It’s Germany vs Japan as four executive saloon giants go head-to-head in a Tarmac battle spanning some 694km through sinewy mountain roads, rural towns, dead-straight highways and an altitude rise of nearly 1600m. The new Mercedes-Benz C-Class is finally here and hopes to usurp the BMW 3 Series reign as segment king but that’s only if the all-new Honda Accord and Lexus IS350 F-Sport don’t have anything to say about it
I don’t remember winter ever being this cold but perhaps that’s because normal people don’t leave the warmth of their beds at 3am to go on a road trip. Anyway, the temperature gauge on the BMW 320i I’m driving is currently registering a frosty 8 degrees but the area we’re heading for is cold enough to sustain a Yeti family in relative comfort. Yep, we’re headed to the coldest settlement in South Africa, Sutherland. It’s been snowing in the small town all week with the mercury having plummeted to -14 deg C overnight so we’re in for a pretty interesting (read properly cold) experience. Right now however, I’m headed to our habitual rendezvous point at the Engen 1-Stop located on the N1 just outside Paarl. I’m first to arrive in the Estoril blue BMW 320i but it’s so ubiquitous nowadays that it doesn’t even garner as much as a glance from the petrol attendants. It might be two years old but the 3 Series still looks modern, the understated styling cues complemented here by the optional M Sport package which adds a compendium of badges, a sculpted body kit and 19-inch wheels. After just a few kays behind the wheel it’s easy to ascertain why it’s the current reigning champion it’s so refined and well-rounded that you immediately feel at one with the driving process.Moments later Hailey appears, driving the elegantly styled Mercedes-Benz C200. Kitted out in AMG regalia and painted in Iridium silver it’s a real looker but whether or not it’s got the credentials to win this group test we’ll soon find out. The Lexus IS350 F-Sport and Honda Accord 3.5 V6 are next to arrive driven by Ray and Wayne, respectively. Packing two cylinders more apiece, these two Japanese juggernauts should have this comparison licked, at least from a performance perspective, but it’s not about what it says on the tech sheets, it’s about how well they play the executive sporting saloon game. Granted, the all-new Accord is probably better matched to cars such as the VW Passat, Hyundai Sonata, Kia Optima and Lexus ES, but we’ve always referred to it as the executive’s alternative to 3 Series and C-Class so we’re keen to see how the move from Euro Accord to a more comfort-orientated American-spec model has affected its ability to compete at this level if at all. Although BMW’s six-pot models have been de-fleeted and Mercedes is yet to launch larger-engined models, the 320i and C200 pictured here both feature force-fed 2.0-litre powerplants which will come into play once we head into the clouds.
After a brief chat about our game plan we move off into the darkness of the N1. While we’ve pretty much got the entire highway to ourselves we’re careful not to let eager right feet get the better of us. Fuel efficiency is very much the order of the day well, for now at least. I’m following the white Honda Accord driven by Wayne who’s doing a sterling job of marshaling a steady pace up front. I must admit while it does look a lot different to the previous-generation Accord it still manages to project a stately appearance, reinforced by the shiny 3.5 V6 badge stuck on the back. Honda SA has made a conscious decision not to chase the 3 Series buyer this time round with the new, US-spec Accord set to target a more comfort-orientated audience. As a consequence the increased dimensions and switch from double wishbone to conventional MacPherson strut front suspension will no doubt hinder its ability to conquer the squiggly stuff but right now the big 3.5-litre V6 is making a wonderful noise reverberating off the concrete walls of the Huguenot tunnel. I reply by dropping three gears but the BMW 320i sounds muted in comparison a solitary turbocharger whistling eagerly in the background adding some credence to an otherwise unobtrusive soundtrack. With 135kW and 270Nm on tap the BMW goes a lot better than it sounds and the mountain-flanked sweeping corners leading into Worcester allow me to get to know its dynamic character and performance credentials more intimately. It certainly feels quick but more importantly, the communication from the front wheels and feedback from the helm, borders on telepathic. It’s brilliant especially the manner at which you can carve through apices with confidence and speed.As we make our way through the rural settlement of De Doorns a previous-gen W204 Mercedes-Benz C-Class passes our cavalcade. While it still looks contemporary the new model has unequivocally ramped up the opulence both in visual clout and interior gadgetry and comfort. Along with the Lexus it’s got the most engaging appearance here, no question. Clad in the AMG Sports Exterior package it features an 18-inch AMG-embossed wheel at each corner and a truculent-looking front/rear bumper arrangement. It’s time to find out if it drives as well as it looks.
