Home » Monthly Motor » LUXURY FLAGSHIPS

LUXURY FLAGSHIPS

By Peter Bleakney

  • Jaguar XJL
  • Land Rover Range Rover Supercharged
  • Lexus LS 460 F Sport
  • Mercedes-Benz S – Class
  • Porsche Panamera S

 

Review by Peter Bleakney, Lesley Wimbush, Jacob Black and Jonathan Yarkony

We at Monthly Motor decided that we’d end the year on a high with this article. Call it an early Christmas present for those who love to indulge themselves in the luxury of automobiles. Whenever, these above mentioned mega car brands role out a new model, it’s always a big deal. Most importantly, when Mercedes Benz role out their luxury flagship S-Class, sheiks, tycoons and pretty much everyone else takes notice. We included.

Mercedes was building oversized opulent sedans when those other “youngsters” were still in diapers. Lexus was just a thought. Hence, we really wanted to see if this latest S was going to redefine the segment. The only problem was that both BMW and Audi hadn’t launched their flagships at the point of this test. Luckily for us, as well as those with deep pockets to spend on luxury transportation, there are other choices besides the stalwart Germans.

Representing Japan is the 2014 Lexus LS 460 AWD F Sport, and with an as-tested price of $97,500 it proved to be the most affordable. Its naturally aspirated 4.6L V8 was the only unadulterated lump here – no turbos, superchargers or electrification. The $7,450 F Sport package adds upgraded air suspension, 19-inch wheels, some special trim and body bits.

It’s no secret Lexus has made a good business of building high-quality and highly serene German wannabes, and offering them at a price a couple of rungs down on the ladder. Fresh off a 2013 refresh, could this LS hold its own?

Also recently refreshed was the Porsche Panamera. We know the Panamera to be a true driver’s car, but the way it straddles the sport and luxury worlds plunks it into a pretty specialized niche. And of course, one of the main reasons you buy a Porsche is for its engine. However, as Technical Innovation was one of the ranked categories, we thought we’d take the most advanced Panamera in the line-up, the Hybrid, rather than the more limo-like long-wheelbase Executive model (which, admittedly also would have made a certain amount of conventional sense).

We wondered how a supercharged 3.0L V6 with all that forward-thinking hybrid gear would play into the hands of the rest. The Porsche Panamera S e-Hybrid (a plug-in hybrid no less) with a starting price of $113,300 is surely the oddest version of this already somewhat left-field Porker. The usual litany of Porsche standalone options escalated the bottom line to $125,520. It was the only vehicle in the test not driven by all four wheels.

Rounding off the comparison is a pair of British masterclass – the 2014 Jaguar XJ L 3.0 AWD and 2014 Land Rover Range Rover Supercharged.

Jaguar fortunes have been surging of late, and much of that has to do with Jag offering a supercharged V6 and all-wheel drive (finally) in the mid-size XF and flagship XJ. The 2014 Jag XJ L 3.0 AWD carries a list of $96,490. This tester rang in at $113,440 – the $7,750 Premium Rear Executive Package being the biggest contributor to that figure.

The XJ is now into its sixth model year, yet Ian Callum’s languid lines still quicken the pulse. Similarly, the uniquely sculpted interior (save the infotainment unit and dim digital gauge cluster) is every bit as fresh now as when it bowed. It seems good style never goes out of style.

The Range Rover is quite literally the square peg in the round hole in this group test, but hey, some people like their mobile opulence to ride one story up on the herd, and this Rangie with its spectacular 510-hp 5.0L supercharged V8 and creamy interior is arguably the best expression of that ethos. Besides, you never know when the urge to attack the Rubicon or spend a week in the jungles of Belize might overtake your suburban sensibilities. Go ahead. Twist that Terrain Response knob. Be the first on your block.

The 2014 Range Rover lists at $116,560. A few options (Vision Package, Meridian audio, tow package and 22-inch rolling stock) bumped it to $123,995.

