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Comparison: Acura RL, Mercedes E 300, BMW 528xi

Conservative by nature, all three of these six-cylinder, AWD luxury sedans, priced at about $70,000, drive nicer and suck less gas than any crossover.

Published December 15, 2007
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Ah, the allure of the luxury crossover – the new millennium's status symbol for the do-it-all, have-it-all lifestyle.

But what if you don't need seating for more than five? Or require the utility of a wagon-style body?

Or, more than likely, don't want to be burdened with the fundamentally ponderous driving characteristics of these leaden and lofty machines?

Thankfully, most luxury carmakers supply an answer in the form of the tried-and-true, mid-size luxury sedan.

And where Audi was once the only stop for all-weather traction, most upper-crust sedans now have all-wheel drive on the menu.

Conservative by nature, all three of these six-cylinder, AWD luxury sedans, priced at about $70,000, drive nicer and suck less gas than any crossover.

But which one is the best if driving is your priority?




THIRD PLACE:

MERCEDES-BENZ E300 4MATIC

As the least-expensive model in Mercedes's mid-size lineup, the E300 4Matic starts at $65,800. (In the U.S., the corresponding model is the $51,675 E350.)

Equip it like the Acura or BMW and the price rises to a competitive $70,000.

Except for the ludicrously powered E63 AMG, you can't buy an E-Class without getting Mercedes's AWD system, badged 4Matic.

Like rival setups, the system is always on, monitoring each wheel for slippage and individually braking the wheels when needed.

Unlike the others here, engine torque cannot be appropriated to the front or back axles, being fixed at 40 per cent to the front wheels and 60 to the rear.

As I held its large-diameter steering wheel, the Mercedes always felt stable and quiet on the open highway. In a straight line, it tracked as faithfully as a bloodhound on the scent.

But exit onto a twisty side road, and this puppy doesn't like to play.

Slow steering and generous body roll are the main culprits, adding little encouragement for aggressive drivers.

The car's relatively wide and flat seats offer little in lateral support. And compared to the intimate conversation the driver has with the BMW's steering, the Mercedes's helm is nearly mute.

You would have to move up to the almost-twice-as-expensive E63 AMG to get Mercedes's sophisticated seven-speed manumatic. For now, only the older five-speed model is available, with its relatively slow reactions to prods from your right foot.

With a 1,770 kg curb weight, this is the middleweight of the test trio. Nonetheless, the relatively meagre 228 hp and 221 lb.-ft. of torque issuing from the 3.0 L V6 always made the sedan feel like it was running in cement shoes.

Zero-to-100 km/h takes the longest time here, at 7.8 seconds.

At a combined 11.05 L/100 km fuel economy rating, the Benz is also slightly thirstier than the RL (10.65) and 528xi (10).

Why buy? Quiet, solid, highway cruiser.

Why not? Performance, steering, handling, transmission.

SUV alternative: Mercedes-Benz ML350, $59,900




SECOND PLACE:

BMW 528xi

Adding sport, premium and navigation packages to match the Acura and Mercedes in equipment swelled the BMW's attractive $62,500 base price to $70,700.

Like Mercedes's AWD system, with no slippage at the tires, BMW xDrive's torque distribution is rear-biased, also at 60 per cent.

But dynamically, the Bimmer has an advantage over the Benz.

When the 528xi's tires eventually lose grip, xDrive can shuttle torque front to rear, wherever deemed appropriate by the system's computer brain.

Inside, the 5 Series optional 12-way sports seats (part of the $1,700 Sports Package) are some of the best in the industry. Their range of adjustability and the balance between comfort and support are exemplary.

Compared to the Acura or Merc, the BMW's steering feels heavy. But with more feedback than a radio talk show host, it's worth the effort.

Of the three AWD sedans here, the 528xi steers the most like a rear-wheel-drive car – plenty of feel and accuracy, unencumbered by any torque steer.

Once into the curves, the traditionally balanced BMW chassis prods the driver to explore the car's prodigious handling limits. Its responses are immediate and, like the steering, the suspension is always on the line.

However, even with this group's only manual transmission (a six-speed, with manumatic as a no-cost option), the engine can't cash the cheques the athletic chassis is writing.

At 1,710 kg, the 528xi was the lightest entrant here, but never felt like it. The naturally aspirated 3.0 L inline-six gains 15 horses over last year's 525i.

But the resulting 230 hp – or, more importantly, a middling 200 lb.-ft. of torque – isn't enough to get the full 10/10ths BMW driving experience.

If you can afford it, the $6,400 premium for the twin-turbo, 300 hp 535xi almost seems like a must-have.

Why buy? Steering, ride, handling, driving position, smooth engine.

Why not? Engine falls behind the chassis.

SUV alternative: BMW X5 3.0si, $61,900




FIRST PLACE:

ACURA RL ELITE

Acura's range-topping RL comes fully loaded at $63,900.

Go for the $69,500 RL Elite ($53,700 in the U.S.), and it becomes really, really loaded. The goodies include adaptive cruise control, collision mitigation braking, wood trim and heated and cooled front seats.

The Acura also offers the most performance of this trio. The RL stomps the E300 4Matic and 528xi with the largest V6 (3.5 L) and the most power (260 hp, 256 lb.-ft.).

So despite being the porkiest sedan here at 1,829 kg, the RL is the quickest from 0-to-100 km/h at 7.2 seconds. And the five-speed manumatic can be accessed via steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters, always a bonus.

Piling on, the RL's Super Handling-All-Wheel Drive is measurably superior. Like the BMW and Merc, SH-AWD delivers the most favourable torque split between front and rear wheels.

But it can also vary the amount of torque available to either the right or left rear wheel, shooting as much as 100 per cent of the rear torque to the outside rear wheel, if necessary.

The system isn't transparent to the driver. You can feel the torque being shifted around during hard cornering, even on dry road conditions. But it does give the Acura an aggressive turn-in that the BMW and Benz lack.

Performance and sophisticated AWD system aside, the Acura is far from perfect.

Driving enthusiasts would want more feel from the numb steering. And its soft highway ride means the car can wallow in tight, fast corners.

Cabin fit and finish is the best here. But the driver's seat lacks proper thigh support, and some controls on the shiny centre console are hard to access quickly when you're at speed.

Unlike the two Germans, there are no engine or suspension upgrades in the RL options bag. If you want more performance, you'll have to shop elsewhere than at your local Acura dealership.

Why buy? Super (duper) all-weather handling, performance, fit and finish, ride.

Why not? Steering, interior controls, no engine or suspension upgrades.

SUV alternative: Acura MDX Elite, $62,200