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Choosing between the Audi A8, BMW 7 Series and Mercedes-Benz S-Class

LiveMint logoLiveMint 30-05-2014 Kushan Mitra

When the company driver arrives to deliver the car for the road test, one usually checks the relevant documents and the vehicle for quirks (the fuel-filler release might be not where you expect it; yes, this has happened) before finding a deserted stretch of tarmac. Usually.

But with the Audi A8 L, BMW’s 7 Series and the Mercedes S-Class, matters are a bit different. These are the cars of presidents and dictators, of Hollywood stars and sports stars. Once you get behind the wheel of any of these vehicles, you immediately know you’re in the wrong place, even if the front seat is a tremendous place to be, and all three cars are great to drive.

The A8, the 7 Series and the S-Class are all designed for rear-seat passengers. All three are also effectively the flagship models of their respective manufacturers; Audi might have its R8 V10 and the Mercedes the SLS AMG, but these just highlight technology that will become standard in even small cars with a decade.

BMW refreshed its 7 Series last year, and Narendra Modi is likely to be seen riding this car as well (when the 7 Series was launched in 2011, it displaced the Mercedes S-Class as the preferred ride of India’s president as well as prime minister). Audi, meanwhile, set the standard in lighting-technology evolution by giving the A8 L brand-new “Matrix LED” lights. But it is really Mercedes—with its S-Class—that is the standard bearer in this case. Let’s see how.

Looks

There is an Audi-ness to all of the German car maker’s models: park the A4, the A6 and the A8 next to each other and one will be hard-pressed to tell them apart from the front, until the A8’s distinctive headlights come on. The German media humorously refers to these cars as “same sausage, different sizes”. Yet, the corporate looks on an Audi are fairly pleasant nowadays, and the entire package looks quite modern.

The BMW appears the stateliest of the three, so one can understand why the Indian government chose the 7 Series. But there is nothing remarkable about the car. Occasionally, however, buyers in this segment want understatement, and the 7 Series delivers just that.

The S-Class from Stuttgart-based Mercedes is anything but understated, and it stands out in every respect. Mercedes has been on a roll lately, and the S-Class based on its newest platform looks the part.

Best rear seat

The Audi A8.Mercedes wins this award hands down—the seat controls have the nicest feel to them, and while all three use fabulous leather, the S-Class seems to be literally a class apart. Its seats caress you, so don’t be surprised to find yourself dozing off even in the morning. And the A8 L, the 7 Series and the S-Class all do wonderful things to your posterior—heat it, cool it, and even massage it.

Since all three models are long-wheelbase variants, driving might be a challenge, as would parking, despite surround-view cameras. Because of the same reason, none will be found wanting for legroom. And while the seats do not go fully flat, they are better than what pass for business-class seats on some regional airline flights.

Mercedes added a nice touch with the option to change the ambient interior lighting, although navigating the system is not as easy as it could be. It’s a pity BMW has not adopted this yet since the Mini Cooper already has this feature (through an easy toggle button).

Best entertainment system

This seems to be a split verdict.

The 24-speaker Burmester 3D Surround Sound system in the S-Class, in this writer’s opinion, is the best audio system even fitted in a car. Then again, Mercedes has only launched the S500 variant of the car, which has a top-of-the-line system. The Bang and Olufsen system in the Audi A8L 4.0TFSI is not bad at all, neither is the Harman/Kardon system in the BMW 730Ld.

BMW, which was the first to include the highly connected iDrive system more than a decade ago, beats out Mercedes’ COMAND and the Audi MMI systems in terms of both functionality and ease of use, and it is incredibly easy to control from the front as well as the rear. Audi’s MMI system seems to have too many buttons, and the COMAND system in the S-Class, while functional and intuitive, has never been as nice as the iDrive. Another aspect of the iDrive system is its ability to play high-def content on the fly.

The next lot of the “assembled in India” S500 will come with a 14-speaker Burmester system. And Mercedes’ phone control hidden in the front armrest is a nice touch.

Best to drive

The Mercedes S500 has the largest and most exciting engine of the three, but it guzzles petrol as if it were going out of fashion (the car maker is yet to offer a diesel variant in India). Audi sensibly offers a choice of two diesel engines— the 3.0 TDI and the 4.2 TDI, the same as those on its flagship sport utility vehicle, the Q7 (this writer drove the 4.0 TFSI petrol variant). BMW offers a whole host of engines—the 750Li and 760Li petrol engines, and its best-selling 730Ld diesel (which this writer drove).

The A8, the S-Class and the 7 Series provide very different power dynamics. The BMW, with only 258 horsepower, is quite pleasant to drive compared with the 435 horsepower on the Audi and the S500’s 450 horsepower (the BMW 750Li has a 450-horsepower engine).

BMW’s 7 Series.Now these are not cars that you’d want to burn up the track with. Go up to 100-120km per hour and stay in that range. Any faster and the suspension, no matter how good, feels wrong and the car loses some its regal bearing. That said, these vehicles do have it in them to go very, very fast, especially given that they carry heads of state.

As for handling, one does not throw these 5m-long cars into the corners, though all three belie their size and can do a snappy left-right when needed; the BMW felt the easiest and most reassuring. In the case of Mercedes, it’s incredibly easy to activate the S500’s traction control, and this keeps the car steady and the rear passengers relatively comfortable.

Miscellany

Both BMW and Mercedes have moved on to digital displays. But converting a digital signal to analog leads to some loss, so BMW in particular has given its display some touches such as a magnifier, which kicks in every time one goes past an additional 20km per hour. In Audi’s case, despite its brashness at times, one must appreciate its boldness in sticking to traditional instruments.

Price

The BMW 730Ld, with a price tag of `1.04 crore, provides the best value; the 750Li and 760Li imported models cost far more at `1.4 crore and `1.87 crore, respectively.

The Audi A8 L starts at `1.29 crore for the 3.0 TDI variant, and the Mercedes S500 model that is assembled in India is available for `1.4 crore. It is likely that Mercedes might bring in a more rational 350 CDI option on the S-Class soon.

Keep this in mind: while choosing a ride in this class, you are not just picking a car, but rather a personal statement, hence branding doesn’t matter. Making such a choice is like choosing between Philip Lahm, Mesut Ozil and Bastian Schweinsteiger—three German football stars (since we are on the topic of German car makers)—you’d want all three on your team. But Lahm is captain of the national side as well as his club. Lahm is your S-Class.

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