One of the best tarmac rinks for staging our latest German torque shootout — featuring the all-new diesel-powered 2017 BMW 530d xDrive and 2017 Mercedes-Benz E350d — is a secluded six-mile climb from the river Danube to the lower edge of the picturesque Mühlviertel. The topographic menu about to be served includes fresh blacktop, zero traffic, and long straights followed by fast sweepers that invariably climax in second-gear hairpins. If you wanted to put a number on paradise, it would be the B2367 from Jochenstein to Gottsdorf.
As it happens, both diesel engines dish up an identical 457 lb-ft of torque, which is plenty to yank their stiff and narrow 18-inch tires out of hibernation as we wind our way up the road. There’s a direct-access toggle switch on each car’s transmission tunnel, allowing you to tweak their dynamic DNA. The autobox fitted to the BMW 530d sports eight forward ratios, but shift paddles cost extra (boo!). The E350d is equipped with a nine-speed automatic operated via Benz’s column-mounted lever or a pair of fingertip actuators.
The 3.0-liter V-6 diesel with 258 horsepower motivating the E350d is an entertaining piece of kit. It pushes the E sedan from 0 to 60 mph in roughly 5.8 seconds and tops out at 155 mph. As we approach the first right-hander, we put the nose down under hard braking and it turns in with obedience – the front-wheels eyeing the apex as the rear wheels scream. Although ESP will cut in abruptly and pull the car back in line at the very limit of adhesion (only in the AMG cars can you fully turn off ESP), take off a bit of lock and add a little more torque and you can still pull off a graceful four-wheel slide. But despite the E350d’s optional Air Body Control air suspension, overall lean and roll are quite emphatic.
The BMW 530d we’re piloting develops 265 horsepower from its 3.0-liter I-6. While the 530d matches the E-Class for maximum speed and fuel economy, it is two tenths quicker off the mark in rear-drive form and a half second zippier with four driven wheels. This particular BMW we’re driving is fitted with the brand’s xDrive all-wheel-drive setup, the Benz is rear drive. The BMW feels flatter and better tied down than the E-Class. Its steering is quicker, lighter, and more switched on, though the fat rim could do with less padding.
Speaking of steering, another key difference between the two cars is that the 530d is equipped with an option BMW calls Integral Active Steering (IAS), aka its four-wheel steering system, which for the first time can be paired with xDrive. Instead of following a set radius, the rear wheels live, within limits, a life of their own — a life that may include occasional extra-curricular amplitudes plotted by overzealous torque feed. The bottom-line benefit is a mix of higher cornering speed, more agile handling, quicker feedback, and enhanced grip.
There is no doubt about it: the 530d is a faster A to B car thanks in large part to the four-wheel steering. While ticking boxes, one should not forget to specify Dynamic Damper Control, which comes with an adaptive drive mode selector. But the benefit of adding Dynamic Drive (BMW-speak for adjustable anti-roll bars) is less obvious; the pricey extra adds weight and won’t work in combination with IAS.
What impresses us most about the BMW 530d is its totally transparent communication, how its intuitively scalable interaction of torque flow and steering angle helps create a dialogue between right foot and both hands that constantly varies in rhythm and intensity. But while the 530d and the new 5 Series in general is a faster, safer, and more refined car, it is also a tad less emotional drive than before.
On the autobahn, it’s a dead heat. Top speed is electronically capped, directional stability gives no reason for concern, in-gear acceleration kicks butt relentlessly. On well-kept roads, this picture barely changes at all. It’s only on second-rate backroads roads dotted with corners, dips, and crests that the 530d starts pulling away. Grip is not the decider here, but the more switched on handling does make a difference.
Surprisingly, the new 5 Series also is quieter and smoother riding. While the E350d copes very well with long undulations and longitudinal grooves, it feels less comfortable over ripples, edges, and cracks. Overall compliance, a significant forte of many a Mercedes chassis, looks to have finally found its master in the latest 5 from Bavaria.
