THE TREND for large SUVs that double as family load-luggers has had a strange effect on the traditional estate car. Rather than roll over and give up, designers and engineers of estates appear to have been galvanised by the challenge and are producing some of the best-looking and most technically accomplished cars on the road.
Take the new Mercedes C-class estate. At one time this was the bread-and-butter car for families who needed space to pack their children’s trunks for the trip to boarding school. It was big, bold and utterly dull to drive.
The latest version still has the space for tuck boxes and hockey sticks but is one of the most attractive cars you can buy — far better-looking than the C-class saloon, launched earlier this year.
Despite its size — the car is longer and wider than the one it replaces — it looks more stylish and sportier. In particular, the boot, which on estates can look bulky, blends in perfectly with the low-slung front, giving the C-class estate a sleek and attractive stance.
Mercedes stresses that this hasn’t come at the expense of practicality. Thanks to the increased dimensions, the maximum load capacity has increased by 10 litres, which in practical terms is negligible, but rear-seat passengers gain extra leg and shoulder room.
More useful is the 40-20-40 split in the folding rear seats, which replaces the old 60-40 split and makes for a much more versatile load bay. The car also features the device du jour: an electric tailgate that you can open by waving your foot under the rear bumper. Handy when your arms are full of shopping.
Inside, the C-class is beautifully refined. The air vents, which operate with what can only be described as a premium-sounding click, are positively Bentleyesque. The only bum note is the location of the iPad-like touchscreen display. It looks as though the guy responsible forgot to assign a place to it and then stuck it on top of the dash when nobody was looking.
From launch, the C-class estate will be available with three four-cylinder engines: a 2.1-litre turbodiesel producing either 168bhp or 201bhp and a 181bhp 2-litre petrol. Things will get even more exciting later this year when the full-fat AMG version is unveiled, probably at the Paris motor show in September. It should go on sale early next year. The rumour is that it will sport a 510bhp 4-litre twin-turbo V8. For more thrifty drivers the C 300 BlueTec hybrid, which combines a four-cylinder diesel with a compact electric motor, is coming later this year.
We tried the C 250 BlueTec, which has the 201bhp diesel engine and a smooth-shifting seven-speed automatic transmission with override paddles.
When you’re just pootling around, the engine is reasonably quiet and refined, but if you start coming over all Jenson Button with the throttle, the sound becomes noticeably less subtle. Or “loud”, as it’s more commonly known.
Mercedes claims that the C-class is the first car in its segment to be offered with air suspension — it’s called the AirMatic agility package and will set you back £895 as an option. The system allows the driver to control the feel of the car at the touch of a button: operating modes go from Comfort and Eco to Sport and then Sport+ (which presumably goes to 11).
On a fast motorway cruise in Comfort mode, the C-class is a lovely place to be, with the suspension soaking up broken patches and taming dips and crests. But on more challenging stretches of B-road it begins to feel a bit disconnected from the action. Sport mode tightens things up, but Sport+ goes too far, with a throttle response that’s far too sharp (use it and your passengers will think you’ve forgotten how to drive).
Regardless of the mode, the drive is let down by the steering. The feedback felt artificial and not particularly confidence-inspiring, which may not be the end of the world in an estate but is disappointing nonetheless. Doubly so when you consider that this car is up against two of the best family vehicles on the market: the BMW 3-series Touring and the Audi A4 Avant. The Mercedes eclipses the Audi in terms of refinement and comfort but falls short of the BMW when it comes to driver enjoyment.
Then again, this is undoubtedly a sophisticated way for a family to travel, and when it comes down to it, on the boarding-school run that may be all that matters.
Never mind the drive; just soak up the cabin
Mercedes C 250 BlueTec estate
Engine: 2143cc, 4 cylinders, diesel
Power: 201bhp @ 3800rpm
Torque: 369 lb ft @ 1600rpm
Transmission: 7-speed sequential/automatic
Acceleration: 0-62mph in 6.9sec
Top speed: 150mph
Fuel: 62.8mpg (combined)
Vehicle tax band: C
Release date: On sale now; deliveries in September
BMW 325dd Touring SE, £33,425
For Spacious boot; good engine; as good to drive as its thrilling saloon sibling
Against Expensive options list can take the cost well past £40,000
Audi A4 Avant 2.0 TDI SE Technik, £33,670
For Cabin is beautifully finished
Against If you want a driver’s car, the BMW is the better pick