Which mid-level performance sedan would you pick?
The big three German automakers each like to build fast versions of their midsize sedans, but they are usually pricey and too stiff for the average driver. To cater to normal people who'd still like to be quicker than the average A6, 5 Series, or E-Class, Audi, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz each build mid-level performance variants to sit below their most powerful RS, M, and AMG offerings. In the midsize sedan segment, these are the2020Audi S6, 2020 BMW M550i, and 2019 Mercedes-AMG E53.
Audi was late to the game with the recent reveal of the all-new S6, making it the newest of the three. But BMW has recently announced major improvements to the M550i for 2020 and the E53 is still one of our favorite sedans on the market. So, which one of these three mid-level performance sedans is best?
In regards to pricing, all three of these luxury sedans come within just a few thousand dollars of each other. The E53 is the least expensive with a starting price of $73,545, the S6 is next at $73,900, and although BMW has yet to reveal final pricing for 2020, the 2019 M550i was the most expensive at $76,650. All three will easily go past $80,000 with options, meaning there is very little to differentiate them on price.
Audi, BMW, and Mercedes have a habit of copying each other, resulting in products that feel very similar on paper. The US-spec S6 is powered by a 2.9-liter twin-turbocharged V6 (European models get a diesel powertrain) with a 48V mild-hybrid system producing 444 horsepower and a 0-60 mph sprint of 4.4 seconds. All 53 AMG models also use a six-cylinder engine with a mild-hybrid system, an inline-six in this case, producing 429 hp and an identical 0-60 mph time of 4.4 seconds.
The M550i differs from the other two by using a 4.4-liter twin-turbo V8, which has been increased from 455 hp to 523 for the 2020 model year. An exact 0-60 mph time hasn't been made official but the 8 Series with the same engine can do the deed in just 3.6 seconds. In this category, the M550i seems like the clear winner, but the S6 and E53 each get better fuel economy with their mild-hybrid systems.
All three of these sedans look handsome and sporty without going over-the-top like the RS6, M5, and E63 models. Audi's current design language is simple and looks a bit too plain for our liking, while the current 5 Series is fine, but not our favorite design in the BMW lineup. The E-Class is our favorite of the three in terms of exterior design and the E53 model feels more expensive without looking too aggressive.
Moving onto the interiors, the three cars differ greatly. Audi's new cabin is simple, yet elegant but we wish the S6 stood out more over the A6 besides having sportier seats. The E53, by contrast, looks like it was designed to be a 1920s interpretation of the 22nd century, but we can see how the design might look gaudy to some drivers. BMW's cabin is by far the least techy of the bunch, but the cockpit looks sporty and some people might appreciate the driver-focused layout over the tech overload approach of Mercedes.
Audi's Touch MMI system is by far the easiest of the three to master and the Virtual Cockpit gauge cluster is a joy to use. Mercedes includes two customizable displays controlled by its old COMAND infotainment, but we hope the refreshed 2020 model will receive the new MBUX system. At the time of writing, Audi's system is far better than Mercedes' but a change to MBUX would put Mercedes back in the lead. BMW's iDrive is also quite good, though we prefer the simpler Audi touch controls and the high-tech MBUX system.
Sedans are often used for hauling reasonable amounts of cargo and for this, the S6 and E53 are nearly identical. The S6 offers 13.7 cubic feet of space to the E53's 13.1 and sadly, neither car is available as a wagon in the US market. BMW wins this category with 14.5 cubic feet of space in the trunk of the M550i. If back seat legroom is more important to you than cargo capacity, the S6 has the most rear legroom at 37.4 inches compared with 36.5 in the M550i and 35.8 in the E53.
Choosing between these three luxury sedans will likely rely heavily on personal biases. But looking at all three, it is remarkable to see how closely they compete on price, performance, technology, and practicality. Each has its pros and cons but represent excellent alternatives to the full-fat RS, M, amd AMG models.