The race for Autobahn power: Rise of the German luxury super saloon

The 2000’s was a decade where German carmakers had one shared objective in mind. It became known as a race for the fastest 5-seater car on the planet.

BMW M5, Audi RS6 and Mercedes E-Class AMG. If you haven’t heard of those terms, you’ve probably been living under a rock for at least the last 15 years. The fierce rivalries between BMW, Mercedes and Audi throughout the 2000’s brought high-performance cars that still today, outclass and outperform most on the road. These early-modern luxury super saloons were so over-engineered, they featured technology that only now mainstream manufacturers have started adapting.

Let’s go back to just before the turn of the millennium and start the journey for the Autobahn crown.

1998 – Mercedes-Benz E55 AMG (W210)

Often overshadowed by the mighty to-be-released E39 M5, the W210 E55 AMG has over the years become the forgotten E-Class AMG. Although regarded as the ugliest looking generation of E-Class, the W210 E55 was a car that performed well for its time, with no sacrifices in the reliability department. Power came from a 5.4L naturally aspirated engine which produced 260kW at 5550rpm, and 530Nm at 3150rpm, which paired to a 5-speed automatic meant a 0-100km/h figure of 5.4 seconds. Compare that to the at-the-time rivalling E34 M5, this new E-Class AMG made 28kW more power, and a monstrous 170Nm more torque, and was nearly a second quicker to 100km/h.

Unfortunately for Mercedes, the W210 E55 entered the market a little too late to rival the E34 M5 as later in the year, BMW was to release a new monster which would prove to be an enormous step up from the current generation of luxury super saloons.

1998 – BMW M5 (E39)

Often dubbed as one of the greatest cars BMW’s M divison has ever made, the release of the E39 M5 was a big hit among car enthusiasts and rich businessmen alike. Powered the M division’s first ever production V8, this 4.9L naturally aspirated engine; codenamed the S62, produced a very healthy 294kW of power at 6600rpm, and 500Nm of torque at 3800rpm. With the new VANOS variable valve timing technology and a six-speed manual transmission, this car could hit 100km/h from standstill in a blistering 5.1 seconds, making it much faster and much more powerful than the Mercedes rival that came only months prior.

The E39 M5 became so popular, it managed to outsell both the previous E28 and E34 M5’s combined. Due to it’s chassis design and construction, this new generation of super-saloon could outhandle cars much smaller and lighter, and would feel like a sports car doing so; it was this sense of refinement that made the E39 M5 such a desirable car. After a few years in production, Car & Driver Magazine dubbed it ‘the most desirable sedan in the world’, and to this day, it’s still known to many enthusiasts as the best M5 ever made; and we can see why.

2002 – Audi RS 6 (C5)

Although not as competitive as BMW and Mercedes in the large powerhouse saloon department, Audi had previous experience with cars such as the Audi V8 and newly released S6. Both these cars however, neither quite ever competed with the M5 and E-Class AMG.

A leap and a bound behind in the segment, a surprise from Audi came in 2002. They had finally decided to reach for stars by taking their already-powerful S6, adding forced induction and sticking an R in front of the name. Natural aspiration was old news, this was Audi’s new RS6.

Powered by a monstrous 4.2L 40 valve ‘biturbo’ V8, this weapon produced an incredible 331kW of power and 580Nm of torque, which through a ZF 5-speed automatic and power to all four wheels, rocketed the spaceship from 0-100km/h in just 4.6 seconds. Twin-turbochargers meant an incredibly wide power band, and peak torque could be reached anywhere between 1,950rpm and 5,600rpm.

The C5 RS6 was a wake-up call for BMW and Mercedes-Benz, and it proved that Audi was more than capable of producing a car that could hold it’s own against the fastest luxury sedans on the planet.

2003 – Mercedes-Benz E55 AMG (W211)

After BMW’s success with the M5 and Audi’s success with the RS 6, Mercedes-Benz decided it was time to replace the old W210 E55 AMG as it was trailing too far behind in performance for their liking. The 5.4L V8 in the previous E55 however was still relatively new and Mercedes didn’t want to give up on it yet, so rather than creating an entire new engine, why not just do what Audi did and add forced induction?

In 2003, came the new king of the pack. Along with the new look, Mercedes packed the W211 E55 with a strengthened version of the W210’s M5.4L V8 and of course, added forced induction in the form of a Lysholm Teflon Coated Twin-Screw Supercharger manufactured by IHI, and given the trademarked ‘Kompressor’ name; German for compressor.

