While Bill Murray began every Groundhog Day at 6AM back in the early ’90s, the perpetual time warp I’m currently finding myself in starts with ‘5’ and ends with ‘Series sedan from BMW’.
Since the all-new seventh-generation 2017 BMW 5 Series range lobbed locally in March, I’ve sampled both petrol 530i fours and 540i sixes, spent a week with diesel six-cylinder 530d in May, and attended the 530e iPerformance PHEV’s local launch in June.
I know, I know, the world’s smallest violin plays quietly for me, especially given that, as I’d scored every 5er a commendable 8.5 from 10, I was hardly cursing that groundhog’s reappearance from its hole.
And here he is once again, my reacquaintance with the 2017 BMW 530i, if in the company of arch-rival 2017 Mercedes-Benz E300 to see how the pair measure up and, just quietly, to confirm (or otherwise) whether I’ve been on the mark with Munich’s large luxury car to date.
“Raises the bar everywhere… A class act… A huge success…” I might’ve have used to describe the 5 Series at various times recently. Well, we’ll find out now, won’t we?
I’ll admit I’ve been less prolific committing opinion to screen on the E-Class, though I did describe the E220d as “comprehensive and lavishly adorned” in a diesel three-way comparison against Audi A6 and Volvo S90. It rated an excellent 8.5 from 10 and only just got pipped by the upstart Swede for the win. That score is about par form for any currently generation E we’ve tested and, perhaps unsurprisingly, bang on with current BMW 5er.
Do buyers really cross-shop these two large-segment, prestige German nameplates? Apparently so, say the importers. But whether you’re a brand defector, a newcomer to large-segment German prestige or merely a brand loyalist upsizing from a C or 3, there’s enough differentiation in the appeal of these E-Class and 5 Series protagonists – and indeed their maker’s broader branding cache – that’ll thrust shoppers one way or the other regardless of details such as equipment, spec, ride, comfort and whatnot.
Take, for example, the mix of sportiness and luxury. Both the 5 Series and E-Class trade on a balance of these two facets and, in generations past, the BMW was your driver’s car and the Merc was your dad’s.
Of late, though, the big Benz has displayed more sporting leans and the large Bimmer seems to be tapping its inner limousine more evidently. Is it any surprise, then, that in exterior design alone, the current E-Class could be mistaken for a C-Class, and the 5 Series is looking more and more like a 7 Series.
Of course, it not that cut and dry. Sat side by side, the E300 looks the sportier device, despite our test car being not fitted with AMG Line appearance enhancements, for which Benz charges $3500 extra. It does, though, sit on AMG 20-inch wheels which are standard issue in the mid-spec E. Much of sporting effect, then, is in core styling.
The 530i aesthetic is patently more luxo focused, though our test car trades standard fit M Sport accoutrements for no-extra-cost Luxury Line. Even the cost-optional 20-inch wheels ($950, 19s are standard) doesn’t push the ‘sports’ barrow any harder. Likewise, that limousine effect seems somewhat ingrained in its design.
Pitching to different buyers? Or hedging different bets on what the same buyer wants? A bit of both? Whatever the case, though, the fierce and long-running rivalry between these two nameplates attempting to outdo one another for all-round greatness makes for a compelling fight, resulting in two exceptional, want-for-little cars where deciding on a winner between them might prove very tricky indeed.
The Mercedes-Benz E300 lists for $109,611 before options, a sizeable $18,511 stump up from the base E200, if a considerable $21,989 less expensive than the E350e hybrid.
Our test car comes with just one option fitted, the Vision Package ($4990) that adds a roller-blind-style panoramic glass sunroof, head-up display and 13-speaker Burmeister surround sound. Call it $114,601 before on-roads.
The BMW 530i enters at $110,500, which wants a similar $18,300 premium above the entry 520i and is exactly the same price as the 530e PHEV (which shows you how differently the two brands are marketing hybrid tech to Aussie buyers, specification details notwithstanding).
