We headed out one car at a time with enough spacing in between cars for safety purposes. Instructors were posted at the end of each section where drivers stopped to receive unsolicited critiques from the instructors on their driving abilities at the end of each of the sections. I have to hand it to the instructor that had the post in the accident avoidance section. Surprisingly he had enough trust in each the driver's abilities to stop from 60 km/h through this section and not mistake him as a pylon. Personally I think he drew the short straw that day!
In the interest of space, I will keep my observations focused on the handling and safety attributes of each vehicle. Detailed specifications of the vehicles tested can be found at the manufacturer's links provided at the end of this review.
It was my turn. I drove the Jag S-Type first, base price of $61,950 Cdn. Small comment on the interior of the Jag: although a bit dated, other manufacturers could learn a thing or two about interior quality fit and finish especially in the areas of leather quality and wood trim applications.
Clearly the Jag was not intended for weekend Autocross events at the local Wal-Mart parking lot. Steering response was the worst of all the test subjects. The power steering boost could not keep up with the rapidly changing inputs. It was very difficult to establish a rhythm as it felt like wrestling a manhole cover. This could be a real life problem during emergency maneuvers.
Braking was acceptable with some noticeable nosedive and soft pedal feel. Not surprisingly it was rated the lowest in my opinion. However one must remember S-type buyers are not typically very aggressive drivers who might be pushing their cars to the handling limits. They buy them for comfortable, albeit soft rides And the Jaguar marquee of course.
While waiting in the holding area for my next 4 wheeled victim, I overheard the marketing rep and a couple of the driving instructors picking on Audi's quattro system. This all occurred as we watched other drivers finishing on the skid pad section where the A6 clearly drifted off the vinyl onto the airport deck. Obviously their biases were to be expected. Could it be that even BMW considers Audi's quattro system a formidable opponent? Having owned a couple of quattros in the past, I found the A6's behavior through this section puzzling.
While all this was happening very little was said about the S-type or the E320 other than they are "nice cars when driven in a straight line" - no doubt a criticism of the Jag's and Merc's non-sporting intentions.
I test piloted the 530 next. As mentioned earlier, BMW Canada brought three 530's in different configurations for the test. The "base" model, starting at $66,500 Cdn was as expected, well behaved but with some body roll. Acceleration was acceptable for a 6-cylinder sedan. Luxury/convenience appointments were of expected BMW quality. The retooled I-Drive initially introduced in the 7 series still takes some getting used to, however. You would have to spend some time (while not driving) to learn the system. The thickly padded steering wheel, seats and ergonomics were tops on my list.
The "sports package" optioned 530 prices out at $70,290 and was a definite improvement in terms of handling over the base model. It produced less body roll, a firmer ride and noticeably less nose-dive in hard braking situations.
The 530 as tested price of $71,490 and equipped with the "Dynamic Handling Package" (without Sports Package) which includes Active Steering and Dynamic Drive options was the most interesting. Active steering reduces the amount of steering input to achieve the desired result. There is definitely a learning curve driving with this piece of technology on board. I was turning too early and too much through the slalom section and actually made a "garage sale" of the pylons. I requested a second attempt to save face! The Dynamic Drive system really had a positive in impact through the slalom, accident avoidance, and panic stop sections. The car behaved very neutral with virtually no body roll or nose dive. I rated this model near the top of my list in this area.
The Mercedes-Benz E320 was next, base price $72,050 Cdn. Fit & finish and ergonomics were definitely up there. Ride was plush and refined, as Mercedes-Benz buyers would expect, but to be honest uninspiring. Body roll was similar to the Jag's but the steering response was far more reasonable. I noticed that not all ABS systems behave the same in the accident avoidance section. Braking hard while aggressively tossing the car, the Merc's ABS system seemed "confused" as the ABS seemed to be a delayed. I missed the stopping mark by several feet. Again, much like the Jag buyers, Mercedes-Benz (non AMG equipped) buyers typically like the mild mannered ride and prestige in the brand.