February 01, 2017 @ 06:08 PM

Shootout: The epic battle for your dosh

Entry point luxury has never looked so great, nor felt so brutal…

Words by Arvind Kumar

Photos by Aaron Lee

 

I recently spoke to a guy called Pete. For the most part, I would never know if Pete was blue eyed or green, brown or black haired, or short or tall – I can say for certain though that he was a real person, and that he was pleasant to talk to.

 

Pete only existed to me in virtual space – communicated through a couple of prior button pushes and knob turns on BMW’s ConnectedDrive application. Need coordinates to a restaurant you’re headed to? Or need to check for what’s on the menu come the next scheduled service, maybe to book a hotel room en route to your holiday destination… or simply to cure the monotony of sitting in a traffic jam - call ConnectedDrive. They seem so friendly and chatty, seemingly that if everyone in the world bought a BMW, suicide rates would instantly drop, the Befrienders would be out of a job, and psychiatrists would have to reconsider their line of work. 

Every BMW 330i M Sport like the one tested here is equipped as standard with ConnectedDrive. For the RM297,800 excluding insurances one coughs up– an auxiliary ‘SIM’ card is slotted in every car. Depending on preference, your credit card details are surrendered to your dealer (required for hotel bookings… etc.) and the rest is handled by BMW before one even dabs the brake pedal and hits the Start/Stop button on the dash console. 

 

Upon which, the raspy bark from the twin-exhaust exits is almost as impressive but more on that in a while. Forty-one years after the birth of the 3-Series in 1975 (post 2002 model); the quintessential BMW still remains as relevant and talented as ever. 

It started and defines the compact luxury segment – and now beyond simply making cars that drive, go and look good – it tries to weave its way into the very fabric of our existence. Goading the impression that the world should really revolve around me, and appealing to the ideal that everything I touch, feel, hear and interact with, should be of parity to a ‘premium’ lifestyle imagined by BMW; a lifestyle one buys into with the retail price tag of the car. 

 

Far from being a gimmick – it works to instil a sense of belief and pride in your decision.

Gone are the days, then, one simply buys a car and expects the passing statement of class and social stature - unless you’re talking about a Jaguar. Say this in your head as calmly and confidently as possible, “I drive a Jag”… then you can start to imagine why the Jaguar XE, regardless of being the newcomer (there’s the older X-Type, but I guess Jaguar would rather forget that one) in this massively capable group of cars starts to have an appeal all of its own. 

 

The XE range starts off with the car you see here – the XE Prestige 2.0. Priced at RM340,730 without insurance – it slices into the thick of the action that starts off with the Infiniti Q50 GT Premium spec at RM275,800 right up to the ludicrously priced Lexus IS 200t F Sport for RM384,900. Truth be told, at the Lexus’ stratospheric price – one could bump up to the Jaguar XE-R Sport which commands a further 40bhp from the Ingenium direct-injected and turbocharged 2.0-litre engine.

Which beckons the question why would anyone want to buy the Lexus? The Audi A4 is missing from the picture too; frankly because it’s archaic in this bunch and the new one arrives possibly in Q3 of 2016… we can’t wait. But and as our judging panel have come to surmise – despite adhering to distinct segment and price categories, choosing just one as the best based on their broader appeal is nigh on impossible. As objective as the outlooks and executions may be, we can at least offer an itemised scorecard on their individual abilities. 

 

So we carve our way up the twisty hills of Bukit Tinggi and Genting Highlands in circa RM1.587million worth of German, British and Japanese engineering; totalling some 1115bhp. 

If it’s about going uphill… the BMW again sets the tone. Along with the facelift, or as BMW call it Life Cycle Impulse (LCI), came the rawer, meaner 330i to replace the previous 328i. The 2.0-litre direct-injected and turbocharged mill now produces 252bhp at 5200rpm and a whopping 350Nm of torque from 1450rpm. Besides the Jaguar which pumps out a ‘modest’ 280Nm at 1750rpm, the rest of this group makes do with 350Nm across the board. 

 

The Lexus is next with its new and improved and finally turbocharged 2.0-litre outputting 241bhp at a peaky 5800rpm. The Mercedes-Benz C 250 comes in next and so does the Infiniti – because they’re both powered by Daimler AG (M274) units with 211bhp at 5500rpm.