And so we hurried this quintet of quintessential luxury over an urban route of highway, side streets and stop-and-go hell (I heard Jacob’s horn on more than a few occasions) to find out which car delivered best on its promise.

 

Fifth Place: 2014 Lexus LS460 F Sport: By Peter Bleakney

The Lexus might not have the poise, panache or technological sizzle of the other offerings in this contest, but for those seeking a personal luxury conveyance that delivers on every parameter and asks almost nothing in return, their car shopping could happily conclude at a Lexus store.

Think of the LS460 as the ultimate Toyota Camry. And I don’t mean that in a bad sense. It’s serene, user friendly, and as Yarkony noted “stakes its reputation on reliability and value”.

The F Sport seats, while relatively lacking in custom adjustability, fit my frame beautifully, dishing up a superior blend of comfort and reassuring support. Not all in our group felt this way, as they tied with the Range Rover for least comfortable.

The LS in F Sport guise with its “sport-tuned” air suspension and forged 19-inch alloys also shows a masterful blend of ride comfort and body control. While the Porsche and Jaguar telegraph much road surface information, this Lexus glides unperturbed in near silence over almost every surface, and shows surprising agility for such a large car.

Jacob managed to hang its derriere out on a particularly tight access ramp and confessed to actually enjoying the experience.

The 360-hp, 347 lb-ft naturally aspirated 4.6L V8 is also a honey. It doesn’t have the low-end grunt of the pressurized bent-eights found in the Mercedes and Range Rover, but it is hardly wanting, delivering its power in a seamless rush. A smooth eight-speed auto handles the cog-swapping duties. The F Sport gets a “sound generator” that pipes some engine sounds into the cabin under hard acceleration.

Everything from the panel gaps to the feel of the controls shows an obsessive attention to detail. It’s the Lexus experience through-and-through.

Okay, so if it’s so nice, why did it languish here?

Tough competition, for one. Additionally, we all found the LS460 completely sterile and, despite a significant refresh last year, somewhat dated.

Other than the giant spindle grill, the rest of the sedan’s styling is largely forgettable, showing a few too many cues lifted from the Bangle-era BMWs.

And the interior, while beautifully executed, lacks a cohesive design. It seems overly fussy, with too many architectural elements. The biggest failing here is the imprecise joystick control for the infotainment system. Designed to mimic a computer mouse, it sends the icon flying willy-nilly around the 12.3-inch screen whose graphics seem to be a generation behind. Of course, after experiencing the Mercedes S550, all graphics seem a generation behind.

The Lexus also scored worst for fuel economy in our largely urban test, which was a surprise as Toyota vehicles usually fare well in this department. One could argue that anyone spending 100 large on a luxury car is not overly concerned with fuel bills, which is why this was a minimal factor in our scoring.

One could also argue that trying to find personality and excitement within the perfectly painted flanks of Lexus’ flagship sedan is near impossible. It’s just not going to happen. Lexus has built the king of all Camrys, and if that’s where your tastes lie, the LS460 F Sport delivers.

Pricing: 2014 Lexus LS460 F Sport

Base Price (base trim): $84,650

Base Price (tested trim): $87,950

Options: F SPORT Package (Electric power steering with variable gear ratio steering, three-spoke F SPORT steering wheel, front and rear adaptive variable suspension (AVS) with TEMS, sport tuned suspension, air suspension, 19-inch forged aluminium 10-spoke wheels, blind spot monitor system, rear cross traffic alert, full skirt package, F SPORT front grille, leather wrapped steering wheel, aluminium accents, F SPORT shift knob, F SPORT scuff plates – $7,450

A/C Tax: $100

Freight and PDI: $1,995

Price as Tested: $97,495

 

Fourth place: 2014 Porsche Panamera S e-Hybrid: By Jonathan Yarkony

While fourth place in an Autos.ca comparison isn’t going to make it into any trophy cases at Porsche headquarters, this comparison was redemption of sorts for the Panamera.

