The Day Passion Met Precision: Three of the Most Soulful Cars on the Road Just Happen to be German
This comparison represents a peek into three heavyweight luxury German carmakers’ state of the art. The Audi S7, BMW 650i Gran Coupe xDrive, and Mercedes-Benz CLS550 4Matic represent a good chunk of their respective brands’ best thinking. But what are these swoopy four-door coupes? (And for the record, we hate the abuse of language that takes place every time a 2-ton sedan is called a “coupe.”) The cynical view is that the Germans invented a meal between breakfast and brunch. All three cars are variants of each manufacturer’s midsize offering: The S7 is built off the A6; the Gran Coupe is based on the F12 6 Series (which is in turn based on the current 5 Series platform); and the CLS is born from the E-Class. So, each company has found a way to charge more money for essentially the same old mimosa and pancakes.
Even if they are just the same old cars in fancy new suits, don’t nice suits cost money? Not only that, but at least one of these lookers has been much improved versus the donor whence it came. Plus, aren’t businesses in the business of making profits? In a sense, then, these three cars represent their respective makers’ best foot forward. But they also highlight the club feet, as all three reveal their manufacturers’ current weaknesses.
Starting with the Benz, we’re talking bad design, inside and out. Sure, the CLS is decent-looking, but this sleek, sloped-roof “coupe” segment is all about sexy metal appeal. Mercedes should know this, as the automaker invented it! But the Benz looks like a clenched fist, which may very well be sexy to the German mind-set. Compared with the other two contenders, the CLS comes off a little dumpy and a tad frumpy. The interior is about to be refreshed, and boy howdy, it needs it. The exterior is going to have to wait a while. The Gran Coupe, meanwhile, exhibits BMW’s new favorite sin: sloth, in terms of porky weight (4603 pounds, the heaviest in our test by nearly 200 pounds more than the S7) and laggard throttle response. As for the Audi, the S7 is yet another chapter of too much weight hanging off the wrong side of the front halfshafts, resulting in numb steering feel and sketchy, make-your-palms-sweat understeer.
As is often said, there is no perfect car. Yet these three cars come closer to the Platonic automotive ideal than most. I feel justified and factual in stating that today’s “loser” (for lack of a softer synonym) might just be the very best third-place finisher in Motor Trend history. I’d be thrilled to wake up and find its keys in a bowl near my front door.
That third-place car is the Mercedes-Benz CLS550, the car that started it all. “Crazy how much changes in a year or so,” said executive editor Ron Kiino. “The last time we compared a CLS550 (against the regular-flavor A7 and the Jaguar XJ — “High Fashion and Misdemeanors,” September 2011), it offered the best combo of sport and luxury. Now, I find myself ranking it third.” The CLS has done nothing wrong. It’s just that the competition artfully stepped up their games. A year ago BMW didn’t even have an offering in this high-concept segment. And the A7, while pretty much OK (and quite easy on the eyes) just couldn’t compete with the big Benz’s overall might and refinement.
Things have changed. Complete with AWD and a 402-hp, 4.7-liter twin-turbo V-8 (biggest displacement engine of the test), the CLS550’s 0-60 and quarter-mile times were the slowest of the trio, with 4.4 and 12.9 seconds at 110.6 mph — more or less even with a Ford Mustang GT, but definitely slower than the other two. The 445-hp BMW Gran Coupe clips 60 mph in 4.2 seconds before tackling the quarter mile in 12.7 seconds at 108 mph. The Audi? It’s steroidal sports-car-fast, friends, hitting 60 mph in 3.9 seconds and knocking off the quarter in 12.3 seconds at 112.1 mph. Pretty astonishing for a 4435-pounder with the smallest displacement engine of the test, a 4.0-liter twin-turbo V-8 that’s probably underrated at only 420 hp and 406 lb-ft of torque. And by probably, I mean absolutely, no question.
Numbers matter, but being the slowest isn’t the only reason why the CLS came in last. Out on the road, it was also the least impressive. “Feels a bit like a blunt instrument,” opined associate editor Scott Evans. “The CLS550 is plenty nimble, but it’s not completely graceful. Seems to throw its weight around rather than flow from corner to corner.” I found the Benz a bit numb all around compared with the others. Like when you’ve been to the dentist and the Novocain’s almost gone, but not quite. The CLS550 has very good power, heroic grip, and decent steering. It’s fun to push hard for small stretches, but, perhaps because of an overabundance of sound insulation, the Mercedes is simply not lively enough for you to remember that you can thrash it. Plus, against the others, it was rather squishy. Said Kiino, “The chassis didn’t feel as competent on our loop. The most roll and body move-ment of the three.” Evans agreed. “Kind of pushy in sharper corners, and the stability control is overeager. Great touring car, but not the greatest dancer.” The CLS did have the most comfortable seats and the best outward visibility, but at the end of the day, third place.
