x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Road Test: Mercedes and BMW ready for battle

Two of the most desirable four-door saloons square up in the coupe stakes

The Mercedes CLS. Newspress
The Mercedes CLS. Newspress

It will come as no great revelation that the allure of the luxury automobile segment's latest fad hinges on two of mankind's more deadly and pervasive sins: vanity and envy. It may sadden automotive purists no end that such base motives are what motivate so many into performance luxury cars, but were it not for covetousness and hubris, BMW and Mercedes-Benz might just be boutique brands. The fact is that four-door coupés, such as the Mercedes-Benz CLS and BMW's new Gran Coupé, exist only because a whole bunch of rich - and generally male - drivers can't stand the idea of being seen in a garden variety four-door saloon.

Of course, the concept of a four-door coupé is somewhat contradictory. Coupés don't have four doors and, likewise, anything with four doors isn't really a coupé. High school level semantics aside, the basic premise of the CLS and Gran Coupé is that they offer most of the function of a traditional saloon while still allowing owners to pretend at being wild and crazy guys.

The CLS is, at first blush, the dowdier of the two. You see, it's very much an E-Class dressed in a slinky dress. Yes it's sexy but it's still the quintessential stay-at-home saloon, offering the domesticated performance one expects of the segment with just a soupçon of haute couture. The BMW, however, is very much an elongated 6 Series with a couple of extra doors, its front and rear end styling largely unchanged from the two-door, and it's only the cabin's "greenhouse" that has been stretched. Whatever its provenance, it is the more complete styling of the two - the BMW starts out as a coupé, while the Benz's roots are firmly in the four-door camp. Advantage BMW.

That difference is reinforced as soon as you sit behind the steering wheel of both cars. Sit on the CLS driver seat and it feels exactly like being in an E-Class. The seating position is traditional sit-up-and-beg saloon, comfortable for it but not ostensibly more sporting than the car upon which the CLS is based.

The BMW, meanwhile, sits you "in" the car, so low that, were it not for the typically BMW austere décor, one might mistake it for a Porsche 911. Indeed, you can adjust the Gran Sport's driver seat so low that the bottom rung of the gauge cluster (odometer, etc) is unreadable. Seating positions might seem trivial in the grand scheme of turbochargers and adjustable suspensions but, trust me, the difference in effect is startling. Not only does it dramatically change the seating position (not to mention ingress and egress) but also how you sit often sets the tone for how you drive.

And for two cars that share similar layouts (both share a classic front-engine chassis and drive to all four wheels), the CLS and Gran Coupé are as different as the companies that make them. As befits the image of both companies, it is the Mercedes that trundles with greater gravitas, and the BMW that attacks with aplomb.

As one might expect, it is the BMW that also feels sportier on the road, a little tauter in the suspenders and there being a little better marriage between spring and damping rates. Still, not everything in the handling department goes the BMW's way. While the Mercedes's steering always feels both tight and responsive in whichever suspension setting one chooses (Comfort or Sport), the Gran Sport only feels right in Comfort. Toggle the iDrive controller for Sport (or Sport+) and the steering gets downright heavy. Firmer steering, offering more feedback, is traditionally preferred for sporting cars but, seriously BMW, the car weighs a considerable 2,105kg; it really doesn't need weightier steering.

Normally, when one car has an advantage in handling, the other has its measure in ride. Here, however, because of BMW's almost magical synthesis of spring rates and damping adjustability, the BMW comes off no worse than the big Merc. Yes, the Gran Coupé fidgets a little on the highway, but it is the Mercedes that feels stiffer in its Comfort mode than the BMW does in its.

The Mercedes regains its footing inside the cabin. We could argue ad nauseam about which car offers the most unnecessary complication, the CLS having enough buttons to launch a space mission, the Gran Coupé countering with iDrive (surely no more descriptor is necessary by now). In any case, neither has switchgear as easily manipulated as that of an Audi and, if ease of use really is your top shopping criteria for a four-door coupé, you really should be looking at an S7.

But the CLS at least manages to look elegant — a few chrome-trimmed bits blending well with the leather and wood — while the BMW simply looks austere. Oh sure, part of the reason was the Gran Sport's monochromatic black trim, easily spruced up with tan or ivory leather. But Munich holds on to its Spartan approach to luxury as if it's the sacrifice luxury must make to performance. In a car that is definitely more GT than pur sang sportster, a bright bauble or two would not go remiss. The Mercedes also has a smidgen more rear seat room - both head and leg - though neither is exemplary in this regard.

Which brings us to the final determinator: price. Here, any advantage the BMW might have in performance could well be trounced by its pricing. While the gulf between the CLS 350's Dh314,300 base price and the BMW 640's Dh360,000 isn't quite oceanic, it is enough to cause pause for thought. BMW says the elevated pricing reflects its desire to compete with Porsche's Panamera. I'd say it still has to establish that it's significantly better than the Mercedes.