Shootout: Battle of the middleweight executive saloons

Shootout: Battle of the middleweight executive saloons
 

With the ubiquity of so-called crossover and sport-utility vehicle offerings, buyers may easily overlook regular body formats in a quest to own the newest thing out there

Luckily, for those who want to slice through the frills, there are fruitful solutions. These upper-medium, premium sedans prove so. Some nameplates here are older than four decades. Others trace their vintage to a more millennial-friendly year on the calendar.

We convened five of the foremost players for a meeting to decide which should earn your contract for executive transportation. Neckties would be loosened. Droplets of spit would spray across the boardroom table as each vociferously made their points. Fists would curl and pound the mahogany.

And we would be the human resources department — mediating effectively and objectively. The latest iteration of the car laying claim to creating the genre offers the premise upon which this comparison is hinged. Is the seventh-generation BMW 5-Series still the undisputed business saloon champion?

It is joined by the Mercedes-Benz E-Class, equally iconic when one recalls versions like the W123 series of yesteryear. The Audi A6 shows signs of going grey — but its status as being part of the Teutonic Three meant a retrenchment would have looked downright peculiar.

Now on to the young bloods: the handsome Volvo S90 and endearing Jaguar XF. Both are relative juniors to the fray, if you ignore spiritual successors such as the S80 and S-Type respectively.

Our colleague from Lexus, the GS, could not attend to state its case. We suppose things are easy when you are big in Japan…

BMW 5-SERIES: Balancing work and play

The manufacturer bills its seventh-generation 5-Series as the “business athlete” in the category. It must have fallen victim to the cycling fad, because it weighs 100kg less than it did in its previous form. Much of the technical constitution is shared with the chief executive officer of the range, the 7-Series: a fine mentor indeed.

This means you can have the model with virtually all the items you get in the flagship BMW. That includes an interface that responds to hand gestures, plus the convenience of autonomous parking. You read right: the key fob acts like a remote control, allowing you to slide the car in and out of a bay at will. Optional M Sport kit validates its athletic pretences.

It would not be remiss to say that BMW has softened the textures of its cars of late, in a bid to pander to a wider audience. The new 5-Series is tangible proof. This is not to say that it will cower at the sight of sinuous roads. It responds to heavy-handedness with cool indifference and imparts true confidence while simultaneously detaching its driver from external vagaries.

Four-wheel steering is also available as an optional extra. For most, little or no criticism can be levelled at its ability to juggle the sensations of feeling plugged in and polished too. Is it the undisputed athletic leader? Maybe.

Is it the refinement leader? The answer to this seems less ambiguous. Inside, it is business as usual. BMW always seems reluctant to change things drastically. Familiarity breeds content, if you ask some owners. Our gripes were minor: scratchy plastics on the seat bases. And where are those chunky indicator stalks we used to see in BMW products? Clearly, some cost-cutting has ensued. Disappointing — but at least it is not the case when it comes to the areas that matter: under the skin.

Priced from: R770 500
Unit tested: 530d
Power: 195kW
Torque: 620Nm
Consumption: 5.1l/100km (claimed)
Transmission: Eight-speed automatic

AUDI A6: Strong core values endure

We should remember that the current-generation A6 marked a significant leap for Audi, particularly from a styling perspective. It did away with the rounded physique that defined its two predecessors. But we also need to remember that the A6 was launched locally in 2011 — six years ago — a substantial amount of time by present standards.

Minor changes were rolled out in 2015. Its age is evidenced by some interior elements: an SD-slot and the omission of essentials such as a USB port. These are gripes Audi has remedied in recent times. The display of its Multi Media Interface (MMI) appears rather grainy compared to those in competitors. Although witnessing the screen slide out and up with quick precision is a novel sight. And details like those attest to the level of engineering care those designers had when they conceived the car.

It still feels suitably premium — tight panel gaps, impeccable surface finishes and the impression that every switch will still function with satisfying tautness long after the lease has ended. Does it look like a six-year-old vehicle? Hardly … there are merits to their play-it-safe design approach and this is a demonstration. The forces of time have not aged the A6 too severely.

The Audi A6 complies quite happily when finessed along. It is not remarkably dynamic and conveys a sense of stodginess. But if all you want is an agreeable, understated cruiser with outstanding build quality, then you could do worse. But do not expect any of the technological trickery and wow factor offered by the other contenders here. The A6 arrived at a time where autonomous driving seemed too good to be plausible.

Priced from: R662 000
Unit tested: 3.0TDI
Power: 160kW
Torque: 400Nm
Consumption: 4.8l/100km (claimed)
Transmission: Seven-speed dual-clutch

VOLVO S90: Laissez-faire leadership

Among the biggest talking points around the new Volvo S90 is the standard inclusion of semi-autonomous driving technology. It really does offer a hands-off approach to things; thanks to its Pilot Assist system. But by contrast, the intrusive nature of some safety systems reveals a tendency to micro-manage the actions of the driver.

Nuances aside, we must commend the newcomer for its variety of talents. For starters, it looks the part: a strident, muscular thing whose pensive face would look good on the cover of any financial magazine. And then there is the cushy, soothing nature of the interior. Wide, well-padded chairs ease the backside after a tiring day in the machine of the economy.

And the drive is equally cosseting. It feels as hefty as its size suggests, so little points for dynamism on that front. But one can respect the realistic outlook Volvo had in not trying to emulate an air of sportiness. The S90 is underpinned by what Volvo calls its Scalable Product Architecture (SPA); a platform that can be repurposed for other applications.

