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Comparison Test: Audi A8 L vs BMW 740i vs Mercedes-Benz S550

March 11th, 2012


Operation: Opulence

      In the automotive food chain it’s good to be at the top. That’s where automakers like to introduce their latest technologies, premium powerplants and most extravagant luxuries in what amounts to a rolling test bed of the industry’s cutting edge. Competition at this level is always entertaining and reaching borderline comical levels. Thought the 16 speaker audio system in the BMW 7-Series was class leading? Audi will see your bet and raise you an optional 19 speaker system that costs half a Nissan Versa! If the seven speed auto in your S-Class was boast worthy last year Audi would like to introduce you to their new eight speed autobox. What, your cruise control only maintains a set speed? Mercedes has active systems that will brake the car to a stop without your input, pull you back into your lane should you start to drift out and pierce through the darkness with night vision that would make half the world’s militaries jealous. Development moves so fast in this rarified class that we’d have to hire a full-time Luxury Car Editor to keep up. Since we spent all the money budgeted for that position on a Star Wars pinball machine for the office we decided we better familiarize ourselves with the latest and greatest from the primary luxury players. We requested a BMW 7-Series, Mercedes S-Class and Audi A8 loaded to the roof with gadgets and lined with the finest leather to treat–we meant test–ourselves and the latest six figure luxury sedans in an epic comparison test only the AT Crew could concoct. In need of a destination we set the nav systems to Sault Ste Marie on Michigan’s northern border with Canada and set off on Operation: Opulence to determine the winner.

Mercedes-Benz S550
     Who are we kidding? With a Mercedes-Benz S-Class among the competitors we really already knew the ultimate champion of our luxury car mêlée, didn’t we? Everyone anywhere knows that Mercedes has owned this class since long before the other two competitors here were ever sketched on a cocktail napkin. It started out as the world’s best luxury sedan and now some fifty years later it’s still true.
     I can make that claim because the 2012 S550 is better than the competition Muxlow and Gernand brought in every conceivable way. For example, their cars lack the most essential hardware requirement for any self-respecting luxury sedan: that’s right, the hood ornament. Perched at the end of my long Lunar Blue hood is a gleaming three-pointed star that signals the big Benz’s arrival like Brad and Angelina’s security throwing aside paparazzi. As if it needed another bragging point, this year’s S550 is blessed with Benz’s overachieving 4.6-liter V8 that is breathed on by twin turbos and dishes out a mid range punch that would scare the wits out of your average family sedan owner; 516 lb-ft of torque between 1,800-3,500 rpm will do that. To put the S-Class’s power supremacy in perspective the A8 is down 188 lb-ft of torque (a Cadillac ATS-worth) and the BMW gives up 114 horsepower (more than a Fiat 500 offers). Debating the performance champ is kind of like discussing American Air Force supremacy; the numbers don’t lie.
     Still, when you’re out to run errands instead of drag races it’s nice to know the S-Class remains the clear winner. The 7-speed automatic sifts through the gears with faultless execution and the long 124.6-inch wheelbase (longest in the test) and Airmatic air suspension keep the cabin at retirement village levels of tranquility. If we’re honest the interior design is graying and the switchgear doesn’t return a tactile reward like the Audi’s, but the materials are faultless and the luxury level rules supreme in this test. Consider the backseat accommodations that benefit from the aptly named $3,040 Rear Seat Package and as a result feature 8-way power outboard reclining seats that are heated and ventilated and reside within their own climate control zone. Muxlow’s BMW barely offers any rear seat luxuries while the big Benz piles on power side window shades to keep the mysterious VIP within, well, mysterious.
     The technology content continues to swell as long as you keep checking option boxes. We were wowed by the night vision system that displays a ghostly gray image in the gauge cluster until we saw the admittedly more advanced Audi system that offers a superior image. However, the ability to detect pedestrians and suicidal animals well down the road is a pretty helpful safety feature even if actually seeing the video feed is a short-lived novelty that’s best left for wowing friends. For about three grand the Driver Assistance Package includes some helpful tech in the form of adaptive cruise control, active blind spot monitoring and active lane keeping. The intelligent cruise worked splendidly and will even slow to a stop if that’s what the traffic situation calls for. The active lane keeping was a new one for us but it essentially keeps you in your lane should you start to drift out by monitoring pavement markings. If you’re drifting over a line without your turn signal on you’ll get a subtle vibration in the steering wheel and the appropriate wheel will brake to effectively drag the Benz back on course. It’s pretty amazing technology but, thankfully, can be turned off. Another first for us was the $710 Splitview nav screen that allows the driver to see system functions (nav, audio, etc.) while the front passenger watches a movie on the same screen. Don’t ask us how it works, but it does. You’ll have no problem dazzling the neighbors with luxury features.
     We’d rather be dazzled with dynamics and here the S550 held its own against the Ultimate Driving Machine with the optional Sport Package adding 19” AMG wheels and Active Body Control keeping the 4,455 pound curb weight in check by almost entirely eliminating body roll when set to Sport mode. Our only real enthusiast complaint is the slow and numb steering that honestly can’t match the BMW for responsiveness. You would never complain about the Benz’s cross-drilled brakes unless you’d just stepped out of Gernand’s Audi, which offers front and rear discs about 2 inches larger than on my S-Class. Nobody can deny the A8 positively dwarfs the competition in the whoa department. The Mercedes also swills the most premium with EPA ratings of 16 city / 24 highway. But considering the far less powerful straight-six BMW only manages one better in each measure I think most people will happily pay a few more dollars at the pump for the fun provided by the monstrous power.
     An S-Class represents wealth and good taste the world over and if you spend a few minutes with one you’ll know why. First, there is the style, which successfully mixes the formal luxury of an imposing chrome grille with the ‘bahn burner sport of our car’s optional $5,900 Sport Package. Then you’ll climb into one of the most comfortable seats to ever be bolted in an automobile and appreciate the $2,290 Cashmere and Savanna premium leather upholstery. Eventually you’ll fire the mighty twin-turbo V8 and run through the gears of the 7-speed automatic and after reaching 60 mph in 4.9 seconds you’ll realize something: this is the world’s best luxury sedan.


