Impressions: F10 523i vs. W212 E250 CGI
By James Wong
The rising middle class in the world, particularly in Asia, can only mean one thing – the mid-size executive luxury saloon market will continue to balloon as aspiring newly wealthy people search for the best car for which to part their money with. They wouldn’t buy an S-Class or a 7 Series, because that is what their boss would drive, but they wouldn’t want to be seen in a C-Class or 3 Series either, which might imply that they are getting a paycheck that isn’t as big as they would want. They would go for the segment of the Audi A6, Jaguar XF, BMW 5 Series and the like, and the two frontrunners of this hotly contested group is undoubtedly the E-Class and the 5 Series, both of which are the biggest players in the Singaporean market.
Readers of Autosavant from North America might be unfamiliar to the F10 523i and W212 E250 CGI, as the base models for the North American market are usually the bigger capacity 6-cylinder models. In Asia however (I cannot pinpoint exactly the reason for it to be so), the base models, which are also the volume sellers, are usually much smaller in displacement than what you might have in the US. For instance, the 523i mentioned in this article has a 2.5-litre inline-6 engine that is good for 204bhp and 250Nm of torque. This 523i is not be confused with the 523i offered in Europe, which actually has a detuned 3.0-litre engine that puts out roughly similar output levels as the smaller displacement I6. The E250 CGI on the other hand goes a step further in downsizing by being equipped with a 4-cylinder 1.8-litre turbocharged engine that is good for 204bhp and 310Nm of torque.
There are many reasons for this, but a few certainly come to mind straightaway. Firstly, road tax is a huge penalty in many Asian countries, sometimes rising exponentially in relation to the size of the engine. Secondly, many buyers of such cars usually want the ‘latest in town’, with little regard to what’s beneath the bonnet, so the lower price point of these models is an important factor as well. Thirdly, import duties are also high in many Asian countries, out-pricing the higher-displacement models out of its intended target market. So, as you can see, we do not have the luxury of owning cars with bigger engines as some people do in other parts of the world, but it is okay, because both BMW and MB have put in a world-class effort in making sure their base models are no pushovers either.
So what we have here is the clash of two cars with very different philosophies; BMW chose to stick to a naturally-aspirated engine, relying instead on its trump card, the new ZF 8-speed gearbox to lend the 523i some pace. Mercedes went the forced induction route, taking the risk of possibly throwing refinement and smoothness out of the window with its four banger but at the same time having an engine that produces a lot of torque that is useful for mid-range overtaking. So where do both cars stand?
In this article of impressions I chose not to call it a full review of these two cars, as I’ve had unequal drive time with the two cars. I only got to drive the 523i for a brief 30 minute spin, although the varying road conditions allowed me to come up with enough in my mind that I reckon is worth discussing in an article. I had a much more extensive time with the E250 CGI, so I know pretty well on how it drives. Let’s first discuss the engines.
The 523i, as mentioned previously, makes use of one of BMW’s famed in-line sixes. Its output is nothing to be scoffed at, but seeing as how the F10 has gained considerable weight over the previous E60, I had some doubt about whether the engine was capable enough to haul the huge car on the road. The first tap on the accelerator is a pleasant surprise, as the low-end torque of the 523i is actually pretty decent, bringing the car up to speed in a unhurried pace. It is certainly useful for speeds below 60km/h as the car does not feel as heavy as it really is. Give the throttle a harder push however, and the engine sings its iconic I6 tune but the pace falls short of its aural promises. The mid-range and top-end is weak, with the gain of speed barely felt from the driver’s seat. However, it must be said that the power delivery is extremely linear and the engine was turbine-smooth while doing its business. I noticed though that on idle the engine tends to vibrate a bit more than I am comfortable with. That might be due to the I6 configuration; generally I tend to find V6 engines slightly smoother on idle. The ZF 8-speed gearbox is a revelation though; it shifts nearly as quick as those fancy dual-clutch ‘boxes without any of the accompanying low-speed jerks; in fact, I would go as far to say that is probably the best thing about the 523i. The gearbox is so responsive that it hides a lot of the engine’s torque-light characteristics, making the engine feel lively, although its lack of torque especially at the mid to top end is still glaringly obvious. That said, the 523i returns surprisingly good fuel consumption, thanks to its 8 gears which, just a few years ago, some people were laughing at for being too excessively complicated. Actually, it is neither excessive or complicated; it is the perfect partner in the 523i, and quite possibly its most powerful advantage.
Now let’s go to the Mercedes, with its new range of turbocharged engines that proudly wear the company’s BlueEfficiency tag. The 1.8-litre turbo is offered in two guises in the E200 CGI and E250 CGI, although they are technically quite similar. It is tuned for more power and torque in the E250, and it is also in its most powerful form in the E250. Driving the E250 CGI for the first time, one is fooled into thinking that the engine in the bonnet is actually a V6, as Mercedes has very cleverly insulated the engine to such a degree that much of the harshness and roughness of a 4-cylinder engine is seldom felt in the cabin. Only when the engine is stretched above 4,000rpm would you hear a bit of gruffness; otherwise it is always very hushed on normal load.
