2006 AJAC “Best New Luxury/Prestige” contenders

Story and photos by Paul Williams

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Shannonville, Ontario – The Luxury/Prestige category of the Canadian Car of the Year “Testfest”, held at Shannonville Motorsport Park in late October featured four German cars, two Japanese cars, and one from the U.S. Members of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC) compared them back-to-back (Luxury/Prestige was one of 11 vehicle categories tested) over four days of road and track testing.

Now, the purpose of the Car of the Year Awards program is to provide consumers with sound, comparative information on vehicles that are new to the market. But let’s face it: luxury is a very subjective thing. The soothing fragrances of leather and wood, the rush of thoroughbred horsepower, the studio-quality speakers that reproduce every woof and tweet from your favourite artist are standard features in luxury cars. If this is what you’re looking for, they’ve all got it. So what makes one luxury vehicle different from another? And when cost is not a major concern, which of these luxury vehicles would suit you?

2006 Audi A6

2006 Audi A6

2006 Audi A6
2006 Audi A6. Click image to enlarge

Drive a gold $78,940 Audi A6 through small-town Ontario and a lot of heads turn. It’s that new and startling big grille, in combination with dramatically angled headlights that create a much more aggressive front-end than the understated presence of past A6s. In my view, Audi’s always did look good, but they didn’t draw attention to themselves. Not anymore.

And Audi’s interiors are so fine that they have become the benchmark for many other manufacturers, who now use the term “Audiesque” as a corporate target for style and execution. Our test car was a V8 version, pumping out 330 horsepower and 310 lb-ft of torque through its six-speed automatic transmission and quattro all-wheel drive system. The car is roomy, but not huge; the interior is tailored, but not cold; the handling is firm, but not harsh.

The interior, the exterior, the powertrain and the handling make this a quintessentially German luxury car. And the styling tells people that you, like Audi, perhaps have a wilder side than may at first be apparent.

2006 Mercedes-Benz CLS 500

2006 Mercedes-Benz CLS 500

2006 Mercedes-Benz CLS 500
2006 Mercedes-Benz CLS 500. Click image to enlarge

In contrast to the big Audi’s tidy but muscular profile, the $99,155 (as tested) Mercedes-Benz CLS 500 is a svelte high-diver. This is a sublime-looking vehicle, all swoops and curves and sensuous lines. Get inside, and it’s hard to take your eyes off the sumptuous stitching of the leather, the precision instruments that recall the crystal-clear faces of fine Swiss watches, and the signature quality that only close to $100,000 can buy. Slide in a CD, and the Logic7 digital audio system is this car easily outperforms most home theatres.

Forget the objective parameters, it’s a soul-less person who’s not moved by this piece of automotive sculpture.

And it does move in other ways, of course. There are 302 whisper-quiet horsepower under the hood, and a big 339 lb-ft of torque available at only 2,700 rpm from the 5.0-litre V8 engine. Put your foot on the gas and this rear-wheel drive, four-door “coupe” as Mercedes describes it, goes from 0-100 km/h in 6.2 seconds through its brilliant seven-speed automatic transmission. Even more impressive are the scant 4.7 seconds you need for an 80-120 km/h passing manoeuvre (best in this group).

2006 Mercedes-Benz R 350

2006 Mercedes-Benz R 350

2006 Mercedes-Benz R 350
2006 Mercedes-Benz R 350. Click image to enlarge

But if you need more functionality, the Mercedes-Benz R-Class, might suit you better. The $81,530 (as tested) R 350 features a 268 hp, 3.5-litre V6 engine, all-wheel drive and seven-speed automatic transmission. Even though it’s a completely different type of vehicle than the CLS, the R-Class is pretty swoopy, too. For a minivan.

Okay, it’s not really a minivan, it’s a Grand Sports Tourer, according to Mercedes-Benz. Whatever it is, it’s big (longer even than a Cadillac Escalade, as several publications have pointed out) and tall, and you can get one starting at $63,900 if you’re on a budget.

Like the CLS, the R 350 has fetching lines. From the outside it somehow hides its bulk, and once inside, occupants will find seats that are exceedingly comfortable (there are six of them in the R-Class), along with a full array of luxury features like polished burl walnut trim, black leather seating, panorama roof, and Harman Kardon audio system. Surprisingly (given its weight and size) the R 350 delivers acceptable performance in a package that provides consummate practicality (the more powerful R 500 almost matches the performance of the CLS). Its “Airmatic” air suspension has you floating over bumps and cracks in the road, and it handles way better than you might expect.