Audi A8 L
     When faced with selecting an ultra-luxury sedan for a trip to the top of Michigan, the Audi A8 L was not my natural choice. For years the Audi has gained my attention ever since riding shotgun in a diesel second-generation model equipped with a manual transmission. Also leaving a positive impression was watching an S8 perform stunts in Ronin, which also happens to be one of the greatest car chase movies of all time. In spite of all this it is hard to ignore that traditional performance sedans have been blessed with rear wheel drive. It also seems logical that a premium sedan should look like it shares nothing with a plebian ‘Veedub.’ The skeleton in the Audi flagship’s closet has always been a FWD heritage mitigated only by its signature Quattro all-wheel-drive system. To make matters worse, the early model’s exterior styling made only modest attempts to distance itself from its common-man parent brand, Volkswagen. Things were only made worse when VW itself offered the foolishly named and similarly marketed Phaeton.
     Certainly the RWD Mercedes-Benz S-Class and BMW 7-Series are more purist when it comes to the uber sedan field, aren’t they? With the third generation A8 we should not be surprised to find out that the A8 has come of age and can no longer be considered the upstart in the German car executive sedan class. After spending several hundred miles behind the wheel I am compelled to make the case that it has, in fact, jumped to the front of the class.
     The first thing you notice about our black A8 L test car is its stance. Unlike the narrow S-class with its sloping hood and early Ford Focus inspired fender flares or the pig-nosed 7-Series, the Audi radiates understated elegance. From the broad shoulders to the long rear doors to the signature six-window greenhouse it is impossible to gaze upon a bad angle. The artful LED headlamps are crafted to ensure that the car’s brilliance is not cloaked by the darkness of night. The contrast of the Audi’s design is greatest over the long-nosed BMW and big Benz. Audi has made a reputation for itself leading interior design. The A8 continues this trend with soft touch surfaces all around, strategic customizable indirect lighting, tasteful wood accents and premium switchgear that gives the impression of brushed aluminum. The Nougat Brown leather was impossibly rich looking. The BMW makes do with comparably cheap looking black leather surfaces interrupted only by a modest smattering of woodgrain. The Benz succeeds where the BMW falls short in offering truly premium feeling materials, but it fails with an uninteresting interior design that focuses one’s attention to a deeply recessed center screen.
     The Audi MMI infotainment system instantly proved its superiority over the complex iDrive and truly befuddling Command system. If the MMI system could be faulted it is only that it seems that the dial should scroll clockwise instead of counter clockwise. This takes a bit of adjustment, but could be intuitively backwards to my natural left-handed tendencies. Where the A8 L truly excels, however, is in the audio department. Handing over a stack of cash that would park a nice used Miata in the driveway for a sound system above and beyond the already capable standard Bose system seemed ludicrous. In order to fully test out the system I loaded my iPod with some of the best examples of Tchaikovsky and John Williams I could find and connected it to the USB port in the center console. After all, for a $6,300 upgrade, I better have the Detroit Symphony Orchestra performing in the A8 L’s vast back seat. Call this skeptic a convert because the precision and brilliance of the sound bellowing out of Bang & Olufsen’s 19 speaker stereo was so clear that I am convinced I heard John Williams make a page turn while conducting the Imperial March.
