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Car choices, choices... Part 2

From V6 diesel to supercharged V8

By Julian Edgar

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Last issue in Car choices, choices... Part 1 I drove everything from a BlueMotion Golf diesel to a Prius I-Tech hybrid, from a Citroen C5 to a Skoda Superb. And I still wasn’t happy that my desire for fuel economy, ride quality and comfort over a 150 kilometre daily commute on poor country roads was being answered.

So it was time to spread the net more widely. With this car-searching time luckily coinciding with a driving holiday to Tasmania, and also school holidays, I was able in just a few weeks to test drive cars in Launceston, Melbourne, Canberra and Sydney!

Mercedes E280

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First cab off the rank in Melbourne was a diesel Mercedes – an E280 CDI of 2006 vintage. Stickered at $37,000 and having 110,000km on the odometer, it was much older than any of the other cars I’d driven so far.

Using a 3 litre V6 that develops 140kW and a strong 400Nm from just 1400 rpm, the Merc is an interesting mix of space, fuel economy (government test of 7.5 litres/100) and performance (0-100 km/h in 9.1).

But it was a disappointment.

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The cabin was bland and cold, the engine rough (especially at idle) and the rear wheel drive chassis very slippery with so much low-rpm torque. Of course the traction and stability controls mean that wheelspin was no big deal, but the car never felt surefooted in damp, urban conditions.

The equipment level was, in terms of this type of car, also quite low – no navigation system, for example.

The fuel economy around town on the test drive showed good potential, but to be honest, the whole experience was about as exciting as driving a fridge. To give you a guide, I thought the Prius was more involving.

I reckon that if this Merc had a Kia badge, no one would buy them – and that from someone who loves his 1979 230 Mercedes. The only other car to drop off my list of potentials as fast as the Mercedes was the dreadfully riding Citroen C5 we covered last issue.

Lexus LS430

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After an across-Melbourne drive, next on the list was a 2005 Lexus LS430 with 92,000km on it. I’ve previously owned a 1998 Lexus LS400 (the last of the 400s and so running the great variable valve timed 4 litre V8) and my Lexus was a car that I enjoyed a lot.

Stepping into the Lexus LS430 after the E280 Mercedes was a revelation – especially as the Lexus price was within a grand of the Merc. Gosh – what a car! Huge room (too much for my use), incredible equipment level – and it went like a bloody cut snake.

The factory 0-100 km/h figure is 6.3 seconds and while the car I drove didn’t feel quite that fast, it wasn’t far off. The 4.3 litre V8 is just a stonker in terms of smoothness, response and sheer power – but boy, does it ever drink fuel. The government test suggests a combined 12.2 litres/100km, but I’d be putting a city figure at closer to 18 litres/100.  (My 1998 LS400 used to get 7.5 litres/100km on a freeway, but the much larger LS430 didn’t strike me as a car that could get near that.)

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Compared to the Mercedes, the Lexus also had a harsher ride, with clear tyre impacts from its 245/45 tyres. And I need a car that rides well.

But with its amazing equipment level – including radar cruise – and reputation for reliability and longevity, I thought the Lexus was extraordinary value for money… but not the answer to my particular question.

BMW 320d

Back again in Canberra, it was time to drive a 2009 BMW 320d.

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Priced at $39,000, the car had 78,000km on it and was in excellent condition.  A smaller car in interior space than I think any car I’ve recently driven (except for the Prius C), it looked a very interesting package. Especially with its 5.4 litres/100km government test fuel economy – and amazing 4.4 litres/100km extra urban figure. The diesel develops 130kW and has peak torque of 350Nm from just 1750 rpm.

And I reckon the driveline lived up to its promise. In the context of its performance, the fuel economy on test looked good, and (for a diesel) the engine was sweet and effective. I also loved the steering – it was outstanding.

But the ride quality…. how utterly stupid. 

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For a car that you’d expect many people to be buying for long distance driving (as opposed to Sunday morning blasts around mountains), the ride was senselessly stiff. I listened to my wife talking as we drove around Canberra and I could hear her voice changing as the impact of bumps forced air out of her lungs. Ride quality suitable for an Evo Lancer? Yep fine. For a diesel 3 series? Why oh why?

If its ride quality was better, I would have bought the BMW.

The XJ Jaguars

Driving the BMW made me really think about ride quality. The country roads I drive on every day are rough – patched bitumen, dips and hollows, sometimes potholes. They’re still sealed roads – not dirt – but they are roads that require good suspension travel and sympathetic damping rates.

So what are some cars that are renowned for their ride quality? I turned towards Jaguar.  

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The X350 XJ series (starting in 2003) uses sophisticated air suspension with computer-controlled variable damping. These cars have aluminium bodies that are riveted and glued together. Would the combination of a stiff body and air suspension result in a good ride? (Or would it be as woeful as the Citroen C5 for which I’d had such high hopes?)

In quick succession I drove a long wheelbase 4.2 litre V8 XJ8, a 3 litre V6 XJ6 – and then a mighty supercharged 4.2 litre XJR!

I won’t take you through the cars in turn, but in short: the air suspension was just superb in terms of both ride and handling; the performance of the cars varied just as you’d expect with the differing power outputs (from 179kW with the V6 through to 298kW with the mighty supercharged V8); and the cars felt excellent on the road with nimble handling and good steering. I also liked the cabins – they showed far better use of space than previous large Jaguars.

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I really loved the Jaguars – in fact, I thought the stonking XJR one of the most impressive cars I’ve ever driven.  Bar none.

But there was a problem.

The XJR – as an example - was ten years old. Even with the low kilometres this particular car had, you could then expect to have fairly high maintenance costs – suspension bushes, brakes and so on. And we’d be blowing our entire budget to buy the car… with nothing left over for those potentially very expensive bits and pieces. And it’s not just theory – pricing some parts like the air suspension compressor and the air struts showed that it would be quite easy to spend 25 per cent of the price of the car on just some suspension bits.

Add to that fuel economy that is miles away from my initial ‘economy’ mantra, and the figures just didn’t stack up.

But of all the cars I drove when looking for a new car, the Jaguars are the ones to which my heart said: yes, yes, yes!

(But my head did not.)

Next issue: the final choice

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