Carry On Lifestyle (Car, UK, September 1996)
Article from Car (UK) magazine, September 1996
They're an ad agency's dream, tailor made for a thirty-something lifestyle. PAUL HORRELL drives four 'estates' that put image way before luggage.
AVANT, TOURING, V-FOR-VERSATILITY. Not estates: these, if you will, are 'lifestyle five-doors'. Not for their owners the family-hauler notions of a station wagon, neither the country squierarchy of a shooting brake, and not - definitely not - the office-equipment-rep connotations that cling to the word 'estate'. Out of this quartet, it's only the Mercedes that doesn't shy away from the e-word.
But then, they aren't quite estates in the accepted sense. Their buyers are seeking a five-door coupe, something with a cargo-to-image ratio weighted heavily in favour of the latter. Just ask the ad agencies for the four marques. If their campaigns are to connect, they must have a stereotype buyer in mind.
One that's aspirational, but not so unrealistic as to be annoying to everyone else. So we asked each agency in turn: what would your stereotypical buyers use the car to carry, and where do they shop?
However similar these cars appear, the straw-poll yielded differences. Mercedes' and Audi's people imagine their constituencies to be largely childless (when that life-event threshold has been crossed, you see, the E-class and A6 estates await). Mr and Ms Merc, it's no surprise to find, are more trad in their outlook than the A4 couple. A C180 would haul out for a weekend at a country hotel, long walks with dog and kites, the odd game of tennis. In A4 land, they pass their weekends in state-of-the-art active leisure pursuits. It's rollerblading and jetskiing, said the man from Bartle Bogle Hegarty, 'and none of your golf and horse-riding.' They climb our of their wetsuits into Paul Smith and Nicole Farhi. To a tee, the cars resonate with the imagery: the A4's pseudo-carbonfibre and black fabrics face up co the C180's polished veneer and carpet that's irredeemably beige.
BMW expects to purvey its ultimate driving machine TM to a surprisingly conservative crowd. Among potential boot-stuffing objets spoils of an antique auction are cited, along with camera and guidebooks for a visit to a stately pile. And the kids come, too. There will also be the odd child to the Volvo V40 landscape, but the poor little mi? won't be compromising Mum and Dad's rock climbing outings. What piquant irony that they demand SIPS cages and sidebags out on the road, but by way of a thrill they'll happily dangle themselves off a cliff face by a karabiner.
Still, imagery is seldom a match for reality. The deal with these four is that you're getting a little more space than in a saloon (just a smidgin more in the BMW), but you aren't compromising the driving experience. And, of course, you're signalling that you're the proud owner of a lifestyle. Emphasis on the style. All these cars have made immaculately subtle transition from the saloon. None is longer, for a start, so you don't see ungainly overhangs. All use special rear-door pressings that blend imperceptibly into rooflines. All have alluringly sloped tailgates. Gaze upon the way the Mercedes' roof rails extrapolate the logarithmic curve of its fifth door. It's detail delight. And forget the fact that you can't actually force a tall object through the resulting aperture.
Underneath their svelte lines, our foursome utilise the same engineering as the saloons that spawn them. That means the driving experience is largely unaltered, but you lose out-again-on space. The BMW's load bay is ridiculously narrow and shallow between the wheel-arches. Your lifestyle simply has to mould itself around the Z-axle chassis. If you'd bought a Mondeo estate, you'd get a bespoke space-saving back suspension.
Here we rest an Audi A4 Avant in 1.8 SE form. The engine's the five-valve non-turbo unit. The SE pack brings alloys, automatic air-con, a leather-clad helm and extra instruments, and doesn't look coo steep at £20,505 all-in. Especially next to the Mercedes, which for £20,680 can't march any of those twinkly features. Not even a radio. Bur it has a standard passenger airbag, countered by the Volvo's sidebags. BMW wants £18,100 for a 318i as here, but add an RDS stereo (£428), rear head restraints (£205), automatic air-con (£1710) and you climb to the Audi price. Starting price for a Volvo V40 2.0 is just £14,800, so even with options raking it to nearly £20,000, this is comfortably the best-equipped car here: air-con, cruise, wood, part-leather, lamp wipers, seat hearers, 'information centre'. We're told V40 buyers would shop at M&S 'because they appreciate value', and if you look at these prices that's plausible. Match our V40's kit on a C180 and you'd be into the late 20s.
