Born a year ago, the all-new Mercedes E-Class promises to be more sporty and accomplished than ever. Meanwhile, BMW doesn’t stand still and fights back with the new 5 Series, which, coincidence or not, is said to be the perfect blend of comfort and agility. Have we finally reached the point of convergence between the two business class leaders? FIRST COMPARISON TEST with the top petrol six-cylinder versions (non AMG or M), Mercedes E 400 4Matic and BMW 540i xDrive.
The business class or large executive sedan segment is virtually synonymous with the Mercedes E-Class. Launched in 1953, the E-Class is now in its tenth generation. The general consensus is that Mercedes holds the crown for best comfort in class, while BMW is the uncontested sporty reference. Until now. Mercedes has radically changed its E-Class, going to great lengths in order to match BMW’s legendary dynamic prowess. Everything is new, from the engines and advanced technologies on board to the modular MRA (modular rear-drive architecture) platform, which brings a lower weight and an ideal front/rear mass distribution, all in the name of new-found agility. In the other corner, BMW has also renewed its 5 Series from the ground up, adopting the modern platform (OKL) of the latest 7 Series and promising a revolution in terms of interior space and suspension comfort.
Both models are modestly larger, but lighter than their predecessors. The BMW has grown 36 mm in length and wheelbase (2.97 m), while the Mercedes is 43 mm longer and registered a more generous, 65 mm increase in wheelbase (2.94 m). Their dimensions are comparable though, both models clocking in at 4.92 and 4.93 m, respectively. In both cases, the focus was put on improving rear-seat accommodation with similarly good knee-room, measured at 11-37 cm in the BMW and 12-39 cm in the Mercedes. The numbers don’t tell the whole truth, since the E-Class has a 3 cm shorter back-seat cushion (48 cm versus 51 cm) and the angle between the seat base and the back is better configured in the 5 Series, too. Headroom and elbowroom are superior in the Benz, but not by a high margin: 94 cm versus 92 cm and 150 cm versus 149 cm.
Truly impressive is the sporty, low driving position offered by both contenders, with the driver seat placed at only 45 cm from the road. Interior height in front is identical (106 cm) and the width is also similar, at 155 cm for the E-Class and 153 cm for the 5 Series. The seats are also excellent, always supportive and comfortable, in both cars, though a bit more firm in the BMW. The firmness can be explained by the different configuration of the two cars. The BMW didn’t feature the top Comfort seats (2,290 euro), but the electrically adjustable sport seats from the M Sport package (4,600 euro), while the Benz came with the superior (2,320 euro) multi-contour electric seats with massage functions and active side-bolster support in curves. Mercedes can also be ordered with sports seats, as part of the interior AMG package (833 euro).
The practical aspect is aced by both models, with only minor differences. Trunk volume amounts to 540 liters in the Mercedes and 530 liters in the BMW and both rear seats can be folded from two dedicated levers that can be accessed only from the trunk. The bench that can fold in the 40/20/40% format is optional at Mercedes (517 euro) and standard at BMW. The E-Class also trumps its rival due to its better shaped, better configured boot. The base is flatter and the loading are is also wider (99-111 cm versus 82-95 cm) and much longer (122-211 cm versus 120-206) than in the 540i. The main culprit for BMW’s small misstep is the more protruding rear multilink suspension, mounted lower in the Benz, despite its air-suspension setup. BMW makes up with the larger opening boot and loading height: 54 cm versus 50 cm.
Perceived quality is high, closing even more the gap between the business class and the luxury segment. The impression of exquisite craftsmanship is sustained by the wonderful leather upholstery adorning not only the seats, but also the doors and the upper-part of the dashboard, in both models (710 euro at BMW, from 833 euro with AMG package at Mercedes). Mercedes’ cockpit is more lavishly appointed (lightly colored and chock-full of matt-wood, as part of the Exclusive interior package, 1,606 euro) and significantly more airy, with the base of the windscreen set much lower than in the BMW which appeals to a more cocoon-like feeling and a darker ambiance, more in line with its sporty pedigree. Small inconsistencies are noticeable in both cases: the glove-box door is not soft-padded in the Mercedes while BMW continues to fill its interiors with black, hard plastic buttons, as opposed to Benz who virtually covered all the controls in piano black or aluminum-like lacquer. The ergonomic concept is more unitary in the 5 Series, though, with the better configured central console topped by the new 10.25-inch iDrive touchscreen display. In the E-Class, the dual 12.3-inch screen arrangement is certainly spectacular, but sometimes tiresome (especially during the night or in low-light conditions) and also not entirely in line with the general classy bordering avant-garde layout.
