The bread and butter sedan in America is the so-called “mid-size” car. It boasts four doors, seats for four and sometimes five adults, a generous trunk and good fuel mileage. In the BMW world, that translates into their 5 Series sedans. For Mercedes Benz, their E Class offerings fit the bill. I recently had the chance to drive these two sedans back to back courtesy of BMW and my thoughts on the relative merits of each are offered here. As a bit of a spoiler alert, as a loyal BMW owner, I expected night and day differences since I know that the owner age demographics of each marque differ dramatically. After all, Mercedes Benz buyers are, statistically, several years older on average than the buyers of BMWs. This difference should have translated into markedly different driving experiences as well as other different approaches to styling and interior finishes. Let’s see if I was right!
Mercedes Benz E350 4matic – As I approached the Mercedes Benz, I was struck by how good the black paint was. Shiny for sure with a rich deep luster. The fit and finish across the board – doors, hood, trunk – was millimeter-perfect. Inside, the quality of the materials struck me as top notch as did the way things were put together. I really liked the analog dash clock – a non-high-tech touch that added a little class. Just about every control a driver could need was on the steering wheel. Bluetooth phone, sound system volume, radio station selection, you name it – it was there so you would not have to remove your hands from the wheel. The instrument panel (IP) had three deep, easy-to-read black on white dials in binnacles for speedometer (in the center), fuel level and coolant temperature on the left and tachometer on the right. Other information sources are part of each dial but function via warning lights instead of pointers. As someone not as familiar with Mercedes Benz cars as I am with BMWs, the displays were clear and communicated everything clearly and simply. Across the dash the Mercedes has dark wood accent panels – very old gentleman’s club this… The driver seat was comfortable – more like the accommodations for a GT car than a Sports Car – and remarkably easy to adjust with the adjustment buttons on the door, rather than low down on the side of the seat. Probably the easiest system in the world to use and one that should be copied by everyone offering electric seats. The thick, leather-wrapped steering wheel was another example of perfect fit and finish with lots of tight, well-done stitching. Shifting into gear on the 7-speed transmission was done via a small right-side stalk behind the steering wheel instead of a center-console-mounted shifter. Acceleration was crisp but not neck-snapping – given the six cylinder, 302-hp engine and over 4,000 lb weight, I think it did well. Mercedes boasts a 6.6 second 0-60 time and that seems about right for this class vehicle. On the road, Mercedes Benz had a taught yet non-jarring ride over some rough roads and rail-road tracks. In medium speed corners, the handling was good – not sporty for sure but quite competent and, despite the light feel to the steering, it was entertaining to drive. Brakes were excellent in several medium speed hard stops – good pedal feel too. Wind, engine and road noise were low as well. This would make a great long distance touring car and, of course, a wonderful daily driver. For those in the snow belt, the 4matic designation means it has all wheel drive and with the right tires, it would be a great four-season cruiser. Overall, I give the Mercedes Benz 5 stars for knowing their customers very well.
BMW 535i – As with the Mercedes Benz, the paint and the fit and finish were very good. The silver paint didn’t give the same elegant look that the Mercedes Benz’s gloss black paint did but you could see that it was just as well applied. The clock in the BMW is a small digital affair – in keeping with their high-tech image (but as a watch geek, I would have preferred an analog clock). The steering wheel is chock full of buttons and controls, similar to the Mercedes Benz and it’s a chunky, easy to grab affair too. The dash around the instrument panel is a pebble-finished aluminum that, again, befits the younger, high tech customers it attracts. The instruments – four gauges in all – are black with illuminated numbers and letters. I think this works but is not as easy to read in daylight as the Mercedes Benz’s black letters against a white dial face. The speedometer and tachometer are large and the coolant and fuel level gauges smaller and on either side of the two central dials. The driver’s seat is sportier with higher hip and side bolsters that hold the driver in during spirited cornering. They are super comfortable as well. The electrical adjustment buttons are not as well placed as the Mercedes Benz but once you have your seat where you need it, additional changes are probably done only occasionally. The BMW 535i comes standard with an 8-speed automatic transmission and is shifted via a center console shift lever and paddles behind the steering wheel. Acceleration off the line and from 25 mph to 45 mph was better here in the BMW despite the slightly smaller engine (3.0 liters vs 3.5 liters in the Mercedes Benz). That’s because, all BMWs are now turbocharged and this race-proven technology yields a 0-60 time over a second quicker and thanks to the improved mid-range torque of a turbo, the passing power is there when you need it. There is also a audible growl from the exhaust as you power through the gears that isn’t there in the Mercedes Benz. Handling is crisp as well in medium speed corners but, like the Mercedes Benz, the riding comfort and road noise are not compromised to deliver that performance. However, if I had to pick one of these two for a quick trip down a twisty two lane, the BMW would be my choice. It has better “turn-in” and is blessed with those amazing BMW brakes that I have raved about for years. Like the Mercedes Benz, the BMW comes with all wheel drive (called X Drive), making it suitable for winters in New Jersey. Overall, the BMW scores well, also earning a 5 star rating but for different reasons.
Summary – Both BMW and Mercedes Benz build excellent automobiles. However, they approach satisfying their customers from different places. The Mercedes Benz is a luxury car that can be driven briskly should the driver wish. It delivers comfort, luxury, safety (always rated highly in the insurance and government tests) and when desired, a gives the owner a chance to drive quickly on challenging roads. The BMW, on the other hand is a sporty car with luxury and high tech touches that meet the expectations of their traditional buyers. You can’t really pick on price (unless you hit the options list hard) because the Mercedes Benz stickers, without options, at $55,600 – with options the car I drove it climbed to $64,695. The BMW was no slouch either. It started at $57,900 but because the car offered for the test was heavily optioned, the sticker rose to a stunning $77,600. It’s hard to say if all of those expensive options are needed or worth the near $20,000 cost but if you get a little crazy when you build yours, the price can go sky high.
The Mercedes Benz surprised me with its classy interior styling, competent handling and braking and attractive styling. The BMW, however, impressed me with a high level of luxury while still delivering that “Ultimate Driving Machine” experience.
Test both and make your pick – just remember that the options list can be very tempting and expensive.