BMW vs Merc vs Volvo es­tates

CAR (UK) - - Contents - Words An­thony rench-Con­stant Photography Alex Tap­ley

HIS­TORY SUG­GESTS THAT those in power rarely re­main there for long if they do noth­ing. When you’re as dom­i­nant as the Ger­mans are in the pre­mium es­tate mar­ket, the temp­ta­tion to do noth­ing must be very strong. To en­sure they’re not let­ting the op­po­si­tion sneak an ad­van­tage they don’t ex­actly do noth­ing, but in­stead they take a very con­ser­va­tive, en­tirely evo­lu­tion­ary ap­proach to de­vel­op­ing their class-defin­ing wag­ons.

And then along comes Volvo with the rather art­fully wrought V90, which could eas­ily make the lat­est E-Class (new last year) and 5-se­ries (new this year) seem less in­no­va­tive than they ac­tu­ally are. While they mither over minu­tiae in Mu­nich and scrab­ble for de­sign trac­tion in Stuttgart, the good burghers of Gothen­burg have sim­ply gone for it...

We need to find out whether the game re­ally has been changed by the ar­rival of the Volvo, or whether the Merc and BMW – how­ever fa­mil­iar – still de­serve to be the de­fault choices.

BMW’s lat­est take on its 5-se­ries Tour­ing, in £41,120 520d M Sport guise, takes on Mercedes’ £38,655 E220d SE Es­tate and the £43,115 Volvo V90 D4 In­scrip­tion.

Ex­ter­nally, dis­par­i­ties are not ob­vi­ous; th­ese are all hand­some ma­chines. The BMW in par­tic­u­lar is prop­erly svelte. The E-Class ac­tu­ally ben­e­fits from some­thing called styling th­ese days, even if the added swoop­i­ness at the rear end does marginally di­min­ish a load ca­pac­ity tra­di­tion­ally on a par with Jonah’s whale (and even if I did find its pre­de­ces­sor bet­ter look­ing).

And the Volvo, once im­mor­talised by Dud­ley Moore’s over-honest ad­ver­tis­ing cre­ative in the film Crazy Peo­ple as ‘Boxy, but Good’, has be­come en­tirely strik­ing; my only con­cerns be­ing in­ap­pro­pri­ately truck-like ver­ti­cal front grille bars, and – tail­gate raised – dan­ger­ously vul­ner­a­ble rear lamp clus­ter in­ner el­bows. On board, how­ever, ev­ery pixel tells a dif­fer­ent story… BMW has been in a state of flux with its cabin styling ever since for­mer de­sign chief Chris Ban­gle’s in­sis­tence that ‘BMW has to change’ led to an er­gonomic free-for-all of a 7-se­ries in­te­rior, elic­it­ing the al­most uni­ver­sal ri­poste ‘Why?’.

End­less extras push­ing its price to a puck­er­ing £54,315, this 520d’s is, in­du­bitably, a beau­ti­fully crafted in­te­rior, with painstak­ing at­ten­tion to de­tail ev­ery­where you look. But the clunky, hor­i­zon­tal em­pha­sis of the cen­tre con­sole orig­i­nally in­formed by the chromed land yachts among which Ban­gle spent his Wis­con­sin child­hood re­mains, al­beit now slowly an­gling back to­wards the driver with each evo­lu­tion.

Cen­tral air vents set low be­cause of the dash-top 10.25-inch screen’s po­si­tion­ing may have your nip­ples ex­plod­ing with hap­pi­ness on a warm day, but make the fa­cial ac­qui­si­tion of cool air less easy.

The ul­ti­mate on-screen flex­i­bil­ity of the faux ana­logue LED in­stru­ment bin­na­cle is badly shack­led by the ad­di­tion of real dial sur­round trim stuck onto the screen sur­face, thus lock­ing all four dials into one po­si­tion in per­pe­tu­ity.

