These four test vehicles are pretty fair representatives of a mixed breed called “luxury performance sedans.” About all they have in common is that classification, their level of performance, and their prices, which are all in the same ballpark. Two of them-the Audi A8L 4.2 Quattro and the Mercedes-Benz S430 4Matic-have all-wheel drive. Two of them-the Audi A8L and the Jaguar XJ8-have body structures consisting largely of aluminum. One of them-the BMW 745Li-boasts a mind-boggling number of controls and menu options. These cars are as different from one another as they are different from the Lexus LS430 and the Cadillac DeVille DTS, which were not included in our deliberations.
There isn’t much evidence that America is weeping and rending its garments for want of luxury performance sedans. One could argue that most Americans would opt for a Lexus if they could afford one, or for the Lincoln Town Car, which defines luxury for Mercury owners and promgoers. Nonetheless, BMW, with its very comprehensive portfolio of luxury performance sedans, has nudged all of the other luxury-car manufacturers emphatically in that direction. Even Rolls-Royce now offers the Phantom, a sedan that can crank off 0-to-60-mph times in the neighborhood of five seconds.
These are intensely lovable cars, particularly for the enthusiast. They are fast and sure-footed, and any drivers worth their salt would check all the “Very Good” or “Excellent” boxes on their road reports after driving them through the mountains of Tennessee, as we did. Whether they really answer a crying need among all those people who have worked their way up to the luxury-car class and just want a nicer, quieter ride to work remains to be seen. But this single, central fact remains: Each of these four cars is superb in its own way. They have idiosyncrasies of technology, style, and national origin, but they are no-kidding-folks grown-up automobiles, and they came to play.
Audi A8L Quattro
Referring to the Audi A8L, one member of our test team said, “If we look at the history of Audi’s attempts to take on the Mercedes S-class and the BMW 7-series, it’s clear that the third time is the charm.” This is head and shoulders above the previous attempts. If the car has a flaw, it would be the way in which it distances itself from its driver. There is no feeling of involvement, no sense of becoming one with the machine. It is terrifically fast, behaves flawlessly on mountain roads, and exudes competence from every pore of its beautifully crafted leather interior, but it doesn’t really seem to care much whether you love it or not. It’s there to do its job. It seems to say, “I’m very sophisticated and totally up-to-date, and you’re not.”
In terms of pure over-the-road behavior, the BMW 7-series has a slight but significant edge, mainly as a result of the BMW’s superior steering and rear-wheel-drive configuration, but the Audi’s adaptive suspension provides an ideal blend of compliance and firmness. When we finally got behind the wheel on a twisty road, the A8L handled the ever-changing curves better than its smaller and supposedly sportier sibling, the RS6, which tends toward too much understeer. In fact, Audi’s most luxurious car, the A8L, is now the marque’s second-sportiest car, just behind the RS6. The A8‘s V-8 engine produces 330 horsepower and makes no attempt to cloak that power with refinement. The six-speed automatic transmission is brilliant, although its manu-matic shift gate is fussy and complex in operation and, truth to tell, not as nice in use as the full-automatic mode, which matches revs on downshifts, shifting for an instant to neutral, blipping the throttle, then selecting the lower gear just as a sequential-manual gearbox does. It is all perfectly seamless. The engine’s power delivery is such that you could probably deal with most winding roads by leaving it in third, but the very sensitive shift-mapping in full automatic makes even that unnecessary.
The Audi was ranked number one by 50 percent of our four-man test team.
The BMW 7-series is a highly controversial car. The automotive press has complained bitterly about its styling, especially the awkward and bulky backpack that it carries just above its rump. More controversial still, however, is the multitasking iDrive. The iDrive system consists of two components-an armrest-mounted knob and an IP-mounted display screen-that preside over the 7-series’ auxiliary systems. Pushing or turning the knob provides access to eight submenus displayed on the screen, including those for GPS navigation, telephone, climate control, and vehicle service. It is a well-intended attempt to bring one-control logic to a variety of functions. But the 7-series still has as many as or more small controls than the other three cars in this test drive. There are four control stalks protruding from the steering column plus an array of buttons on the steering-wheel spokes.
Some controls, such as the one for seat adjustment, are counterintuitive, and a simple series of actions-such as sliding the seat back an inch, reclining the backrest slightly, and lowering the seat as far as it will go-can take five minutes and still not be accomplished to the occupant’s satisfaction. We have reports of owners-including some BMW dealers-giving up their iDrive-equipped 7-series cars in frustration and anger after only a few weeks. One member of our test team questioned a woman who delivers her daughter to school every day in either a 7-series or a Turbo. Her description of the 7-series? “A [expletive deleted] car that you don’t feel connected with. My husband and I hate it.” She went on to say that they cannot work the iDrive or adjust the seats. They sold their former 7-series to friends and get to drive it from time to time. They regret its loss.