And speaking of screens and multimedia philosophies, we should probably mention the significant ergonomics changes applied by both manufacturers. BMW takes the lead here with its gesture and touch controls for its latest-gen iDrive system. Beyond the surprising leap of faith to a touchscreen, iDrive can still be controlled via the classic rotary knob with touchpad and symbol recognition functionalities and remains the industry standard for its general ease of use. The menu structure has been revamped though with a new horizontal arrangement with configurable widgets (pictograms) instead of the simpler vertical list style of old. We can’t say we are entirely convinced by the new logic which simply seems to clutter the logic and speed of interaction with the system compared to the previous iDrive incarnations. Gesture controls, still in their infancy, are not available for the entire menu, but mostly for radio, apps and navigation functions. The 10.25-inch touchscreen is optional, standard 5 Series coming with a smaller, but still touch-centric 8.8-inch display.
In the Mercedes, the eccentric, S-Class like dual-screen layout comes at cost too: the 12.3-inch digital instruments (1.011 euro) can only be ordered together with the equally large Comand Online center display (3.272 euro). Base E-Class gets classic analogue speed and rev counters and an 8.4-inch Audio 20 central screen. The digital instruments can be configured in three designs: Classic (left speedometer, right rev-counter), Sport (similar arrangement but yellow numbers and letters) and Progressive (center rev-counter with digital speedometer inside plus left and right additional display areas for trip computer, navigation or multimedia). Completely new are the two touchpad controls on the steering-wheel (replacing the old rotary ones). By moving the fingers on their surfaces you can control the digital instruments (left touchpad) and Comand system (right touchpad): up and down movements select main menus while left and right ones control the submenus. The central rotary controller remains at the base of the center console and the gearbox lever is still on the steering column. Even with the new controls and slightly upgraded menu structure (horizontal layout unchanged), the Comand system still doesn’t match BMW’s iDrive for menu navigation speed and it all comes down to the complicated sub-menus of the former.
The two six-cylinder engines tested represent the top petrol powered variants in non-sports guise (AMG or M) for both models. They similarly feature direct injection and turbo forced induction, but their configurations and cubic capacities are different: the E 400 is powered by a 3.5-liter V6 and the 540i has a 3.0-liter inline-six unit under its bonnet. BMW develops 340 hp and 450 Nm, while Mercedes has a 30 Nm advantage, but 7 hp less, at 333 hp and 480 Nm respectively.
Despite the bigger cubic capacity, the Mercedes V6 doesn’t push any stronger than the BMW L6 and it all comes down to the transmission. The 9-speed 9G-Tronic gearbox is efficient and fast, but never quite as fast or as poised as the 8-speed transmission of the 540i, especially on down-changes. Mercedes’ V6 is brash and always competent, but BMW’s engine and gearbox simply seem to make the better team here, offering superior performance figures and lower consumption figures. The efficiency of the 540i is even more impressive in real life: if official figures show a 0,7 l/100 km advantage, in our test the BMW needed only 12,6 l/100 km while the E 400 sipped 13,7 l/100 km.
What truly impresses in the Mercedes is the sound. The gruff voice of the V6 is simply delicious, covering a broad specter of low, intoxicating tonalities on both up-shifts and downshifts. In contrast, the BMW sounds surprisingly artificial, high-pitched and metallic, simply not good enough for a classy inline-six signed by none other than the Bavarian Motor Works.
As already mentioned, both cars are new from the ground up. The new BMW 5 Series inherited the OKL platform of the 7 Series, but not its hybrid plastic-carbon fiber (CFRP) pillars. Still, weight is lower than before thanks to the mixed steel-aluminum construction: high-strength steel roof, side and rear body structure, aluminum doors (only 6 kg each), magnesium support for the dashboard. The front suspension also gains a superior two-arm setup instead of the old McPherson format and the Adaptive Drive package (3,550 euro) adds adaptive dampers and active anti-roll bars – Dynamic Drive reduces the rolling movements of the vehicle by means of active stabilizers on the front and rear axle, thus increasing vehicle stability.
The E-Class is equally advanced. The MRA platform brought such advantages as a light construction and more efficient weight distribution. The front suspension now features a multilink front suspension with four arms: the spring-damper ensemble is no longer connected directly to the wheel hub, as in the old McPherson format, instead it is connected in the lower side to one of the two transverse arms, while the second, superior arm is linked to the wheel hub. Further ahead, the anti-roll bars act on the arm to which the spring is linked and not directly on the wheel. In this way the steering is separated from the spring-damper ensemble, becoming more direct and more precise than ever. The components of the new suspension are made from aluminum, being 2 kg lighter than a similar steel setup. The magnesium cast 9G-Tronic 9-speed automatic transmission is also 12 kg lighter than the 7-speed unit it replaces and aluminum is again used for the engine bonnet and front fenders.
And it all makes sense. Never before has a Mercedes business sedan been so involving, so exciting to drive. Pushed far ahead (the front console is very short), the four-arm front suspension dramatically reduces under-steer. With the Air Body Control pneumatic suspension (2,261 euro, Mercedes also offers three other setups, the Agility Control steel-sprung suspension, the sportier 15 mm lowered Agility Control passive suspension and the Dynamic Body Control adaptive steel suspension for 1,130 euro) the E-Class is now as sporty to drive as the BMW, despite an 85 kg weight advantage of the later.
