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The 600bhp faceoff: BMW M5 vs Mercedes-AMG E 63 S vs Audi RS 6 Avant
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The 600bhp faceoff: BMW M5 vs Mercedes-AMG E 63 S vs Audi RS 6 Avant

Sirish Chandran

The 600bhp faceoff: BMW M5 vs Mercedes-AMG E 63 S vs Audi RS 6 Avant

With a whole weekend in hands and fuel cards topped up what will auto journos do? Yeah, you guessed it right. Get some mad, mad cars together, burn some rubber and decide which one made it to our Christmas list (only if it ever reached Santa!). For this weekend, we decided to test out the four door 600bhp club of the country. With more pictures of the car drifting around than on a straight line, BMW M5 was the obvious choice. With a price tag of Rs.1.43 crore (ex-showroom), the car boasts a 4.3 litre twin-turbo V8 pushing 591 ponies and 750Nm sent to all four wheels.  The next sideway-happy car is the Mercedes-AMG E 63 S. This German hound packs a 3.9 litre twin-turbo V8 with 603bhp and 850Nm of twist to all the four corners. This car will set you back by Rs.1.5 crore (ex-showroom).

The next obvious pick was an Audi. The Performance variant of both the RS 7 and RS 6 now nudge 600 horses, 597bhp to be exact, and while logic would make the RS 7 Performance the logical contender from Ingolstadt in this test of over-endowed Germans, just look at the Avant. Isn’t it super-cool? Aren’t fast estates the shizz? 600 horses in a car that has enough space for not just the wife and kids, but also the dog! Two dogs actually! With an equally menacing 3.9 litre twin-turbo mill with 750Nm and a price tag of Rs.1.65 crore, this estate from Ingolstadt had already won my heart, but that’s not dictating the group test winner.

“Aren’t fast estates the shizz? 600 horses in a car that has enough space for not just the wife and kids, but also the dog! Two dogs actually!”

Power is nothing, without control

Of headlines the BMW M5 has never lacked for. It has had motorsport-derived motors, the most glorious of all being the naturally-aspirated V10. They’ve experimented with an array of gearboxes, the most notorious of which has been clunky SMG auto. When turbos and downsizing came, internet warriors screamed blue bloody murder. But nothing caused the kind of meltdown that all-wheel drive on the F90 M5 was received with. Weirdly nobody had epileptic seizures when the E 63 went 4WD, but a 4WD M5? Nein, nein, nein.

Tell you what, 4WD has made the M5 immeasurably better. None of these cars are what you’d label as the get-in-and-go-fast variety. They’re too quick, too powerful and can get you into serious trouble with a twitch of your right toe. You gradually build up to its full potential, something which M engineers understood long time ago when they installed those trademark M buttons on the steering wheel of the E60 M5, only the double-pressing of which uncorked all 500 or so of the V10’s horses.

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But there’s no better safety net than 4WD, as Audi have demonstrated time and time again. At times a dull safety net, I admit, but a safety net nevertheless. On our first super-saloon group test five years ago, I remember struggling to keep pace with an S6, in the wet, in the earlier-generation F10 M5. The rains had rendered the roads wet and slippery, and the M5 refused to go anywhere in a straight line. Admittedly those tyres were not in the best of shape but still the ESP light flickered more vigorously than Beyonce’s hips. The M5 was great fun in the dry, practically useless in the wet.

The lord of oversteer, the BMW M5

How things have changed! The big question is whether 4WD has dulled its responses, made it understeery, taken away the emotion that has kept the M5 at the top of the super-saloon class over five generations and 35 years. The one word answer is no. No, the M5 has not lost any of its playfulness. M Division’s xDrive system defaults to rear-wheel drive and only when required is torque sent to the fronts, the transition from RWD to 4WD being imperceptible. For the most part, the M5 is and feels rear-driven, the active M differential on the rear axle switching from fully open to fully closed in a blink, sending more power to the outside rear wheel and torque-vectoring it out of corners in a well-controlled drift. It feels like a proper BMW, the 4WD kicking in only to cure instabilities arising from too much power being fed to the rear axle. There’s even an additional chassis brain that talks to all the computers including the stability control and active dampers to make the M5 not just playful and driver-focused but far, far faster.