Un­like the Wal-Mart-cus­tomer-girth steer­ing wheel rim of BMW M cars, this rim re­mains thin enough for you to have4

a fight­ing chance of get­ting your fingers prop­erly around it. But tac­til­ity is still marred by the big blis­ters on the in­ner rim right where you would wish to hold the helm. And the huge Dis­play Key is just that; some­thing you can dan­gle overtly while sip­ping your iso­tonic drink at the bar in the gym.

On a more pos­i­tive note, the once baf­fling iDrive in­fo­tain­ment con­trol sys­tem has be­come in­creas­ingly easy to use through sev­eral gen­er­a­tions of re­fine­ment and shout­ing ‘NO’ at engi­neers, even if some con­trols re­main buried parkup-to-find-it deep within sub-menus.

The front seats are com­fort­able and the driv­ing po­si­tion is first class. There’s plenty of legroom in the back be­tween knee cap and scal­loped seat back. But the 40:20:40 split rear seats are very up­right, and de­cid­edly firm – even harder to sink into than a James Joyce novel.

Its vol­ume rang­ing from 570 to 1700 litres, the clever load­space boasts a pow­ered tail­gate, au­to­mat­i­cally re­tract­ing lug­gage cover, and side­wall-mounted switchgear for the col­lapse of the rear seats and the de­ploy­ment of the au­to­matic tow hook.

Part of the lug­gage cover, a cargo net can be ex­tended to the ceil­ing to pre­vent the maul­ing of pas­sen­gers by the load or the larger pet. The cover ’n’ net combo may be de­mounted and stored un­der the floor to of­fer a com­pletely clear load­space with­out re­course to your shed. Sadly, de­spite all this in­ge­nu­ity, you have to switch off the en­gine be­fore you can open the tail­gate.

Ab­so­lutely the very best thing about this in­te­rior, though, is that BMW has fi­nally fired the elec­tronic in­di­ca­tors and gone back to a good old me­chan­i­cal stalk, which stays where you put it. Hoo and in­deed rah...

Nearly 10 grand’s worth of op­tional goodies push­ing the price to £48,285, the Mercedes cabin, mean­while, sug­gests a com­pany ap­par­ently strug­gling with the is­sue of keep­ing an ex­ist­ing and gen­tly aged cus­tomer base happy while still man­ag­ing to at­tract new clien­tele.

For the for­mer, we have tra­di­tional chrome trim brought up to date with the aid of a wire brush, switchgear clus­tered into smi­ley pan­els of the type that Re­nault has re­cently, and mer­ci­fully, shed, and ruth­lessly over-de­tailed el­e­ments such as the Burmester stereo’s speaker grilles. Even the en­gine stop/start but­ton has been styled to within an inch of its life.

For the lat­ter, we have twin 12.3-inch screens form­ing an in­stru­ment bin­na­cle that yawns out across more than half the dash­board, re­mind­ing us why early tele­vi­sion sets were en­cased in sim­u­lated teak ve­neer cab­i­nets, with doors, to dis­guise the cabin charisma black hole that is a blank screen the size of the pip­ing-hot stone awarded you by restau­rants which can’t be both­ered to cook your steak.

The in­fo­tain­ment sys­tem is largely the one we al­ready know and love, with a cou­ple of im­por­tant back­ward strides. Mercedes’ new swipe ’n’ hope steer­ing wheel switchgear is far more fid­dly and far less in­tu­itive than that which it re­places, and putting a touch-sen­si­tive pad di­rectly over the knob con­trol­ling the in­fo­tain­ment sys­tem re­mains fraught with the dan­ger of in­ad­ver­tent com­mands.

There is, how­ever, no ar­gu­ing with sub­limely com­fort­able front seats and a fine driv­ing po­si­tion. Rear ac­com­mo­da­tion4

EClass ride qual­ity is so good that progress is al­ways swifter than you sus­pect

is also by far the most cos­set­ing in this group, with seat­backs set at less Vic­to­rian an­gle than those of the BMW, and up­hol­stery boast­ing pleas­ing de­grees of give.