Apart from the aforementioned Luxury Line (adds exterior chrome work, Comfort-style seats with Nappa leather, active seat ventilation and Ambient Air package) and 20-inch wheels, our 530i gets an Innovations Package ($1600, including BMW Display key, in-cabin gesture control, remote control parking functionality), ceramic controls ($1000), electric glass roof ($2900), metallic paintwork ($2000), rear window roller blinds ($1500), and seat heating front and rear ($700). There’s also an additional charge for Apple CarPlay ($623) though it is wireless and has conditional inductive charging for iPhone if you use a specific type of phone cover. Total list price: $121,773.
Although the complete lists of features of this pair are too exhaustive to mention in full here, both cars get 360-degree camera systems, leather trim, high-end infotainment systems, DAB+, digital instrumentation, adaptive suspension smarts, ambient lighting systems and front row seat heating.
Worth a mention is that the BMW gets head-up display and high-end 16-speaker Harmon/Kardon surround sound as standard. Conversely, where the 530i gets adaptive LEDs, the Benz gets tricky, higher-end multi-beam LED headlights as base equipment and doesn’t charge extra for 20-inch wheels.
Both cars offer high levels of safety kit, with myriad active interventional technologies that, when drawn upon, can combine to create handy ‘situational’ short-term autonomous driving capability. BMW calls its Driving Assistant Plus and Benz markets its as Driving Assistance Plus, though essential, and unsurprisingly, each leverages similar technologies to largely similar effect.
Each combines self-steering and active lane-keeping for direction, active cruise control for acceleration and braking down to a standstill and low-speed traffic manoeuvring, and each offers clever parking aid smarts. In fact, for what it’s worth, all of this wide-ranging tech is offered in lower-grade 520d and E200 versions…
“Smart, clean and modern if risk averse,” is how we’ve described the 10th-generation E300’s style and character in past review though it applies equally to the 530i Luxury Line.
Both have rippling body lines and high-brow geek-ery in the design details, though each has its own distinctive – if equally successful – take on subtle maturity as the overall brief. Bereft of its standard-fit M Sport styling cues supplanted by that blinged-up Luxury Line appearance package, it could be argued the 530i looks a shade more upmarket when viewed from 50 paces.
Climb in and the differences in design between the pair amplify.
The E300 is little more youthful, a fair bit sportier, conspicuously more style driven and that huge 12.3-inch widescreen display screams “new tech!” right in your face. Be it the driver’s side instrumentation and centralised infotainment, and regard of mode of personalisation fiddling, the software displays always remain clear and easy on the eye.
That said, Benz has taken something of a gamble here, potentially polarising traditionalists – of which number many E-Class owners – and anchoring this W213 generation with the risk of the ‘big screen’ effect quickly becoming dated in future.
A timely design, perhaps, if arguably far from timeless. The same might be said for the wavy dash fascia, and the mood lighting treatment that’s perhaps more heavy handed than it is subtly tasteful. At least there’s a choice of 64 lighting colours to help tame it down (the BMW gets 11).
The 530i is more heavy-handed in its approach to material variety, textures, creases and curves with interior design, though it’s so deftly executed and congruent, it works an absolute treat…provided a buyer’s taste doesn’t favour blandness.
The cabin space really is the 5 Series’ jewel, copping more compliments than the Benz in its time in the CarAdvice garage, and successfully negotiates incorporating conspicuous techiness without allowing it to rob from BMW’s appealing, time-honoured classicisms.
The BMW’s seats are comfier and trimmed in more sumptuous Nappa-grade leather than the Benz, though there’s specific reason for that. Undoubtedly, the E’s ‘standard leather’ sport-type seats are much closer in form and feel to the 5’s regular-issue M Sport gear.
Above: Mercedes-Benz E300
Equally, had our Merc benefited from AMG Line’s quilted Nappa ‘Sport’ seats, they’d be a closer match in perceived opulence to the Bimmer’s (equally optional) Luxury Line seating appointments. In sampling what we’re given, though, the 5 Series feels a grade more upmarket as a result of the spec supplied.