But, one must not forget that it is a small engine made to work doubly hard to give an output of an engine that is much bigger. In that respect, some compromises has to be made; in the E250 the result is very noticeable turbo lag. Below 3,000rpm the car feels quite lacklustre, especially on a particularly hot day when the engine is working below its maximum efficiency. It is not helped by its slow-shifting gearbox which literally feels like a dinosaur next to BMW’s 8-speeder. It is dim-witted with its changes and only has 5 cogs, to the detriment of fuel consumption and response. As such, even though Mercedes has made quite a cracker of an engine that comes alive above 3,000rpm, the gearbox is always nearly too slow to engage the fat torque band, instead missing it just when you need the power the most. That said, on a long motorway cruise where you would hold a speed of 100km/h and above, the engine hums between 2,000rpm and 3,000rpm, where its overtaking prowess is shone. The E250 CGI is a less willing low-speed crawler, but a much more spirited overtaker. Its 60Nm torque advantage over the BMW is very clearly felt in overtaking maneuvers where the car feels a lot more muscular – once its turbo comes on boost and once the gearbox heeds to your commands. Mercedes claims a better fuel consumption for the E250 CGI than the 523i, but in the real world, it is about in equal terms due to the flaws of either car. The E250 CGI is blessed with a frugal engine that is perhaps tuned a bit too much for mid-range punch with a disadvantage of a weak low-end, but its gearbox is totally outclassed by the BMW’s ZF quick-shifter which is a lot more responsive. The 523i is not perfect either with a ho-hum engine that has a good low-end but little else, relying instead on its gearbox to make it feel more lithe than it actually is. So, what about the handling for these two cars? It is surely a clean sweep for the BMW right? Actually, I was rather surprised myself about what I found out.
Driving the 523i, I felt that I was piloting a big car. It no longer felt like a 5 Series. It felt more like a 7 Series. Call it my weak judgement or poor driving, but that is what I felt. The width and length of the car is simply bewildering, to the point where I just did not feel comfortable chucking the car around. Instead, The light steering and extremely comfortable suspension persuaded me to drive the car leisurely, something which the car excels in. The suspension is extremely compliant, giving the car supreme ride even over the most broken roads, but then it probably should be noted that this car is fitted with the basic suspension setup. The steering is uncannily light, unlike any BMW I have driven before, something that made me uneasy. I came out of the BMW thinking that it is a first-rate luxury cruiser, but is certainly no sports saloon, let alone sports car. It just didn’t engage me as much as I would like as the driver really feels detached from the road.
Now the E-Class. One immediately notices how much airier the cabin feels, with its low-set front seats and high roofline that gives plenty of breathing space. The steering wheel is also nicely-sized and seating position is nearly spot on. Driving the E on low speeds throws up a few surprises. One thing most apparent is that at low speed, the steering is extremely heavy, to the point where it is necessary to heave the wheel to maneuver in tight parking spaces. At higher speed it lightens up, but it is never as light as the 523i’s helm, instead giving superb feedback at all times. It also helps that the car somehow feels smaller than it really is, giving the driver confidence to drive the car quickly. However, it is not just that which inspires confidence – show the car some corners, and it will willingly follow your steering inputs. The E I tried is the Avantgarde model, which is fitted with sport suspension that lowers the car by 15mm. I thought I would never say this, but the E’s suspension is actually harsher than the one in the BMW, but the plus is that it makes the car feel quite agile. The chassis is tight and stiff, and cornering is a joy in the E. Pity then that the gearbox shifts so slowly, because I always find myself in the wrong gear or off the power band when I need it mid-corner. Nonetheless, the E is, to me, the better driver’s car. Perhaps if the BMW was equipped with the sport-oriented suspension of its own would the result be different.
At first I drove the E250 CGI thinking that the BMW would completely trump it in terms of driving dynamics, response, driver enjoyment and even refinement. But the E has shown that is a worthy challenger indeed, and nobody choosing between these two saloons would be disappointed. That said, both cars have their shortcomings which might be resolved in the higher-end models. For instance, the 5-speed gearbox is chucked aside for the 7G-Tronic gearbox in the E350, and the 535i gets a turbocharged 3.0-litre engine; both of which solves the maladies of the smaller models. But that is for another story altogether. As far as this company of the 523i and E250 CGI is concerned, the two cars are pretty evenly matched, with the E showing itself to be a better driver’s car than previously assumed, while the 5 Series wows with its astounding high-speed, long-distance cruising capabilities. This is certainly an unusual result, considering the traditional roles of these two models.