While certainly competent in its own right, the Panamera shares a showroom with the 911, Boxster and Cayman. Pretty much anything would look porky and feel cumbersome next to that trio.

But in this company, the Panamera was the undisputed sports car, in looks and in operation. Long, low and wide, with the signature round Porsche headlights and hood attracting long, lingering looks from kids in school buses, pedestrians and other drivers. Yes, this car still has that Porsche Magic. But walk around and catch a glimpse of that bulging hatchback that pretty much ruins the profile and any angle from which you can see it and the Panamera leaves something to be desired design-wise – it dropped down to last place for styling.

Inside is the now-ubiquitous Porsche interior: a high ramp console leading right into the centre stack, festooned with buttons and switches and a medium-sized screen for nav and vehicle functions. It just doesn’t hold a candle to the opulent S-Class, or even the minimalist design masterpiece of the Range Rover, but at least it was better loved than the dull LS, though it ranked outright poorest for quality of materials and finish with its heavy reliance on plastic.

Despite low scores on quality and appearance, the controls do make sense, climbing to second for usability and ergonomics for the way controls envelop you in this cockpit design. Although the Porsche took a hit for its technology interface, one quickly finds it second nature to flick the temperature switch up or move ahead a track on your iPod. The gauges are divided into five circular binnacles, and it is a uniquely Porsche-y look that isn’t spectacularly functional, though it works well enough. Again, compared to the S-Class’s massive twin screens, it’s quaintly old school.

Considering the Panamera had easily the smallest interior, it ranked respectably for seating comfort in both rows with deeply bolstered sport seats that hug you tight and afford you the security to explore the chassis capability. However, only the climb up into the Range Rover was more difficult than the drop into the Panamera seats.

But as mentioned in the introduction, we wanted to see how the technological sophisitication of this advanced hybrid drivetrain would stack up compared to more conventional powertrains from the traditional luxury car brands. It lived up to the consumption expectations, scoring a 10.1 L/100 km on test day (which included a gas-free commute using EV mode), and its EPA 9.4 combined rating was also at least 3 L/100 km better than the next best.

The combination of electric motor torque (95 hp/229 lb-ft) and turbocharged V6 power (333 hp/325 lb-ft) has the goods, but Peter was not convinced: “If I’m buying a Porsche, I want a real engine. I appreciate the technology, but the muted Audi V6 and uneven power delivery tank this one for me.” Spending more time through the week, commuting on grid power left me with a different impression (love the electric motor, it’s a gem), and the metallic tang of its V6 had a certain agrarian Porsche charm.

Of course, its poised handling and superb steering and braking feel were loved by all (right at the top on both counts) – also helping it claim the driving enjoyment prize – though that came at the expense of comfort and NVH (rattles in the dash? Sorry Porsche, not impressed), where it ranked dead last. It also trailed the pack on key attributes like features and amenities (all the technology seemingly packed into the drivetrain), stereo quality and simple conveniences like cabin storage and practicality (only two seats in the rear and rather disappointing storage space for a hatchback). Visibility was also lagging, the thick rear pillars and severely angled back-up camera making this one of the most difficult to park.

But Porsche captures the imagination as a driver’s car, and it was indeed a joy to drive, living up that brand cachet (almost matching the Mercedes here), even if the Panamera name has yet to reach critical mass. As I said earlier, it may not have claimed top prize or even a podium finish, it was a redemption of sorts in my eyes and Jacob’s: “I was underwhelmed by the 4S, but in RWD, hybrid form the Panamera is actually incredibly interesting. It handles beautifully, it supplies excellent feedback, it is interesting and engaging. I can’t tell if it’s the hybrid powertrain or RWD that bring this car to life, but this car is far better than the non-hybrid.”

And it gets better. If looking for pure engagement, the naturally aspirated V8 GTS is the ticket, or if you want speed, the Turbo models are available, though at a severe price leap ($161K for Turbo, $184K for Turbo Exec, and $200K+ of anything with a Turbo S badge). I still assert that the Panamera S e-Hybrid is a captivating mix of efficiency, technology, power and handling that represent the brand well, but like the Range Rover, it resides on the fringes of this luxury flagship segment.