Of the two seats designs, the BMW’s look richer and more ornate in construction and stitching, while the Benz’s are more softly padded and offer superior lateral support when the car is negotiating corners. You do slink a little lower into the front row of the E-Class and both cars offer myriad adjustment of seat positioning and lumber fine tuning.
Above: BMW 530i
Debate rages as to which car offers the ‘better’ infotainment system, even among CarAdvice reviewers familiar with both. Merc’s Comand Online infotainment system has as many fans as it does detractors – personally, I find it slick, modern and easy to negotiate after some familiarity with the Benz methodology to user interface.
The iDrive 6 in the BMW is a little less intuitive and less accessible, demanding more user application, if paying dividends in a high degree of power in personalisation – such as customisable control functions – as its reward.
BMW’s Connected Drive/Connected App universe does seem to want to inexorably tie your car to your smartphone and your daily life. That’s great if you love, and are willing to invest the effort into that sort of thing, though it’s obviously not for everyone.
Above: BMW 530i
Benz’s Comand design favours a simpler plug-and-play approach if, unlike other lower-grade systems relying on the smartphone to do the bulk of the heavy techno-lifting, it’s crammed with proprietary features.
Touchpad input facility, superb camera systems, internet capability, excellent sat-nav software, graphically rich and high in detail – either infotainment system ranks amongst the finest and smartest out there, though with bonuses such as a swipe-able touchscreen, remote-view exterior camera feature and inductive phone charging, the Bimmer pips it at the post for sheer bell and whistle count. Its gesture control, though, really is short-staying party trick few owners will likely use that often…
Above: Mercedes-Benz E300
Both are amply roomy in row two, have 40:20:40 split-fold seating and there’s enough cabin width for three adults but, again, the BMW ups its rival on small details such as heating/cooling controls for the rear air con vents and less of a centralised hump in the rear bench to more easily facilitate middle seat passenger comfort. A letdown in both cars is the lack of rear USB ports, while the BMW’s 12V socket count trumps the Benz’s two to one.
The 530’s boot volume is, erm, 530 litres, a notable if largely academic 10 litres less capacity than the E300.
In the war of the turbocharged 2.0-litre fours under the bonnet it’s the BMW’s 185kW taking the marginal five-kilowatt advantage over the Benz 180kW (at 5000rpm).
The tables turn in torque, where the E-Class’s 370Nm (1300-4000rpm) supplants the 5 Series’ 350Nm. Not much in it, then, and each quotes a significant lift in outputs against their respective base-level range mates in E200 (135kW/300Nm) and newly launched 520i (135kW/290Nm) wanting for significantly fewer coins.
So, it’s perhaps surprising to see such variation in claimed combined-cycle fuel figures. The Benz, which fits a proprietary nine-speed automatic, is said to return 7.1L/100kms. The BMW, though, comes with a bullish 5.8L claim, undercutting its rival by what’s surely a significant measure.
While the 530i did prove roughly a litre-per-hundred more economical on test, our chosen road loop – mostly urban, a smattering of highway – hardly facilitated an emphatic result.
There’s little doubt the 530i’s impressive 1540kg kerb weight contributes some way to its impressive frugality and significantly undercuts the 1655kg Benz. That said, both cars comes with 6.2-second 0-110km/h claims and neither feels the quicker device or, to be frank, at all quick.
The pair might be similar in pace, perhaps, but it’s the BMW that demonstrate superior powertrain refinement. What the output figures don’t translate is the Munich engine’s lustier nature – it feels the more substantial engine. It’s also quieter than the Mercedes’s four, which has a metallic din and feels slightly strained when called to march. And the marriage between engine and transmission is smoother and a little more premium in vibe in the 530i.
In fact, the low-speed changes in Benz’s proprietary nine-speed are noticeably sharper and more abrupt than the BMW’s ZF-sourced eight-speed, which is perhaps indicative of the their holistic characters and how they present themselves on road. There are hints of sportiness that you sense has been ‘tuned’ into the E300 package, while the 530i favours more lightness and seamlessness.
