Does the SAS have a company car list? If it does, it might look something like this collection of military grade hardware. Imagine being in charge of fleet procurement. Instead of bladder-busting mpg numbers, outrageous performance would be top priority, preferably matched by carbon-ceramic stoppers.
And where regular reps might look for standard sat-nav and comfy chairs, SAS man would want to see seats that grip you like a choke-hold, and trick gear such as night vision and on-board web connectivity for hacking into baddies’ computer systems. It would have to be über discreet of course, showing only enough aerodynamic addenda to keep the thing planted. And practical too, with somewhere to stash that scuba gear, assault rifle and all those boxes of Milk Tray. In short, it would have to be a super-saloon. But which one?
If you’re in the market for a fast four-door, you’ve never had it so good. Power figures are going through the roof, delivering performance that was the preserve of the supercar set only a decade ago, and matched by near-30mpg economy. Within the last 12 months, all four of the cars we’ve lined up have heaped on the attitude and performance, either giving punters the option of even more power or, as in the case of the Audi RS7, being plain brand new.
Based on the same mechanical package underpinning the latest RS6 Avant, the ‘four-door coupe’ RS7 replaces the old RS6 saloon in Audi’s line-up. There are no bulging Ur-Quattro wheelarches, but the steamroller-esque 21in wheels, subtle twin (what? only twin?) tailpipes and gaping air intakes make sure you know this is the work of Quattro GmbH, Audi’s answer to BMW’s M Division.
This is Audi’s first RS7, but the old-shape S6 and RS6 employed V10 power courtesy of an engine distantly related to the beast in the back of Lamborghini’s new Huracan. Alas downsizing and the pursuit of acceptable CO2 numbers mean cylinder counts like that are a thing of the past, so building on the existing S7, the RS7 features the same twin-turbo 4.0 V8 you’ll find in that car and in Bentley’s entry level Continental GT.
But for use in the RS7 it’s pumped up like a supermarket chicken breast, from 414bhp to a stonking 552bhp, while torque takes a gigantic 110lb ft leap to 516lb ft, all delivered to both ends of the car via an eight-speed automatic gearbox, Audi’s dual-clutch transmission being deemed too wimpy in the face of such twist. Performance: 3.9sec to 62mph…
Merc’s mighty E63 is also available in four-wheel-drive form (in the US, it’s 4Matic or nothing) but not in the UK, because the front transmission hardware would fight for space with the steering gear on right hookers. Recently facelifted, and looking all the better for it, the E63’s now softer front-end styling somehow manages to work well with the chiselled shape aft of it, whose tense creases are set off brilliantly by this car’s Palladium Silver paint. This is old-school super-saloon: upright and angular, and just a bit evil.
With 550bhp from its 5.5-litre twin-turbo V8, the regular E63 is no shrinking violet, but this S model is more like a Venus flytrap. For your £84,000, or a ten grand premium, you get a high-gloss black front apron, a body colour AMG spoiler and 19in wheels painted in a menacing matt grey, through which poke bright red brake calipers. That lot’s just the garnish, mind. Beneath the skin, the V8 gets a 27bhp injection, taking power to 577bhp, while torque climbs even more impressively, from 531lb ft to a unarguably unhinged 590lb ft, the same as two last-generation, V8-engined BMW M3s could muster. Merc’s now familiar (but unusual) combination of a traditional epicyclic automatic gearbox hooked up to a wet clutch pack delivers power to the rear wheels via a limited-slip differential.
In 4Matic form, the S will hit 62mph in a surely-that’s-a-typo 3.6sec, but even with just the rear wheels doing the hard work, it’ll get there in 4.1sec. The surprise is just how easy that 590lb ft is to manage. Beyond all that rumbling and growling the E63 is a properly trustworthy companion with surprisingly good traction. And while the square-riggerlines might give the impression of a leaden mass, the E63 is lighter than the RS7 and Jaguar’s XFR-S, and despite the largest capacity engine of our four, will balance the scales opposite a BMW M5. It feels lithe too, with pleasantly light steering and an eagerness to change direction. Want to be neat? No trouble. Want to drift? The E63 is at your beck and call, every move underscored by the menacing backbeat of V8 thunder.
