HIGH-CLASS PERFORMERS - JSE MAGAZINE

HIGH-CLASS PERFORMERS

No longer the sole domain of mild-mannered comfort seekers, renowned sedan manufacturers are raising the bar with contemporary makeovers

HIGH-CLASS PERFORMERS

The popularity of the hatch, the SUV and the MPV has not killed off the executive sedan – a car with a separate passenger cell and lockable boot. If anything, it has helped the much-loved three-box saloon evolve into a front-runner now at the zenith of engineering and technological prowess.

This also suggests a confirmed status – a symbol of demonstrable authority and natural restraint. In the latest incarnations the sedan is, ironically, the hub of much innovation and ingenuity that will filter down to lesser siblings in due course. It is this amalgam of tradition and technology that makes them the leaders that they are.

Audi S8
That’s as may be, but certain marques don’t stop there, adding excitement to the equation. Witness the new S8, the force-fed version of Audi’s astoundingly capable A8 flagship.

Audi is having a magnificent couple of years, and the introduction of the new A4 – by all accounts bossing the BMW 3 Series and the Mercedes-Benz C-Class – will confirm that trajectory.

Covetable additions to the superhatch segment (the RS3), the coupe ranks (the TTS) and the SUV market (the game-changing Q7) means the relatively small company is currently fighting far above their weight class. However, no car better exemplifies Audi’s courage than the S8.

To look at it is initially less than thrilling – a lower, squatter, more infernal kind of machine compared to its unfettered sisters. The beauty of the car – indeed the entire Audi range – lies in the subtlety of the expression. No garish swoops for Ingolstadt, no go-faster stripes, no embarrassing declarations of wealth or ability but instead the strength of understatement.

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It has been said of Audi that its models all resemble each other – which is a positive rather than a negative – suggesting a family of exclusivity, whether an entry level A1 or this, the ultimate in transcontinental locomotion. The S8 has an aluminium body, helping it beat the badge of luxo-barge.

Do the math. A power-to-weight ratio of 185 kW makes the S8 immensely fast, and indeed it is, taking four seconds to reach 100 kph and a limited top speed of 304 kph, achieved in under 12 seconds.

Yet, despite these supercar figures, the allure of the S8 is not its grunt but its balance. Where other German execujets grapple with the duality of fast and fluid, the S8 manages to have one complement the other. Thank the four-wheel drive for that, with its self-locking centre differential, which works in conjunction with the air suspension and the driver-selected mobility modes to ensure a car that feels exactly as its owner wants it to, whatever the situation.

On a fast road, travelling at illegal speeds, there is simply no better automobile. The heavy steering translates into rock-steady tractability, and the noise-cancelling software reduces the roar of the 21 inch tyres to almost nothing. Its whisper is quiet – an eerie, entirely addictive sensation. As is the visceral shove when the V8 engine cracks on – a velvet steel that is part bullet train, part cruise missile.

There is more good news inside the S8. Audi interiors set the benchmark for others to follow, and the latest cabins are astonishing. While the S8 will only get the Q7 (and A4) virtual cockpit later this year, it is still a thing of beauty.

The interior boasts diamond-stitched padded seats, perfectly weighted dials and knobs, and brushed aluminium where others would use crass wood or worse still, piano black plastic.

As a masterfully capable long-distance cruiser, there is no better choice. Only the resale value spoils the picture.

BMW 7 Series
While BMW’s 3 Series gets a serious makeover for 2016, it’s the 7 Series that is wholly new, and is attempting to claw back some of the advantage won by the current Mercedes-Benz S-Class – the sales leader and accepted technological tour de force.

It takes the fight to Stuttgart on various fronts but perhaps the most noticeable is in the area of comfort. The previous 7 Series, though in many ways a capable limousine, was criticised for its ride comfort, even in comfort mode. The new leviathan – in comfort plus mode particularly – is smoother, absorbs better and is quieter than its predecessor.

The air suspension is also less sensitive to surface coarseness and has an improved success rate at flattening undulating surfaces, making for a far more relaxing long-distance experience than before.

