"This car has an identity crisis. The aggressive exterior, brash exhaust note and firm ride say 'sport,' but the interior screams 'grandma!'"
Strong words, especially when they originate from a stranger named Stephen sitting in the back seat of the $80,995 Mercedes-Benz some 80 miles from where we picked him up. The 31-year-old real estate broker and five other industry outsiders were invited to spend the day with Autoblog to help us compare the 2012 Audi A7 3.0T to the 2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS550.
These two vehicles have met head-to-head before, but not on these pages. To make things a bit more interesting, the decision was made to review these "four-door coupes" not only from the driver's perspective, but from all four seating positions. The unique comparison would require each of the vehicles to carry 700-plus pounds of passengers comfortably from the flatlands of the hot LA Basin up to the cool mile-high elevations of Big Bear Lake and back. The winner would be determined by a simple vote.
As this task called for six warm bodies willing to be chauffeured 160 miles over a long afternoon, Autoblog's Facebook page was enlisted to recruit. Within 24 hours, we had our six smiling volunteers fingered.
Our randomly chosen readers ranged in age from 22 to 35, and in occupation from a college student to a working professional environmental scientist. There were five men and one woman, each with a strong automotive passion and a willingness to hang with us for nearly six hours in exchange for some ice-cold bottled water and a free hot lunch. Our players:
· Alex, a 22-year-old student
· Erick, a 26-year-old graphic designer
· Ian, a 27-year-old information technology expert
· Lisa, a 35-year-old product specialist for an automotive manufacturer
· Manjul, a 32-year-old environmental scientist
· Stephen, a 31-year-old real estate broker
Fellow Autoblog scribe Jeff Glucker and I would be tasked with driving. The plan was to break into two groups of four that would each stick together for the duration of the review. We'd pull over every 30 minutes or so and everyone would swap vehicles - think of it as a modified Chinese fire drill, but with two cars.
To vary the driving environment as much as possible, everyone met at an In-N-Out Burger in Glendora (elevation 774 feet) at the foothills of the Angeles National Forest. Our route would take us across the LA Basin on freeways to the foothills of the San Bernardino National Forest. At that point, we would climb up the mountain to Big Bear Lake (elevation 6,750 feet), take in the scenery and eat lunch. Our return trip would trace our steps in reverse. Mother Nature had her own agenda, but more on that in a moment.
The Mercedes-Benz CLS550 is the veteran in this comparison. Credited with starting this whole "four-door coupe" segment back in 2004 when it was a knocked-off the W211 E-Class platform, the second-generation four-door (it has a conventional trunk) shares underpinnings and engine choices with the latest W212 E-Class. Sleekly styled with an aggressive facade, the four-passenger CLS550 is fitted with bright LED lamps at all four corners. It looks as modern as a Boeing 787 Dreamliner wh
The Audi A7 3.0T is the fresh new face in this pair up. Internally designated Type 4G, the first-generation five-door (it has a large rear hatchback) was introduced less than a year ago to worldwide acclaim. Sharing underpinnings with the MLB-based (Modularer Längsbaukasten) A6, the four-passenger A7 is even more beautiful in person than it looks in any picture. Under the aluminum hood is a direct-injected supercharged 3.0-liter V6 rated at 310 horsepower and 325 pound-feet of torque (ignore the odd "3.0T" nomenclature because this engine is not turbocharged). Power is sent to the automaker's Quattro all-wheel-drive system through a wet eight-speed automatic with steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters. An independent multi-link suspension, with fixed sport dampers, controls body movement and unnecessary roll. The brakes are four single-piston calipers actuating on ventilated rotors inside optional 20-inch wheels. The square tire setup puts the same size Yokohama Advan Sport (265/35-20) at each corner.
The price advantage goes to the Audi. Its base MSRP of $59,250 was bumped up with a Premium Plus and Sport package adding the navigation and 20-inch wheels, among other things. The A7's bottom line was $66,220 including destination. The Mercedes started with a base MSRP of $71,300. It was fitted with options including the P01 package, 19-inch alloys, active driver seat, rear side airbags, split-folding rear seats, parking assist, lane keeping assist, blind spot assist and a wood/leather steering wheel. The must-have equipment bumped the sticker price to $80,995 including destination.
We decided early in the game that the price difference, while large, wasn't significant enough to detract a buyer from either model – if you've got the means to spend $66,000 on a car, bumping up to $80,000 probably isn't too much of a stretch. (On a more grounded note, consider the percentage equates to the same dollar gap between a mid-grade Kia Soul Plus and a well-equipped Soul Exclaim.)