The new ‘M113 ML55’ V8 Kompressor engine won the ‘International Performance Engine of the Year’ award, for its monstrous performance. 350kW of power and an incredible 700Nm of torque, feeding through a five-speed automatic meant a factory claimed 0-100km/h figure of 4.7 seconds, although many inital tests managed to exceed that claim, some managing a mere 4.1 seconds. Though the claimed 0-100km/h figure fell behind the RS6’s twin-turbo monster, once it gained traction off the initial launch, it would pull away from the RS6 every time.

Although critisized for handling that isn’t even remotely worth speaking about as well as a still rather questionable front-end design, the W211 E55 Kompressor AMG was an engineering marvel, with enough straight-line acceleration to draw any conversation out the window from any speed.

2005 – BMW M5 (E60)

The E39 M5 although still a great car, it was a few years old now and BMW needed a replacement for it; so where better to get inspiration from than Formula One?

The first ever sedan with this type of engine, the new E60 M5 featured a 5.0L petrol ‘S85’ V10, mated to a seven-speed ‘SMG III’ single-clutch semi-automatic. Rather than the usual power/torque balance, BMW decided to give the S85 engine an unusually high-power bias, resulting in a much lower torque figure, and this made it an incredibly fun but unreliable engine. 373kW of power was developed at an incredible 7750rpm, and 520Nm of torque was developed at 6100rpm. This resulted in a factory claimed 0-100km/h sprint in 4.7 seconds, though much like the E55, many tests proved that it was capable of much quicker times, with quickest tests citing figures of just 4.1 seconds.

Unlike the E55’s traditional V8 and torque converter combination, the new M5 was just as powerful, while being a whole lot more fun to drive. A V10 and a redline of 8400rpm produced a sound that can’t matched by any other car on this list, and paired with the single-clutch gearbox, the E60 M5 was always ready for a backroad, and as Jeremy Clarkson described, “it goes, and it feels, and it sounds like a Ferrari 430… The driving experience just dominates everything”. This is arguably the most enjoyable car on the list, however it is also undoubtably the most unreliable.

2007 – Mercedes-Benz E63 AMG (W211)

Its 2007. Five-speed automatics are getting a bit dated. The 5.4L V8 though still a gem, it’s getting quite old now. Compared to the wild V10 SMG M5, Mercedes-Benz is starting to lose their technological lead against BMW in the luxury part of the race. Though just as fast as the M5, the gearbox shifting is much slower and the technology is starting to show it’s age, resulting in a more bland drive overall.

Out goes the supercharged V8, in comes one of Mercedes-AMG’s to-be most iconic modern car engines, the M156. The E63 was the second AMG car to recieve the new engine after the 2007 CLK63, and it was an engine which caused controversy among Mercedes enthusiasts at first, as it seemed like AMG had taken a step backwards by removing the supercharger. Being the first-ever fully-AMG developed engine, the new engine featured a completely new design, producing more power than the previous supercharged block. Reviving a historical nameplate, this was the new 6.3.

The ‘M156’ 6.2L naturally aspirated V8 produced a hefty 378kW and 630Nm, meaning 0-100km/h could be achieved in 4.5 seconds, thanks in-part to a new seven-speed gearbox, which couldn’t have been put in the supercharged E55, as the tremendous 700Nm of torque exceeded the torque rating for the seven-speed. Reliability concerns however for the early M156 engines have seen values of E63’s occasionaly dip under E55 values. Ultimately, the W211 chassis was more well suited to the 5.4L supercharged engine, and the 6.2L V8 just wasn’t quite ready yet. Although still a great car, the first iteration of the E63 AMG unfortunately didn’t get too well regarded, as many enthusiasts still prefered the E55 Kompressor.

2008 – Audi RS 6 (C6)

Audi’s breakthrough-biturbo V8 was starting to feel a bit dated in 2008. Mercedes and BMW both now had normally aspirated engines making more power than Audi’s old twin-turbocharged lump, so how could Audi surpass the competition this time?

Well a few years back, VAG Group owned firm, Lamborghini introduced an entry-level engine for a new model (Well when we say entry level, we mean rather than a monstrous V12). This new engine was fitted to the new Lamborghini Gallardo, and featured an incredible sounding even-firing 5.0L V10, so Audi decided to get inspiration from this new entry level Lamborghini for their next entry in the super-saloon race.

The new RS 6 on paper was deadly.

