Clash of the Teutons

Comparing the BMW M5 and the Mercedes-Benz E55 AMG.

Never have two automobiles been more deliberately planned, designed, equipped, and priced from the starting gun to be such precisely matched adversaries. The brand-new BMW M5 and the year-old Mercedes-Benz E55 AMG are both remarkable motorcars, most of all in their similarity to each other. Consider:

Each is its marque's top-of-the-line, image-spiffing, V-8 supersedan.

Both are limited-edition automobiles. Mercedes says it will produce 2,000 E55s over a four-year model run, BMW about 1,000 M5s per year over a similar period.

Each has the comforts of a top-flight sedan married to jawdropping speed and enviable handling.

Each is equally at home arriving at the opera or scorching a deserted back road.

Both have eerie performance, dimensional, and pricing similarities too. The M5 has a wheelbase of 111.4 inches, an overall length of 188.3 inches, blasts from 0 to 62 mph in 5.3 seconds, and electronically limits top speed to 155 mph. It has a suggested base price of $69,400.

The E55 has a wheelbase one-tenth of an inch longer, is in overall length 1.1 inches longer, rips from 0 to 60 mph one-tenth of a second slower, and electronically limits top speed to 155 mph. Its suggested base price: $69,800.

There's even near-replication in the respective cars' press materials. Of the M5's 400-horsepower, 5.0-liter engine, BMW says: "to paraphrase what the hot-rodders used to say, 'There's no substitute for liters.' " Mercedes-Benz sums up the E55's 349-horsepower, 5.5-liter engine thusly: "As many car enthusiasts say, 'There's no substitute for cubic inches.' "

Finally, the price of each has been very finely tuned. Automobile Magazine, in a January 1999 article, converted the German selling price of the M5 into dollars at about $85,000. However, with the base price of the Mercedes E55 already under $70,000 in the United States, BMW had to lower the sticker on the M5, which it did—to $300 more than the 1999 E55. (Mercedes retaliated by increasing the base price of the 2000 E55 by $700, thereby retaining the I-cost-more-but-I'm-still-under-$70,000 bragging rights.) Incidentally, both are a bargain for tin this exotic.

Clearly, the single-minded goal of BMW and Mercedes was to best the other by producing the hottest, best-behaved midsize sedan they could, and at the most attractive price. The tough part for the car lover who dotes on the driving experience itself is choosing between them. I know because I've tried.

Why all the competition over two very limited-edition runs? It's all about image and the ruboff accrued to the entire line. Performance gets noticed. Power sells.

The E55 is derived from the popular E430 and was redesigned along with the entire Mercedes E-Class this year. The M5 is based on the 540i six-speed manual sport model.

Both cars were created by taking the V-8 engine that powers the base model, tearing it apart, and rebuilding it using countless special parts. (The list of drivetrain, suspension and handling, and braking improvements made in the M5 and E55 fills pages.) The result in each case is far greater engine displacement (and thus power and torque) than before. The M5 V-8 went from 4.4 to 5.0 liters, and the Mercedes V-8 from 5.0 to 5.5 liters, even though ramping up sometimes meant compromise: The space eaten up by a bigger exhaust system and the desire to keep the trunk size decent forced BMW to eliminate the M5's spare tire. Brakes, wheels, and tires were also enlarged and upgraded.

Meanwhile, each retains the luxurious appointments and superb safety and technological features of the original sedans, including an alphabet soup of Teutonic electronics that helps drivers combat everything from oversteer and understeer to wheelspin and even yaw. If you like "flying by wire," these are the cars for you.

Just don't make me choose between them; I can't, although I did come up with a list of differences that could tip the balance.

Both cars are offered with just one transmission. Insist on automatic, and the E55 is your only option.

Can't live without a stick shift? The M5 is what you want.

Need an ungodly amount of torque? The E55 has 391 pound-feet of it. Pretty impressive, considering that the Porsche 911 Carrera 4 has a very healthy 258 pound-feet of engine-to-drive-shaft force. Even the Ferrari 360 Modena, at 275 pound-feet, is surpassed by these supersedans.

Want a GPS included in the base price? The M5 has it. (The E55's is $1,995 extra.)

Want the security of a dedicated cellular emergency-and-help system? That's the E55's TeleAid.

Want to learn how to drive a car that's this powerful? The M5 includes a two-day driving course in the price.

Like the idea of rear-seat side-impact air bags? Only Mercedes' E55 offers them as standard equipment.

Can't get enough exhaust pipes? BMW's M5 has four of them.

Similar as the two cars are, they came about in different ways. The M5 is a product of BMW's M division, established in 1972 with the express goal of producing factory-authorized performance cars. (The M in the name refers to Motorsport.) Over the years there have been multiple generations of M3s, M5s, and M6s, as well as the recent first generations, the M Coupe and M Roadster. The current M5 is a third-generation car.

Mercedes was a good deal more hesitant about producing high-performance versions of existing models. Thus for years it turned a cold shoulder to the performance-modification companies (or tuners) who did so on their own. However, AMG, a small performance-modification company that was founded in 1967 by a former employee of Daimler-Benz, finally forced the company's hand by earning a reputation as the top modifier of Mercedes automobiles into performance street models and racing cars. When AMG put a hugely modified Mercedes V-8 into an E-Class sedan in the 1980s and nicknamed it The Hammer, glowing reviews followed. Mercedes decided to cooperate with AMG when it produced a similar car, the 500E supersedan, in 1992, and in 1994 entered into a formal collaboration with AMG to produce the C36, a small performance car. Finally, in 1998, Mercedes bought majority control of AMG, with full ownership scheduled for 2009.

The Silverstone Metallic M5 I drove was as luxurious and well-appointed as it was quiet. The seats were remarkably comfortable, brushed-aluminum graced the doors, the dash, the center console, and the gearshift knob, and the GPS was one of the easiest I've ever used. The car hardly budged in hard corners, and the big engine merely whispered until it approached 4,000 rpm. But drop the six-speed manual down a gear or two, and you could feel its throat clear. At rest it seemed to have an athlete's stance, lower than the 540i and like a sumo wrestler on his haunches. "Broad-shouldered, beefy, and bodacious," my brother called it, but then again he's in show business.

The classic black-on-black Mercedes E55 had a battleship-gray leather interior accented by black-stained bird's-eye maple. Inside and out the look was a bit more reserved than the M5's. And while the acceleration didn't feel as monstrous as the M5's, it was just as instantaneous. The seats were every bit as comfortable as the M5's, and the Bose sound system was topnotch. Though not a big fan of automatic transmission, I liked the new Touch Shift five-speed automatic, which has a driver-shift option much like Porsche's Tiptronic that allows up- and down-shifting. It made me feel much more in control of this beast.

Compared with what an Aston Martin ora Ferrari would cost for the same performance, these cars are a remarkable value—perhaps the finest value for the dollar of any luxury car today. Of course, both boast power and handling that the average owner will never test. If he does, he'd best have a bail bondsman on speed-dial.

Richard John Pietschmann, a Los Angeles-based writer, is Departures' automotive columnist.