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#ThrowbackThursday: A trip to Welkom in five premium sedans

16 April 2020 - 17:11 By brenwin naidu
Our five executive sedans on the banking at Phakisa.
Our five executive sedans on the banking at Phakisa.
Image: Waldo Swiegers

Join us as we take a gander back at some of our automotive endeavours from days gone by. This week, the time machine takes us to April 24, 2016, when a shoot-out feature for Sunday Times Lifestyle Motoring saw us convoying to the Free State in five premium sedans.

Remember a time when the motoring landscape was slightly less complicated? Say the year 2000, for example — where crossover and sport-utility vehicle categories had yet to burgeon. Sedans were the staple. And if you wanted one of the compact, premium variety, you visited an Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz or Lexus dealership. From these respective brands you would have ended up picking the A4, 3-Series, C-Class or IS.

The latest evolutions of these cars in this segment today are considerably bigger in comparison to forebears.

A new crop of junior executives (think Audi A3 Sedan and Mercedes-Benz CLA-Class) emerged to fill the chasm. But those nameplates preceding the existence of these newcomers remain, for many, the ones to aspire to.

Where should your money go today, in 2016? Naturally, brand loyalty is a salient point when it comes to such a decision — and it would not be remiss to say there is parity among the contenders here.

But as George Orwell taught us through the device of allegory, some animals are more equal than others. And to find an unequivocal victor we staged this comparison test. Five contenders. Two provinces. One circuit. It all culminated in a fierce debate at a beloved local franchise restaurant.

Except for the entry-level Mercedes-Benz C180, the models on test here are the middle-range representatives of their line-ups. This contender successfully hides its status as the starter model, thanks to the striking AMG exterior accoutrements. In one corner we have the revered BMW 320i, quite accustomed to the joy of victory in comparisons of this nature. The manufacturer has had decades to hone the recipe, after all. Fellow Teutonic carmaker Audi sent its A4 2.0 TFSI to the meeting. At first glance, it might look unchanged from its predecessor, but the biggest transformation occurred within and under the skin.

To break the monotony of this German trio, we included two alternative offerings. The Lexus IS 200t brings daring aesthetics to the mix and has finally adopted the de rigueur practice of turbocharging. Lastly, we have Jaguar XE in 2.0 D guise (a petrol derivative was not available) which proffers heaps of British charm to buyers in the segment. All these four-cylinder derivatives wield double-clutch or automatic transmissions, because, just face it: who buys manuals anymore?

BMW 320i
BMW 320i
Image: Waldo Swiegers

BMW 320i: ONE COOL CUSTOMER

We ought to start with the oldest and most iconic nameplate here. The BMW 3-Series is regarded as the yardstick when it comes to medium-sized, premium saloons. And it has earned the reputation as the offering with the biggest sporting slant — something that has been questioned in recent times, however.

But it remains the logical choice for many South Africans. You may even quip that it is the Toyota Corolla of the segment. Not difficult to see why. As a package, the 3-Series just works: there are no idiosyncrasies, everything is as it should be. The 320i (135kW and 290Nm) serves enough pace and the eight-speed ZF automatic does a superb job of transmitting what this willing turbocharged engine has to offer.

Inside, the BMW boasts a clean, uncluttered layout. We loathe to use that motoring hack cliché — but all controls really do fall to hand easily. And getting comfortable at the helm takes little time. Is it still the drivers' choice in the segment? That is up for debate.

While the 3-Series imparts solidity and sure-footedness in all conditions, you might find yourself wanting when it comes to those plugged-in sensations that tickle the enthusiast part of the brain. And in terms of ride quality, it felt a bit less polished than some of the peers here, over the nastier bits of road on the way to Phakisa Freeway.

BMW 320i interior.
BMW 320i interior.
Image: Waldo Swiegers

Model: BMW 320i

Basic price: R463,000

Engine: 1998cc, four-cylinder, turbocharged, petrol

Power: 135kW between 5000-6500rpm

Torque: 290Nm between 1350-4250rpm

Acceleration: 7.2 seconds

Top speed: 235km/h

Claimed consumption: 5.5l/100km

Claimed CO2: 128g/km

Mercedes-Benz C180
Mercedes-Benz C180
Image: Walso Swiegers

MERCEDES-BENZ C180: STYLISH BUT SUPERFICIAL

It is easy to wax lyrical about the new design direction at Mercedes-Benz. Their products have successfully grabbed the affections of a slightly younger audience — and they have shed the beige factor that once defined their products. But is it a case of style over substance? The C-Class certainly hints to such a notion.

