Shootout: Executive Council

Shootout: Executive Council
 

We search for the premier choice in the upscale, medium-sized sedan segment…

Excitement for the road ahead abounded at the turn of the new millennium. The honeymoon haze of a fairly new South African democracy lingered. Our economy was in relatively sound health, recovering after the blows dealt by sanctions courtesy of apartheid. Times were good. Times were simpler. Indeed, the biggest concern for many it seemed, was whether the household appliances were Y2K compatible.

The motoring industry was far less complicated, too. Remember, this was before the burgeoning crossover and SUV spheres. If you wanted a compact premium sedan, you would have visited an Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz or Lexus dealership. From these respective brands you would have ended up picking the A4, 3-Series, C-Class or IS.

The offerings in this segment today are anything but compact, when compared to their forebears. A new crop of junior executives (think Audi A3 Sedan and Mercedes-Benz CLA-Class) has emerged to fill the chasm. But despite the evolution, the category continues to account for great volumes on the South African sales charts. Where should your money go? Naturally, brand loyalty is a salient point when it comes to such a decision — and it would not be remiss to say that there is parity among the contenders in this segment.

But as George Orwell taught us through the device of allegory, some animals are more equal than others. And to find an unequivocal victor we staged this comparison test. Five contenders. Two provinces. One world-class circuit. It all culminated in a fierce debate at a beloved local franchise restaurant.

THE CONTENDERS

With the exception of the entry-level Mercedes-Benz C180, the models on test here are the middle-range representatives of their line-ups. This particular unit successfully hides its status as the starter model, thanks to the striking AMG exterior accoutrements.

In one corner we have the revered BMW 320i, quite accustomed to the joy of victory in comparisons of this nature. The manufacturer has had the better part of four decades to hone the recipe, after all. Fellow Teutonic carmaker Audi sent its A4 2.0 TFSI to the board meeting. At first glance, it might look unchanged from its predecessor, but the biggest transformation occurred within and under the skin.

And to break the monotony of this German trio, we included two alternative offerings. The Lexus IS 200t brings daring aesthetics to the mix and has finally adopted the de rigueur practice of forced-induction. Lastly, we have Jaguar XE in 2.0 D guise (a petrol derivative was not available) which proffers heaps of British charm to buyers in the segment. All of these four-cylinder derivatives wield double-clutch or automatic transmissions.

BMW 320i
BASIC PRICE: R463 000

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We simply ought to start with the oldest and most iconic nameplate here. The BMW 3-Series is regarded as the yardstick when it comes to medium-sized, premium saloons.

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And it has earned the reputation as the offering with the biggest sporting slant – something that has been questioned in recent times.

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But it remains the logical choice for many South Africans. You may even quip that it is the Toyota Corolla of the segment. But it is not difficult to see why. As a package, the 3-Series just works: there are no idiosyncrasies, everything is as it should be.

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Perhaps we should also factor in the cachet and cool factor of the BMW brand. The 320i (135kW and 290Nm) serves enough pace and the eight-speed ZF automatic does a superb job of using what this willing turbocharged engine has to offer. Inside, the BMW boasts a clean, uncluttered layout. We loathe to use that motoring hack cliché – but all controls really do fall to hand easily.

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And getting comfortable at the helm takes little time. Is it still the driver’s choice in the segment? That is up for debate. While the 3-Series imparts solidity and surefootedness in all conditions, you might find yourself wanting when it comes to those plugged-in sensations that tickle the enthusiast part of the brain. While the ride quality remains good, it felt a bit less polished than some of the peers here, over the nastier bits of road on the way to Phakisa circuit in the Free State.

Model: BMW 320i
Basic price: R463 000
Engine: 1998cc, four-cylinder, turbocharged, petrol
Power: 135kW between 5000-6500rpm
Torque: 290Nm between 1350-4250rpm
Acceleration: 7.2 seconds   
Top speed: 235km/h
Claimed consumption: 5.5l/100km
Claimed CO2: 128g/km

JAGUAR XE 2.0 D
BASIC PRICE: R593 100

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The substantial outlay demanded by the Jaguar XE already discounts it as an overall victor. Together with the strange packaging, this further limited its chances: rear legroom is especially paltry.

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Pricing is a sensitive issue for the British manufacturer, given the exchange rate. This is most unfortunate, because the XE is such an endearing car. Firstly, it looks incredible – those proportions are perfect and it is undoubtedly the distinguished choice in this league. The dynamic virtues are plentiful too. If this comparison was based solely on the criteria of ride and handling, then the Jaguar would have the best shot at taking the title. The aluminium-intensive underpinnings have a lot to do with this.

