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1996 BMW 750il, 1996 Lexus LS400, 1996 Mercedes Benz E320,1996 Range Rover 4.0 SE

A third of a million dollars. That's more than I make in a month.

It's also the approximate aggregate cost of the four contenders in our side-by-side evaluation of four of the most prestigious motor vehicles one can buy.

Amazing how different the approaches carmakers have taken to appeal to this slender but well-heeled slice of demographics. Beyond high price and a wheel at each corner, our foursome doesn't share much.

The BMW 750iL is a high-tech V12powered limousine. The Lexus LS400 is a smooth, quiet, jewel-like V8 cruiser. The Mercedes-Benz is, by its standards anyway, a radically styled six-cylinder sports sedan. The Range Rover 4.0 SE is a sport-utility dipped in gold and trimmed with ermine, the ultimate image vehicle in today's hottest market segment which, more-so than any other, is image-driven.

If you wonder at Range Rover's inclusion in this exalted group of luxury sedans, so, frankly, did we. We were disabused of its credentials for membership when the day was done.

Our comparison ran in conjunction with the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada Car of the Year test session at Shannonville Motorsport Park. This venue gave me and my "prestige car" teammates the opportunity to do a static walk-around of each vehicle, a track test to evaluate high-speed performance away from the constraints of public safety, plus a road test on real-world highway and byway. Everything was done back-to-back, to ensure fair comparisons.

Also included were instrumented acceleration and braking tests, done by the same drivers on the same track, so, again, the numbers are as comparable as human ingenuity can achieve.

STYLING:

This most subjective issue is impossible to quantify. There was general agreement that the BMW looked like a BMW; the Lexus was too-little changed from the previous generation, even if it is virtually a brand-new vehicle; the Mercedes breaks new ground at the front with its twin elliptical headlights, but is curiously bland at the rear; and the Range Rover looks, well, like a big truck.

INTERIOR:

The Range Rover is the only true five-passenger vehicle in the group. It uses its massive height to good advantage, with chair-high seats and sufficient beam width to fit three adults comfortably in the back. It also has the best front seats: comfortable, yet with excellent lateral support.

The BMW has by far the greatest rear-seat legroom – you could hold a square dance back there. Forget sitting in the middle, though: the cushion is thin, hard and high. You could convert the trunk into a shelter for the homeless. And on our cold test day, no one wanted to get out of the Bimmer because of its heated steering wheel rim. No, I'm not kidding, either about the wheel or its popularity.

The Benz has the widest back seat of the sedans, and the longest front seat travel. One team member, our designated tall person with legs up to his ear lobes, had no problem getting comfy here. Moi, however, Mr. Average at 5 feet, 10 inches, had to drive with my right shin jammed into the huge knee bolster beneath the dash, an addition to North American Benzes to allow crash-test dummies to survive U.S. barrier crash tests without seatbelts. No seatbelts? That's why they call them dummies.

The Lexus is the cosiest of the four, but still more than adequate. The first few seconds of switching on a Lexus are among the most entertaining in autodom; the electroluminescent instrument panel is genuine Gee Whiz stuff. Apart from leather upholstery that had all the cattle-ness and much of the luxuriousness processed out of it, the LS400 looked the best finished, and was judged to have the best ergonomics.

Well, perhaps the "most accessible" ergonomics. All the other cars have dashboard layouts common to their own kin, but out of step with the rest of the world. The BMW in particular has an extremely complicated arrangement for the myriad air/con, in-car entertainment and telephone functions. BMW leads us to believe that one eventually gets used to this. May I suggest a longer-term test? Say, 10 years? You have my number.

The Range Rover's dash is a mass of confusion as well. It also suffers in this company with respect to fit, finish and quality of materials, and it retains the bizarre power window switch layout that only a Range Rover owner could comprehend, let alone love.

The Mercedes is traditional Benz, like it or lump it. All our test team, though, loved the way the seat-shaped power seat controls are grouped with a steering-wheel shaped button to adjust the wheel's tilt and telescope settings.

