Comparative Review: BMW 520d vs Mercedes-Benz E220d (2016)

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Mercedes-Benz’s new E-Class is purported to be the most accomplished executive sedan on the market. Yes, it's awash with new onboard technology, but how well does it stack up against its old foe in a direct comparison? Let's find out.

The BMW 5 Series and Mercedes-Benz E-Class inhabit an underappreciated segment of the market; sales figures suggest the German rivals are the major players in a small, yet stable, niche. Unfortunately for the 5 and E-Class, they don't have the outright prestige of their 7 Series or S-Class first class siblings, nor do they have the mass appeal and accessibility of the 3 Series and C-Class. Nonetheless, the new E-Class is a benchmark passenger vehicle for Mercedes-Benz – it incorporates impressive new technologies, some of which even surpass the S-Class in certain areas. The 5 Series, on the other hand, is getting on in years despite the facelift it received back in 2013. In recent times, the 5 Series has been the executive sedan of choice with its superb ride/handling balance and extremely efficient engine range, topped off with one of the quietest cabins around. Toppling the 5 Series won't be easy.

What are we comparing?

The entry-level turbodiesel derivatives: Munich's 520d against Stuttgart's E220d. Installing 2.0-litre engines in hefty sedans may seem like a dreary sop to efficiency but, let us assure you, these cars' motors have more than enough shove to get the job done. The BMW's 2.0-litre turbodiesel produces 140 kW/400 Nm and is claimed to propel the large sedan from zero to 100 kph in just 7.9 seconds. The Mercedes-Benz is no slouch either. Its all-new 2.0-litre turbodiesel delivers 143 kW/400 Nm and the E220d's said to be slightly faster to 100 kph than the BMW at 7.3 seconds. Executive sedans are not really about benchmark acceleration times, but more about refinement, comfort, prestige and technology, so let’s get on with that stuff instead.


Two "entry-level" turbodiesel luxury sedans go head to head

How do they compare in terms of…

Refinement?

The BMW is claimed to be the most fuel efficient (4.1 L/100 km), but the Mercedes' manufacturer figure (4.3 L/100 km) is not far off that. During our test, however, the results differed slightly (7.1 L/100 km for the Bimmer, 5.7 L/100 km for the Benz). Significantly, the latter's motor was smoother-revving and sounded less harsh at idle. When you’re cruising along at 120 kph, both engines are quiet, but with ample power and torque in reserve should you need to overtake. In terms of tractability and performance, they feel very similar, but ultimately the E-Class’ motor is more efficient and feels more refined.

Both cars' automatic gearboxes are largely unobtrusive. You hardly notice the 'shifts in either car as they change gears with seamless ease. It’s hard to fault either of them... It's only when you start driving with intent that the BMW's 8-speed transmission feels more organised/harder to confuse than the Benz’s 9-speed unit.


The Benz's turbodiesel proved to be more efficient than the BMW's during our test

If it’s a quiet ride that you’re after then the E-Class is the car for you. The cabin is extremely well insulated and the wind noise intrusion is minimal, even at freeway speeds. Inside, all you hear is the occasional tick of the indicator and the output from the sedan's audio system. The 5 Series' cabin is serene too, but just not to the same level as the Benz's – there’s more road noise from the optional 19-inch tyres and the slightest of wind disturbance from around the window seals. It’s not exactly like sitting in a hurricane, but when you drive them back to back, these small imperfections make a discernable difference.

Comfort?

Although executive sedans (especially German-made ones) are predominantly bought for their status, they have to back up their kerb appeal with commensurate levels of road manners and comfort. Both sedans offer adaptable modes for comfort- or sports-oriented driving and both are capable of delivering sure-footed handling on a challenging stretch of blacktop. It’s at this juncture, however, where the buyers face their biggest decision.

The BMW's ride is sportier than the Benz's, but not harsh or crashy – it's not like you have to clench your teeth every time you traverse a pothole. As a result of the 5's comparative stiffness, it leans less in the bends and will probably be the quicker car if you’re in the mood to time-trial your route home from work.

The E-Class has a smoother, softer ride quality and feels more grown up, much like you’d expect a buyer in this segment to be. The E-Class irons out bumps better and rides imperfections in the roads with less hassle. It isn’t ponderous when you pitch it into a corner either and the steering is well-weighted, making it easy to discern where the grip level ends. Despite its unlikely skill, it doesn’t match the BMW for handling talent, but it is more comfortable to drive.