Audi A4 Avant 1.8 SE
AUDI ISN'T FERRARI; IT TUNES its five-valve cylinder heads for clean mid-range running rather than screaming-rev power. So this 20- valve 1.8-litre engine is the soul of moderation; even and sweet in its dispensing of 125bhp. Linked to a set of gears that suits British roads, it allows you good progress. The gearshift itself is your typical ker-lunk Audi item, slow but well greased. It's a good driveline, and the chassis matches it. The steering is delightfully consistent for a front-driver, thanks to the car's four-link front suspension. The ride is supple overall, the best of this group and well suited to a car whose character, in this form, is refined, relaxed and easy-going. The payback comes when the corners are really tight: it loads up the outside front tyre and there's a slight want of precision and agility compared with the BMW. It's not a big problem, though.
Of more concern are the brakes. They're strong enough, of course, but madly over-servoed at low speed. A tickle of the pedal has the car behind parking in your inunaculately carpeted boot. To improve control, you slide the driver's seat further back than normal and backseat passengers don't like it.
The Avant builds on the A4 saloon's brilliant cabin. The dials are clear, the seats and driving position are just-so, and the general feel of the cabin's quality and materials tops this group. For the Avant, the rear head restraints semi-retract into the sear-back, making the fold-down operation a snip. For legroom a hold space the A4 sits comfortably) the middle order of the four he Audi has clearly grasped that what people need as often as not isn't extra cubic foot of boot volume, ? one more three-inch cubby-hole the peanuts/map/phone.
BMW 318i Touring
DESPITE CLOSELY MATCHED external dimensions, the 3-Touring is the most compact car here. Its ?in folds itself around the driver, and on the road it's the most nimble-feeling, if not the quickest. The eight-valve engine sounds sweet enough, though it doesn't reward revving. But the BMW's chassis, the oldest here, can still fend off the young 'uns for driving pleasure. It carves a lovely line through any bend, accurate to the helm and always properly damped and trim. With just 115bhp to play with, throttle-steering is off the menu, so there's little to be said for rear-drive in this context, and actually rather a lot against it if you're sitting behind, astride the bulky transmission tunnel. The ride's a little firmer than the A4's but nicely consistent across the speed range. It's certainly not going to annoy anyone.
But the Touring will annoy anyone under the misapprehension that this five-door should accommodate their material possessions. Folding the rear sear is a snap, simply because there are no head restraints, and you don't have to disturb the cushion. Just flop down the backrest, then wonder whether you've done it properly because the resulting floor isn't even flat. And that's before you consider the suspension-rower intrusion. Or the deep sills and obtrusive rear lights that make it hard to wrestle your pushbike in. Seats up, the 318i also provides the least rear legroom in a group that's otherwise evenly matched. In design terms, the BMW does have some dinky details - delicious instrument clarity, an in-house stereo that couldn't be less taxing to operate, a nifty toolkit that sees action only when you're fixing someone else's car- but the design is now looking slightly messy in places. It matters little.
THE V40 IS A TASTY-LOOKING car all right, especially around its rear quarters and inside the cabin. Behold the glassy tailgate, the shouldered flanks, the cheering colours and trims. It's obviously more handsome than its 850 brother. But it has a problem. It's an obviously inferior drive. The engine, though closely related to the 850's five-cylinder, isn't anywhere near as zesty or smooch. By 4000rpm, the vibration is coming up through the throttle pedal, and although it doesn't get any worse at higher revs, it's a deterrent against extracting the best of the V40's acceleration, which is the most impressive here. The other dynamic woe is bump absorption. The suspension's rather good over big lumps, but on apparently smooch roads you're assailed by unrelenting fidgetiness.