Without the XE-R Sport engine mapping, the Jaguar only lives up to 200bhp at 5200rpm. So the newcomer isn’t making any waves with power numbers, and presumably by now, Jaguar fans are screaming out bloody murder because those extra 40-horsies in the XE-R will do more than bridge the gap to the Beemer and Mercedes, and that is a valid point.

 

Stomp hard on the right pedal and the 330i just disappears from the chasing pack. It’s got the most sonorous exhaust note – which starts with a characterful growl and winds its way into howling falsetto. It goads you on and pleases the senses all at the same time. Having 350Nm to play with from 1450rpm is no laughing matter, but the fun really starts around 1750rpm where the tacho- and speedo needles both start to rotate violently and cohesively.

Despite Lexus’ horsepower claims, the newly-minted ‘8AR-FTS’ turbocharged inline-four seems to appreciate less than subtle lead-footing of the throttle than a finessed approached when pinching for power, the 1650rpm peak torque claim contradicts the corresponding experience – much of the power is only felt after the 3200rpm mark where speed is built tenaciously to the point the digital tachometer glows red and the next gear is served up, the experience is superb, but ultimately comes off feeling less surgical than the BMW in and out of corners.

 

This brings into the question – the C 250’s brilliant power plant. Regardless of the similar engine coding and configuration as found in the Infiniti – minute changes in the mapping between the two reveal night-and-day differences between the C 250 and the Infiniti Q50’s response once on the blacktop.

While both cars max out with 211bhp at 5500 revolutions, the C250’s peak torque comes in a sniff lower at 1200rpm versus 1250rpm and holds on till 4000rpm whereas 3500rpm sees the torque curve fall away in the Infiniti. On the road though, the C250 is punchy, present and always on cue – I would even go as much to say, no other car here reacts to throttle input like the Mercedes.

 

In the Infiniti, while the engine comes on strong after 2500rpm and pulls with gusto right towards the limiter – but never quite feels as urgent as the other cars here. The excellent sound proofing does much to sieve away ‘childish nonsense’ like the wastegate’s flutter and exhaust pops on the after burn, just dependable and linear power delivery here.

Very much unlike the case of the Jaguar – the round gear knob, this rises majestically out of the centre console. Rotate it towards ‘D’ and the subsequent experience of motion can go either way depending on one’s preconception of a modern Jaguar. Some fantasizers would imagine it would shoot for the horizon in angst and smashing audibility, some might be opined that a Jag should simply hustle around swiftly without unwanted attention and frankly… the XE does neither.

 

The engine at idle is insipid rather than inspiring and the initial 3500 revs do little more than to raise an eyebrow. It’s not slow but after 4000rpm though, and in the right drive setting, whooahh… it comes alive, almost erupts with fury as the little cat leaps on a death strike towards the rev limiter – it shouts, swooshes and barks. The Jaguar has this bizarre duality, like a tux-wearing banker who enjoys a good nude streak after one too many Jaeger-bombs at happy hour - yet it’s so lovable.

At which point, the aluminium-intensive body and chassis construction of the Jag comes into its own on the tighter corners, the rigidity is superb – lithe in demeanour and very much alive. But at 1530kg, the Jag is some 50kgs porkier than the C 250, which also unleashes its brand of poise and control in the bends. If you’ve ever had a chance to check out the amount of camber angle the C-Class gains through its multi-link suspension at full-lock, one would know why the car sits so well in the corners – and resists dive and squat motions with great intensity.

 

Coming into this, we surmised that the closest competitor to the BMW’s handling prowess would be the Lexus, what with its F Sport credentials and Adaptive Variable Suspension (AVS) tech bits – but it only takes a few double-apexes and off-camber turns to demarcate the raw grip and tenacious dynamism the 330i has.

Line the car up in a straight line – feel the centre of balance flow towards the front, as the tyres bite hard into the tarmac, apply steering lock as needed, and just as soon as front fenders are parallel to the apex, power out as hard as you can. Feel for the rear which does step out when in Sport ‘+’ – the experience when done right, is enchanting and glorifying in equal amounts.

 

When driving at seven-tenths, the Lexus will match the Bimmer pound-for-pound, but go harder and the handling balance – tipped for understeer will start to dominate proceedings. The window of difference is ever so tiny, but just before corner entry is where this is most evident, where the 330i tends to rotate-in towards the corner, the Lexus will push wide. This normally means one is applying steering way to long into the corner before power can be piled on again. Over a complex of corners – the BMW will simply walk away from the Lexus.