These German automakers have each taken slightly different approaches to the rear accommodations in their four-passenger coupes.
The Audi's two front seats are identical to each other. Easy to slide onto, they are slightly bolstered with shallow bottom cushions that are surprisingly soft. The Mercedes-Benz, on the other hand, has an upgraded driver's seat with active bolstering and massage features (the front passengers make due with a standard 14-way power seat). While nobody complained about comfort in the front seats of the A7, switching quickly to the front seats of the CLS550 was a wake-up call. "I thought the Audi was comfortable. The seat isn't overly bolstered, the leather is soft and I can adjust it to my exact liking. Moving into the CLS550, however, is like trading a water bed for a Tempur-Pedic. Sure, the active bolsters get tiring after time, but turn them off and hit the massage switch and all is forgotten. After I got out of the CLS, I felt guilty for not tipping," said Autoblog Editor Jeff Glucker. "CLS seats were amazing," added Ian.
Our volunteers had a lot to say about the rear seats, mainly because they spent a lot of time back there. They particularly pointed out how the sharply sloped roofs and jutting seat bolsters made ingress/egress difficult. The CLS550, the most dramatically styled of the two, was singled-out first. "I had trouble getting in and out of the Mercedes... I hit my head twice. I had no such problems with the Audi," noted Manjul. Alex took the words out of most everyone's mouth when he stated, "It took something of a conscious effort not to bump my head every time I got in or out of the car." His comments seemed not only directed at both of the test vehicles but all four-door coupes on the market today.
Center consoles aside, our rear-seat passengers generally preferred the Audi over the Mercedes. Like the front seats, the Audi rear seats were less bolstered and the cushions softer. Alex, at five-foot eight-inches tall, was the lone exception. "The headroom was adequate for me because I'm not that tall, but if somebody even two inches taller were sitting back there they'd almost certainly be hating life." And, despite the fact none of our six volunteers were over five-foot eleven-inches tall, they did complain. "The A7's back seat felt small and very uncomfortable," said Ian, one of the tallest in the group at five-foot eleven-inches. Alex added, "Anyone taller than five-foot nine-inches shouldn't even try." Majul, at five-foot seven-inches tall, also found problems with the rear head restraints in the CLS. "I tried adjusting myself in the seat but the headrest is nowhere near my head. It was the right height but not in the position that supported the back of the head," he said frustratingly.
With everyone safely buckled into their seats, Jeff and I fired both engines and pointed the cars east towards Big Bear - we noted the mountains were masked by towering monsoon-fed cumulus clouds.
Seated in the CLS, I set the transmission to Sport mode for a first-gear start and floored the accelerator. The twin-turbo V8 under the hood of the Mercedes seemed only slightly annoyed with the added mass as it pulled strongly off the line and forced all four of our heads against the leather restraints. The Audi was a bit more taxed and burdened with the heavy passenger load, but its smooth-shifting eight-speed automatic kept it in the race several car lengths back as Jeff floored it up the onramp in pursuit.
Both vehicles were very competent highway cruisers, but far from flawless. The CLS has both Sport and Comfort suspension settings. I preferred Comfort for nearly all conditions, finding Sport simply too harsh. My passengers, watching the radar detector bounce violently on its mount while in Sport, agreed. The A7 has Dynamic and Comfort modes for its suspension, but the differences are very subtle – since nobody had brought along a seismograph we were left stumped by the difference.
Road noise is an issue in both vehicles. Huge tires be damned, as the summer compound slaps down on the grooved pavement reverberating through the passenger compartments of both vehicles. "I was really surprised by how much road noise was transmitted into the cabin of a car costing this much. I drive a 2003 Subaru with a loud exhaust, so my standard for peace and quiet is pitifully low. Our car was equipped with 20-inch wheels and summer rubber, so I'm sure that explains some of it... but still," Stephen sighed, while riding in the Mercedes.
Yet there are plenty of distractions to keep tire noise at the back of your mind. All occupants, including your Autoblog editors, agreed that the Audi took all the honors when the subject was on-board navigation and infotainment. It was impossible for the CLS550's seven-inch fixed display to compete with the A7's slightly smaller, but Internet-enabled, pop-up display in terms of graphics and content delivery. With its own T-Mobile data plan, Audi has not only integrated real-time Google Maps and search features into its system, but it has the capability to deliver WiFi to eight devices within the vehicle simultaneously. Everyone found the Audi's MMI interface more self-explanatory and appealing when compare to the COMAND system on the Mercedes. "Audi is much more stylish, and the infotainment interface is more user-friendly," said Lisa rather succinctly.
