In the past, the traditional German rivals in the mid-size sedan segment - the Audi A6, the BMW 5-series, and the Mercedes-Benz E-class - played specific roles and carved out their own places in the market. BMW positioned the 5-series as the dedicated driver's car, Audi was first to offer four-wheel drive and direct-injection engines, and Mercedes emphasized comfort and prestige.
This scenario is about to change with the arrival of the new E-class, which is destined to shake up the hierarchy with new values, new qualities, and a new look. The ninth-generation Mercedes mid-size sedan has carefully conserved core brand values such as better-than-average packaging, a cosseting ride, and an emphasis on passive and active safety, but Mercedes engineers were determined to break new ground, and the result is the sportiest and best-handling E-class ever. It also is available with a host of new driver-assistance and creature-comfort options, and it has an interior that sets new standards in terms of fit, finish, and surface materials. On top of that, the design - whether you like it or not - is a big departure from its play-it-safe predecessor.
The Benz's competitors, on the other hand, are dangerously long in the tooth - the 5-series will be replaced early next year, and the A6 is up for renewal in late 2010. All three cars are offered with both six- and eight-cylinder engines, and the high-performance BMW M5 and Audi S6 even have V-10s. But the most popular choice is still a six-cylinder engine.
In Europe, the E350 gets a new, 288-hp direct-injection V-6, but the E350 edition earmarked for the United States retains the familiar V-6 that produces 268 hp at 6000 rpm and 258 lb-ft of torque between 2400 and 5000 rpm. As for the A6, its 3.0-liter supercharged V-6 is a new addition for '09, offered as a step up from the base 255-hp, 3.2-liter. The model designation of the A6 3.0 TFSI (3.0T in the United States) is misleading. Normally, TFSI means turbocharged direct injection, but in this instance, the turbo has been replaced by a supercharger, because it was easier to package in the V between the cylinder banks, costs less than two turbos and their associated plumbing, and is more fuel efficient. Of course, Audi would point to its instant-on torque, swift throttle response, and superior power output. The supercharged V-6 produces 300 hp at a sedate 5100 rpm and 310 lb-ft at a leisurely 2500 rpm. The European BMW 530i is roughly the equivalent of the U.S.-market 528i, as both are powered by normally aspirated 3.0-liter straight-six engines. However, the version in our Euro-spec test car has direct injection and thus is good for 268 hp at 6700 rpm with 236 lb-ft of torque available between 2750 and 3000 rpm. The U.S.-spec 528i makes do with 230 hp and 200 lb-ft. BMW also offers the 300-hp, twin-turbocharged 535i as a step up before you get into V-8 territory with the 550i.