The BMW 745Li should be the numero uno in this test, but its excellent performance at the test track and its even more impressive performance on challenging country roads are badly offset by iDrive. The iDrive system represents a layer of complexity that actually detracts from what ought to be a breathtaking driving experience. BMW bills itself as “the ultimate driving machine,” and our test car would have been all that and more without the iDrive.
Our Jaguar turned out to be a base XJ8, which is just fine. The base car is a nimble and agile athlete, while the Vanden Plas, with more content and more heft, is more of a luxurious chaise in which those who have arrived can arrive. There were complaints about our XJ test car: The interior design wasn’t “special” enough. The styling was dated. It failed to advertise all the things about the Jag that were breakthrough new. How, one wonders, are they supposed to design a car that says, “Look here, Bub, my structure is aluminum through and through!” Audi hasn’t managed it with the A8, and BMW was unable to do so with the new Rolls-Royce Phantom. Perhaps aluminum architecture is meant to be enjoyed, not seen. Three of our four test drivers felt that the new XJ looked too much like the old XJ. I alone disagreed. I thought that the new XJ-with more head, hip, and luggage room-was beginning to look a bit like the Buick LeSabre. Recent Jaguar sedans have been low, sleek, and narrow. The decision to make the new car more commodious comes at a price, and that price is a loss of exclusivity.
Nonetheless, it is very much a Jaguar, and therein lies an explanation for the complaints we hear from some corners of the automotive press. The XJ8 does not feel like an Audi, a BMW, or a Mercedes-Benz. It is very proudly not a German car. It is an English car, and England has a greater grasp of the sports car tradition than any country on the planet. England has the kinky, narrow little country roads where the whole idea of the sports car was first realized. There have been fat, lazy, butter-and-egg sedans among the Jaguars of the last fifty years, but there have been plenty of dancers and athletes, too. This new XJ8 falls into the latter category. It is a very graceful dancer and a very powerful athlete, and that description does not conjure up very many German cars.
The main thing one takes away from this comparison is the Jag’s feeling of lightness and quickness. The new aluminum unibody really has made a difference in that regard. At times, by comparison, the weight of the other three cars seemed ponderous. The 4.2-liter XJ V-8 engine is without doubt the best thing to have happened to Jaguar since the Ford takeover. It offers exactly the right kind of power for this relatively light sedan, and the sound it makes is pure performance car, smooth yet ribald enough to let you know it’s sharing your good time. The traditional Jaguar J-gate manual-shift arrangement really proved its worth in these mountains-better by far than either Audi’s or BMW’s, it was completely intuitive. If it had been introduced this year instead of fifteen years ago, the automotive press would have done a collective swoon.
Mercedes-Benz S430 4Matic
It was enlightening to fall into this car directly after spending a couple of hours in the Audi and the BMW. It was a physical and mental relief. The oldest car in our group of four, the Mercedes S-class is comforting and familiar. The seats are instantly and easily adjustable. The controls are all where you expect them to be and work in ways that are familiar to anyone who has ever driven a modern car. The only caveat is the totally counterintuitive navigation system, and for that you could call some friend with a Cadillac and ask him to help you out.
Although it’s been around the longest and was down on power compared with the others, the S-class acquitted itself very well against the new kids on the real-world roads of Kentucky and Tennessee and never seemed to be suffering any dramatic power deficit. It delivers every erg of performance available without apparent strain, and it sounds great in the process. Nonetheless, we would order this car with the optional 5.0-liter V-8. Like the Jaguar J-gate, the Mercedes manual-shift arrangement is simple, straightforward, and much nicer to use than the high-tech alternatives offered by either Audi or BMW. Just grab the shifter and twitch it right or left for up or down, and the change is smooth and instantaneous. This wonderful five-speed gearbox is going to be replaced by a new seven-speed this year, but we feel no urgent need for that upgrade, based on this driving experience. The fact that our test car was equipped with 4Matic all-wheel drive was a very nice bonus. Let us pray, however, that Mercedes-Benz will resist any notion of following BMW into the iDrive jungle.
In conclusion, this comparison test proves that performance numbers and detailed specifications do not define cars-particularly cars like these.
In this case, the Audi made the best demonstration of ultra-high tech at work; the BMW demonstrated that ultra-high tech improperly managed is actually a detriment to a great road car with great performance; the Mercedes-Benz demonstrated that there’s no substitute for sound engineering and inspired development work and never mind the ultra-high tech; and the Jaguar demonstrated that reduced weight and increased power output in a structure developed with enthusiasts in mind can result in a sedan that is much like your favorite sports car. Net-net, the Audi A8L Quattro got the most favorable nods, but the Jaguar was the most fun, and the Mercedes would probably be the most pleasant ownership experience.