For instance, some buyers will find the BMW’s lighter steering feel friendlier, others will find it unfavourably aloof. The heftier Benz direction finder provides a more confident sense of connection to the road, though it could be considered slightly more cumbersome when parking or manoeuvring at low speed.
This exemplifies this pair: clear leanings towards sports sedan in the Benz, ditto the BMW’s tendency towards a more limousine-like experience, both deftly executed by their makers by design, with few issues bar nitpicking the nuances.
No surprises, then, that the BMW’s wafty ride tends to iron out road imperfections more comprehensively and with fewer impacts resonating through the cabin than the Benz. And yet the 530i, equally unsurprisingly, feels less tied to the road and lacks the ‘edge’ of the sportier E300.
It’s tricky to pan one tuning and praise the other because, again, it seems as if each car is tuned to favour different buyer tastes, despite each sitting on seemingly identically sized 20-inch run-flat rubber that no doubt contribute to both cars thudding loudly across potholes…
We noticed something very strange during the test. Both cars fit 245/35R 20 tyres up front and 275/30R 20s in rear, but the Benz’s rolling stock, which are Goodyear Eagle F1s, appeared wider than its rivals Pirelli P Zeros. So we got out the tape measure.
Sure enough, the Goodyears put more or less 195mm/230mm of rubber to the Tarmac, while the Pirellis ply a more modest 175mm/210mm footprint, give or take a few millimetres. Sure enough, the Benz does bite down harder and point more assertively in the corners.
Both deliver short-term driving autonomy and cover each other off in the details, self-regulating acceleration and braking at speeds of up to 210km/h and self-steering in stints of up to 30 seconds before requiring the driver to relinquish control, or at least nudge the wheel to reset another half-minute of self steering.
Is there much difference between the two? Not enough to deem one system more confidence-inspiring than the other. Both track well self-driving on sections of highway that are cleanly line marked and that pose fewer challenges than gentle curves. The trickier the forum, however, the more they mimic a sort of drunk autonomous driving, a seemingly accepted inherent trait at today’s point on the long path to full autonomy.
It takes a few semi-autonomous stints in either car to trust that the steed isn’t going to wander off into another object or the passing scenery, though trust, for this test pilot at least, is fairly limited and I’m not nearly game enough to divert my attention from the road or to stop constantly monitoring the self-driving state of play.
Neither car does anything wildly unpredictable, yet neither car delivers a faultless performance, and even troubleshooting why either car suddenly drifts off into wandering misadventure – an exit ramp, a broken line marking, whatever – is tough for the driver.
Equally, their gentle lane-swaying natures seem to cause some concern to nearby motorists and, presumably and inevitably, the constabulary who’ll want the driver to blow into a breathalyser.
At least neither German maker is claiming currently fitted tech is proper autonomous driving. Because what’s on show is most certainly not.
As always seems to be the case when lining up premium German competitors – particularly as price tags rise above six figures, and especially when comparing BMW to Mercedes-Benz – there’s much more disparity between their flavours than there realistically is in differences in ingredients or substance.
A great many buyers will undoubtedly tend towards either the Benz or BMW for the cuts of their jib, right down to the cache of its badge, moreso than being lured one way or the other by infotainment usability nuances, or ride and handling details. But that doesn’t mean deciding a critical winner here is down to nitpicking between two equally excellent and impressive cars.
The BMW takes the win here, mainly because it’s more clear cut in its comfort-leaning luxury pitch and it delivers that aim more emphatically and with more confidence.
Meanwhile, the Benz exhibits heavy luxo-comfort leanings, but its touches and shades of sportiness tend to rob from a sense of balance rather than providing the enhancement perhaps intended. For the purpose it peddles, the 530i is crystal clear, and the E300 noticeably hazier, in execution.
It’s this deftly executed and confident delivery that leaves the 530i’s sheen of premium-ness noticeably more buffed.
Click on the Photos tab for more images by Sam Venn.