“When you do launch control runs, oh boy, the g-forces leave an imprint of your head in the headrest. 0-100kmph takes 3.4 seconds. That is supercar territory!”

Gassing it out of hairpins is when you realise there is 4WD at work. Unlike in the past when the rear would try to overtake the front or the ESP triangle would blind you with its yellow flashes, this new M5 gnaws into the tarmac and fires out. On the highway giving it a boot full of revs just launches it towards the horizon without a pause for the rear to slip, slide and then grip. And when you do launch control runs, oh boy, the g-forces leave an imprint of your head in the headrest. 0-100kmph takes 3.4 seconds. That is supercar territory! This is a four-door saloon that will hassle Ferraris and Porsches!

One ludicrous drifter it is!

And now to the two, beautiful buttons marked ‘M1’ and ‘M2’. Standing proud of the steering wheel boss these red buttons can be individually programmed – we set M1 to (very) sporty and M2 to (very) scary. It might sound gimmicky but the M5 is endlessly programmable – engine response, shift speed and intensity, suspension stiffness, steering weight, stability control leeway, exhaust sounds piped through the speakers and, new to the mix, how you want the 4WD to behave. Or not behave at all!

BMW doesn’t call it Drift Mode but there’s no reason to switch the M5 into 2WD mode other than to drift and destroy the tyres. After all 2WD mode is only available with stability control fully switched off and with 750Nm of torque (750Nm!!!) getting the backside to misbehave is ridiculously easy. Just step on it and the tyres spin up – controlling it needs a bit of skill with the ’wheel but you don’t need to be Gaurav Gill to keep it sideways and smoking. The angles you can get the M5 into are ludicrous! As a drift machine the M5 is mad!

If you’re paying for your own tyres then you will be more interested in the 4WD Sport mode. The active differential works beautifully here, delivering superb poise and stability and allied with M Dynamic Mode that slackens the ESP net, the M5 accelerates beautifully out of corners, a hint of opposite lock, mega poise and balance, and shocking exit speeds. This is so fast it is on a different planet to its predecessor. The xDrive system is all the stability control you will ever need.

The German hot rod

AMGs have always been hot rods. Stiffer, harder, noisier and more lairy, AMGs have been more of a handful than their M rivals, and more hilarious. And on paper the E 63 S AMG should be more of the same. This is the S and so it gets 10 more horses but more to the point a full 100Nm more of torque. It doesn’t make any difference to the 0-100kmph acceleration times, 3.4 seconds being the same as the M5 and – more eye-poppingly – faster than the Beast of the Green Hell, the AMG GT R. I guess 3.4 seconds is the limit of mechanical and tyre grip. Where it does make a difference is in the immediacy. Not that you can feel any turbo lag or lack of responsiveness in the M5, far from it, but the E 63 S AMG feels that wee bit madder. Wee bit scarier. And sounds a whole lot better.

The M5 pipes its sounds through the speakers and, no matter how good the musicians in the studio, they just cannot match the AMGs (natural) sound track. Sure the M5 in Sport+ mode and manual on the gearbox pops and crackles exuberantly but the AMG just sounds better. Angrier, more evocative, more powerful and more involving. The first time we drove it a few months ago, our filmmaker Alameen likened the E 63 S to the evening of Diwali in Delhi. The AMG gets under your skin and makes you a child all over again.