Apart from that, Mrs Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play? Well, otherwise the V40's a very fine piece of kit. It steers nicely, turns into a bend with quite some agility, resists understeer and brakes progressively. From the driver's seat, all's well: comfortable, stylish, thoughtful.
When you've as many switches as the optioned-up test car and they're all easy to find, then you know the derail ergonomics are good. Passengers are dealt a good hand, coo, and the boot is notable for a selection of handy restrainers for your clobber: a semi-hard parcel shelf, a net for lightweight stuff and an inertia reel belt that emerges from on, corner of the boot and can be buckled to any of the others. Thanks to front-drive, the cargo hold's good and deep, and to exploit it the rear seats fold like a hatchback's, with hinge-forward cushions.
Mercedes-Benz C180 Classic estate
GIVEN ITS FOUR-VALVE 1.8-litre engine and small weight penalty over the others here, you'd expect this Benz to put up a competitively lively showing in a straight line. It doesn't. Leggy gearing and languid throttle response mean the thing feels continually overwhelmed, unwilling to gather speed on a motorway and unable to overtake off it. In town, the driveline is infuriating, mating the gearshift of a Land Rover to a spongy clutch, stall-prone engine and foot-operated park brake. Nothing a 2.0-litre engine and autobox wouldn't fix, of course. That'll be three-and-a-half grand, please.
What's the good news? If you can live with those deficiencies in the short run, you 'II love this car in the long run. The next millennium will be well under way before it looks dated or feels saggy. By then a big mileage will easily have accrued, for cruising quietness and brilliant stability make it a tireless ground-coverer. Same goes for secondary roads. The steering and brakes are so well measured that you never even think about them, which is wonderfully untaxing - or rather dull, depending on your outlook and passenger-count.
The cabin isn't a designer curvefest, but by golly it's sensible. Here's the biggest load-bay of the quartet by a margin, and the squarest aperture. The seat-fold is brilliantly arranged, there's a remarkable loadcover/dog-net, and you get Merc's patent from-seat height-adjuster: a single lever that elevates or depresses the cushion Tiptronic-sryle. Press repeatedly co go down notch by notch, pull up ro go up likewise. I could play with that all day.
WHO IS GOING TO BUY THESE CARS? Obvious candidates must be folk who have tried off-roaders and don't like their sloth. And there are people from coupes and hot hatches who want space, but not that much space. Whoever they are, they won't settle for anything that's off the pace image-wise. And they'll like the way that all these style-wagons are good to drive when load-free, unlike the bouncy transport of your average commercial traveller.
Only the Mercedes will be of use to people who have grown accustomed to the cargo space of a traditional estate. It's the C180 that's the oddball of this group. Well engineered though it is, you'd need an ascetic mindset not to look with envy at the equipment lists of its competitors here. Superlow depreciation cuts the monthly payments of course, but if you get co work on die options list they'll soon bounce upwards. If a C-estate is fitted with the 1.8-litre and a manual box, I'd pass on it.
Static, the Volvo V40 is a very desirable piece. On the move, a Ford Mondeo wagon is a sharper drive-and more of a load-swallower. You're best off starring with a base specification and choosing the options carefully so you arrive at, say, £17,000. In that price bracket, there's little else so smart, well equipped, and crash-protective. But stood up, as here, against a trio of fundamentally more expensive cars, the V40 stumbles.
What the BMW loses as an estate, it gains as a driver's cool. Although the interior style shows the wrinkling skin of middle age, in wind and limb the 3-series is still tremendously fit. But the Audi is the car here chat best fills its brief. It meets the carrying role, provides driving smiles and has a quality of design and manufacture that has you contented deep down. Never mind the image; as transport tools, these cars sure beat rollerblading.