We found ourselves thoroughly disappointed with the overall integrity of the model. If you want an example of the C-Class to feel substantial, you need to specify the additional trim and suspension trickery packages. The AMG package sported by our tester did little to improve sentiments, from an on-road perspective, though it does look great.

The driving experience can be described as turgid as best. The ride errs on the hard side. And under the stresses of spirited driving, it felt frustratingly disjointed. In fairness, the C180 has the smallest displacement here (1595cc). Its output of 115kW and 250Nm seems acceptable on paper, but in the real world it is not up to the job.

The dim-witted 7G-TRONIC transmission proved indifferent, with delayed responses. While we all agreed that it is an attractive machine, the Mercedes-Benz garnered unanimous criticism from our panel. It leaves us more disappointed than outright angry, especially when we consider what the brand once stood for. Can one truly say that the C-Class is engineered like no other? In a pejorative sense, maybe ...

Mercedes-Benz C180 interior.
Mercedes-Benz C180 interior.
Image: Waldo Swiegers

Model: Mercedes-Benz C180

Basic price: R472,400

Engine: 1595cc, four-cylinder, turbocharged, petrol

Power: 115kW at 5300rpm

Torque: 250Nm between 1200-4000rpm

Acceleration: 8.2 seconds

Top speed: 225km/h

Claimed consumption: 5.5l/100km

Claimed CO2: 127g/km

Jaguar XE 2.0 D
Jaguar XE 2.0 D
Image: Waldo Swiegers

JAGUAR XE 2.0 D: PRICEY WITH A FEW NIGGLES

The substantial outlay demanded by the Jaguar XE already discounts it as an overall victor. Together with the strange packaging, this further limited its chances: rear legroom is especially paltry. Pricing is a sensitive issue for the British manufacturer, given the exchange rate. This is most unfortunate, because the XE is such an endearing car.

First, it looks incredible. Those exterior proportions are spot on. The dynamic virtues are plentiful too, as our panel of testers remarked on more than a few occasions throughout the day. If this comparison was based solely on the criteria of ride and handling, then the Jaguar would have the best shot at taking the title.

The aluminium-intensive underpinnings have a lot to do with this. It seemed to be the most engaging car here: offering a tiller with rich feel, outstanding agility on the track and impressive decorum over ripples and pocks on the road. The 2.0 D engine (132kW and 430Nm) is amply effusive and as you would expect, extremely frugal. But those Teutonic peers highlight that Jaguar still has some way to go in the interior plushness department. Still, there is something to be said about owning a product with the snarling cat emblem on its nose. The XE feels special, albeit marred by the niggles we mentioned.

Jaguar XE 2.0 D interior
Jaguar XE 2.0 D interior
Image: Waldo Swiegers

Model: Jaguar XE 2.0 D

Basic price: R593,100

Engine: 1999cc, four-cylinder, turbocharged, diesel

Power: 132kW at 4000rpm

Torque: 430Nm between 1750-2500rpm

Acceleration: 7.8 seconds

Top speed: 231km/h

Claimed consumption: 4.2l/100km

Claimed CO2: 109g/km

Audi A4 2.0 TFSI
Audi A4 2.0 TFSI
Image: Waldo Swiegers

AUDI A4 2.0 TFSI: STAID BUT SOPHISTICATED

On the opposite side of the aesthetic spectrum is the Audi A4. You would struggle to tell it apart from the old version. And compared to the rest of the models here, it is simply the least exciting to look at.

But substance is the biggest reason we can overlook the dull appearance. Because the A4 has plenty of it. This is a product that seems like it was made to outlast the average lease term, a rare thing in the era of recyclable cars. The quality of the interior is incredible. Every button, every switch operates with satisfying, millimetric click-click precision.

The materials employed throughout are just a cut above. As are the refinement levels. Ride quality is unparalleled. Being the only car with front-wheel drive here, there was no way it was going to be as thrilling as some of its peers on circuit. Though it was adept at tucking into corners confidently and (more or less) maintaining the desired line of the driver.

Electronic torque vectoring control did its bit to stave off unwieldiness in the twists. The S-Tronic transmission appeared telepathic in the way it dispatched shifts. Performance from the 2.0 TFSI engine (140kW and 320Nm) put us in mind of the resolve that defines a hot hatchback such as the Volkswagen Golf GTI. But think of this as a GTI for the upstanding executive.

The sense of meticulous engineering it imparted had our staffers gushing with superlatives. Just a pity the designers did not invest a bit more in the styling process.