The nit-picking however isn’t fully levelled against Lexus’ chassis engineers; the IS200t was severely handicapped by the Bridgestone rubbers – at every corner instead of gripping the blacktop, it would rather chew itself up, spitting streams of black-crud at the bodywork. The breakaway to/from traction is also unpredictable, and nowhere near had the grip levels afforded by the Pirellis, Continentals and Dunlops shod on the other cars.

 

The stopping force of all the systems on hand here, aided by the usual array of ABS, Electronic Brake Force distribution (EBD) is exquisite. It’s a knife’s edge pick between the lot, but as far as the correlation between pedal modulation and feel – it’s the 330i system that instils the highest level of confidence followed by the Lexus and Infiniti which exudes a very neutral feel throughout pedal operation. The XE and C 250’s brakes require a bit of getting used to – while the brake force in both cars is very reassuring, it’s the pedal modulation that lacks that lick of linearity, catching more than one of our judging panellists out, where a simple dab applies too much brake force.

And if there’s been ever a strong case for the conventional automatic transmission versus the new-fangled hype (and criticism in some cases) of double-clutch units - these five cars are it. The XE and 330i utilise eight-speed units from ZF catalogue while the C 250 and Q 50 benefit from silky smooth Daimler AG seven-speeders. An Aisin eight-speed multiplies power in the Lexus. Paddle-shifts modulate trigger quick gear changes, and rarely in my time in all these cars, did I find myself in the wrong gear at corner entry, exit or when hard on the highways.

 

The Infiniti plays a bit more of a guessing game due to the omission of paddle-shifters, but in the case of the other four, a well-trained driver will have more than enough to extract every ounce of performance the engines are able to deliver. The Aisin and Daimler systems do cruising better, the ZFs are less forgiving at lower speeds but mighty when ramped up for intense driving.

Four decades after the first 3 Series, the modern compact saloon allows for myriad of different driving moods – customisable to every whim, fancy and driving condition. The IS200t, 330i and C 250 make do with switchable modes for the suspension and engine/gearbox settings. The M Sport variant is supplied with Adaptive M Sport suspension, the AMG Line sport suspension drops the C 250 15mm closer to the ground and the Lexus has its AVS system.

 

Depending on one’s natural preference, progression through the drive modes (comfort, normal, sport and sport ‘+’) either by rotating a knob or flicking a toggle switch; in the case of the Mercedes, Lexus, Jaguar and Infiniti the common denomination of hastened gearshifts and sharper throttle response, cues in increased immersion into the driving experience – and dare I say Lexus has got very near spot on, but the ultimate drum roll still belong to the Germans. Every flick into a more aggressive mode when in the C 250 and 330i adds not just exhilaration, but drama and the opportunity to peel deeper into its respective performance envelope.

The Infiniti however – seems to be a different kettle of fish altogether, play around with its huge touch control screen and generate up 96 different settings… 96! The Bimmer does it with just four. It’s the only steer-by-wire system here too, which gives huge variation to steering effort, but ultimately it feels synthesized. Yes it does become more responsive, and it’s got the coolest sounding turbo ‘choo-choo’ noises on test – which counts for a lot.

 

But it’s got a lot going for it – the mixture of flowing lines, chrome highlights is very elegant. More so than with the Jag, it has tons of drama in quarters at the front but the rear might leave some wanting. The BMW 330i is quintessentially German, sharp lines and toned contours make up a body that will age gracefully and with M Sport bits added, give it great street presence. Which is perhaps pale in comparison to the stellar complexity and craftsmanship of the Lexus – which is more comic book superstar than present reality; but it’s the one that will pique the most amount of interest when driving past.

Which leaves me with the Mercedes-Benz C 250, arguably, there’s a car here for just about every taste bud. But if there’s one car that ticks the most boxes – on criteria of style, value, safety, dynamism and sheer tasteful execution, it’s the Mercedes-Benz C 250 AMG Line. And that’s before you experience the true swagger of the interior where every other car here (with a tiny exclusion for the Lexus’ effort) pales in comparison.

 

My personal pick of the bunch is the BMW 330i M Sport just because of how it makes you feel behind the wheel, and four decades on – lives up to its promise of being the ultimate driving machine. But if it started the game, the Mercedes-Benz C 250 in plurality… is taking it further.

 

 

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