2006 BMW 530xi Touring

2006 BMW 530xi Touring
2006 BMW 530xi Touring. Click image to enlarge

Contrast this smooth operator with the $82,800 (as tested) BMW 530xi Touring (base $72,800) and you get two completely different takes on luxurious practical transport. The 530xi is an involving driving machine for the sporty driver who likes to be in control of the car. Its 3.0 litre, straight-six engine makes a turbine-like 255 hp, which it puts it to the ground through a six-speed manual transmission, all-wheel drive and big 18-inch double-spoke wheels of the $6,500 Sport Package. The aluminum interior trim recalls racing cars rather than the swank hotel (although you’d certainly get respect pulling up at a Fairmont in one of these). But really, this is a car that makes you just want to drive away and not come back.

2006 Lexus GS 300

2006 Lexus GS 300
2006 Lexus GS 300. Click image to enlarge

Lexus has been a genuine luxury contender since the brand’s introduction in the early 1990s. The all-wheel drive, $67,100 Lexus GS 300 sedan (base $64,300) is no exception, although its approach to luxury is quite different from the German cars. Softer, supple, delicate even, the GS is all about friendly hues, shapes and designer two-tone surfaces. Its 245 hp, 3.0 litre V6 supplies smooth acceleration from 0-100 km/h in 7.7 seconds through its six-speed automatic transmission. While this equals the BMW 530xi, it feels more relaxed in the Lexus. Interestingly, the paint comes alive in the sunlight � somehow Lexus has managed to make beige look beautiful (it’s called Chardonnay Pearl, actually).

2006 Infiniti M45 Sport

2006 Infiniti M45 Sport
2006 Infiniti M45 Sport. Click image to enlarge

Also from Japan, the rear-wheel drive Infiniti M45 Sport goes like a rocket with its 335 hp, 4.5 litre V8 engine and performance suspension. You’ll find a magnificent 5.1 surround Bose audio system in the Infiniti, and enough buttons and switches to satisfy the most demanding of technophiles. By a mere one-tenth of a second, this car is the fastest of the group to 100 km/h at 6.1 seconds.

From the outside, the 19″ wheels identify the $72,800 M45 Sport (as opposed to the M45 Luxury edition), and this car’s Rear Active Steer technology and sport-tuned suspension contribute to sharp and precise handing at any speed. A Lane Departure Warning system sounds if you if you wander out of your lane, and is one of the many advanced safety technologies standard on the M45 Sport. The interior is luxurious and spacious enough to move into. The rear seating area is cavernous.

2006 Lincoln Zephyr

2006 Lincoln Zephyr
2006 Lincoln Zephyr. Click image to enlarge

The sole U.S. entry this year was the $45,359 Lincoln Zephyr, and at half the price of the other cars, it didn’t really belong in this category. As it was, the as-tested price was for a full-load car (Zephyr’s start at $36,999).

That being said, the Zephyr may appeal to younger buyers looking to get into a luxury brand. Based on the same front-wheel drive platform as the new Ford Fusion and Mazda6, these cars share a fine ride, sharp handling and pleasing design. Even base models come with a generous array of standard features, including 17″ alloy wheels, real wood interior trim, premium audio, and side-curtain airbags. The Zephyr’s V6 makes 221 hp, and its 0-100 km/h dash takes 8.0 seconds, which is not the slowest of this group (the Mercedes-Benz R-350 takes 8.5 seconds). Nonetheless, this Lincoln is more like a well-equipped family car, as opposed to an all-out luxury sedan.

AJAC journalists rated these vehicles using numerous objective and subjective parameters, but as I say, luxury is very much about how a given object makes you feel. If I was asked to pick one, the Mercedes-Benz CLS pushes all the right buttons for me. But, you know, one luxury car probably isn’t enough.

The AJAC scores will generate a category winner to be announced on December 6, 2005. Watch Autos’s news scroll December 7, 2006 for the results.

Luxury/Prestige Car Base Price As-tested
Audi A6 $63,210 $78,940
BMW 5 Series Touring $72,800 $82,800
Infiniti M45 Sport $72,800 $72,800
Lexus GS $64,300 $67,100
Lincoln Zephyr $36,999 $45,359
Mercedes-Benz CLS $92,600 $99,155
Mercedes-Benz R-Class $75,450 $96,360

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