Model: Audi 2.0 TFSI

Basic price: R496,000

Engine: 1984cc, four-cylinder, turbocharged, petrol

Power: 140kW at 4200-6000rpm

Torque: 320Nm at 1450-4200rpm

Acceleration: 7.3 seconds

Top speed: 240km/h

Claimed consumption: 5.4l/100km

Claimed CO2: 122g/km

Lexus IS 200t
Lexus IS 200t
Image: Waldo Swiegers

LEXUS IS 200t: DRIFT KING POTENTIAL

As a value proposition, the Lexus IS rates highly. Yes, it is pricier when you compare it to the equivalent base prices of the German peers. But it boasts all the features (as standard) that you would have to specify as extras on those models.

Last year Lexus added a two-litre, turbocharged engine (180kW and 350Nm) which offers a little more fizz at highveld altitudes versus the normally aspirated V6 choice. That said, it gives the impression that it could do with more pep, seeming a tad strained as that tachometer needle hits the higher digits.

Reacquainting ourselves with this underrated saloon reminded us of the many merits it has. Lexus is known for their efforts in refinement. And the Lexus is wonderfully quiet on the freeway. It proved a hoot on track, getting special plaudits from Sunday Times’ very own master of motorsport, Thomas Falkiner.

He expounded with great enthusiasm on how controllable it is at the limit, with beautifully executed sideways theatrics. Indeed, this Lexus is attuned to the needs of the enthusiasts. Gripes? Well, the cabin is starting to give away the age of the car, even if it is put together superbly. Things are rather cramped in there. And the cluttered fascia layout can be overwhelming.

A long-standing annoyance is the Lexus digital interface, with its fiddly mouse-like control pad that would drive right-handed motorists to distraction. The angular profile and sharp pleats on the bodywork continue to divide opinion. One thing is for sure though: you will not blend into the periphery of the company parking lot with the IS.

Lexus IS 200t interior
Lexus IS 200t interior
Image: Waldo Swiegers

Model: Lexus IS 200t

Basic price: R550,200

Engine: 1998cc, four-cylinder, turbocharged, petrol

Power: 180kW at 5800rpm

Torque: 350Nm at 1650-4400rpm

Acceleration: 7 seconds

Top speed: 230km/h

Claimed consumption: 7.5l/100km Claimed CO2: 175g/km

The Audi A4 2.0 TFSI proved to be the pick of the bunch.
The Audi A4 2.0 TFSI proved to be the pick of the bunch.
Image: Waldo Swiegers

THE VERDICT

Our cross-country trek and brief track stint offered accurate insight into the talents and limitations of these products. After an arduous day of driving, we descended on an establishment regarded as one of the finest culinary spots in the Free State: Welkom Spur.

Here, we discussed, dissected and debated our top picks. Asthmatic performance and stodgy driving manners made the Mercedes-Benz C180 the biggest downer of the day. Striking looks (when specified with the additional styling bits) make the car slightly more palatable. If this test was based on dynamic prowess and all-out emotional response, then the XE would have emerged towards the top.

Our staffers deemed it the product they would pick with their hearts. But the fact is that it costs far too much and still has some way to go in the aspects of quality and packaging. The Lexus offers good value, a unique appearance and an entertaining driving character.

And there is the added assuring of the irreproachable reputation of parent company Toyota. Though some parts of the IS are telling of its age, such as the interior and infotainment system. But hang on. The BMW 3-Series is no spring chicken either, launched in 2012 — nearly five years ago, was it not?

That may be so, but a recent life-cycle improvement certainly did a good job of extending the shelf-life. Indeed, the ubiquitous 3-Series does many things rather well, without any glaring downsides. It remains the Jack of all trades, the immediate choice, albeit an uninspiring one.

The Audi A4 delivers an extra layer of accomplishment across the board. It is tangibly better in the discipline of on-road refinement — we would go as far as saying that it redefines what is expected in this class. Dynamically, we could never claim it is more of a thrill than some of the rear-driving rivals here. We can say, however, that build quality and interior sophistication is decidedly superior.

Brand loyalty is a powerful thing. Everybody has his or her own partiality and our duty is to be frank in calling out the good and not-so-good. Of course, your choice will depend on your needs and your badge preferences. In order from top to bottom, here is our succinct wrap-up. Pole position goes to the subdued but substance-laden Audi. The competent BMW is a respectable second. Third comes the fun and eccentric Lexus. Fourth is the hugely charming but flawed Jaguar, followed by the stylish but superficial Mercedes-Benz.

A special thank you to Phakisa Freeway and Free State Tourism for their assistance


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