Thursday, November 17, 2011

Diesels: Test drove an A6 3.0TDI and a BMW 525d

Diesels: Test drove an A6 3.0TDI and a BMW 525d

test drove a couple of diesel sedans yesterday, the audi A6 3.0 TDI quattro and the BMW 525d

First the Audi

It seems to me that car interior design is in stagnation. Having spend so long out of nice cars due to my return to India, I had expected to be blown away, but I wasn't. Certainly, its very very nice, but when I think back to what a revolutionary advance a 1999 Audi A4's interior was over, say a 1989 BMW 325i, the current state of the art is just a baby step above that. The shapes, the materials, the quality of assembly are stagnant.

What does impress deeply is the technology. The LCD displays in the Audi are breathtaking in their beauty, with such sexy fonts, colors, and arrangements of various bits of information. And the design of old stuff like the gauges is so fantastically coordinated to the LCD displays, the impression is one of being seated at the helm of the set of a spaceship helm in a movie. In fact, the last star trek movie's Enterprise interior design theme comes to mind. That visual aesthetic combined with the incredible level of customization that you can do on the car with all these systems really conveys the impression of being seated in a car from a Futurist Aesthete's wet dream. Apple ain't got nothing on this!

The things that we used to regard as the defining characteristics of a good interior have become the supporting cast. To be sure, an Audi without any of this tech stuff would still have a nicer interior than most rival cars, but it would be a poor world where that difference, rendered meager by the aesthetic possibilities opened up by in-car technology, would have to be core of a car's appeal.

While we are still on aesthetics, there is the question of LED headlights. Audi is selling them as a Rs270,000 option and it seems to be almost entirely about making the car look good. and yes, an Audi with its LEDs on does look pretty sexy as it goes by, but with them off, the car looks like a bionic insectoid droid. I must prefer the look of the xenon lights. I took a picture of a car with xenon lights (unfortunately it was dusty) to show the look since virtually all the pictures on the web are of cars with the LEDs. judge for yourself. THe Xenon still comes with the swoopy LED DRL strip along the lower edge of the headlamp unit and that looks pretty sexy when the car is running.

Moving on from the aesthetics to the ergonomics of the interior, I wasn't too happy with the down-in-a-bunker feel of the cabin. You sit deep in it, the car rising high around you, the steeply raked windscreen is large but small a vertical perspective, creating something of a feeling of looking out of a gun slit in a bunker. The rear view mirror is a bulky unit that takes a big bite out of the windscreen and obstructs a substantial portion of the windscreen. Its like in my Lotus but there I wrote it off to Lotus not having the money to pay for the production of a compact mirror. I removed the inside mirror on the lotus. Can't do that here. I was also shocked to see that the trunk lid sits on old style props that go into the trunk when closed, instead of on a four bar linkage that allows the trunk lid to articulate without taking up trunk space. Very strange.

Standing next to the car as the salesman pulled it out, I was startled by the substantial racket the engine made, and it got me wondering how on earth anybody can claim that diesels have become as quiet and refined as petrols. But inside the car, it is indeed very quiet. There is nothing AT ALL to let you think there is a diesel under the hood. There is no diesel clattering. There is none of the slow oozing rev up of diesels. and there is nothing absolutely in the performance that makes you think diesel. There is no vibration. no evidence at all that there is a high compression burner of sticky oil under the hood. Except that the engine is mostly notable for how well it does its job without calling any attention to itself. Its to be noted that in its place, a powerful petrol engine wouldn't impress you with its characterless high performance, but by the charisma of its personality, as seen in M3 and M5 V8s, 911 flat sixes, Honda's screamers, and the like. but th! en again, that the most I can say in criticism of a diesel is that its not as charismatic as the very finest petrol engines has to be considered extremely high praise indeed.

and its FAST. holy crap. Not fast as in tear your hair out and scare the poop out of you, but fast as in "I just left the traffic signal a second ago. how did I get to triple digits? and where's everybody who was next to me at the light? whoomph! Quiet, thrusty and rocket ship quick. Cars I have driven of this caliber of speed normally make far more of a drama than this one. If the idea is to cross continents at high speed or to cross mountain ranges without having your heart wear out in the first 5 minutes from the adrenaline, this car is just brilliantly suited to the job.