An even-firing 5.0L twin-turbocharged V10, with a ludicrous 426kW of power, this new RS 6 produced around 50kW more power than both the E63 AMG and BMW’s V10 powered M5. With absurd power figures and torque recorded at a 650Nm, this made the V10 TFSI the single most powerful Audi engine ever made. Mated to a inferior ZF 6-speed automatic gearbox and driven through Audi’s trademarked Quattro system, the RS6 managed a factory claimed 0-100km/h figure of 4.6 seconds. Although this figure seems slower than both it’s rivals, who could ignore the fact that Audi had made a saloon (and estate) car with a twin-turbocharged 40-valve V10?

2009 – Mercedes-Benz E63 AMG (W212)

With the same concept as before, Mercedes was back for their second iteration of the E63. There were quite a few imperfections with the W211 E63. Let us explain. Although not unique to the E63, the early M156 6.2L V8 engine was a bit of a mess really. With head-bolt and lifter issues among many other major problems, it became collectively know as the most unreliable engine that Mercedes-AMG had ever made. Although the power output did redeem it somewhat, the engine just wasn’t well suited to the W211 chassis, and ultimately it didn’t provide enough of an improvement over the old W211 E55 AMG.

So, in came the new W212 chassis. In 2010, Mercedes-Benz brought out a new competitor for the M5 and RS 6. Powered by an updated version of the M156 6.2L naturally aspirated V8, the new configuration produced 386kW of power and 630Nm of torque, enough to accelerate the new E63 from 0-100km/h in 4.3 seconds, thanks in-part to the newly developed seven-speed ‘MCT’ semi-automatic.

The updated design of the E63 was a big hit among Mercedes enthusiats. With a much-needed design and interior update and no longer cross-platform sharing the chassis with Chrysler’s 300, the all-new E-Class was a huge overall improvement over the W211, and by 2011, all of the M156 engine issues had been resolved. Desperate for a sportier ride, AMG increased chassis and suspension stiffness among its entire range resulting in much better handling for all AMG-tuned cars, and the E63 was no different. Coilovers replaced the previous air-suspension, and every component had been stiffened, making the ride much harsher but also much more engaging to drive. Although sharing the same heart as the previous generation E63, the two cars had virtually no similarities in driving dynamics, and the new certainly seemed like a huge upgrade. So finally, Mercedes had a car that could compete against the M5 in the corners.

2011 – BMW M5 (F10)

Perhaps it’s the car that started the new and current running generation of luxury high-performance saloons, this was BMW’s replacement for the symphonious V10 powered M5. The first to feature a combination of reliability, performance, modern technology, and dare we say fuel economy, BMW had finally switched to forced induction.

A complete overhaul of the 5-Series, the new M5 was a sports-car turned luxury super cruiser. Featuring a new 4.4L twin-turbocharged ‘S63’ V8, the new brute produced no less than 412kW 6000-7000rpm, and 680Nm available anywhere between 1500 to 5750rpm, making it quite an effortless engine, especially compared to the previous S85 V10. A new seven-speed dual clutch replaced the SMG III single-clutch – a very sensible decision by BMW, and gave the new M5 a factory claimed 0-100km/h figure of 4.4 seconds, which was quickly challenged, resulting in many road tests showing figures down to an incredible 3.9 seconds. Pretty incredible at the time for a car that weighs just under 2 tonnes.

Handling felt much more assisted than in the previous generation of M5, and featured an active M-differential which provided torque vectoring between the two rear wheels. Lack of steering feel was often critisized, as it felt more dare-we-say modern, especially when compared to the raw feel of the older E60 M5. The engine note was quite dulled down compared to the harmonious scream of the V10, but lets be honest, not many cars can match the sound of the S85 V10. The newly revised interior put it’s rivals to shame, and with the new technology such as BMW’s updated iDrive system, we believe the F10 M5 marked the start of the modern luxury high-performance saloon.

2012 – Mercedes-Benz E63 AMG Performance Package (W212)

Just one year after BMW’s switch to forced induction, Mercedes decided to update their now-established E63 by taking the same car and fitting it with the new 5.5L ‘M157’ biturbo V8. Power outputs stayed the same in the base car, however the addition of a ‘performance package’ variant increased the power to 410kW and an incredible 800Nm of torque. This meant a 0-100km/h figure of 4.2 seconds, and onto an electronically limited top speed of 300km/h, whilst retaining the same fuel economy as standard, and an overall increase in fuel economy from the older M156 N/A V8.

