Acura, Infiniti, Cadillac, and Lexus have their work cut out for them, because the current contenders for best mid-size luxury car are all very compelling. They also all happen to be German. Audi, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz rule this sector, if not in terms of overall sales, then at least in terms of perception. Executives and engineers from the other makers consider the A6, the 5-series, and the E-class benchmark sedans. But which of these three is the best?
The Mercedes and the Audi are available only with manu-matic transmissions, but the BMW can be ordered with a manual, a sequential manual, or a manu-matic. While you must use the shift levers to effect manual changes on the BMW and Mercedes automatics, the Audi has steering-wheel buttons, which are a real advantage on challenging roads. Although the adaptive autoboxes are pretty good at responding to any variation in driving style, the comfort-oriented E-class in particular prefers early upshifts and late downshifts. It also has the slowest and least progressive throttle, a relatively passive gearbox, and an engine that does not particularly like to rev but, ironically, needs to be revved to deliver.
When it comes down to it, victory does not go to the Mercedes. Even though it was launched just two years ago, in early 2002, the strong-selling E-class is already beginning to show its age. It is well packaged and terrific-looking and has a great overall image, but it is disappointing on the road. Compared with the 530i and the A6, the E320 has the most sluggish driveline, the least engaging steering, and the spongiest brakes. In addition, its chassis is neither particularly comfortable nor very sporty.