 

Pricing: 2014 Porsche Panamera S e-Hybrid

Base Price (base trim): $89,500

Base Price (tested trim): $113,300

Options: Agate grey metallic paint – $910, 19-inch Panamera Design 2 wheels – $2,230, front seat ventilation – $960, LED headlights incl Porsche Dynamic Light System Plus – $2,440, Sport Chrono package – $930, BOSE Audio Package – $2,420, Premium Package – $2,330

A/C Tax: $100

Freight and PDI: $1,115

Price as Tested: $126,735

 

Third Place: 2014 Land Rover Range Rover Supercharged: By Lesley Wimbush

For more than half a century, Land Rover has had a legacy of building some of the toughest, go-anywhere off-roaders on earth. The darling of British Royals and land-owning aristocracy, Land Rover was adopted by the uptown set when it introduced the Range Rover in 1970 – a status symbol for the wealthy and powerful.

It still retains the squared-off, military presence of its ancestors, but the Range Rover’s bejewelled headlights and tastefully executed trim lend sophistication to the boxy outline.

Obviously, its looks found favour with our testers, as the Range Rover came second only to the Jaguar XJ in design. Even more importantly – the Range Rover’s aluminium sheet metal is 40 percent lighter than steel – a substantial weight-saving that pays off in increased speed and fuel-efficiency.

The square theme carries over to the Range Rover’s cabin, with slabs of high-quality material, flat planes and thick, dark leather. The centre stack and console are chunky and solid, trimmed with gleaming piano black and aluminium and feature straightforward circular knobs that have a satisfying detente between clicks. The simple ergonomics earned the Range Rover top marks for usability, only slightly behind the S-Class. Gauges are crisp and nicely rendered but the infotainment screen is fairly small. Audiophiles will appreciate the 19-speaker Meridian sound system – if that’s not enough, there’s a 29-speaker Signature Reference version available for the truly aurally fixated.

While leather upholstery is of the high quality expected in this premium marque – seating could have been more comfortable. Seat bottoms are flat with little bolstering and a bit long for the short-legged. Yarkony sampled the seat upgrades on another occasion, and with deep cushioning and the desirable massage function, he claims they were the equal of the S-Class thrones. Rear seating too, scored at the very bottom with the least amount of room. The Range Rover’s high stance earned it the lowest marks for entry and exit since the more vertically challenged of our group found it difficult to clamber in and out of.

However, the Range Rover earns back those marks by sweeping the categories of cabin storage, practicality and cargo space. Seriously – this hauler features power folding rear seats – does carting your Yorkville shopping spree get any better than this?

It also scored top marks for visibility with its upright seating and vast expanses of glass. Side mirrors are fantastic – as large as elephant ears, they provide clear view of other lanes and giving the Range Rover the best sightlines of the bunch.

Under the Range Rover’s blunt bonnet is a 510-hp supercharged V8, making it the undisputed powertrain champion of the group. Power is delivered almost immediately thanks to its 461 lb-ft of torque – propelling this 2,300 kg beast to 100 km/hr in only 5.4 seconds. That stupendous power does come at a price though it ranked lowest in terms of fuel economy, sucking back 15.7 L/100 km on the day, and with the highest EPA rating.

While the Range Rover bested both the Panamera and Lexus LS 460 for “ease of driving” it scored lowest in handling. It’s a fabulous performer for a true utility vehicle, but with a high centre of gravity and boxy cumbersome shape, it’s no match in the curves for the streamlined Panamera with its Porsche sports car DNA.

Not only did it stand out like Arnold Schwarzenegger at Kennebunkport, comparing it to these uber-luxurious cruisers highlights its shortcomings while completely overlooking its incredible prowess off road. Had the driving routes veered off the pavement, the Range Rover would have put them all to shame with its adaptable air suspension and surreal ability to twist and climb over ruts and boulders with ease.

