Cars.comparison: For That Special Someone

With Valentine's Day around the corner, we know many people are struggling with what to get their loved ones. A card and some chocolates might be nice, but wouldn't your special someone be floored to find a new luxury sedan in the driveway? We bet they would, and to help those with the means — and an extremely generous heart — decide, we tested the Mercedes-Benz E550, Jaguar XF and Lexus GS 460.

 = Category winner
The Contenders
2010 Jaguar XF Premium2009 Lexus GS 4602010 Mercedes-Benz E550
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Price as tested
Love at first sight
Smokin'. The XF's nose looks sharp, though it's marred by a cheap plastic grille. The tail is the real angle d'amore: It's well-proportioned with just the right amount of ornamentation. It's hard to believe this comes from a brand that was still churning out X-Types just a few years ago.Staid. The GS has aged better than Lexus' entry-level ES sedan, but it lacks the XF's instant allure. The rising belt line conveys sportiness; the rear looks like it packed away too much eggnog last December. Perhaps if you discovered her, um, personality, the attraction would increase?Stately. The redesigned E-Class stays true to its quad-headlight past, and the angular lines give it the most upright profile in the bunch. The nose looks classy — but in the sort of way that commands respect, not lust. The tail, unfortunately, is utterly forgettable.
V-8 performance
The XF's power-laden 5.0-liter V-8 makes this cat lunge forward when you stand on the gas. The other cars offer strong performance, too, but what puts the XF ahead of them is its great exhaust system, which elicits a burbling soundtrack. The velvety smoothness of the GS 460's V-8 is appealing on one level, but its muted nature lacks the urgency of the XF's engine, making the Lexus V-8 seem less powerful. Mercedes' 5.5-liter V-8 is a ripsnorting beast, even in this crowd. However, the drivetrain lacks the XF's immediacy.
Gas mileage (city/highway, mpg)
16/23 17/2416/24
Transmission refinement
The XF's six-speed automatic has the fewest gears in this test, but that doesn't diminish the respect this transmission garners; it has an uncanny ability to always be in the right gear. Eight speeds almost feels like too many in this car, as the transmission sometimes seems unsure of which gear to be in at midrange speeds.The seven-speed automatic ticks through gears smoothly; sometimes it can take awhile to kick down, but the V-8 is powerful enough to overcome this.
Ride comfort
The Jag's suspension is the firmest of the three, but it's not so harsh that it'd make for an unappealing commuting car. An adaptive suspension on supercharged XFs offers further refinement, but our test car didn't offer it.Falling between the XF and E550, the GS 460's suspension — in its normal mode — soaks up bumps almost as well as the Mercedes; it lets you feel a little more of the road compared with the Benz, though not as much as the XF. With all of the cars' suspensions in their normal modes, where possible, the E550's air suspension offers the most isolation from rutted roads. It doesn't suffer from excessive body roll, either. This car rides a lot like Mercedes' high-dollar S-Class flagship, and in this category that's a good thing.
The moves
Nimble. Athletic. Precise. However you choose to describe the XF's handling characteristics, one thing is clear: Jaguar engineered this car for the enthusiast driver. We like the results. The GS 460 doesn't have the moves of the XF, but it offers a more engaging driving experience than the stodgy E550. Like other Lexus models, the steering system feels like it has an extra helping of Teflon parts, but this sensation diminishes road feel. With its molasseslike steering, the E550 clearly isn't being passed off as a sport sedan, and we get the message, loud and clear.
The XF's dashboard stitching and vibrant blue nighttime backlighting are nice, but the profusion of silver buttons in the center control panel, on the doors and elsewhere — along with the shiny wood trim — drags down our overall view of the interior.
Nicely finished materials and simple controls for the navigation and entertainment systems are pluses. The more you look around, however, the more you see that a lot of the buttons and trim could have come straight from a Toyota Camry.
Consistently good materials throughout the cabin, fine detailing and the nicest-looking wood trim elevate the E550's cabin above the others'. Of the three, this interior is the best at helping to justify these cars' high price tags.
A slight whistling develops at 70 mph, but otherwise the cabin is well-isolated from road and wind noise. The GS 460's muffled exhaust note matches the rest of the cabin — a showcase of Lexus' venerated insulation levels. The suspension can occasionally respond loudly to bumps, however. You could whisper to other passengers at 70 mph in the E550. Librarians would love this car. (Granted, given the pay rate in academia, it might take a half-dozen to afford it.)
Passenger pampering
The XF's bucket seats offer a balance to the others' extremes — they're not as soft as the Lexus' or as businesslike as the E550's. They also have the best thigh support, thanks to seat cushions that move independently of the backrest.The GS 460's soft seat cushions mold to you the minute you sit down. Some may find them unsupportive, but there's something to be said for that La-Z-Boy feeling. The backseat, though, is a bit tight.You sit on top of the E550's bucket seats rather than sinking into them — they're firm and supportive. The Mercedes offers the most backseat room.
Navigation ease-of-use
The XF's touch-screen navigation system could use some additional computing power — its animated menus are slow to render. Certain controls, like the heated seats, require going back to a home screen to operate. Physical buttons, divorced from the touch-screen, would be better. Lexus' touch-screen system features high-resolution graphics, and the display is bordered by hard keys for quick access to specific functions. Sometimes simplest is best. Mercedes' Comand system has a control knob that operates the navigation system, among other things. Intuitive menus make Comand one of the better systems of its kind. Hard keys on the center control panel take you directly to certain vehicle systems, too.
Audio experience
Bon Jovi. Our test car's optional Bowers & Wilkins sound system lays out thick bass and has decent power, but sound clarity falls short of what we'd expect for this league. Like the iconic hair band, this stereo is fun, but discerning listeners will crave something better.Boston. For what you'd expect in a $50,000 car, the GS 460's Mark Levinson stereo hits par for the course. It belts out clear enough sound, aided a lot by the GS' ultra-quiet cabin. Bruce. The Harman Kardon stereo delivers crystal-clear notes that seem to emanate from all around you. Go ahead, savor it. Among high-end stereos, this one's the Boss.
Overall value
The Jag is the only car here with a standard navigation system, and it also comes in with the lowest as-tested price without giving up anything in the way of performance. Costly options like active stabilizer and precollision systems plumped up the price of our GS 460, but working in your favor are five-year ownership costs that are expected to be at least $7,000 less than the others', increasing the Lexus' long-term value.The E550 has the highest base and as-tested prices, along with the highest five-year ownership costs. What were you expecting? It's a Mercedes, after all.
Editors' choice
The XF's performance and looks stole our heart, but if you plan on being in this relationship for the long haul the car's poor reliability ratings are hard to ignore … but we're going to try. What can we say? Love makes you do crazy things sometimes.The GS 460 won't light your fire the way the XF will, but if you prefer a quiet, comfortable companion, it might be just the thing.The E550 is powerful, luxurious and relatively spacious, but it can't match the excitement that the XF provides — and its penchant for inducing sticker shock doesn't help.
© 2/1/10
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