TRACK PERFORMANCE:

The Benz is the clear winner here. It has suppleness, stability, a seamless quality, even an entertainment factor, that none of the others could approach. Rack and pinion steering isn't big news to the rest of the world, but it's new to Mercedes-Benz – quick learners, these people.

The E320 was just a few ticks behind the big-engined Bimmer in the drag race, and soundly thrashed the Lexus, despite giving away two cylinders and a bunch of horsepower.

The BMW benefited by switching the electronic dampers to sport mode. This doesn't make them forever hard, just moves the stiffening program up the scale a few notches, allowing the car to take a noticeably better set in the corners. But the steering is light, and everything is isolated from the driver in a way most unexpected in an Ultimate Driving Machine.

BMW's electronic automatic feels downright weird. It shifts with consummate smoothness all the time, although sometimes the downshifts take longer to initiate than you'd like. But the engine seems to shut off between shifts, the exhaust note distinctly going away despite the right foot being planted firmly on the pedal. Wonder why it does that?

The Lexus is, to be charitable, not a track car. It is immensely capable, and one tester felt it actually behaved better the harder it was driven. But the isolation factor is even more pronounced here than in the BMW. The brakes felt spongy; the car isn't as quick as the manufacturer's supplied horsepower and acceleration numbers predicted; the steering has the directional equivalent of turbo lag – better crank that wheel now, because we're going to need to turn in a few seconds; the seats have so little lateral support that it was hard to extract the car's maximal performance.

The Range Rover has excellent throttle response, but was defeated on the drag strip by the immutable laws of physics and its power-to-weight ratio. But it was a pleasant surprise on the track – low expectation levels surely playing a part here. The big beast has excellent steering, with lots of feedback. The body leans alarmingly but the car tracks around corners with reassuring stability – four-wheel drive doesn't hurt. In instrumented brake testing, it took the longest to get to rest from 100 km/h but, in use, the brakes felt strong and were easily modulated.

My diseased mind began thinking of a showroom-stock racing series for Range Rovers. Except instead of turning left at Turn Four at Mosport, you'd turn right, wallow through the swamp, and rejoin the pavement around Turn Six. My racing licence is up-to-date. You have my number too.

ROAD TEST:

I'd gladly take any of these cars on a long trip. Differences between them are of an extremely minor nature.

The BMW exhibited a slight harmonic vibration on washboard surfaces, but was otherwise smooth and silent. BMW has tuned a lot of the bump-thump out of it suspensions over the years. The ride is still firm, but very comfortable.

The Lexus is at its best on smooth highways. Rougher roads set up a bit of harshness, since the soft springs can't seem to deal with one big bump in time to get ready for the next one. Light controls make it an easy car to drive, and easier to adapt to than the others.

The Merc is as impressive on the road as on the track. There's more road noise, however, and a wind noise that seemed at times to come from the sunroof, at other times from the right rear door. Finding the source of such noises takes acoustic engineers months of testing. It may have simply been a maladjusted door seal.

The Range Rover ride can get choppy on poor roads. There's only so much you can do with big, heavy live axles. The steering wheel shakes on washboard surfaces as well. The big plus of the Range Rover is, of course, that if you are so inclined, you can slide the shift lever over to the low range of four-wheel drive, and motor majestically where none of the others can go.

CONCLUSION:

It's become a commonplace to state that car development has come to a standstill, that cars have gotten so good they can't improve.

Yet it's hard not to be impressed with the newest car in this field – perhaps only by about six months, if you count the international introduction dates. The Mercedes-Benz E-class is an outstanding vehicle, by about any measure.

When's the last time a luxury car comparison had a Mercedes-Benz with the smallest-diameter steering wheel and the lowest list price? Working stiffs may scoff at $64,750 representing a bargain, but you've got to add $15 K to get to the next-cheapest cars in this field.

Some of the Benz trim bits show signs of cost-cutting. But in general, it has the solidness we've come to expect from Mercedes-Benz, with sportier handling and excellent performance.

If they'd just take out that stupid knee bolster . . .