Surprisingly, while everyone professed to love the boxy Brit – and seemed thrilled enough planting the loud pedal every chance they got – the Range Rover also trailed the pack for driving enjoyment.

And yet the Range Rover scored second only to the S-Class in cachet. Its long association with blue-blooded royalty has given it a gleaming aura of desirability that has barely diminished over the decades. I have to admit that I disagreed with the Range Rover’s inclusion in this group, but its solid results and admiration of the testers speak to its breadth of capability and desirability.

Unfortunately, barely a fraction of those well-heeled buyers who shell out $124,000 for this stupendous of all off-roaders will ever have a clue what it’s really capable of, nor was it a factor in this test.

Pricing: 2014 Land Rover Range Rover

Base Price (base trim): $98,890

Base Price (tested trim): $114,990

Options: 825w Meridian premium sound system – $1,850, wood/leather steering wheel – $425, vision assist package – $1,760, Rover tow pack – $1,300, 22-inch five split spoke wheels – $2,100

A/C Tax: $100

Freight and PDI: $1,470

Price as Tested: $123,995

 

Second Place: 2014 Jaguar XJ L: By Jacob Black

There is no car in this test that has the visceral, emotional, or physical impact on me that the Jaguar has – and I wasn’t alone. The big cat is more lioness than jaguar, packing raw, naked aggression into a lithe, elegant body. I looked at that car the same way I look at my wife – and I wish I was joking.

So it wasn’t a surprise that the Jaguar took out the victory in exterior styling. The looks are matched by a responsive, positive chassis that tracks beautifully, turns with precision and communicates with total clarity. Those virtues earned the Jaguar its other two wins – outright in the handling category and tied with the Porsche for driving enjoyment.

Surprisingly for a car that placed second, those were the Jag’s only victories. Only the poor Lexus scored fewer wins (none), while the Porsche Panamera and Land Rover Range Rover scored four apiece. Those two had something the XJ didn’t have though – red boxes.   the Panamera and Range Rover racked up nine and seven category losses respectively, the XJ had none. Zilch, nada. There was no category where it was the loser, and in fact it was either second or third in just about every category.

The 3.0L supercharged V6 fitted to our tester is a growling, angry little engine with an impressive 340 hp and 332 lb-ft of torque, but at 1,883 kg (lightest in test) it can feel a little dull. The 5.0L supercharged V8 with 470 hp and 424 lb-ft of torque might elevate this rig to the next level. Jonathan Yarkony had a valid counterpoint about the Jag’s drivetrain, noting that it’s “an efficient engine that still delivers the appropriate kick.”

Inside, the massaging seats copped high praise from Lesley Wimbush who panted, “Mother of God, I love the Jaguar’s massage!” It was also one of the best equipped in the rear with a plethora of controls for those in the back to control their own destiny. In the back you’ll find everything from power-adjustable seats, video screens and separate rear controls for automatic climate control, sunroof and power window shades.

As a driver, the Jaguar is engaging, enthralling, captivating even. As a chauffeured big-shot, it is luxurious, impactful and alluring. As an all-rounder, the Jag is a stunner, a dream, a revelation even.

As Jonathan said, “the Jaguar is an excellent mix of old-world quality sculpted into modern design.”

The great pity of it was that the Mercedes-Benz S 550 was just so much better.

Pricing: 2014 Jaguar XJ L

Base Price (base trim): $96,490

Base Price (tested trim): $96,490

Options: Premium Rear Executive Package – $7,750, Visibility Package – $850, Meridian surround sound system (825W) – $2,500, 20-inch Kasuga wheels – $3,500, heated front windscreen – $300, electric rear window blind – $700.

A/C Tax: $100

Freight and PDI: $1,350

Price as Tested: $113,540

 

First Place: 2014 Mercedes-Benz S 550: By Lesley Wimbush

The flagship of this most respectable of all German marques, the S-Class is traditionally the showcase for debuting Mercedes-Benz technology.