The sweeping turns of the Hex River Pass signify the first real hike in altitude and after just one kilometer the temperature dives into negative figures for the first time, an icy -2 deg C. Brrrrr! Life behind the wheel of the new C is interesting as it feels more upmarket than the minimalist 3 Series. The beautifully crafted cabin will have you admiring its every crease, fold and sweeping curve. It’s close to perfection, amplified here by a host of optional extras comprised by the AMG interior package that adds items such as a leather-stitched dashboard cowling and a litany of soft-touch surfaces, metallic accents and gloss-black fillets of trim. The iPad-like central display screen dominates proceedings up front and is very intuitive and easy to use. More impressive are the LED high-performance headlamps that make easy work of illuminating the poorly lit mountain road ahead. I’m sure Ray must feel like he’s about to be abducted and probed by little green men such are the headlight’s propensity to dance up and down, and mask out approaching vehicles so as not to blind oncoming traffic. It’s a theatrical performance bar none. Compared to the BMW the C-Class doesn’t relay as much detail through its underpinnings as you’d expect but you’re still able to stitch corners together with relative ease thanks to the tunable five-mode Airmatic Agility package and super-quick, variable ratio steering. Perhaps a downside of the excellent road and wind noise suppression is that, under low-rev load, the 135kW/300Nm 2.0-litre turbo engine sounds a bit like a refined diesel than a four-cylinder petrol, which is a little disappointing considering how good the car’s faired up until now.Our sedan convoy soon reaches the one-horse town of Matjiesfontein situated in the Klein Karoo roughly 110km from our final destination. Lensman Peet eyes this location for a possible photo opportunity but there’s nothing here but sleeping tourists and rowdy crickets so we push on to Sutherland via the R354. This is one of the best driving roads in South Africa offering an excellent surface to go with a meld of straight and twisty segments. After 80km it morphs into the Verlatenkloof Pass which meanders and dances up the Roggeveld Mountains for 1 000 metres before aggressively carving through the escarpment like a river of tar. After spending a good few hundred kays behind the wheel of the BM and Merc I use the next pit stop to get acquainted with the two Oriental offerings. First up is the Lexus IS350 F-Sport. Compared to the generic styling cues of the Honda Accord the Lexus appears bold and daring with its origami-like body armour. Its radical appearance isn’t to everyone’s taste but the stylised spindle grille and angular LED DRL strips that underline the main clusters make it the most uniquely styled vehicle here. While the busier, layered Lexus interior just loses out to the C-Class in terms of visual appeal it remains a superb place to spend time. The cabin also features contrasting ox-blood leather upholstery and LFA-inspired LCD instrumentation. It’s a classy package. The experience however, is not without fault and like the Honda Accord; the biggest foible comes in the form of the counter-intuitive infotainment system not to mention the fidgety mouse controller. That’s all forgotten however, once you fire up the engine¦ With over 8000km on the clock it’s fair to say that the Lexus has been run-in. The big 3.5-litre V6 mill makes for an astonishing soundtrack, rasping emphatically before morphing into a bassy roar as all 228kW come into play at 6400rpm. Tested at sea level the Lexus managed to go from 0-100kph in 6.65-seconds, while the Accord, C200 and 3 Series registered runs of 7.01, 7.85 and 7.95secs respectively. Up here however, these figures seem somewhat redundant as I’m struggling to keep up with the two Germans in the straights owing to the kryptonite-like effect of the thin air. While traction isn’t ideal each car is sticking well to the damp bitumen and the perilous notion of ice is a constant reminder not to overdo things in the gentle sweeps that direct us through the Northern Cape border. The Honda is the only front-wheel drive car in this quartet but that doesn’t mean it’s not able to corner with any sense of conviction. I’m watching the Accord in my rear-view mirror and while it appears to be tracking clean lines through the twisties it isn’t able to enter corners with as much confidence and speed as its rear-drive adversaries. There also seems to be a lot more roll a sensation I’m soon to discover myself.