Not only were the side badges changed over from ‘6.3 AMG’ to ‘V8 Biturbo’, the new E63 featured a new steering system, a re-tuned gearbox, and an overall more effortless drive. The last of the “old-style” Mercedes, the E63 AMG Performance Package was only offered for a year as a new facelift would soon pave the way for the new brand image of Mercedes-Benz and AMG.

2013 – Audi RS 7 (4G)

By 2013, both Mercedes-Benz and BMW had cars that outperformed the old C6 RS6. Both parties had smaller displacement engines that produced similar power outputs, and both parties featured gearboxes that were well ahead of the old ZF 6HP in the C6 RS6, and adding to that, the RS6 was starting to look a bit dated.

Following the twin-turbo V8 trend, Audi finally released a new lineup of high-powered RS cars. With the discontinuation of the RS saloon car, their new lineup included the RS6 Avant and the RS7 Sportback. A 4.0L twin-scroll twin-turbo V8 with 412kW and 700Nm through the new ZF 8HP eight-speed automatic meant a 0-100km/h figure of just 3.9 seconds, which on paper made it faster than both the E63 and M5.

The new 4.0L TFSI engine featured a striking ‘cylinder on demand’ feature, which allowed the engine to deactivate four cylinders, resulting in a large decrease of fuel consumption. With an average fuel economy of just under 10L per 100km, a new Quattro AWD system with torque vectoring, a self-locking center differential and adaptive air-suspension, this put Audi back in the competition, and with striking modern design and advanced fuel saving technology, it proved to be a popular choice in the segment.

2013 – Mercedes-Benz E63 AMG S 4MATIC (W212)

A facelift of the W212 E-Class, the new E63 featured a fancy ‘S’ badge at the end of it’s name, however, that wasn’t the only improvement. To counter Audi’s new RS 6 and RS 7’s sub-4-second 0-100 times, Mercedes hit back with the first E-Class AMG with a 4MATIC all wheel drive system. Power figures rose to 430kW and 800Nm, and in AWD configuration, the new E63S dominated it’s rivals with a blistering 0-100km/h time of just 3.6 seconds, or 4.1 seconds for the RWD model. (4MATIC AWD model not available in Australia)

The new diamond grille paved the future of design for Mercedes-Benz cars; no more old-man status, it was time to get properly serious. The new E63 AMG S’s new 4MATIC system was at home no matter if it was on a windy mountain road or the freeway, and paired with lighting fast acceleration that made quick work of Audi’s newly released RS 6 and RS 7, the E63 AMG S 4MATIC propelled Mercedes-Benz back in front of the competition.

2014 – BMW M5 Competition Pack (F10 LCI)

The F10 M5 had only been in production for three years, but it’s rivals were getting more fierce than ever, and with the rise of alternative makes and models, such as Porsche’s blisteringly quick Panamera Turbo S – Audi, BMW and Mercedes all had to pump out new hardcore versions of their already insane cars.

In came BMW’s hardcore M5 Competition Pack. Along with a minor facelift, the new Competition Pack featured the same 4.4L twin-turbo V8, with it’s power upped to 417kW, decreasing the 0-100km/h sprint to 4.2 seconds, and staying with a RWD setup, it made traction in all surfaces quite scary.

Though the power increase of a mere 5kW doesn’t make the car a whole new experience, it’s the revised suspension and chassis upgrades that do. Feeling less of a two-tonne yacht, the new springs and dampers sharpened up the ride, and a modified differential, the new F10 LCI M5 Competion Pack drove more like a sports car than the previous generation.

The M5 in all its iterations were great cars, but it wasn’t until the next release when BMW will have pushed their M5 super-saloon to its limits.

2015 – Audi RS 7 Performance (4G)

Following in the footsteps of the M5 Competition Pack and E63 AMG S, Audi released their take on the hardcore variant of their new super-saloon. Along with a facelift, Audi bumped the power of their 4.0 TFSI engine up to 445kW, up from 412kW, with 750Nm of torque available on overboost. This meant a 0-100km/h figure was achievable in 3.7 seconds, driven through the same Quattro AWD system.

With 21-inch alloys, Dynamic steering and ‘RS Sports Suspension Plus’ air-suspension with adjustible damper stiffness, and a fuel economy of just 9.6L per 100km, the new RS7 Performance was quite well adapted for the corners, but at this point, the other options in the market were both just as good, if not better around the corners – and in a straight line, it proved not enough of a benchmark for a new era of high-performance luxury saloon. We don’t want to critize Audi as the RS 7 is quite an inredible car, but we’ll have to wait for the next generation of RS 7 to be released, and we think that’s fair enough – Audi seems to love to play the catch up game.