But the newest incarnation of the big stately cruiser takes high tech to a whole new level.

Aside from being an uber-luxurious cocoon protected by a force field of all the latest safety systems, the S-Class brings us one step closer to semi-autonomous driving.

Unlike the Panamera or the Jaguar, the eye isn’t immediately drawn to the S-Class, but once it is, the impression is lasting. Stealthy in black, with a dearth of any superfluous embellishment, the S-Class cuts an almost sinister appearance. It’s the sort of transport you’d expect foreign heads of state or Bay Street investment bankers to adopt.

In this snack bracket, buyers expect a lot of pampering as a matter of due course. The big Benz’s cabin is meticulously crafted, luxuriously appointed, yet eminently tasteful – aside from the scented atomizer, which is not only a bit ridiculous but hell on allergy sufferers. More subtle details include lovely wood trim and speaker covers in filigreed metal.

Seat comfort is first-rate – deeply cushioned yet supportive, with a downy suede headrest. While the S-Class does offer seat massage (of course it does), it’s a little tentative – the vigorous thrashing of the Jaguar XJ was much more to my taste. While most of the group carried four people in serene comfort, the S-Class scored highest marks for ease of entry thanks to voluminous door openings and headroom. Reclining rear seats with airbag-equipped belts are another nice touch helping the Benz score top points in amenities and features. Of course it doesn’t offer the cargo capacity nor the flexibility of the Range Rover but overall was the most comfortable for executives packed into the rear seats.

On the road, the S-Class is a luxury liner with the gravitas of a German U-boat. Ride and handling are superb, no distasteful outside disturbances enter into this cabin. While Canadian models aren’t blessed with Mercedes’ “Magic Ride” – the electronically controlled damping that renders road imperfections non-existent – they do come with the “Distronic Plus” semi-autonomous technology that enables the S-Class to virtually drive itself. Radar and camera-based technology senses obstacles, pedestrians, and lane-markings to the extent that the car will brake and accelerate to keep pace with congested traffic, steer itself – though not intended to be entirely hands-free, it can keep you between the lines for up to 30 seconds even around gentle turns, and brake to avoid pedestrians.

Although the camera lens protruding from the grille is more than a bit disturbing (did I make the comparison to a German U-boat already?), its battery of technology scored the Benz top marks for ease of parking. The Lexus LS 460 Intelligent Parking Assist (IPAS) gives it the ability to virtually park itself – but it’s a fiddly process and evidently one that nobody had the time to master during our test runs since it placed squarely at the bottom. The S-Class was the undisputed winner in terms of technological innovation, with the Lexus bringing up the rear.

Power delivery from the 449-hp 4.7L twin-turbo V8 is smooth and seamless, although it lacks the astounding force of the Range Rover. Handling, is as expected, engineered for comfort and while beautifully composed, isn’t as athletic as either the Jaguar XJ or the Porsche Panamera.

The S-Class is a large car and fuel economy was ranked mid-pack at 14.2 L/100 km over a day’s testing, with an EPA combined rating of 12.4 L/100 km. Surprisingly, the Lexus was the highest consumer at 15.9, the Porsche the most frugal with 10.1 L/100 km.

There’s no denying that status is of the utmost importance at this level of automotive luxury. Again, the S-Class swept top marks for brand and nameplate cachet, with the Jaguar and Porsche not far behind. But that status comes at a premium: the Benz, at $143,000, was $30,000 more than the Jaguar, and almost $50,000 over the Lexus.

But since the S-Class came up our overall winner, clearly, you get what you pay for.

Pricing: 2014 Mercedes-Benz S 550 4MATIC

Base Price (base trim): $108,200

Base Price (tested trim): $115,200

Options: AMG Sport Package – $5,900, Advanced Driving Assistance – $2,700, Premium Package – $6,700, Premium Rear Seating Package – $5,700, Premium Seating Package – $4,900

A/C Tax: $100

Freight and PDI: $2,075

Price as Tested: $143,275