The Verlatenkloof Pass looms in the distance and after just one corner the first sighting of snow appears on the slopes of the surrounding mountains, building in texture and luminosity the higher we go. It looks surreal, especially in this setting and it’s not long before we pull over for some more pictures. How Peet hasn’t frozen stiff while snapping away in these conditions I don’t know but after finishing up the final shots and braving the -6 deg C air it’s time to replenish both humans and machines in Sutherland before heading home. Thank goodness for the Accord’s seat warmers! In V6 spec it’s packed to the rafters with modcons that include such items as auto-levelling LED headlights, realtime left blind spot footage, radar-based adaptive cruise control, self-steer lane-keeping assistance and collision mitigation (inclusive in the asking price). The build quality is decent and the spacious cabin is inoffensively styled with a good mix of leather upholstery and soft-touch trim. It really scores high on comfort and convenience. However, look beyond the big V6 engine and technology, and it’s clear that it is comparatively short on dynamic finesse. The steering lacks the precision and feel of the other three and the chassis fails to communicate as clearly what’s happening underfoot. It’s a step back from the sharper-edged and more dynamically responsive Accord I drove as a long termer for a year¦Around the lunch table it’s immediately evident which car is least popular with the team. I feel for the Honda Accord because there’s nothing overtly amiss with its credentials but I’m afraid in this company and in this context, it is the least happy on a twisty road. Besides that, both inside and out, its styling is unadventurous it’s simply not as desirable as its smaller, sportier price-rivals. That said, at R549 000 the V6 Accord represents outstanding value for money considering the safety features, interior space and clever kit it offers as standard.And what of the R588 600 Lexus IS350 F-Sport? Well, it certainly has a stonker of an engine. It sounds sensational, too, and coaxes the driver to push on, but the overly light, somewhat disconnected steering means it doesn’t quite flow through corners as rewardingly as you’d like. This erodes confidence, and doesn’t allow you to fully exploit what has in lowered, harder F-Sport suspension guise all the makings of a fine chassis. However, the cabin is lush and elegant and its unmistakable outer appearance turned as many heads as the Merc.
That leaves the two Germans. Even with much smaller-capacity engines both cars managed to hold their own against the V6 onslaught, the BMW impressing most with its quick-shifting eight-speed auto transmission. Up at altitude it managed to stay with both the Lexus IS350 and V6 Accord which goes to show one of the many benefits of forced induction. The Merc C200 is by far the best C-Class we’ve ever sampled. Not only has it got the most fuel-efficient engine here (it never sipped more than 7.8l/100km during the entire trip) it looks like a junior S-Class and has without a doubt the best cabin of all. Our test unit however, was packed with nearly R186 000 worth of optional extras taking its total price to a lofty R623 118. Even though the BMW 320i’s option list tallies close to R126 000, most of the extras (bar the M Sports suspension) comprised mainly cosmetic addenda. That said at R536 000 it is still the cheapest car here.It’s a close contest. What it all distills down to is this; if driving a car in this segment is more about how much it elevates your status than how much it heightens your senses, if it’s more about the badge, the visuals, the perceived luxury those feel-good intangibles, then the Merc is without peer. That’s not to call the C-Class driving experience blunt by any means this is an extraordinary car. However, the fact remains that even in base trim the 3 Series is the best, purest and most precise driving tool here. You simply connect with it immediately and more closely. That overall build quality, ride comfort and mechanical refinement is a match for the Mercedes is the clincher. The 3 Series is still the sports sedan king.