"I was blown away by the A7's navigation unit. The trick pop-out screen was cool, if a little gimmicky. Its integration with Google Maps was very well done, especially the topography. It also displays the posted speed limit, if you are into that sort of thing," commented Alex. "The first thing I did when getting in the back seat was hook up my iPhone to the A7's WiFi signal. In my opinion, the navigation system in Mercedes has always lagged behind. As someone who is into the latest-and-greatest in the tech world, this is a deal-breaker," mustered Lisa. "The A7 is akin to driving around with a portable Genius Bar plucked from an Apple store," said Editor Glucker, who didn't hold his punches. "Staring at the radio of the Benz reminds me of a dusty HAM radio. The map displayed by the Benz would have been great if navigation came standard on a 1989 560 SE. Meanwhile, we're not looking at a map in the Audi... we are looking at the actual earth, courtesy of Google."
After 30 minutes of near-straight freeway driving at speeds of about 75 mph, it was time to head into the mountains. The weather went from sunny and hot, to wet and cool.
Steady rain, and a long chain of weekend traffic heading up the hill, kept our speeds low as we followed the mountain's contour climbing towards the lake. Realizing hydrated passengers are happy passengers, I had brought along a cooler full of ice and 16.9-ounce water bottles. While the insulated chest was strapped tightly into the trunk of the Mercedes with tie-downs, the passengers were forced to find places to store their bottles. The cup holders worked well up front, but passengers in the rear did a lot of grumbling. The average-sized cup holders held firmly in the Audi, but gave most everyone headaches in the Mercedes. "As for the cup holders on the CLS550, the test bottles did not fit. Even on the highway at speed, a slight change in direction basically made them fall out. I ended up putting the test bottles in at an angle to hold them. Audi's bottles held up going up the canyon roads and never did move. It's a better designed cup holder. The Audi had a spring loaded clip that would close to the minimum position and would spring out to fit larger cups, kinda like fingers holding a cup," noted Manjul.
Jeff and I noticed that the Audi's standard Quattro all-wheel drive made a difference in the rain. Not as much on the high speed sweepers as it did around town - most obvious when launching from a standstill. The muscular Mercedes would just start to spin a rear wheel off the line before its traction control would immediately kill the fun, making for some "oh-crap" moments when pulling into traffic. The Audi, on the other hand, was able to manage its grip and put the power down even on wet pine needles. (The just-launched CLS550 4Matic, with permanent all-wheel drive, would have been an equalizer under these conditions, though more expensive still.)
After lunch, the clouds cracked open and rays of sun dried the road. It was the opportunity for Jeff and me to push the cars a bit harder. The CLS550 was the muscle car, delivering effortless thrust accompanied by an exhaust note that put smiles on everyone's face. The A7, on the other hand, was challenged to keep up and its exhaust note muted. "The A7 sounds pretty good when you rev it, but nothing like the Benz. The relative lack of exhaust tone in the Audi isn't a strike against the car itself - it wouldn't dissuade me from buying one - but it doesn't stack up to the music that was coming from the CLS engine," said Alex. "The CLS exhaust from the back seat is perfect," Ian agreed.
At altitude, and with all seats occupied by adults, the A7 was working hard. Stuck behind a slow car, but with a clear passing zone, the supercharged 3.0-liter didn't give me enough confidence to try the pass - the CLS550 would have taken it with ease. The engine in the Mercedes was strong, but I did find frustration with its seven-speed automatic transmission as it seemed more likely to unnecessarily hunt for gears. This was most apparent when compared back-to-back against the smooth eight-speed automatic in the Audi.
Editor Glucker was just as impressed with the performance of the Benz. "It's hard to argue with the 4.7-liter mill mounted under the hood of the CLS550. In fact, you don't want to try and talk over it, because it's more enjoyable just to listen to it. Mean and low, the Mercedes rumbles like a tough guy in a tux. It pulls hard through the majority of the rev range. Audi's powerplant is a totally different animal, yet it is one that fights above its weight class. There is no supercharger whine, or grumbling exhaust note to speak of, but there is a wonderful application of power. Down 92 horses to the mighty Mercedes, the Audi somehow manages to feel nearly as quick. The quattro all-wheel-drive system certainly plays a major role, but I'm still a bit flabbergasted that a car this heavy manages to get along so well with just 310 horsepower."
The passengers relegated to the back seats, and getting tossed around like rag dolls in the process, preferred to ride out the twisty sections in the Audi. "On top of the mountain, the [CLS's] air suspension in the rear was constantly correcting for the car into the turns. I could hear it and while it wasn't bad the fact is that it felt like the sinking Titanic. Go into a fast left-handed turn, the car would sink on the right and then bounce up a bit to stabilize the rear. That's what made me seasick. The Audi did not have that feeling," said a woozy Manjul. He wasn't alone in his queasiness, as Erick agreed with him, "I noticed that sitting in the back of the Mercedes made me feel a little nauseous compared to sitting in the front... sitting in the back was very bouncy for me."
