Which is best to drive?

Expectations are extremely high here, with customers wanting the latest hi-tech aids to deliver a refined, exciting and engaging driving experience

These models have to master every skill in the book. Customer expectations are sky-high in this class, with buyers demanding cars which are comfortable and refined, yet engaging and fun.

Traditionally, BMW has managed to inject its large saloons with more involvement and sharper handling than rivals, and the latest model doesn’t disappoint. When we drove the car on its European launch, it raised the class’s dynamic bar even higher, handling with superb poise.

It achieved this while striking a near perfect balance between taut responses and ride comfort.

That car featured the manufacturer’s clever Adaptive Drive set-up, which proved to be very effective. It is a £2,220 option, and includes variable dampers and active anti-roll bars. However, the model tested here doesn’t have these important additions – so has that changed our opinion?

On bumpy UK roads and fitted with larger, optional, 18-inch wheels, the suspension fidgets over rough surfaces more than cars boasting the variable damper technology, but the ride is still accomplished. It is smoother than the Audi and, while the air-sprung E-Class is well cushioned on the motorway, the trade-off in terms of body control makes the BMW the best compromise of the trio.

Body control is predictably tighter with active roll bars fitted, but the new 5-Series is still the class leader when it comes to cornering composure. Get caught out by a tightening bend, or encounter a big bump, and the BMW maintains its poise where the Mercedes bounces and fidgets.

On twisty roads, the 5-Series turns into corners with precision and sharpness. In contrast, the E-Class (fitted with the £1,395 AirMATIC suspension) suffers from slower-witted steering. And it is never as agile or responsive as the BMW.

The Audi’s over-light steering can’t rival the 5-Series for feedback and feel. However, thanks to tighter body control than the E350, it’s more reassuring than the Mercedes when driven hard. It also provides the security of four-wheel drive, although the 530d’s impressive mechanical grip means a lack of traction will be an issue only in slippery conditions. Even then, the efficient stability control system can be relied on to keep things in check.

In fact, it’s testament to the levels of grip the BMW’s chassis generates that the Mercedes calls upon its traction control more frequently than its sportier rival.

Aside from some judder through the firm walls of the BMW’s run-flat tyres, the 5-Series’ ride is impressively comfortable, too. Its cabin shuts out noise so effectively, it is the most refined car here.

The Audi isn’t as hushed or settled at high speed as either of its opponents, but still makes a fine executive saloon. And quattro four-wheel drive adds to its all-weather prowess.

BMW: 4 stars Without its additional Adaptive Drive goodies, the 5-Series lacks that sparkling balance between ride and handling. However, it still manages to set the dynamic benchmark in this competitive sector. Sharp steering, huge levels of grip and beautifully weighted controls are blended with a comfortable ride and class-leading refinement.

Mercedes: 3 stars The E-Class lacks the dynamic precision of the 5-Series. With slower steering, less grip and extra body roll, it never feels as agile. Even though our car has air-suspension, it’s still matched by the BMW when it comes to overall refinement. Sport models get a stiffer set-up, but in Avantgarde trim the Mercedes simply feels cumbersome in this company.

Audi: 3 stars Decent body control and reassuring grip ensure four-wheel-drive Audi isn’t totally outclassed here. The trouble is, over rough surfaces the suspension lets shudders into the cabin and the steering is too light and lacks feedback. The over-assisted, sharp brakes are not especially progressive, and recorded the longest stopping distances of our trio.

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