Not wanting to be outdone, arch-rival BMW has also been busy in the shed. Mercedes might have built the first muscle saloon when it stuffed its mighty 6.3 V8s into the S-class 46 years ago, but BMW’s bigger-picture approach to modifying fast Fives back in the early 1980s encompassed not just engines, but styling and interior trim too, setting the template for all modern fast four-doors that followed.
Arriving at the same time as last year’s mild facelift of the 5-series, the M5 Competition Pack corrals an extra 15 ponies into the previously 552-strong pen and, although the 501lb ft torque peak is unchanged, it’s now available more often throughout the rev range. The £6700 the Competition Pack costs on top of a £73,940 M5 also nets you a set of black-chrome-finish tailpipes, but the new 20in alloys are rather unfortunate looking. Thank heavens for the little M5 badge on the kidney grille (now standard, and something the first two generations of M5 always had) because this is arguably the least visually interesting performance car it’s possible to buy, with less presence than a 520d M Sport.
Which makes it perfect for humiliating unsuspecting Porsche drivers. The Competition Pack only drops 0.1sec from the standard M5’s 4.3sec 0-62mph best, but the way the BMW’s dual-clutch ’box slices through its seven ratios, you’d swear it was half a second quicker again. This is the best transmission here by miles, pulling off a much better impression of a traditional automatic car’s low-speed refinement than the others do, while none of them can match the M5’s sabre-sharp cog swaps.
Another Competition Pack tweak is a 10mm lower ride height, but to be honest, without a back-to-back drive with a standard M5 it would be hard for most of us to say how much better the chassis of this uprated version is – we’re not talking night-and-day different. However, having run a regular M5 long-termer, CAR’s Ben Barry definitely noticed an improvement, particularly in the steering. Which still isn’t that nice, in any of its three modes, which vary from sprained wrist to full-blown hernia. That’s pretty much the last of the bad news though, because the M5 feels incredibly balanced, corners with almost no roll whatsoever, and this car’s £7395 optional carbon brakes stop you like one of those HGV sand traps. And it doesn’t look like the XFR-S.
Despite its advancing years, the standard XF remains a handsome thing, but this one is trying way too hard. Or maybe it was just this car’s searing blue paint, but its barrel sides certainly don’t lend it to the block-colour look and that rear spoiler (mercifully optional) is best avoided. Fortunately, it goes better than it looks. Much better. A firm press on the pulsing starter button fires up the V8 and from the bark you instantly know this is something special. Drive it and you’ll know this is one of the best sporting cars Jag has ever built.
We’ve always liked the standard XFR for its well-judged blend of luxury car refinement and Michelin-melting performance, but by Jaguar’s own admission it was never designed to be as hardcore as its German opposition. This one was. Packing some of the technical know-how that went into the new F-type, including its stiffer suspension knuckles and sturdier bushes, and new rear subframe, the XFR-S also features a powerplant that really does stretch the chassis to its limit, dropping the 62mph sprint by a third of a second to 4.6sec. That’s half a second off the pace in this company, but don’t be misled, this is a blisteringly fast car where it counts.
Now I’ll be the protesting outside parliament from my tent like that strange war-hating gent with the tin hat when the EU finally bans us from switching off our ESP systems, but you really do have to think long and hard before disconnecting the safety net on this machine. Despite packing the least power here, and the second lowest torque output, the XF’s rear end has a serious case of ADHD in less than bone-dry conditions.
If the ground’s wet, the ESP system might keep you out of the trees, but if you want to make smooth progress, you need the kind of discipline fast cars required before we could plonk down a right foot and expect the microchips to see us right. In the dry though, this thing is an absolute scream, digging its front claws in on turn-in, and unhesitatingly putting you in charge of what happens thereafter via richly feelsome steering. The steering response and body control are both ramped up a notch over the standard car’s, and between the sensations being fed through the seat and wheel, you know exactly what the XFR-S is doing.
What it wants to do, if you give it enough room, is to glide balletically sideways while chugging out Chinese levels of noxious gases into the air, like a hovercraft with a knackered oil control ring. Few cars are as easy to drive on the limit as this; even fewer are as much fun.
