Mercedes-Benz C-Class Estate
The improved fourth generation Mercedes-Benz C-Class Estate offers subtle exterior revisions and inside, the option of a fully-digital instrument cluster. Plus the driving experience has been enhanced with fresh engine-ware and the optional application of Mercedes' latest autonomous driving technology. As before, there's a practical 490-litre boot.
First the figures. The boot offers 490-litres of capacity with the seats in place and 1,510-litres all-up. Not vast then. Still, that's the same as an Audi A4 Avant, while the BMW 3 Series Touring only adds another 5-litres, so as load luggers, all three are reasonably dismal. The luggage bay measures 950mm in width and the rear seat splits 40:20:40 allowing longer items to be carried with two rear seats in use. A powered tailgate and hands-free access system are both offered as options and you can also spend more on a Cargo Package which includes adjustable rails to separate boot contents and an additional electric rear seat release button.
On to the changes made to this revised model. The design of the front and rear lights is defined by clear-lined contours. On both the saloon and the estate, the bumpers have been re-styled both front and rear and the sportier 'AMG Line'-trimmed models get a sleeker front apron and rear diffuser. Inside, the alterations are more obvious, with the introduction - as an option - of the fully digital instrument display already familiar from the brand's E-Class and S-Class models, complete with touch-sensitive steering wheel buttons. This is complemented by now-larger centre console screens that can be either 7-inches or 10.25-inches in size, the latter format used for the top 'COMMAND' multi-media set-up that many customers will want.
As you'd expect, the handling of this estate variant is pretty much indistinguishable from the saloon model. The C-Class has for some time been, and will continue to be, a car with a clear focus on comfort and refinement - at least in its mainstream guises anyway. It was the first model in this class to offer the option of air suspension, though most buyers stick with the standard steel springs. As before, across the range there's a standard 'DYNAMIC SELECT' driving modes system - and you can add to that with optional 'DYNAMIC BODY CONTROL' adaptive damping. All models come as standard with 9G-Tronic automatic transmssion, which now features nine speeds and buyers certainly aren't short of engine options, with most still likely to want a diesel. There's a base 160hp 1.5-litre unit in the C200d. But most buyers opt for the 2.0-litre 194hp unit on offer in the C220d variant, which offers the option of 4MATIC 4WD.
The entry-level petrol unit in the base C200 is now a 184hp 1.5-litre powerplant featuring the latest 'EQ Boost' technology which uses a 48volt on-board network with a belt-driven starter/alternator. When accelerating, 'EQ Boost' system can assist the engine with an additional 14hp, bridging the brief moment until the turbocharger has built up its full charge pressure. 4MATIC 4WD is optional. Mercedes has also developed a 2.0-litre 258hp version of this petrol engine for the C300 derivative. Beyond that lie only the Mercedes-AMG high performance derivatives. The first of these, the 3.0-litre V6 C43 4MATIC, now puts out 390hp, 23hp more than before. Beyond that lies only the V8 C63 AMG model, with a 4.0-litre V8 Biturbo engine offering either 476 or 510hp.
On to practicalities. First the good news. Where the old C-Class estate let you pack in 485-litres of gear in the boot and 1,500-litres with the rear seats folded down, this successor model offers more room. The bad news? It's only gone up to 490-litres with the seats in place and 1,510-litres all-up. So you can stack an extra couple of bottles of Coke in the boot and that's your lot. Still, that's the same as an Audi A4 Avant, while the BMW 3 Series Touring only adds another 5-litres, so as load luggers, all three are reasonably dismal. The luggage bay measures 950mm in width and the rear seat splits 40:20:40 allowing longer items to be carried with two rear seats in use. A powered tailgate and hands-free access system are both offered as options and you can also spend more on a Cargo Package which includes adjustable rails to separate boot contents and an additional electric rear seat release button.
And in summary? Well although there's a lot to like about this improved MK4 model C-Class Estate, it's still not really a car that will appeal to those with a lot of gear to carry. Seats up in normal family mode, there's a scant 10-litres more space back there than you get with the saloon. So why would you bother? The added practicality does come in handy for those odd occasions when you need to drag some Billy bookcases back from IKEA or such like, but how often will this be? Often enough in, say, three years to justify tying up another £1,200-odd over the saloon? That'll be a decision you need to make.