The tablet-inspired digital interface seemed to divide views among staffers. Some praised its simplicity. Others found it too fiddly and bemoaned how grubby it looked when stained with fingerprints. Solution? Wash your hands. The S90 is a decidedly competent alternative to the expected trio. As a value proposition, it makes a strong case for itself.

More engine variety would be welcomed, however: buyers are only offered four-cylinder units. The petrol guises err on the strained side when a little more duress is heaped upon them. Downsizing is not always the solution, even though company bean counters may disagree.

Priced from: R675 200
Unit tested: T6 AWD
Power: 235kW
Torque: 400Nm
Consumption: 7.2l/100km (claimed)
Transmission: Eight-speed automatic

MERCEDES-BENZ E-CLASS: Trading on reputation

Can we be critical of the notion that the E-Class looks pretty much identical to the C-Class and S-Class? We could. But that might be unfair. We could accuse all cars here of appearing too derivative — this one-size-fits-all approach to styling is nothing new.

When we first sampled the E-Class in 2016, we were relatively positive. Unlike lesser cars in the Mercedes-Benz range, it was less blatant about cutting corners in the aspect of tactile quality.

It remains, however, that if you want this E-Class to feel as special as a Mercedes-Benz should, you need to tick the right option boxes. And that means extra outlay is inevitable. The interior mirrors that of the flagship S-Class, with a swooping fascia and round ventilation slots aplenty. For more money one can have a fully-digitised instrument panel.

Road manners proved particularly disappointing. In E-Class iterations of old, supreme comfort and peerless refinement were the standout virtues. And now?

Well, our staffers struggled to adequately pinpoint a department in which the vehicle excels — settling for a character that is merely middle-of-the-road. We would sound like sycophants to describe it as marvellously plush or extremely talented in the twisty bits. But as the monthly sales charts in South Africa often prove, we lust for cachet and pavement appeal.

While the substance of the E-Class is debatable, one cannot overlook the weight wielded by that three-pointed star emblem. And for that reason, the E-Class will remain etched in the collective conscience of buyers within this category.

Priced from: R714 200
Unit tested: E200
Power: 135kW
Torque: 300Nm
Consumption: 5.9l/100km (claimed)
Transmission: Nine-speed automatic

JAGUAR XF: Wolf of Diagonal Street

The XF puts one in mind of a charming, swaggering sales executive who would cunningly disarm its subject and get them to sign on the dotted line. Yes, the suave British saloon is beset by more than a few quirks — to be diplomatic. But it drips appeal from each pore (paw?) and conveys to the world that its owner is just a little more distinguished in taste than the average suit-wearer.

Compared to the others in this category, interior quality is average to say the least: it is neither offensive, nor worthy of gushing praise. Many items feel cheap. And the “toot” it gives when you hit the lock button on the key fob reminds one of a Tata Bolt. But boy, is it a remarkable thing to pilot. Mike Cross, the man responsible for the way Jaguar products behave on the bitumen, managed a rather stellar job.

By now you already know about the intensive use of aluminium in the suspension components employed by the smaller XE and this XF. This is one of the reasons the car complies so deftly, with remarkable surefootedness, when sporting ambitions are on the agenda. Steering feel is about as good as it could get when it comes to an electrically-assisted setup.

And it rides with suitable decorum. If your choice was dictated by the heart and not the head, then there is little doubt you would end up taking the Jaguar home — shortcomings notwithstanding. Another factor in its favour is pricing. Jaguar struggled to get the XE within the realm of other competitors in that segment. But the XF is par for the course when compared to contenders here.

Priced from: R765 900
Unit tested: 20d
Power: 132kW
Torque: 430Nm
Consumption: 4.3l/100km (claimed)
Transmission: Eight-speed automatic

CONCLUSION:

After exhausting our limited knowledge of corporate parlance in our dissection of this meeting, we concluded with some obvious (and not-so-obvious) strategies going forward. The patent idea is this: none of the five vehicles here has any significant deficiencies that would render its owner totally unhappy.

The business model of the business sedan is a straightforward one; but some executions are far superior. The flamboyance and soul of the Jaguar XF will always appeal to buyers in want of something unique. In addition, we deem it the most engaging and fun-to-drive offering here.

Time has been good to the Audi A6: but paying 2017 prices for a car launched in 2011 may represent little sense for shoppers. Might make an enticing pre-owned purchase, however, if you are mad about the four-ring brand and cannot wait for the imminent next-generation car.

The Volvo is easy to recommend too, especially on the back of renewed brand equity. If size and luxury are at the top of your list, then have a look. If maintaining perceptions is a priority, the Mercedes-Benz will do. Now, you might have guessed it: the champion in this suit-and-tie duel is the 5-Series.

A varied résumé makes declaring the BMW as the unequivocal winner an easy task. It balances the tenets of the genre quite deftly: the 5-Series is sporty, soothing, prestigious and spacious in equal amounts. This Jill-of-all-trades persona is exactly what makes it an immediate (perhaps mindless) choice when it comes to employing a business sedan. – Brenwin Naidu, Ziphora Masethe, Francois Oosthuizen, Gugu Masuku (Pictures: Waldo Swiegers)

  • •Audi, BMW, Volvo and Jaguar test units supplied by respective press offices. A special thanks to Mercedes-Benz Rosebank for availing an E-Class demonstration model. Location courtesy of MCC Aviation in Lanseria. Contact MCC Aviation for all your charter flight requirements on 011-701-2332.