In the indian market it comes standard with air suspension, which is so much more adjustable than just variable dampers. Between the adjustable suspension, steering effort, throttle response and transmission responsiveness and shift behavior, the car is highly customizable and with the sales guy constantly fiddling with the settings while I drove the car, I got a general impression, but not detailed enough to know PRECISELY how different car is in say comfort vs dynamic. On the whole, the car has a superb ride, probably the best I've experienced in anything other than an S class, its extremely chuckable in corners, it carves into corners accurately and rockets out of them incredibly well (what with quattro and all that). The steering is marvelously sharp and light (in comfort mode) which makes it easy to twirl, and the car very light to the touch. It is a bit numb right on center though so if you need communication before you drive faster, you'll never drive fa! st. if you just ignore the fact that the steering isn't telling you much and throw the car into a corner, you find that the steering is actually very good at putting the car just where you want it and of adjusting its attitude. The quattro is really exceptionally good at helping the car claw its way around turns at high speeds in total control.

On the whole, the car is a hedonist's delight. the brilliant interior and interface with the driver, the incredible engine, and the lovely ride and handling make this easily the best car I have ever driven (from the perspective of normal people).

Then came the the BMW 525d. I wanted to test drive the 530D, but they didn't have a demo unit, so I made up my mind to drive the 525d to get an idea of the over all car, and imagine it with speed like the audi I just drove.

I didn't expect much from the BMW. F10 generation 5 series has been universally criticized for having gone soft and having lost the essential BMWness of the 5 series. it has placed 3rd out of 3 in a car and driver comparison test against the PREVIOUS generation A6. Its not won any comparison tests against the current A6 that I have seen. The complaint typically has been that the 5 is not what it used to be.

So I went to the BMW dealer mostly out of the compulsion to be thorough. Getting in the car, I felt both very happy because I felt it was like coming home, due to the continuity of theme and design I felt with the E46 330i I used to drive. but it was also quite a disappointment because the F10 felt like a severe regression for BMW. Its like a 7 series interior, not the interior of sport sedan. the dash towers high in the view of the driver, its not driver focused, and its shapes are not appealing in the way the E46 or E39 were. That design aesthetic more than made up for the starkness of the interior compared to the Audis of the time, but this one doesn't. There is nothing in the slightest bit appealing about the BMW's interior after the audi. Not only is it bland, it makes you wonder about what they were trying to do. the gauges for example are small but surrounded by lots of empty space. why? the displays and controller are so unattractive to the sight, touch! and body, I didn't feel like touching them. Why does this dash so high up and prominent in the driver's view when its not even appealing to the eye? Why has BMW gone off of the design aesthetic of cars that are low and out of the driver's line of sight? If BMW is aiming to make the 5 series like a cut price 7 series, why is the interior so lame compared to the Audi? Why do i feel like the E38 and E39 interiors were biblically righteous, and this interior the work of a company thats utterly lost its way?

on the flip side, I as heartened to see that the BMW has less of a gun-slit-in-a-bunker view than the audi with a windshield that has much more vertical height than the audi's.

on the move, the car impresses immediately. Luxury like the audi, no. ride quality like the audi, no. a gorgeous interior and driver interface like the audi, no. better acceleration, more responsive throttle or better refinement than the audi, no.

but, compared to the audi, its got the steering of a sports car. And thats apparent immediately. The steering is talkative and the car reactive. its also clean, feeling like it does nothing except steer. The net result is that the BMW feels much more interactive with the enthusiast driver than the audi, more fun to drive, whether you be going slow or fast.

The straight six engine is more vocal than the audi's V6, producing a more mono-tonal, bassier rumble than BMW's petrol inline 6s. Its not silky nor does it feel like a turbine like a petrol inline six, but like the audi, there is no hint of dieseliness in it and I can't imagine why anybody except a petrol head who just loves the feel and sound of a really good petrol would not buy the diesel.

What else? the 8 speed auto is not as good as the audi's 7 speed DSG. both are utterly useless in manual mode because you get no feel in either of what gear you're in, and how many gears you want to change, and this is unchanged from other DSGs I have driven like the GTI or the 911 PDK. but the BMW's auto is not as good as the audi's which never hestitates because it got caught in the wrong gear by some sudden control input of the driver, nor does it subject him to the phenomenon of first getting caught in too high a gear and then snapping like a rubber band after shifting down a number of ratios, while the BMW does.

So, 530d or A6? thats hard to say. for the keen driver who loves a good drive so much that he wouldn't care about anything else, it would have to be a 5 series, but then such a driver should buy a 3 series instead of the 5.

But if fun to drive is the #1 parameter and you must have a car in this class, the 5 series is it. But apart from that, the A6 absolutely slaughters the 5 series, and its not as if its a dull car to drive. Its 90% as good as a BMW on fun to drive, 200% or more ahead on everything else.

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