There are flaws though. Some of the detailing is disappointingly old tech (the sat-nav maps look like they were drawn by LS Lowry on a Sinclair ZX81), and some is just plain disappointing (witness the ugly steering wheel). We’d still like an angrier engine note when running through the gears too, and good as the ZF 8HP auto is, it’ll never match the responses of a dual-clutch transmission. The ride is peculiarly fidgety too. Maybe that’s a key part of changing our preconceptions of what a Jag should feel like.
I leave the RS7 until last on the track but end up hanging on to the keys for a few days afterwards. Big, fast Audis don’t tend to fare well on circuits, and they’re often no great shakes on the road either. Besides, I’ve driven the RS7 before, on the launch in Ingolstadt where a day of sitting in queuing traffic did little to endear it to me beyond marvelling at the typically glorious interior. This is how you do it, Jag. See the instruments? Modern, handsome and so easy to read. Notice the cool honeycomb pattern stitching in the leather of the Recaro seats, echoing the shape of the front grilles. The Germans, or more specifically, Audi, is just so bloody good at getting this stuff right. But what about the substance?
Confounding my expectations, the RS7 wasn’t a disaster around Rockingham’s infield. Yes, it’s the heaviest, at 1920kg, but the rear-drive Jag is only 8kg lighter and the Audi is toting some serious hardware designed to redress that balance, including mahoosive 275-section rubber that uses all its powers of persuasion to tuck that nose into corners. Also making use of that purchase are the enormous brakes, which feel powerful enough to bunch the tarmac up like a carpet in a cartoon every time you apply pressure to the commendably firm pedal. And because the RS7 comes as standard with Audi’s Sport rear differential that’s an option on the RS6, this one likes to turn. In fact this was the first time I’d really felt the true potential of this diff, resulting in the most time I’d ever spent looking out of the side window of an Audi since I’d crawled past an M1 pile-up in an A3 a couple of years back.
The RS7 is neither as predictable, nor as enjoyable as the others when driving like that, however. Where it really shines is on the road. Coming back from Farnborough after a launch I demolished the 120-mile journey to Lincolnshire at a rate that would have seen me pip Moss to first place in the Mille Miglia. This is where fast Audis excel, in real-world drives where you need to teleport yourself from one place to another. You want storming performance, great seats, huge brakes and clear instruments. And the ability to exit a set of lights like there’s an aircraft carrier take-off catapult embedded in the road beneath you. The RS7 streaks to 62mph faster than all but fast bikes and well driven supercars.
And isn’t that what super-saloons are all about? They’re not about trackdays or B-road scratching, about setting the alarm for a drive with no destination. They’re about funnelling some fun into real journeys, giving ordinary cars extraordinary powers, powers that can be used with abandon without attracting attention from the pleasure police. But which is best? It’s not often you come away from a test like this without a clear winner in mind. This was a tough call.
We’ve got a soft spot for the BMW M5. It just feels like such a complete package, and that twin-clutch transmission is streets ahead of its rivals’. But we don’t like the oppressively heavy steering and can’t help thinking BMW has taken the Q-car thing a bit far this time. Any more more discreet and the thing would be opaque. And those mechanical Competition Pack changes are too subtle, to the extent that you might as well save yourself a wad of cash and stick with the standard M5.
What the BMW does have, despite its dull suit, is the cool factor the XF so desperately craves but struggles to pull off by virtue of trying too hard. And that’s a shame because the Jag’s mechanical package is so good it deserves a better set of clothes. This is a very special car to drive, but it feels old inside and looks like a Vauxhall VXR8 on the outside.
Audi’s RS7 is nowhere near as tactile as the XFR-S, and even with the standard-fit Sport differential it can feel slightly remote. But it looks effortlessly cool with its raked rear and frameless glass, feels beautifully finished and is the only car here whose performance can be fully exploited come rain or shine. Like most Audis it’s a car built to engender long-term respect, not one to thrill in five-minute chunks, but it’s no poor relation as a result.
Which leaves the Mercedes E63 AMG. It’s not perfect, but it wins because it looks, sounds and goes like we all want a proper super-saloon to. It’s that weird juxtaposition of old-fashioned, square-jawed styling and supercar soundtrack. Of genteel refinement and mixed-martial-arts brutality. No word yet on when that balaclava holder or those front-mounted Stinger missiles will make it to the options list, but don’t let that stop you.