The better ride does not come at the expense of BMW’s trademark ability either. Roadholding – thanks to sophisticated electronic wizardry – is as good as you would expect from BMW. Drivers can dial in any combination of firmness, grip, responsiveness and feedback by simply selecting it from the new generation iDrive, which is now better than ever with a simple menu-based catalogue system that’s easy to use. It can be operated with pinch, point and swipe commands, or via the rotary dial on the centre console.

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Indeed, the technology on the new 7 Series is exceptional, headlined by a smart key fob that allows you to monitor functions, such as fuel range and interior temperature, from the palm of your hand – all while at a distance from the actual car.

Tech aside, most of the talk is about the new 3l inline six-cylinder diesel engine. Remarkably, in spite of performance figures befitting a sports car, it manages fuel figures as low as 5l/100 km and emits just 131g/km of CO2. It is a feisty, rev-happy unit – easily the best balanced of the various engines on offer and really all the muscle one needs.

Inside, as outside, BMW has gone the evolution rather than revolution route, tweaking existing design to add interest and freshness. A new nose helps strengthen the car’s frontal character, and crease lines work to minimise the slab effect so problematic on limousines. What is totally new are the seats, now supremely comfortable and in themselves reason enough to buy the car. On evidence, BMW’s new flagship has the arsenal to take the fight to both A8 and S-Class.

Jaguar XF and XJ
Hot on the heels of the new compact Jaguar XE come the updated, refreshed Jaguar XF and Jaguar XJ.

There has been a shift at Jaguar Land Rover as the company moves into a more mainstream environment – good sales now mean economies of scale need to dictate how production evolves.

The XF adopts many of smaller brother XE’s innovations and technologies, to save costs and streamline manufacturing. It also adopts many of its visual characteristics – indeed, upon a quick look the two are hard to tell apart. Like the youngster, the XF gets a 12.3 inch digital instrument cluster, laser heads-up display and the InControl Touch Pro premium infotainment system. Engines too will be shared, with the new 2l Ingenium diesel mill the pick of the bunch.

If the XF is the bank manager’s choice, the XJ suggests an altogether more entrepreneurial achievement. It is a very large car, Mercedes-Benz S-Class and BMW 7 Series size, with the road manners of a sports sedan and the cosseting allure of a true limousine.

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This big cat is the left-field choice of the confirmed individualist

In truth, the sports aspect is less evident in the new model – despite the V6 engine getting a power injection – with the accent firmly on sumptuousness and a new interior featuring more comfortable seating, better legroom and improved sound.

The J-Blade LED headlights and honed infotainment system are also new. The sound stage is particularly impressive – a 1 300W meridian digital reference system that will blow the suede-lined roof off the car.

It will never compete with the S-Class, 7 Series and A8 but this big cat is the left-field choice of the confirmed individualist.

Mercedes-Benz Maybach S600 and Mercedes-Benz S500 Plug-in Hybrid
Against this backdrop of renewed competition from the Germans and the British, Stuttgart has brought the ultra-luxurious Maybach S600 to market. It has happened quietly, given the less-than-enthusiastic reception its predecessor received last time around, both in SA and abroad.

This time it is a better-looking car, based on the S-Class, and powered by the Mercedes-Benz 6l, 390 kW V12 engine, good for silently racing to 100 kph in under five seconds.

That, however, is not the point. The extra legroom, the power-actuated calf supports, seats that recline to a 43-degree angle – that’s the point. One can also opt for a centre console, which includes a fridge, champagne flutes and fold-out tables. At nearly R3 million, it might just be worth it.

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Less Emperor Bokassa but no less other-worldly, is the S500 Plug-in Hybrid, which uses a parallel hybrid system – a turbocharged V6 petrol engine and an 85 kW battery-powered electric motor – to bring down emissions and consumption figures.

Crucially – and unlike most tandem hybrid systems – in e-mode, the electric motor used at speed offers silent, emissions-free highway motoring as well as in-town carbon neutrality. Yet, when required, the 325 kW, 650 Nm engine can bolster the electric unit. It takes four hours to recharge the 8.7 kWh battery pack from a conventional electric plug.

By Peter Frost
Images: BMW Media, Jaguar Media, Quick Pic, Audi Media