At the limit, the 4Matic four-wheel drive system offers excellent grip, especially on the front axle, favoring under-steer, even if the effect is greatly reduced by the suspension setup. The xDrive 4×4 system from BMW tends to send more torque to the rear instead, making the 540i more prone to over-steering – an homage to the sporty tradition of the model and the brand itself. Thanks to its active roll-bars, the BMW also leans less in corners compared to the heavier E-Class and feels slightly more agile, more fun to drive. But the difference is greatly nuanced, as the E 400 is just as eager to attack every corner with the precision of an athlete. The steering feedback is good, but not as good as in the 540i, especially in the Sport+ driving mode. Mercedes’ Dynamic select system allows the driver to choose from five setups for the engine, transmission, steering and suspension: Eco, Comfort, Sport, Sport+ and Individual. In Sport+ the ESP system intervenes a bit later and allows the rear to slightly mimic the natural over-steer effect from the BMW, for greater driving pleasure. The BMW also offers five driving modes, the classic Eco Pro, Comfort, Sport, Sport Plus and Adaptive setups. An option not available in the E-Class is the integral steering of the 5 Series (1,250 euro, not present on the test car), that can now be configured together with xDrive, too.
But Mercedes has one last ace up its sleeve and that is the superior, close to perfection comfort. Road imperfections are virtually imperceptible in the E-Class, while (not exactly harsh either) the steel-sprung BMW never matches the broad pampering ability of Mercedes’ air suspension, not even in the softer Comfort setup.
Traditionally, Mercedes’ business sedans tend to be more expensive than their BMW counterparts. Even if the E-Class is still the dearer, the gap is now smaller than ever. Base prices start at 62,962 euro for the E 400 4Matic and at 60.300 euro for the 540i xDrive. The configurations differ greatly, though, and so do the final price tags after adding the necessary extras. BMW comes as standard with the 8.8-inch Business Navigation system and the top Professional unit with a 10.25-inch touchscreen costs 2,250 euro extra. In contrast, Mercedes asks 3.272 euro for the Comand system with a 12.3-inch TFT display and navi-function, while the base model comes with an 8.4-inch screen and no navigation (595 euro for Garmin map pilot navigation). The virtual instruments also cost more at Mercedes (1.011 euro versus 390 euro at BMW) and cannot be ordered without choosing the rather expensive Comand as well.
Both executive sedans can be configured with adaptive/intelligent full-LED headlights (Multibeam LED for 2.320 euro at Mercedes and Selective Beam LED for 1.490 euro at BMW), adaptive suspensions (1.190 euro at BMW, 2.280 at Mercedes – in air-sprung guise or 1,130 euro in steel-sprung Dynamic Body Control version), head-up displays (1,178 euro at Mercedes, 1,190 euro at BMW) and a plethora of safety and assistance systems, including semi-autonomous driving functions and remote parking control (BMW only, 500 euro). In the end, BMW remains the cheaper business sedan here, but at this level (300 hp+ cars with premium badges and ample comfort and sporting abilities) the 2,500 euro price difference asked by Mercedes is hardly a deal breaker.
The new 5 Series wins this comparison against the equally competent E-Class, but not by the high margin it used to in previous-gen incarnations. The E-Class marks a significant mentality shift for Mercedes, who now blends the mandatory comfort with remarkable dynamics and quality. The BMW remains the more sporty business sedan, also scoring decisive points thanks to its impressive efficiency, more successful ergonomics and smaller price tag. Quality and comfort are not entirely up to Mercedes’ level anymore, though, while the E-Class is now almost equally entertaining to drive and look at and trumps its Bavarian rival with its better configured interior and cargo area.
|Model||540i xDrive||E 400 4Matic|
|Engine||L6, turbo||V6, turbo|
|Max Power (CP/rpm)||340/5.500-6.500||333/5.250-6.000|
|Max Torque (Nm/rpm)||450/1.380-5.200||480/1.200-4.000|
|Gearbox||automatic, 8 gears||automatic, 9 gears|
|Turning cycle (m)||11,6||11,6|
|Tires||Pirelli Winter SottoZero||Michelin Pilot Alpin|
|Tyre dimensions||245/40 R19||245/40 R19 - 275/35 R19|
|Trunk volume (l)||530||540|
|Acceleration 0-100 km/h (s)||4,8||5,2|
|Max Speed (km/h)||250||250|
|Consumption city/highway/mixed (l/100 km)||9,3/5,7/6,9||10,5/5,9/7,6|
|Emissions CO2 (g/km)||159||173|
|Gas tank (l)||68||66|
|Price in Germany||60,300||62,963|