Now with hardcore versions of the F10 M5, W212 E63 AMG and 4G RS7 all available in the market, it left no room for improvement on the current lineup of cars, and marked the end of the generation.

2016 – Mercedes-AMG E63 S 4MATIC+ (W213)

The first E-Class AMG after the seperation of the Mercedes-Benz and Mercedes-AMG brands, the new and current AMG E63 S is to say the least, an incredible car.

A new 4.0L ‘M177’ twin-turbo V8 replaces the old twin-turbo 5.5L, rising power outputs to 450kW and 850Nm; and paired with the new Mercedes nine-speed MCT multi-clutch, the car launches from 0-100km/h in an incredible factory claimed 3.4 seconds, and can accelerate up until its factory limiter of 300km/h. All-wheel-drive is the only option for the new E63 S, a first time offering in Australia, but kept at a strong rear-biased torque split, to preserve that rear-wheel drive AMG feeling.

The new 4MATIC+ AWD system includes an electronic rear-axle LSD which allows for pushing the car to its limits before traction control intervening; aka sending more power to the front, and a new feature titled “Drift Mode”, selected from the ‘Race’ menu allows the car to send 100% of its 450kW/850Nm to the rear, but make sure you’re awake for that, as it also deactivates traction and stability control and puts the car into full manual mode, controlled via the paddle shifters. With 295 tyres on the rear and carbon composite brakes, a drive of the new E63 S would change your impression of this 2-tonne German car as quick as the car changes direction.

However for a car to be a mode of transport, it can’t always be crazy acceleration and handling, but the E63 S does that job better than most, as a flick of a switch back to comfort mode changes the behaviour of the car to that of a regular comfortable E-Class, thanks in-due to air suspension; and with the addition of level 2 autonomy, every safety system implemented in the car has the ability to work together and create an hands-free experience – you get the best of both worlds with the current generation Mercedes-AMG E63 S.

It’s been very difficult for any car reviewer to critisize the new E63 S, and we think that speaks for itself.

2018 – BMW M5 Competition (F90)

When Mercedes-AMG releases a new generation of high-performance saloon, as the past tells us, BMW always has to create something that’s even better – and arguably, they have.

Another car that reviewers find extremely difficult to fault, it’s new range-topping F90 M5 Competition. Replacing the F10 LCI M5 Competition Pack, the new setup retains the same 4.4L ‘S63’ twin-turbo V8, this time producing a whopping 460kW of power and 750Nm of torque, and running through a ZF 8HP eight-speed automatic, it makes a factory claimed 0-100km/h figure of just 3.3 seconds, one-tenth of a second faster than the E63 S. Upon release, the M5 Competition was the fastest BMW production car ever produced, only topped recently by the release of the M8 Competition.

Following in AMG’s footsteps, the new M5 Competition is only offered with an M xDrive system, which acts in a similar way to AMG’s 4MATIC+ system, with the availablility of switching between AWD and RWD at a click of a switch. Tweaked handling profiles from the ‘regular’ M5 means precision on track, and minute changes to the suspension, dampers and camber all result in a two-tonne car that handles like a car half its mass.

With handling that seems to defy the laws of physics and acceleration that can almost give you whiplash, the new M5 Competition can easily keep up with a Ferrari or McLaren and it may seem absurd to say this, but it truly deserves supercar status. The F90 M5 Competition holds the current Autobahn crown, but with Audi’s new upcoming RS 7 just around the corner, we’re more than excited to see what the future holds for the luxury high-performance saloon segment.


A lot of progress has been made since 2000, and still to this day, Mercedes-AMG, BMW M and Audi Sport remain on top. Each manufacturer has experimented with various setups, from high revving V10s to high torque V8’s. It’s been a long road to where we are today, but we often think to ourselves, the 1990’s was an era of 6-second-to-100 cars, and now we’ve reached a very competitive bottleneck of 3-second-to 100 cars. There have been claims of BMW’s M5 Competition already doing so, but how much more over-engineering is needed to break that factory-claimed sub-3 second barrier, and which of the three will do it first?

We believe that every one of these cars aided in the development of the modern luxury super saloon, and are all incredible pieces of engineering that shouldn’t be forgotten.

AutoNews Australia

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