Has the performance diversity of executive saloon line-ups eroded the mystique of the halo performance models that stand proud at their summits?
An understudy is a person who rehearses a role so that he or she may replace a starring performer when required to do so. The position of understudy has been popularised in various feature films set in the world of the performing arts; the lead character of a fictitious show is invariably depicted as feeling insecure about a precocious understudy and wary that some ill will befall him or her to the benefit of the ambitious usurper.
By virtue of being born with two left feet and a face for radio, I was dissuaded from pursuing a career on the stage or screen, so I have no idea if understudies tend to engender distrust. However, having encountered or exhibited soupçons of professional jealousy in my career, it stands to reason that some dogs are indeed susceptible to cannibalism.
The advent of the super saloon can be traced to the introduction of the E28-generation BMW M5 in the mid ‘80s. Based on the matchbox-shaped 5 Series but powered by a potent 3,5-litre 24-valve straight six motor and replete with motorsport-inspired suspension and aerodynamic modifications, it was a seminal bahnstorming Q car that could not be compared with standard E28 models. It seeded four more iterations, the latest of which triumphed (only just) in a CAR magazine’s April 2012 super saloon comparative test.
History shows that the performance divisions of Mercedes-Benz, Audi and Jaguar duly got in on the act and produced AMG, RS and R versions of their respective executive saloons in opposition to the M5 and the quartet of premium marques has battled for performance bragging rights ever since.
Yet somehow, the super-saloon melee is getting a bit stale. It might have something to do with the fact that I am careening towards mid-life and feel less bothered by sheer engine outputs and ultimate performance potential than balance, packaging and general on-road sophistication.
I have to note that I recently concluded a stint at the wheel of the sublime BMW 650i, which costs a bit more than the M5 but is also powered by a twin-turbocharged 4,4-litre V8. I lapped up that car like I would the last sip of wine at the end of a scrumptious meal. Yes, it produces 112 kW and 80 N.m less than the super saloon and has an eight-speed auto ‘box instead of a gob-stopping seven-speed, dual-clutch transmission. However, the M5’s understudy, the 550i, features the same powertrain as the 650i and you can get one with an M Sport kit and a few of the M5’s interior goodies for comfortably less than a million, let alone R1,15 million.
It won’t be an M5, I hear you say, but the 550i is claimed to hit 100 km/h from standstill in five seconds and 300 kW and 600 N.m seem perfectly adequate to clear slower traffic in ordinary driving conditions. To put another spin on it, the muscular 535d produces more 30 kW torque than than the 550i and THAT costs comfortably less than R800k in base spec.
Similarly, in the case of the Mercedes-Benz, the sonorous 5,5-litre V8 of the E500 offers 285 kW and 530 N.m versus the E63 AMG’s 386 kW and 700 N.m but, with a price difference of about R350 000, I’d happily spec up the former and live with the “leisurely” performance of the burbling normally aspirated motor. Besides it’s a probably just a matter of time before Sindelfingen relents and slots its 320kW/700 N.m twin-turbo 4,7-litre V8 into the E500, and then the AMG version would really seem piecemeal.
In the case of the second-most expensive XF model at the moment, the rapid 5,0-litre V8 Premium Luxury, you could slap on XFR-aping 20-inch wheels and still save almost R200 000 over the supercharged flagship. It certainly sounds the part…
Sales statistics show that large-engine executive saloons such as the 550i, E500 and XF 5,0 don’t sell in great numbers, however. After all, everyone desires (let alone idolises) the star players because their understudies are only called into action under extraordinary circumstances.
That explains why the understudies in question here are prone to poor resale values, but in real-world conditions, in which most owners of super saloons are executives who spend their time behind office desks and not at the wheels of their cars while shredding expensive tyres and obliterating brake discs on a race track, super saloons are overkill.
Everyone knows that the quest for peak performance with maximum efficiency is the order of the day in the contemporary motoring world and that’s why the aforementioned halo models are no longer in different leagues to the cars that sit directly below them in their respective price lists.
Perhaps car companies should either discontinue their understudy models to protect the exclusivity of their halo derivatives, or throw understatement to the wind and build raucous machines that are so awe-inspiringly outstanding they’d fully warrant elite M, AMG or R badges.