     The gadgetry continues with the addition of the $3,000 Driver Assistance Package, which included adaptive cruise control, lane assist, side assist, pre-sense plus and a four-spoke multifunction steering wheel with shift paddles. The adaptive cruise control worked seamlessly, while the lane/side/pre-sense plus features worked harmoniously together. When a car approached the driver’s blind spot discreet lights on the inside of the side-view mirrors lit up. When drifting out of the lane the steering wheel gave a gentle video-game-style vibration to alert the driver. This was a response we garnered more frequently than we would like to admit, which was likely a result of playing with the myriad of features and menus that somehow seemed to be necessary to pilot this car down the road despite previously never having these features in a car of our own. As if these so-called driving aids weren’t enough to keep the Audi from striking an unexpected object the A8 also offered night vision, a feature pioneered on the final generation Cadillac Deville way back in model year 2000. Audi’s night vision works well enough when there is no rain to blur the image on the screen nestled between the tachometer and speedometer gauges. This actually is not a very useful place for the screen as it requires one to focus attention away from the road. If there is one handy feature with the night vision, it is its ability to frame human beings. While driving through a park after dark, it was amazing how many people we saw lurking behind the trees completely out of range of the naked eye. After a few minutes of discovering such a high number of shady characters we decided it best to head towards safer areas and back onto the highway.
     After reviewing all the non-essential aspects of the A8 L, I had to remind myself that this is still, in fact, a car. Cars are meant to be driven, and at 100 large this car should be driven hard. The Audi responds with enthusiasm to quick thrusts of the right foot. While the sedan’s response is not neck snapping, it certainly transmits a comfortable amount of thrust to the backside. Changing lanes on the interstate simply required finding a large-car-sized gap, and then taking it. Throwing the Audi into a curve at speed resulted in just as much confidence. Steering is precise and gives enough feedback without need of correction to make one nearly forget that the front and rear wheels are both putting power to the pavement. Bounding into the typical cloverleaf resulted in minimal tire squeal, the limiting factor being more a result of my skills than the car itself. While the 372-horse Audi didn’t have comparo-leading amounts of power to propel all these gadgets down the road, we were thoroughly impressed with the 27 mpg highway rating–a rating that we frequently matched on our trip around Northern Michigan. This economy can largely be credited to the 8 speed automatic transmission, which I can happily point out has two more gears than the technically outdated 7-series. You might expect to feel a lot of shifting going on with all those ratios to choose from, but the shifts were largely imperceptible.
     Yes, all this luxury and technology does come at a price. The “base” Audi A8 L 4.2 FSI Quattro Auto Tipronic Sedan starts at $84,000. Yes, that is the car’s official full name, but at least you are getting your money’s worth per letter. When the pencil dust settled after checking the option boxes, the total price amounted to a mortgage rivaling $102,265. That is a lot of coin, but I can’t think of a better sedan for the money. Sure, the Mercedes-Benz has the prestigious hood ornament, but the car stickers for 20 large more than the A8 L. And sure, the 7-series is nearly the same amount cheaper, but you can feel where every last dollar was spared in keeping the price “down” under $80k. At the end of a long day’s journey, with Bang & Olufsen cranking out the Imperial March and my 18-way power seat set just right, there is no question that I would choose the Audi over the Benz and Bimmer, at any price.


