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The super saloon test: BMW M5 and Mercedes-AMG E63 S

This is going to be hard. Perhaps impossible. The power wars between M Division and AMG have been raging for a long time, and with the pair’s latest 440kW four-doors, they appear to have reached some kind of deadlock.

The new BMW M5 and Mercedes-AMG E63S both have clever all-wheel-drive systems that make them usable in winter, but with a naughty rear-drive Drift mode to appease the purists. Each has a twin-turbo V8 engine with around 440kW, each one mated to a long-legged but snappily reacting automatic gearbox. Both have a suite of driver modes and traction-control settings to make them malleable to all talent levels and handling tastes. I’m professional, though, and I promise I’ll reach a verdict. Hopefully without resorting to a coin toss. I know, #firstworldproblems.

It’s in situations like this where immaturely skidding around on a frozen lake has some real use. Honest. With cars whose limits are so stupendously high – the AMG’s performance displays prove you’re using laughably little of its 450kW on ordinary roads – slippery conditions bring the extremities of their behaviour down to low speeds, and with loads of lovely run-off. Handy when you’ve got five metres of car not inclined to go in a straight line

That car is the E63S. Yeah, there’s much fancy AWD tech beneath you, but it’s still happiest when you’ve got a load of opposite lock on. I begin with its electronic nannies in their halfway mode, but after just two corners of the TG ice track, I switch everything off and act like a bit of a loon. Yes, it can be driven in a smooth, neutral manner, utilising the rear bias of its transmission to combat understeer… blah blah. But even in 4WD, it implores you to drop mature pretensions and indulge its inner scoundrel.

The BMW M5 is keener to knuckle down and be serious. Its 441kW lags slightly behind the E63S, but it feels more agile, and to a greater degree than its slim 25kg weight advantage suggests. It favours assertiveness over aggression; its steering is quicker, its pedals more responsive and its front tyres more willing to bite.

That also means it snaps quicker than the Merc, which seems to slide in slow motion. The M5’s engine has sound fed into the cabin, and it’s sharper and higher pitched. The thunderous AMG seems to gargle its own mechanical components in comparison.

Both are staggeringly capable and – importantly – welcoming cars with AWD. The more gifted can switch them to RWD with simple button presses, but their power distribution is so rear-biased as standard that it’s an added bonus rather than a necessity.

Mind you, I ensure they’re both in AWD next morning. We’re driving them back to Britain. I could spend all month on a frozen lake and not stop grinning, but these cars aren’t only for acting an oaf in. They’re for vaporising distances and turning German motorways into the Euro equivalent of Elon Musk’s hyperloop.

There are rather a lot of countries before we get to the pair’s home soil, though, including almost a full day on Sweden’s roads, which aren’t much grippier than its lakes when it’s -20°C. I choose the cars’ middle ESP settings, providing security when what’s left of Bambi’s immediate family clumsily stroll into the road (a startlingly common occurrence), yet some freedom to enjoy the numerous corners and junctions in the 500 kilometres between us and tonight’s destination, an overnight ferry from Oslo.

The BMW remains a touch more serious, and the more cosseting car, while the Merc is a touch more abrupt but willing to have fun. The M5 may be the one piping its sound through the speakers, but it’s the E63S that bombards you with engine noise, even at sedate speeds. It’s the one I can’t help immaturely hoofing out of junctions, V8 rumble soundtracking a quarter-turn of opposite lock. While the pair’s performance and abilities are impossible to split, the attitude they encourage from their driver is starting to diverge.

Even the firmer-riding Merc is making mincemeat of our journey, though. While I’m not hoping for disaster, a roadtrip needs some spirit of adventure, and worryingly little is troubling these cars. Until we leave Swedish back roads and arrive on a Norwegian motorway, that is. There’s clearly been a warm snap (well, it’s 2°C), and as we cross the border and home in on Oslo, the mounds of snow at the side of the motorway are rather quickly and dramatically melting.

Winter tyres that proved invincible on lethally frozen roads are less helpful here. I’ve got my hands full in the BMW M5, and I can see the vexed face of Ollie Kew in the Merc behind me. When we pull into Butikk services, we can barely afford a snigger at the name as we swap pale-faced tales of almost being driven into. Kew points out that messing around on ice must have sharpened up our responses in such dicey conditions. Further validation for the fun we had yesterday…

We wake the next day as the ferry pulls into Frederikshavn. Now, perhaps we’re in the wrong bit, but Denmark is quite a boring country to drive through. Plenty of nice architecture to admire, but little that driving enthusiasts should be cancelling trips to the Alps for. The pent-up need to drive like the clappers as we pass the German border is palpable.

With winter tyres on our cars, there aren’t going to be hell-bent attempts at their top speeds. But that doesn’t mean what happens next isn’t utterly extraordinary. Both cars, from 120km/h and without RSI-inducing downchanges nor a hint of turbo lag, just catapult at the horizon like two tonnes of metal simply shouldn’t. The Mercedes comes with warning stickers telling us not to take its cold-weather rubber past 210km/h, so its driver sits back and watches the M5 carry on to an indicated 280km/h, not far short of its optional 305km/h limiter. With a load of revs still left to go.

With a shedload more torque, I doubt the Merc would have struggled to keep pace, but what the BMW M5 undoubtedly does better is more sedate cruising. At, um, 200km/h. It sits like that for 30 kilometres, straight, rock solid, comfortable and eerily quiet. If the very best sports saloons offer an everyday Dr Jekyll with a fierce Mr Hyde beneath the surface, then this M5 feels unbeatable. Until a set of quirkily shaped headlights appear in the rear-view mirror. Conscious I’m holding up something far quicker and more exotic, I pull into the middle lane. To be overtaken by a Renault Scenic…

The Merc is hardly a track-day special, but its more extrovert character dents its refinement. Its 12.2l/100km trip average also lags the BMW’s 10.6l/100km, despite the Merc regularly deactivating four of its eight cylinders. The power is shifting in the M5’s favour.

The final day sees the home stretch from Hamburg to the UK. Once we’re out of Germany, our need for speed sated, it’s a good chance to settle back into normal cruising speeds and to assess the minor details of these cars. Because they really might decide this.

Inside, the BMW feels techier. Its media system is a step up from the Merc’s and its dials, an analogue/digital hybrid, are nicer to look at. It’s better at corralling your favourite drive mode settings into one button press (well, two, given you can set both M1 and M2 buttons for different moods). But then the E63S’s interior touches are classier, eschewing the M5’s chintzy red detailing for stuff that really matters to enthusiasts: tactile metal paddles, Alcantara at nine and three on the steering wheel and a slim-back sports seat.

I’d always been left a bit cold by the spec wars of these brands. It’s easy to feel bored by their constant power and 0–100km/h battles, when they could be focusing on cutting weight and size. But when M and AMG’s willy waving leads to two extraordinarily talented cars like this, it’s hard to argue. In the 10 years I’ve done this job, I can’t remember a battle this closely fought in any class.

Even after 1,500 kilometres, I’m torn. The M5 is the more rounded, comfy car. It covers all bases with a vast depth of engineering, and might well be the most complete sports saloon ever. To an enthusiast, though, such completeness can be a help and a hindrance. The Merc is less couth, bigger-hearted and encourages its driver to be more playful. Particularly if they’re on a frozen lake. The AMG edges it.

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