Second place goes to the Audi S7, with a big asterisk. Why? Kiino ranked it first. “C’mon, this is a 420-hp hatchback with AWD and a seven-speed dual-clutch with launch control. I give it the first-place nod, as it’s the best combo of speed, luxury, style, and — what differentiates it from the others — utility.”
In fact, Scott and I (almost) agree. “This car is obscenely fast in a straight line. Luxury sedans with liftgates shouldn’t be able to do this,” said Evans. “It doubles down by being ridiculously quick in corners as well. The grip is fantastic and the weapons-grade torque absolutely flings you out of every turn.” Compared with the CLS, the Audi feels fun — as if Audi included a little devil sitting on your shoulder, whispering, “Do it, do it, do it faster! Now do it again!” But as much fun as the S7 is, Scott and I couldn’t get past the sadly typical bad Audi steering feel. Comfort mode is lacking and Dynamic is overboosted — there’s no sweet spot. Ron described it as “numb but precise.” Fair enough. But the mid-corner understeer can best be described as middling. But in this company, and especially at this price, it’s unacceptable. Also, the carbon-fiber interior is a little silly and tacky. The S7 is a fabulous car, no doubt, but we found one that’s better.
Meet Goldilocks, aka the BMW 650i xDrive Gran Coupe. “This is what the F10 5 Series should have been from day one,” opined Evans. “Forget this Gran Coupe nonsense — just call this thing the 5 Series and let the current car quietly fade from memory.” Scott went on to say that this “may be BMW’s best car at the moment.” I sure think it is, and have been referring to it as “my favorite BMW” since I first drove it back in August.
As much as I like the looks of the Audi S7, there’s simply something more seductive about the Gran Coupe. Even Ron agreed. “Highest curb appeal here, and the valets are more likely to put this one up front.” More surprising is the Gran Coupe’s interior, the best BMW’s ever done by several kilometers. From the two-tone leather to the funky speaker grilles to the ballsy asymmetric center-stack treatment (how can you not love three separate rows of French stitching spreading up and out toward the windshield like some sort of vine?), almost every inch of the car’s innards has been crafted to a standard higher than that of any Audi or Mercedes. More important, the Gran Coupe is the first car of its type (four-door coupes) with an interior as radical as its exterior.
Is the Gran Coupe as awesome on our favorite back roads as the S7? No. “The car has nice moves, but it’s just not as sharp as the Audi,” said Kiino. However, it’s plenty sharp. Weight is an issue in sharp corners, of course, but not that much of an issue. “Drives smaller than it is,” added Evans. “I found it easy to forget how fast I was going and how big this car is, until I hit a sharp corner. Otherwise, it’s a pleasure to drive hard. Nice transitions; very smooth.” Like all three competitors, the BMW is AWD. However, to me it felt the most RWD-biased. I also thought it had the best steering feel, as did Evans. “There’s a nice weight to the inputs that feels pretty natural. More important, the steering feel is surprisingly good, especially considering that it’s AWD and that recent BMWs have demonstrated poor steering feel.”
If this test were just about pure, back-road capability, the S7 would get the nod. But as the BMW is about 95 percent as capable as the Audi (identical 0.94 max g, too), but offers so much more in desirability, craftsmanship, and that all-important X-factor, we’re calling it the winner. As stated, there are no perfect cars. But it’s very seldom that I find myself so quick to forgive vehicular flaws. With the BMW Gran Coupe, that’s absolutely the case. As such, “The Ultimate Driving Machine” just took on a whole new meaning.