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It seemed to be the most engaging car here to drive; offering plenty steering feel, outstanding agility on the track and impressive decorum over ripples and pocks on the road.

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The 2.0 D engine (132kW and 430Nm) is amply effusive and as you would expect, extremely frugal. This unit is part of the new Jaguar Land Rover Ingenium family of engines.

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And they have gone to great lengths to achieve excellent refinement, with virtually none of the clatter and harshness that defines oil-burners. But those Teutonic peers highlight that Jaguar still has some way to go in the interior plushness department. Still, there is something to be said about owning a product with the snarling cat emblem on its nose. The XE feels special, albeit marred by the niggles we mentioned.

Model: Jaguar XE 2.0 D
Basic price: R593 100  
Engine: 1999cc, four-cylinder, turbocharged, diesel
Power: 132kW at 4000rpm
Torque: 430Nm between1750-2500rpm
Acceleration:  7.8 seconds
Top speed: 231km/h
Claimed consumption: 4.2l/100km
Claimed CO2: 109g/km

MERCEDES-BENZ C180
BASIC PRICE: R472 400

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It is easy to wax lyrical about the new design philosophy at Mercedes-Benz. Their products have successfully grabbed the affections of a slightly younger audience – and they have shed the beige stigmas that once defined their products. But is it a case of style over substance?

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The C-Class certainly hints towards such a notion. We found ourselves thoroughly disappointed with the overall integrity of the model. If you want an example of the C-Class to feel substantial, you have to specify the additional trim and suspension trickery packages.

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Even though our tester was equipped with such items, it fared poorly. The driving experience can be described as turgid as best. The ride errs on the hard side. And under the stresses of spirited driving, it felt frustratingly disconnected. In fairness, the C180 has the smallest displacement here (1595cc) and this unit appeared quite asthmatic when grunt was demanded.

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Its output of 115kW and 250Nm seems acceptable on paper, but in the real world it is not up to the job. The dim-witted 7G-TRONIC transmission proved indifferent, with delayed responses.

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While we all agreed that it is an attractive machine, the Mercedes-Benz garnered unanimous criticism from our panel. It leaves us more disappointed than outright angry, especially when we consider what the brand once stood for. Can one truly say that the C-Class is engineered like no other? In a pejorative sense, maybe…

Model: Mercedes-Benz C180
Basic price: R472 400
Engine: 1595cc, four-cylinder, turbocharged, petrol
Power: 115kW at 5300rpm
Torque: 250Nm between 1200-4000rpm
Acceleration: 8.2 seconds
Top speed: 225km/h
Claimed consumption: 5.5l/100km
Claimed CO2: 127g/km

AUDI A4 2.0 TFSI
BASIC PRICE:
R496 000

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On the opposite side of the spectrum is the Audi A4. You would struggle to tell it apart from the old version. And compared to the rest of the models here, it has to be the least exciting to look at.

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But as you know, the redeeming quality of this play-it-safe styling approach pays dividends when the time comes to sell. But substance is the biggest reason we can overlook the dull appearance. Because the A4 has plenty of it. This is a product that seems like it was made to outlast the average lease term, a rare thing in these times of recyclable cars.

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The quality of the interior is quite simply incredible. Every button, every rocker switch operates with satisfying precision. The materials employed throughout are just a cut above. As are the refinement levels.

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Underpinning the A4 is the new MLB 2 platform, which also serves in the Audi Q7 and, interestingly, the Bentley Bentayga. Ride quality is unparalleled. And while it was not as thrilling as the Jaguar XE or Lexus IS on circuit, it was quite adept at tucking into corners and maintaining the driver’s desired line.

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And the S-tronic transmission appeared telepathic in the way it dispatched shifts. Performance from the 2.0T FSI engine (140kW and 320Nm) put us in mind of the resolve that defines a hot hatchback such as the Volkswagen Golf GTI. But think of this as a GTI for the upstanding executive. Bear in mind that this is the only front-wheel drive car here. Electronic torque vectoring control systems did their bit to stave off unwieldiness in the twists. The new A4 is an extremely talented machine and the sense of meticulous engineering it imparted had our staffers gushing with superlatives. Just a pity the designers did not invest a bit more into the styling process.