Some may well find the estate's styling a bit more handsome than the saloon's. We've heard a few dissenting opinions regarding the four-door car's CLA-like tapered rear end and the estate is more conventionally proportioned. Still, the opportunity to offer significantly more space than its key rivals has been missed and that would have clearly and objectively differentiated this model. Overall, this C-Class looks a very good car. As an estate, however, we remain to be wholly convinced.Click here to find out more about our Mercedes-Benz C-Class Estate range
BMW 3 Series Touring
The improved sixth generation of BMW's 3 Series Touring holds no great surprises to those who understand the narrative of this model. It's not the most accomplished load lugger in its class but it's the best drive and offers the most efficiency. That'll be enough to clinch the deal for most who just hanker after a 3 Series with a hatchback. This revised version gets revised styling front and rear and much stronger levels of efficiency thanks to a rejuvenated range of freshly-developed four and six cylinder engines.
It won't surprise you to learn that from the front bumper to the B-pillar, the 3 Series Touring is identical to the saloon version. From the side, this generation 3 Series Touring is defined by a sweeping silhouette, with a gently sloping roofline and glasshouse that extends to the rear of the vehicle. Onto the aesthetic changes made to this improved model. BMW has revised the front and rear bumper assemblies with broader horizontal elements. The headlights have also been tinkered with, LED indicators now acting as eyebrows across the top of the light units. At the rear, the tail lamps are full-LED units with more heavily curved light bars. There is also a revised range of wheels, with rims up to 19 inches in diameter available as an option - and 20-inch wheels can be selected from the BMW accessories range.
The cabins have had a similarly light touch applied to them, with a splash of chrome here and a high-gloss surface there. Other updates include cup holders in the centre console with a sliding cover and an additional practical storage area for items such as a smartphone, positioned forward of the cup holders. There's a respectable amount of rear legroom for what remains a manageably-sized car.
The boot practicality is unchanged. Offering 495-litres capacity with the seats in place, this latest Touring model offers only a nominal increase in carrying ability over the saloon version, but the entrance aperture is a lot bigger, allowing you to transport bulkier objects that much more easily. The rear loading sill is just 620mm off the ground and the luggage bay gets securing lugs, a pair of coat hooks, a luggage net and strap and a deep storage compartment on the left-hand side of the load area. The luggage cover can be stored under the boot floor when removed, while the rear seats have a 40:20:40 split. A sizeable through-loading hole in the centre adds versatility.
Fold the rear seats down and there's up to 1,500 litres of space on offer and a near-level load floor means sliding large items in isn't too tricky. An electrically powered boot, controlled either via the key fob, a switch on the A-pillar or a button on the boot itself is standard and the rear glass can also open independently of the tailgate. In addition, customers can specify optional storage packs, roof transport systems, a trailer hitch and the 'Smart Opener' feature where the boot can be opened with the motion of a strategically placed foot beneath the rear bumper.
From an engineering perspective, the well-versed themes of the 3 Series are present and correct in this latest generation Touring. The car in question is rear wheel drive, it features a very meticulously balanced weight distribution, and, as a result, BMW is keen to position this Touring as the best model to drive in its class. What has changed in recent years is a clearer focus on efficiency and this generation Touring campaigns with some hugely impressive engines.
If you're of a generation who remembers the badge on the back of a 3 Series denoting its engine size, you might be a bit confused by the latest line-up. The 330i, for example, no longer packs a six-cylinder lump, instead squeezing 252bhp from its turbo four, replacing the old 328i in the process. If you do want a six-cylinder petrol engine, BMW will sell you the 340i, a new variant that delivers 326PS (the same as the old 'E36' M3 Evo super-coupe) and will take a blink over five seconds to get to 62mph. At the other end of the petrol engine range is - and you might want to take a seat for this - a 318i model featuring a 136bhp three-cylinder 1.5-litre engine that's been pinched from the MINI line.
Most of the diesel engines are heavily modified or new. At the base of the range is the 116bhp 316d and the 150bhp 318d derivative, but the most attractive models will likely be the 320d and 320d Efficient Dynamics Plus variants. The regular 320d weighs in with a gutsy 190bhp, for a 0-62mph time of 7.6sec in manual form. The aforementioned 320d ED wields a more modest 163bhp but retains the same 400Nm torque, so it's not much slower but it is a whole lot more economical. The 258bhp 330d is automatic only and scuttles to 62mph in 5.6sec, while there's a 313bhp 335d at the top of the tree with a huge 630Nm. BMW will continue to offer the 3 Series with its xDrive four-wheel drive system. It's available as an option on the 320i, 320d and 330d and is standard on the 335d. Munich has also made big advances with the latest eight-speed Steptronic transmission.