| ||2013 Audi S7||2013 BMW 650I Gran Coupe xDrive||2013 Mercedes-Benz CLS550 4Matic|
|DRIVETRAIN LAYOUT||Front-engine, AWD||Front-engine, AWD||Front-engine, AWD|
|ENGINE TYPE||Twin-turbo 90-deg V-8, aluminum block/heads||Twin-turbo 90-deg V-8, aluminum block/heads||Twin-turbo 90-deg V-8, aluminum block/heads|
|VALVETRAIN||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl|
|DISPLACEMENT||243.7 cu in/3993 cc||268.2 cu in/4395 cc||284.6 cu in/4663 cc|
|POWER (SAE NET)||420 hp @ 5500 rpm||445 hp @ 5500 rpm||402 hp @ 5000 rpm|
|TORQUE (SAE NET)||406 lb-ft @ 1400 rpm||480 lb-ft @ 2000 rpm||443 lb-ft @ 1800 rpm|
|REDLINE||6400 rpm||7000 rpm||6300 rpm|
|WEIGHT TO POWER||10.6 lb/hp||10.3 lb/hp||10.7 lb/hp|
|TRANSMISSION||7-speed twin-cl auto||8-speed automatic||7-speed automatic|
|SUSPENSION, FRONT; REAR||Multilink, air springs, adj shocks, anti-roll bar; multilink, air springs, adj shocks, anti-roll bar||Control arms, coil springs, adj shocks, adj anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, adj shocks, adj anti-roll bar||Struts, air springs, adj shocks, anti-roll bar; multilink, air springs, adj shocks, anti-roll bar|
|BRAKES, F;R||15.7-in vented disc; 14.0-in vented disc, ABS||13.7-in vented disc; 13.6-in vented disc, ABS||14.2-in vented, drilled disc; 12.6-in vented disc, ABS|
|WHEELS, F;R||9.0 x 20-in, cast aluminum||8.5 x 20-in; 9.0 x 20-in cast aluminum||9.0 x 19-in; 10.0 x 19-in cast aluminum|
|TIRES, F;R|| 265/35R20 99Y
Yokohama Advan Sport
|245/35R20 95Y; 275/30R20 97Y Dunlop SP Sport Maxx GT DSST||255/35R19 96Y; 285/30R19 98Y Pirelli P Zero|
|WHEELBASE||114.7 in||116.9 in||113.2 in|
|TRACK, F/R||64.7/64.4 in||63.2/65.8 in||63.9/63.2 in|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||195.6 x 75.2 x 55.9 in||197.2 x 74.6 x 54.8 in||194.5 x 74.1 x 55.8 in|
|TURNING CIRCLE||39.0 ft||39.2 ft||37.0 ft|
|CURB WEIGHT||4435 lb||4603 lb||4318 lb|
|WEIGHT DIST, F/R||55/45%||53/47%||56/44%|
|HEADROOM, F/R||36.9/36.6 in||40.6/37.0 in||36.9/36.1 in|
|LEGROOM, F/R||41.3/37.0 in||42.1/35.3 in||42.1/35.0 in|
|SHOULDER ROOM, F/R||57.2/55.9 in||56.7/54.6 in||57.1/56.5 in|
|CARGO VOLUME||24.5 cu ft||13.0 cu ft||15.3 cu ft|
|ACCELERATION TO MPH|
|0-30||1.2 sec||1.4 sec||1.7 sec|
|PASSING, 45-65 MPH||2.1||2.1||2|
|QUARTER MILE||12.3 sec @ 112.1 mph||12.7 sec @ 108.0 mph||12.9 sec @ 110.6 mph|
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH||103 ft||106 ft||102 ft|
|LATERAL ACCELERATION||0.94 g (avg)||0.94 g (avg)||0.88 g (avg)|
|MT FIGURE EIGHT||24.8 sec @ 0.81 g (avg)||25.1 sec @ 0.79 g (avg)||25.4 sec @ 0.75 g (avg)|
|TOP-GEAR REVS @ 60 MPH||1600 rpm||1500 rpm||1500 rpm|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$85,570||$114,845||$81,135|
|AIRBAGS||Dual front, front side, f/r curtain, front knee||Dual front, front side, f/r curtain, front knee||Dual front, f/r side, f/r curtain, front knee|
|BASIC WARRANTY||4 yrs/50,000 mi||4 yrs/50,000 mi||4 yrs/50,000 mi|
|POWERTRAIN WARRANTY||4 yrs/50,000 mi||4 yrs/50,000 mi||4 yrs/50,000 mi|
|ROADSIDE ASSISTANCE||4 yrs/unlimited||4 yrs/unlimited||Unlimited|
|FUEL CAPACITY||19.8 gal||18.5 gal||21.1 gal|
|EPA CITY/HWY ECON||17/27 mpg||16/24 mpg||16/25 mpg|
|ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY||198/125 kW-hrs/100 mi||211/140 kW-hrs/100 mi||211/135 kW-hrs/100 mi|
|CO2 EMISSIONS||0.95 lb/mi||1.03 lb/mi||1.02 lb/mi|
|MT FUEL ECONOMY||12.2 mpg||13.2 mpg||15.0 mpg|
|RECOMMENDED FUEL||Unleaded premium||Unleaded premium||Unleaded premium|