Both sedans offer superb levels of comfort, space and luxury. The BMW is sportier, but the Benz more comfortable.

Technology?

The E-Class is a powerhouse in terms of technological features because it’s the newer car (while the BMW is due for replacement in less than a year). Benz has extensively upgraded the interior capabilities of the E-Class to adapt to the modern business person’s everyday life. The centre screen, for instance, has the best resolution and crispest display of any car we've experienced. It isn’t a touchscreen, however, the Stuttgart-based manufacturer has persisted with the Comand interface's rotary knobs that are located in the driver armrest area. This test model didn’t come with the extended display, which transforms the instrument cluster into a fully digital affair, however. It’s the most impressive option you can choose if you want to spruce up the cabin and make it look futuristic. The infotainment system is compatible with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto of which, only the iOS version currently works in SA.

 

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The driver assistance systems employed in the new E-Class are also a step further than what we’ve seen on any other executive sedan, not to mention first class cars. The adaptive cruise control, which is able to bring the Benz to a complete stop and then automatically resume with a quick tap of the throttle, is impressive in itself. Consider that there is an auto-steer function that keeps the car in its lane (with no steering input required) from the driver and it’s could almost be considered an autonomous vehicle. Well, until 30 seconds have passed at which point the Benz will demand you place your hands on the wheel just to make sure you’re still alive. BMW has a similar system, but it only works at speeds of up to 60 kph and one hand is required on the wheel at all time.

Even though the BMW feels suitably sophisticated after its relatively recent facelift, it can’t match the intuitive systems available in the E-Class. It does still have a fair number of tech available. Things like the Connected Drive system with optional internet provide you with weather information and real-time traffic information. Screens can also be fitted in the rear of the BMW, although that’s a hefty R30 000 extra. The BMW also features PDC as standard, a handy thing in large sedans like these. If it’s the latest tech and in-car systems that you’re after, the E-Class is where you’re going to find it.

Prestige?

Prestige is a very difficult thing to quantify and it can be quite subjective. Both German brands have extremely loyal supporters, so for the neutral readers, here’s how we think they stack up: The 5 Series is showing its age, but thankfully its successor will be here soon. It’s quite understated, but, its exterior execution is not out of step with BMW's current design language. The E-Class, unfortunately, looks much like a 150% C-Class: so much so that 1 of our testers confused it for a C-Class while trying to spot the test unit in a car park. The previous E-Class had more of its own style and distinctive design cues.


The E-Class interior is the more stylish. Make sure to include the widescreen cockpit for the full digital effect

Turning attention to the inside, the E-Class fascia is arguably more contemporary and stylish than the BMW's – its infotainment screen positively attracts the limelight. The interior design is more modern and the blend of materials work well in creating a plush and luxurious cabin. The BMW’s fit and finish are superb and the craftsmanship is hard to beat but it lacks pizazz/something to look at that makes you go ‘wow’! The digital instrument cluster is a nice upgrade, but the design feels very familiar and dated – probably because it hasn’t changed much since the 5 arrived at the start of the decade. Otherwise, the cars are well matched, especially terms of how much rear legroom is availed. Testers felt that the 5 Series offers a little more rear headroom, while the E-Class boot capacity is slightly larger (540 litres versus the BMW's 520 litres). 


The BMW's interior is ergonomically-sound and well-made, but its lacks a touch of inspiration.

Verdict

As you read through this comparative review, you may have expected the E-Class to obliterate the 5 Series – after all, its 6 years younger than its Bavarian rival. One could almost imagine that Mercedes-Benz bought a 5 Series, dissected it and then designed the E-Class with the aim of being slightly better in every possible aspect. They succeeded; unless of course you want a sporty executive sedan – BMW still rules the roost in that regard. The E-Class is definitely the more refined and sophisticated product and in terms of its interior, more stylish and technologically advanced. Granted, the base price of the Benz is R70 000 more than the BMW and you can easily add R150k worth of options on either of these cars the underlining price difference remains. Is the E-Class worth R70 000 more than the 5 Series? Yes, because when you drive it, the premium feels well worth it.

Click here to compare the specifications of the BMW 520d and Mercedes-Benz E220d

Related articles:

Mercedes-Benz E-Class (2016) South African Launch
Mercedes-Benz E-Class (2016) Specs and Pricing in SA
5 Amazing pieces of tech in the New E-Class
Mercedes-Benz E-Class (2016) First Drive

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