auto transmission unusually clunky at lower speeds, and there are no paddle shifts on the steering wheel.
The 5-Series has built its reputation on being the choice for driving enthusiasts and the 520i doesn't disappoint despite the lower kilowatt count.
The BMW's steering is excellent, and the car is a clear winner when the road turns twisty, but the trade-off is comfort. Smaller bumps were felt in the cabin at most speeds, with the stiff sidewalls of the run-flat tyres failing to deliver the plush ride many expect of a luxury car. The suspension could thump noisily at times.
The 520i's cabin was also a letdown in this company, with a gaudy silver and cream-style finish, no digital speed readout and the familiar orange-lit instrument panel that doesn't look sufficiently different from the much cheaper 1-Series.
More-expensive-looking woodgrain is a no-cost option, though, and the optional oversized media screen added a touch of flair. Storage remains a weak point, though, with a small glovebox, shallow centre console and slim door pockets.
The seats are comfortable up front, with good support, but there's no seatbelt height adjustment and electric adjustment is optional. It gets dual front, front-side and full-length curtain airbags.
In the back, leg and headroom are good.
A ski port and split-fold rear seat are handy, but the boot is the smallest here, despite the fact that there's no spare tyre.
Engine 2.0-litre 4-cyl turbo
Power 135kW at 5000-6250rpm
Torque 270Nm at 1250-4500rpm
Transmission 8-sp auto; RWD
Fuel use 6.4L/100km
Claimed 0-100km/h 8.0 sec
Our test 10.9 sec
Mercedes-Benz E200 Elegance
The E200 started as the most expensive car by $2000 and, after $14,800 worth of options were added, it was almost $17,000 more than the Lexus we tested.
The options list included sports suspension, different wheels, bi-xenon headlights, a different grille, twin exhaust pipes, leather interior, sunroof, Harman Kardon stereo and keyless entry. Oh, and $2100 worth of metallic paint.
Despite the many options, some elements of the interior don't feel up to the asking price of the car. The seats have manual sliding and lumbar support controls, the steering adjustment is manually operated and the foot-operated park brake eats into driver legroom and feels a bit truck-like - as does the column-shift gear stalk.
It wins back points for comfortable and supportive seats, quality finishes on the dash, doors and console, and classy ambient lighting. The crystal-clear media screen displays album covers from your iPod and the instrument cluster has an integrated digital speedo.
Elsewhere, the cabin is dark and formal, but well finished. The covered, split-fold centre console is a decent size, but the door pockets are quite slim.
The safety package is strong, with 11 airbags and Mercedes' ''Pre-Safe'' system that prepares the cabin for impact if it detects a crash is inevitable.
The back seat is roomy, with good knee and headroom, but the seats themselves felt a little flat and unsupportive. As one judge put it, you sit ''on'' them, not ''in'' them.
The boot is a decent size, with a split-fold rear seat to accommodate bulkier items and a space-saver tyre under the floor.
The 1.8-litre turbocharged engine hauls the E-Class with ease despite being the smallest on this test. It's peppy from a standstill and offers smooth power delivery as speeds rise, teaming nicely with the seven-speed transmission.
It was the quickest of our four cars and officially, it's the second most efficient car here, although it didn't appear to have as much of an advantage in real-world conditions.
The ride - even with the optional sports suspension - is comfortable and compliant, while the big Benz hangs on impressively through corners. The steering is light and accurate, but some judges felt it lacked a little feel.
Engine1.8-litre 4-cyl turbo
Power 135kW at 5250rpm
Torque 270Nm at 1800rpm-4600rpm
Transmission 7-sp auto; RWD
Fuel use 6.6L/100km
Claimed 0-100km/h 7.9 sec
Our test 10.8 sec
Lexus GS250 Luxury
The Lexus was the odd man out in this comparison and not because it isn't German.
The car we tested had no options but still boasted a blind-spot monitoring system, a reversing camera, an automatic electric park brake, electric heated and cooled seats with retracting function for easy entry and exit, and bi-xenon headlights. None of its competitors had any of these items as standard.
Unlike the BMW and Mercedes, it doesn't qualify for an exemption from the luxury car tax fuel-use threshold, which means the asking price also includes $4715 in tax - giving you a good idea of the extra margin built into the German pair.
The GS's interior is a standout. There's soft, cushy leather on the doors, dash, seats and centre console, which is dissected by a plastic wood-grain finish and brushed metal analog clock. The white-lit instrument cluster is clear and well laid-out but misses a digital speed readout.
The large media screen is dominant, even if the illustration is more cartoonish than classy. It's easy to use and the 12-speaker stereo system - with digital radio - is excellent.
The front seats were comfortable if a little short and slightly firm in the base. Rear-seat legroom was noticeably tighter than the others, but the rear seats were the most comfortable and supportive.
The boot has an extra-wide opening and rear-floor area for swallowing golf bags, but you can't fold the back seats down at all.
The GS doesn't match the BMW and Mercedes through corners, but is capable and composed, with good steering feel. It also has the most luxurious ride.
The engine is a weak point, though. It lacks the low-rev push of its turbocharged German rivals and was slowest in our 0-100km/h test run.
It's also more raucous when revved, although the exhaust note had a sporty element that some judges liked.
The Lexus is the only vehicle in this test that doesn't have fuel-saving stop-start technology and on paper it's 45 per cent thirstier than the most frugal car here, the BMW - but during our testing we found the gap to the Germans was a lot closer than the label says.
Engine 2.5-litre V6
Power 154kW at 6400rpm
Torque 253Nm at 4800rpm
Transmission 6-sp auto; RWD
Fuel use 9.3L/100km
Claimed 0-100km/h 8.6 sec
Our test 12.0 sec
There's very little separating these cars and in the end, the decision will probably come down to personal taste.
If sporty handling and a punchy engine are what you're after, the BMW is your pick. But the ride is a little harsh and the cabin doesn't exude the same level of luxury as the others.
The Audi is comfortable and classy, but the sports suspension and the CVT transmission don't deliver the silky smooth driving experience of the Mercedes and Lexus in city traffic.
That leaves just the Benz and the Lexus.
The E-Class was a surprise. It has the smallest engine here, but offers plenty of punch, combined with a great balance between comfort and cornering ability. It also has the most spacious cabin. But the standard equipment list is skinny and the options expensive.
The Lexus isn't perfect. Its engine is doughy and thirsty, and the rear seat is snug. But the combination of great value, a plush modern interior and a comfortable, quiet cabin is hard to argue with. In the end it wins because it offers more bells and whistles for less money.
i'd choose the Audi over the Beamer the Lexus over the merc!
Tough time in the economy. These budget luxury vehicles fill that quota well.
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