Choosing a scalpel to slaughter

That’s not its only party trick. The AMG too can disconnect drive to the front axle, here appropriately named Drift Mode, and with 850Nm (good god!) the rear tyres are like lambs to the slaughter. This is not a scientific judgement of a car’s dynamic ability but I found it easier to drift AMG, I could place the oversteering E 63 S with more precision, and I was more confident of flicking it from side to side without having to worry about the drops. What I did like about the M5 was that in 2WD mode you could still keep the suspension in Comfort or the gearbox in Auto; the E 63’s Drift Mode (a headache to activate and no shortcuts buttons either) is only accessible in Race Mode with manual on the gearbox and full-hard on every adjustable parameter. And when you cross 120kmph, drive to the front axle kicks in to, well, I can see no downside to the added speed that 4WD allows you to carry.

“AMG too can disconnect drive to the front axle, here appropriately named Drift Mode, and with 850Nm (good god!) the rear tyres are like lambs to the slaughter”

Just like the E 63 is a wee bit better to drift so too the M5 is a wee bit comfier and relaxed when you’re not busy increasing the stock price of the tyre companies. And with this the AMG being based on the regular wheelbase E-Class the M5 doesn’t lose out on leg room.

Bizarrely, for all that power, both the E 63 and M5 can be used as daily drivers. And with both nudging the two crore rupee mark once all taxes are paid you expect, and do get, beautiful cabins. The M5’s is more overtly sporty with those red M1 and M2 buttons staring you in the face, the E’s is more expensive feeling with the IWC clock and acres of carbonfibre, not to mention flat-bottomed steering wheel. It’s two different philosophies on display, motorsport on the M5, hot rod on the AMG.

Audi RS 6 Avant, the tarmac shredding family estate

Have AMG and M copied Audi’s go-faster Quattro division? In concept, yes. In execution, not quite. There are no buttons you can prod to non-quattro the RS 6. It is not interested in reducing your life expectancy or, outright, killing you. You can switch off ESP and a committed driving style will get it exuberantly sideways but that happens at very high speeds and never with the precision of the rear-driven rivals. You can’t bonfire the rear tyres. Sideways on the road is asking for a race driver to be installed in the driver’s seat and brave pills to be administered.

But it’s only us journalists who keep banging this sideways drum. I highly doubt owners, apart from at the occasional track day, will subject their cars to such tyre-torture. Oh they will want a mad turn of speed and on that front the RS 6 Performance delivers. Two tenths are shaved off the regular RS 6’s time and 100kmph now takes 3.7 seconds. It’s three-tenths off the AMG and M but in the real world you will never notice it as your breath is pushed right out of your lungs.

“The Performance has such hardcore performance that the RS 6 doesn’t even need launch control. And round bends it grips so hard the g forces actually hurt your neck”

The Performance has such hardcore performance that the RS 6 doesn’t even need launch control. And round bends it grips so hard the g forces actually hurt your neck. It’s hard to say this without actual measurement but I think the RS 6 Performance carries more cornering pace than the other two. What it lacks is the delicacy and playfulness of the other two, even in their 4WD modes, and that’s despite the sport differential nudging the tail out and into four-wheel drifts.

What verdict?

Ultimately choosing between the three is splitting hairs. If you want to stand out from the crowd then there’s nothing cooler than the RS 6 Avant Performance. My hat will be doffed and my full respect will be proffered if I see you rolling up in a fast estate. I won’t even point out that the RS is the oldest in this lot and, in consequence, its rivals are more sophisticated, have more bells and whistles, and are endowed with mightier motors. I will shake your hand, admire your wheels and save your number.

As for the BMW or the AMG, oh it’s just too close to call. Both are sports cars in 4-door clothing. Their breadth of ability is Himalayan. Both are gods in the temple of power oversteer. Thanks to their brilliant four-wheel drive trickery, both are able to garner mind-boggling pace on twisty roads and epic corner exit speeds. The M5 is easier at the limit, sweeter, and offers greater rewards for extra commitment. It is for the M for Motorsport guy. But the E 63 S AMG just feels more authentic, more alive. It is angrier and more extrovert when you’re in the mood for it. A touch madder. And a touch more playful. I’m that kinda guy.