Reaching the base of the hill meant another 30-minute trek on flat 70 mph freeways. Not only did it give Manjul's stomach a chance to settle, but it allowed everyone time to think and compose their thoughts about each vehicle before we arrived back at our familiar In-N-Out parking lot.
A quick check of the trip computers revealed 152 fresh miles on the odometer. The Mercedes-Benz CLS550 returned 20.5 mpg calculated by its trip computer (against an EPA fuel economy rating of 17/25). The Audi A7 3.0T delivered 21.6 mpg over the identical route (against an EPA rating of 18/28). Everyone considered both figures very impressive when the payload, driving route and power output of each engine was factored in. The fuel economy numbers were also further proof that the Mercedes wasn't working nearly as hard as the Audi.
Our chauffeured volunteers, who spent five long hours without ever touching an accelerator pedal, were split four-to-two on their favorite. Lisa, Manjul, Stephen and Erick preferring the A7, while Ian and Alex - two of our younger guests - chose the CLS550.
Stephen, who was in the Audi camp, couldn't look past the CLS550's styling, both inside and out. "The interior of a car sets the tone in which it's driven. In this case, we've got a whole lot of contradiction. The exterior styling advertises this as a car for the moneyed life of the party and the exhaust note will put your stoplight neighbors on notice. Sadly, the cabin makes it nearly impossible to fulfill either of those prophecies. I cannot imagine sitting in the driver's seat and pushing that car hard. Such a lack of cohesion and display of disorder isn't just surprising in a German car, it's practically shocking."
Ian, who was on team Mercedes, had a contradictory view. "I enjoyed the Benz in almost every way over the Audi. I thought the seats were more comfortable and had more options, the ride when needed felt sportier, and when not needed felt more plush and subdued. The engine, while recognizing the Audi was down on horsepower, just felt stronger and more linear in the Benz. The Audi's only redeeming factor in my mind was its GPS."
The two Autoblog drivers, tasked with preserving life and limb of the valuable cargo, were also split. Jeff liked the A7, while I was mesmerized by the CLS550.
"On paper, the Mercedes-Benz CLS550 is a clear winner," said Jeff. "More power, rear-wheel-drive dynamics and the world-class luxury that comes with a big Benz. But this fight is Rocky verses Apollo Creed. Despite the power difference, the Audi managed to keep up on our canyon jaunts. The A7 is an absolute stunner in the exterior styling department and the interior gadgetry should make a Benz owner throw up for spending so much more. I also feel Mercedes should give up the copycat LED daytime running lights because Audi has clearly perfected them. If I were in the market for a four-passenger luxury sports sedan in this price range (let's quit calling them coupes), I would certainly consider both of these cars. Then I would take my first sip of coffee, buy the Audi, a new set of golf clubs, some aftermarket wheels, and put the rest of my cash into a high-yield mutual fund."
The Audi is undeniably sexy and its technology cutting-edge, but your author finds it impossible to overlook the twin-turbocharged 4.7-liter under the hood of the Mercedes. Mountains of torque rocket the four-door off the line with a squeal and it doesn't seem to ever run out of steam. While I am a tech-geek, the callous rumble of a refined V8 combined with hip-hugging seats and a thick steering wheel made me forget all about the Audi's Google-infused navigation system and eye-candy display. Sure, the Audi was quick in the corners, but the Mercedes is so much more fun to drive. If offered the choice, I'd grab the key fob to the CLS550 faster than you can say "managed collective investment," point the three-pointed star towards Vegas and go hang with the high rollers.
In the end, five votes went to the Audi A7 3.0T while the remaining three votes fell on the Mercedes CLS550 – the A7 owned the win.
The Audi's victory is surprising, but not completely unexpected. Many of us in the driver's seat automatically assume horsepower and a well-sorted chassis will dominate a comparison. This time, with all seating positions contributing a ballot, it was innovative technology and ride comfort that hoisted the leader to the podium.
Battle of the Four-Dour Coupes
The Mercedes-Benz CLS550 established the four-door coupe segment, so it finds itself in a defensive position against the newcomers who take carefully aimed shots at the veteran. The CLS550 is a driver's car, from the throaty V8 and rear-wheel drive powertrain to the cross-drilled multi-piston brakes. Those excellent attributes, however, don't change the outlook to those left staring out the window from the rear seats.