BMW 740i
     Where they both went wrong is their fascination with stuff! Sure, the Benz and Audi are all sorts of wonderful loaded down with trinkets like night vision and ridiculous audio systems, but they are just OK as cars. The BMW 740i is the driver’s car.
     Under the hood is a direct-injected 3.0-liter inline-six boosted by twin turbos. Aside from the forced induction there is no other motor configuration more quintessentially BMW than a straight-six; a proper mill for the BMW flagship. On paper the 7 is outgunned by the Audi and Mercedes with their massive fuel slurping V8s, but consider the fact that the BMW carries 100-plus fewer pounds than the Audi and almost 400-lbs less than the pudgy Mercedes and it is no wonder that this “underdog” felt just as spry, if not more so, than either of them. At 315 hp and 330 lb-ft of torque the BMW straight-six is actually more power dense than either of them and actually bests the Audi’s 4.2-liter V8 torque figure by two.
     Mated to that wonderful straight-6 is an elegantly simple 6-speed automatic. Left to its own devices this transmission seamlessly puts power to pavement via the rear wheels. It doesn’t have to consult the computer and do a bunch of math to determine proper torque ratio split between front or rear axles like the Audi and it doesn’t have to worry about choosing the wrong gear like the 7-speed Benz. When I feel like a bit of spirited driving I merely tip the transmission joystick to the left and the transmission sport mode is activated. Care to choose your own gears? Nudge the stick forward for a downshift and squeeze back to fire off quick sequential upshifts. Oh, and you won’t find any of those silly paddle shifters glued to the back of the steering wheel; in here it’s all business.
     The pure and simple business of driving as BMW intended. Black Dakota leather covers the seats, steering wheel, center consoles and dash, broken up by Fineline Matte wood trim inlays and satin metallic accent pieces. Sure the interior isn’t as pretty as Gernand’s Audi or as pampering as Dye’s Merc, but give the mighty Bimmer its due. The seats have more adjustments than you can shake a stick at and my backside found them to be plenty supportive for a full day’s driving over Michigan’s pot-marked roads. The gauges are classic BMW, simple and easy to read with exactly the information you need about the car’s vitals. The iDrive system has received some much needed simplifying but still plays second fiddle to Audi’s MMI system.
     On the outside we’re happy to report the derrière by Bangle has been dumped. That fixes our primary styling grievance from the previous model. However, upfront we find that the European pedestrian crash standards have had more than a little effect. That nose is high and flat. Thankfully, the proper BMW profile proportions remain intact with the long hood and short decklid bookended by short front and rear overhangs. Now if I’m honest, I would have liked to have peered over the shoulder of whoever was checking the options boxes on this 7’er and correct one little thing. The M-sport package is missing along with its 19” wheels and stickier tires.
     No matter, because this base model BMW 7-series (if you can really call any 7-Series base) is still the most responsive on the road in this Teutonic trio. Even with the pedestrian rubber and yawn-inspiring wheels it hugged the corners like the Ultimate Driving Machine that it is. The driving experience is completely configurable to the driver’s mood. Handily positioned next to the gear shift is the Driving Dynamics Control selector which lets you select from four progressively sportier drive settings altering the shock absorber firmness, throttle and transmission response, power steering assist and Dynamic Stability Control. Comfort mode is the softest and if the BMW gives anything to the other two in ride quality, it’s this: the Audi and the Benz know how to float over the road better than BMW does. Ratchet things up past Sport to Sport+ however, and you simply leave the other two in the dust. The suspension firms up so that you can feel the road and read it as if it were a driver’s technical manual. The feedback through the steering wheel is direct; you know exactly what each front tire is doing. You don’t rely on your eyes to tell you what direction you’re headed, your hands already know.
     In the BMW you’re looking for that next curve, that next apex. That is what sets it apart. Dye and Gernand may joke that it is more 1-series than marque flagship. But the truth is when you want to drive–really drive–it’s the BMW you want parked in your garage. And at $77,815 I can park it and a well-equipped 135i in the garage for the same coin as the overweight Mercedes.
     With the other two cars the driver is insulated from the road (and the rest of the car for that matter) by a thick layer of syrup. In the BMW, it’s just man, machine and the open road.


The Conclusion
     Truthfully we didn’t need to convoy to Northern Michigan and peer at Canada across the Soo Locks to find our winner. We knew after the first driver rotation that the Audi A8 L is the cutting edge of mobile opulence. The Mercedes may hang its hat on power and the BMW plays the handling card, but the Audi’s talent portfolio is broad. From passenger comfort and drivetrain refinement to delightful details like the innovative power seat controls, the flagship Audi earned a unanimous endorsement from our trio of editors. In the automotive food chain it’s good to be at the top, but it’s even better to be in the A8.

All photos by Jason Muxlow




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