The only real problem with the BMW 750iL is that a great deal of its wonderfulness can be obtained for about $35,000 less in the V8powered equivalent, the 740iL. That car also won't cost a sheik's ransom to fuel every week. Apart from remarkably cheap-looking visor vanity mirrors, this is an imposing motor car.

I don't know anyone who's sorry they bought a Lexus. The car's evident quality and demonstrated in-service reliability have made it the top pick in customer satisfaction from the moment of its introduction. There's no reason why the new LS400 should be any different.

The LS400 is now facing the pressures of the ever-strengthening Japanese yen. It's easy to sell an $80,000 car for $55,000, which is essentially what Lexus did when it debuted. Now that they have to sell an $80,000 car for $80,000, it's a more challenging proposition, especially since Lexus has yet to develop the same sort of tradition and image of the older brand names.

Should these things count in a car? At this price level, they do. It's possible to build a near-perfect $30,000 car – Toyota already does, in the Camry. When the stakes go up, you have to offer more than mere perfection; you have to appeal to the soul.

The excellence of Lexus over the past few years has also forced the rest of the contenders in this class to raise the levels of their own games, in quality, customer service and price. But there is no question that Lexus is a player with hall of fame promise.

As I said at the outset, the Range Rover seems the odd duck here. Its four-wheel drive is its major differentiator, yet who's going to take an $80,000 car into the local bog? But then, few Porsche 911 Turbo owners ever use that car's mind-boggling race track capability either. A big part of the appeal is that it has the capability. And all-wheel traction is more likely to be useful at some point than 250 km/h top speed.

In comfort, space and road-ability, the Range Rover holds its head up high, literally as well as figuratively. This new model has taken a big step forward in interior finish from the previous generation, but they still have a way to go. Reliability issues also still exist. BMW's ownership of Range Rover will surely pay dividends on both these counts.

So, which to buy? There are no losers in a group like this, so how can there be winners? You might even question the validity of an objective comparison of sleds such as these. If you're spending $60,000 to a $126,000 on a car, objectivity isn't an issue. You're buying it because you like it, you want it, and you can afford it.

The total value of all the cars I've owned, lifetime-to-date, doesn't add up to the ticket for the cheapest car in this group. Still, I'm glad these cars exist, as do people who can afford them. On a practical level, their engineering drives the rest of the industry, and results in better cars for everyone. More important, cars like these allow the rest of us to dream.

DATA SUMMARY:

BMW 750iL: Four-door, five-passenger sedan. Front-engine, rear-drive; 5.4 L SOHC 24-valve V12; 322 h.p. at 5000 r.p.m.; 361 pound-feet torque at 3900 r.p.m. Acceleration, 0-to-100 km/h: 7.18 sec.; 80-to-120 km/h: 5.49 sec. Braking, 100-to-0 km/h: 40.2 metres. List price: $121,900.

Lexus LS400: Four-door, five-passenger sedan. Front-engine, rear-drive; 4.0 L DOHC 32-valve V8; 260 h.p. at 5300 r.p.m.; 270 pound-feet torque at 4500 r.p.m. Acceleration, 0-to-100 km/h: 8.94 sec.; 80-to-120 km/h: 6.47 sec. Braking, 100-to-0 km/h: 44.3 metres. List price: $80,000.

Mercedes-Benz E320: Four-door, five-passenger sedan. Front-engine, rear-drive. 3.2 L DOHC 24-valve inline six; 217 h.p. at 5500 r.p.m.; 232 pound-feet torque at 3850 r.p.m. Acceleration, 0-to-100 km/h: 7.72 sec.; 80-to-120 km/h: 5.73 sec. Braking, 100-to-0 km/h: 39.8 metres. List price: $64,750.

Range Rover 4.0SE: Four-door, five-passenger station wagon. Front-engine, fulltime dual-range four-wheel drive. 4.0 litre pushrod 16-valve V8; 190 h.p. at 4750 r.p.m.; 236 pound-feet torque at 3000 r.p.m. Acceleration, 0-to-100 km/h: 12.36 sec.; 80-to-120 km/h: 10.79 sec. Braking, 100-to-0 km/h: 45.3 metres. List price: $79,900.

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