The 3 Series Touring has long been one of the quiet achievers in BMW's model range. It might just be the lowest key car the German giant sells but it's also one of the most impressive. Look behind the low-key styling and you find a car that does so much so well. What's more, estate car buyers usually have a sense of the pragmatic and will appreciate the great strides BMW have made with this improved version in terms of efficiency. It used to be that nothing really got close to a 3 Series in this regard. The gap has narrowed in recent years, but this 3 Series Touring still astonishes in offering sports car straight line speed with supermini fuel and tax bills.Click here to find out more about our BMW 3 Series Touring range
Audi A4 Avant
The fifth generation Audi A4 Avant now features a sharper look and still claims to be class-leadingly efficient, hi-tech and, yes, practical. There's a 510-litre boot that's bigger than you might expect from a car in the compact executive market segment and the usual cool, classy Audi ambience. You'd like one.
The A4 has always struck an appealing balance between handling and comfort and with this MK5 Avant model, the Ingolstadt engineers have sought to improve its credentials still further by developing a new five-link suspension system. Optional adjustable shock absorbers with 'sports' and 'comfort' modes will enable owners to get the most from this and a dynamic steering system is another extra cost feature that'll reward those you like their driving. Both features can be controlled through the standard Audi drive select driving-dynamics system, which alters throttle response and auto gearshift timings in its most basic form. Talking of auto gearshifts, the old CVT automatic gearbox has gone, replaced by a seven speed dual clutch 'S tronic' unit that claims to be able to improve both performance and fuel consumption.
As before, the A4 differs from its BMW 3 Series rival in its use of front wheel drive for most models. Also as before though, quattro 4WD is optional - and standard on the top V6 variants. The most powerful of these models even has the option of a sports differential for the rear axle to maximise traction. Refreshingly in a segment dominated by cars fueling themselves from the black pump, TFSI petrol models are still very much part of the mainstream A4 range, a 150PS 1.4-litre unit offered alongside a pokey 2.0-litre powerplant offering either 190PS or 252PS. There's also a 354PS 3.0-litre TFSI sporting S4 model near the top of the range. And a 450PS 2.9-litre V6 RS 4 Avant model beyond that. Most A4 buyers though, will continue to want a diesel, probably the 2.0 TDI 150PS variant, which gets to 62mph from rest in a brisk 8.6s. If you want more diesel power, then a 190PS version of this unit is also available, plus there's a 218PS 3.0 TDI V6 model further up the range.
Styling is a subjective matter, and it's probably not our place to tell you what looks good but let's just say that this MK5 model A4 Avant has dodged the ugly stick by quite some margin. The stylists have been very clever in that they have retained a fairly high roofline at the back for load volume purposes but have artfully used chrome finishing to draw the eye to the sleek window lines instead.
The external changes made to this revised model are relatively slight. The volume 'SE' and 'Sport' versions get a revised front and rear bumper design, more pronounced side skirts, a special finish for the Singleframe and side air inlet grilles, a roof edge spoiler and a rear diffuser flanked by new look trapezoidal tailpipes. The 'SE' versions retain wheels of the same 17-inch diameter as before but in a new design, while 'Sport' models upgrade to a smarter, larger 18-inch wheel. The top 'S line' and 'Black Edition' models get a more striking 3D-look finish for the Singleframe front grille, plus 'S line' variants get new 19-inch wheels and a re-designed rear diffuser
The interior is typically Audi and a very classy place to be. Everything is well laid out with high grade materials in all areas you'll interact with regularly. There's the option of getting an 8.3" touchscreen mounted on top of the dashboard but even if you stick with the standard centre dash infotainment screen, you'll get an up-to-the-minute set-up able to support the latest Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity. As for practicality, well this estate variant offers a class-leading 505-litre boot, extendable to 1,510-litres if you wish.
Only very rarely does an excellent product fail. When this happens, it is usually down to poor promotion, but that's certainly not going to be the case with Audi's marketing machine at work. The truth is that this MK5 model A4 Avant is a very tough car to fault. It's superbly built, it's big enough to make a decent first of being a properly practical estate car, it rides on the exemplary A4 chassis so is a strong proposition for enthusiastic drivers and, when whole life costs are examined, it's surprisingly cost effective to run.
No car is perfect though and the A4 Avant does raise a few questions. It could be even bigger at the back. And putting the power tailgate and telescopic load bar on the options list also looks a little mean. Other than that, it's hard to see this one continuing to sell strongly amongst the best compact executive load luggers.Click here to find out more about our Audi A4 Avant range