Model: Audi 2.0 TFSI
Basic price: R496 000
Engine: 1984cc, four-cylinder, turbocharged, petrol
Power: 140kW at 4200-6000rpm
Torque: 320Nm at 1450-4200rpm
Acceleration: 7.3 seconds
Top speed: 240km/h
Claimed consumption: 5.4l/100km
Claimed CO2: 122g/km

LEXUS IS 200t
BASIC PRICE: R550 200

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As a value proposition, the Lexus IS rates highly. Yes, it is pricier when you compare it to the equivalent base prices of the German peers. But it boasts all the features (as standard) that you would have to specify as extras on those models. Last year Lexus added a two-litre, turbocharged engine (180kW and 350Nm) which offers a little more fizz at Highveld altitudes versus the normally-aspirated V6 choice.

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That said, it gives the impression that it could do with more pep, seeming a tad strained as that tachometer needle hits the higher digits. Reacquainting ourselves with this underrated saloon reminded us of the many merits it has.

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Lexus is known for their efforts in refinement. And the Lexus is wonderfully quiet on the freeway. It is also a hoot to drive, getting plaudits in particular from Sunday Times’ very own racing driver, Thomas Falkiner.

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He expounded with great enthusiasm on how controllable it is at the limit, with beautifully-executed sideways theatrics. Indeed, this Lexus is attuned to the needs of the enthusiasts. Gripes? Well, the cabin is starting to give away the car’s age, even if it is put together superbly. Things are rather cramped in there. And the cluttered fascia layout can be overwhelming.

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A long-standing annoyance is the Lexus digital interface, with its fiddly mouse-like control pad that would drive right-handed motorists to distraction. The angular profile and sharp pleats on the bodywork continue to divide opinion. One thing is for sure though: you will not blend into the periphery of the company parking lot with the IS.

Model: Lexus IS 200t
Basic price: R550 200
Engine: 1998cc, four-cylinder, turbocharged, petrol
Power: 180kW at 5800rpm
Torque: 350Nm at 1650-4400rpm
Acceleration: 7 seconds
Top speed: 230km/h
Claimed consumption: 7.5l/100km
Claimed CO2: 175g/km

THE VERDICT

Our cross-country trek and brief track stint offered accurate insight into the talents and limitations of these products. We abjured the idea of timed laps. Mostly because of insurance restrictions (unfortunately) and because of the feeble relevance such an undertaking would have anyway. These are not performance vehicles after all. After an arduous day of driving, we descended on an establishment regarded as one of the finest culinary spots in the Free State: Welkom Spur. Here, we discussed, dissected at debated our top picks.

Asthmatic performance and stodgy driving manners made the Mercedes-Benz C180 the biggest downer of the day. Striking looks (when specified with the additional styling bits) make the car slightly more palatable. The perceived brand equity of the three-pointed star emblem will ensure that it remains a big seller. If this test was based on dynamic prowess and all-out emotional response, then the XE would have emerged on top. Our staffers deemed it the product they would pick with their hearts.

The fact is that it costs far too much and still has some way to go in the aspects of quality and packaging. The Lexus offers exceptional value, a unique appearance and an entertaining driving character. And there is the added assuring of the irreproachable reputation of parent company Toyota. Although some parts of the IS are telling of its age, such as the interior and infotainment system.

Hang on. The current BMW 3-Series was launched in 2012 – nearly five years ago, was it not? That may be so, but a recent life-cycle improvement certainly did a good job of extending the shelf-life. Indeed, the ubiquitous 3-Series does many things rather well, without any glaring downsides. It remains the Jack of All Trades, the immediate choice, albeit an uninspiring one.

But the Audi A4 delivers an extra layer of accomplishment across the board. It is tangibly better in the discipline of on-road refinement – we would go as far as saying that it redefines what is expected in this class. Dynamically, of course, we could never claim it is more exciting than some of the rear-driving rivals here. But that is not to say it lacks any athleticism; carving up sinuous layouts in a confident and fuss-free manner. In addition, build quality and interior sophistication is decidedly superior.

Brand loyalty is a powerful thing. Everybody has their own partiality and our duty is to be frank in calling out the good and not-so-good. Of course, your choice will depend on your needs and your badge preferences. In order from top to bottom, here is our succinct wrap-up. Pole position goes to the subdued but substance-laden Audi. The competent but predictable BMW is a respectable second. Third comes the fun and eccentric Lexus. Fourth is the hugely charming but flawed Jaguar, followed by the stylish but superficial Mercedes-Benz.

Words: Brenwin Naidu, Francois Oosthuizen, Francisco Nwamba, Thomas Falkiner
Pictures: Waldo Swiegers

A special thanks to Phakisa Freeway in Welkom and the Free State Tourism Board for the use of their facility. This feature was first published in the April issue of Sunday Times Motoring.