To minimize the risk of an error of judgment, we chose an especially nasty bit of turf from Frymburk to Bohdalovice for three 20-minute point-to-point runs in each car. The Mercedes felt a little more wooden and a trifle less composed, plop-plopping more audibly through potholes and diving nuances deeper under hard braking. Switching the setup from Sport to Comfort increases wheel travel and overall suppleness, but its air suspension doesn’t quite pad things as much as we expect when we do. By comparison, the 5 Series feels tauter and better connected. It filters irritations and impulses more efficiently, not by means of air bags but through enhanced physical compliance. The above-par ride quality degrades from excellent to good when you flick the Driving Experience Selector from Comfort to Sport.
Inside, BMW has finally caught up with the level of material quality and craftsmanship Audi and Mercedes have been cultivating for decades. The cockpit of the 530d tends to prioritize driver-focused essentials, while the cabin of its opponent is a beautifully executed exercise in flamboyant traditional luxury.
Although BMW in particular has pushed voice control to a new level, complexity remains the name of the game in the cabin and distraction is a bigger-than-ever issue. Although its electronic epicenter can be accessed via touchscreen, iDrive, and the steering wheel, the process is a real challenge for uneducated fingers and the confused brain behind them. Temporary eyes and hands off is an integral part of the so-called personal co-pilot scheme BMW is introducing with the new 5 Series. Although it works at speeds up to 130 mph, you may find yourself sweating at 50 or 70 mph when in self-driving mode, eyes alternatingly roaming the small steering wheel symbol in the instrument panel, the green lane demarcations next to it, and the real road ahead.
Like the 5 Series, the E-Class can be equipped with numerous driver aids designed to make life easier and safer in heavy traffic. Active cruise control accomplishes both missions, except that the system tends to mistake off-ramps for a clear piece of road, forcing you to brake twice as hard to slow down the self-accelerating vehicle. Lane discipline works OK until the lane starts to bend and tighten, while automatic gap closing tends to be thwarted in real life by queue jumpers and late brakers.
The new E-Class has become more driver-oriented, efficient, and chic and it remains the comfort king. But the new 5 Series has what it takes to upset this ranking. Not only does it offer a more convincing ride-and-handling balance, it is quieter and more refined. The 530d collects brownie points for its comprehensively soundproofed running gear, the well-suppressed wind and tire noise, and the trademark straight-six, which drinks diesel but talks with almost the same velvety voice as its gas consuming sibling.
Although Mercedes has done a fine job evolving the legacy of Rudolf Diesel, the E350d’s V-6 is a relatively old-school powerplant, frugal but not exactly lithesome. Idle speed is vaguely reminiscent of a muted truck stop soundtrack, its plentiful low-end torque prioritized over high revs and brisk throttle response. In terms of finesse, quietness, and seamless performance, the BMW diesel has the edge.
Design? The E-Class is a bigger C-Class or a smaller S-Class, depending on the eye of the beholder. While it may be pretty, functional, and well proportioned, distinctive it is not. Like the 7 Series, the new 5 Series is a textbook example of nicely put together blandness. Timeless styling may be a good thing, but not when a brand-new product looks like something that has been on the market for two or three years.
During our two-day, 600-mile journey through Lower Bavaria, Upper Austria, and the Czech Republic, the 5 Series gets our vote. Why? Primarily because the 530d is the more rewarding car of the two to drive. Put simply, the Mercedes comes in second in vehicle dynamics and technology. It was a close race, but not a photo finish. The BMW wins on merit and because it has learned to beat its rival at its own game.
2017 BMW 530d xDrive Specifications
|Price:||$58,000 (est. base)|
|Engine:||3.0L turbodiesel DOHC 24-valve I-6/265 hp @ 4,000 rpm, 457 lb-ft @ 2,000 rpm|
|Layout:||4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, AWD sedan|
|L x W x H:||194.3 x 73.5 x 58.2 in.|
|0-60 MPH:||5.4 sec|
|Top Speed:||155 mph|
2017 Mercedes-Benz E350d Specifications
|Price:||$60,000 (est. base)|
|Engine:||3.0L turbodiesel DOHC 24-valve V-6/258 hp @ 3,400 rpm, 457 lb-ft @ 1,600 rpm|
|Layout:||4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, RWD sedan|
|L x W x H:||193.8 x 72.9 x 57.8 in.|
|Weight:||4,000 lb (est)|
|0-60 MPH:||5.9 sec|
|Top Speed:||155 mph|