A load­space vol­ume of be­tween 640 and 1820 litres shares the pow­ered at­tributes of the BMW, and its abil­ity to col­lapse 40:20:40 split rear seats from wall-mounted switchgear. A sec­ond, un­der­floor com­part­ment stores a cargo net, a col­lapsi­ble shop­ping crate al­low­ing your pur­chases to slosh to and fro as one, and a can of foam­ing goo for the tem­po­rary res­ur­rec­tion of flat tyres.

There’s a pow­ered tow hook here too. Un­like the BMW’s, which oozes from be­hind the bumper like the Crea­ture emerg­ing from his Black La­goon, the Merc’s rises to the oc­ca­sion with suf­fi­cient vim to con­jure fond mem­o­ries of a dis­tant youth.

And so to the Volvo, its ticked op­tions tick­ling the price up a rel­a­tively mod­est three and half grand to £46,690. Time was when the com­pany found it­self shack­led by a some­what folk­weave-knick­ers de­sire to re­in­force its Swedish her­itage through the use of ma­te­ri­als you’d not find any­where else in the in­dus­try.

Hap­pily, how­ever, the days of diced moose spore dash­boards and net­tle-dyed up­hol­stery are long gone, to be re­placed by the sort of crisp, clean, er­gonom­i­cally su­pe­rior in­te­rior de­sign for which Swedes have long been fa­mous. With, in this case, added com­fort. This re­ally is a lovely en­vi­ron­ment.

Some have sug­gested that the faux ana­logue in­stru­ment bin­na­cle could do more, but all the driv­ing in­for­ma­tion re­quired is on dis­play, and if you want to watch a seal bal­anc­ing a beach ball on its nose, go to the cir­cus.

The piano black steer­ing wheel switchgear takes a lit­tle learn­ing but is largely straight­for­ward to use. And the var­i­ous fin­ishes are gen­er­ally splen­did, save the beaten pewter look to the en­gine start and driv­ing dy­nam­ics switchgear, and the steer­ing col­umn-mounted stalks, which are of a rough-look­ing, woe­fully non-tac­tile plas­tic fin­ish right up there with the ‘sur­prise’ in a Kinder egg in the qual­ity stakes.

The V90’s finest at­tribute, how­ever, is per­haps the best it­er­a­tion of touch­screen mul­ti­me­dia tech­nol­ogy yet to grace a car in­te­rior. So ab­so­lute is the power that it wields that the re­main­ing ad­ja­cent switchgear is lim­ited to ba­sic stereo con­trols and, sen­si­bly, front and rear screen demist but­tons.

This flick ’n’ pinch, nine-inch tablet-style sys­tem not only stacks up sec­ondary in­for­ma­tion which re­mains vis­i­ble be­neath the main screen at all times, but has also been de­signed by a suf­fi­ciently hu­man be­ing to add sev­eral neat touches, such as a ‘Set des­ti­na­tion’ tab which ap­pears at the base of the map, ob­vi­at­ing the curse-laden quest for re­lated menus.

And that map is in por­trait for­mat to boot, thus dis­play­ing places you’ll visit en route, rather than those you will not.

The front seats are er­gonom­i­cally su­perb, and the 60:40 split/ fold­ing rear seat ac­com­mo­da­tion, though not quite as cos­set­ing as that of the Mercedes, is gen­er­ous in ev­ery depart­ment ex­cept un­der the front seats, where win­kle-pick­ers alone can pen­e­trate the nar­row slot left by the electrics.

A load­space of­fer­ing be­tween 560 and 1526 litres of vol­ume shares all the at­tributes of the BMW and Mercedes bar the tow hook, and adds a space saver un­der the floor and, just in­side the tail­gate, a clever lit­tle lift-up panel with elas­tic strap­ping that will se­cure a cou­ple of shop­ping bags, thus pre­vent­ing vig­or­ous driv­ing from start­ing the omelette-mak­ing process be­fore you ac­tu­ally reach the kitchen.

Now, be­fore we pull out of the car park, it’s worth men­tion­ing that the owner of any one of th­ese three es­tates will find them­selves, to a greater or lesser ex­tent, hav­ing to ne­go­ti­ate a bur­geon­ing raft of safety sys­tems which must be de­ac­ti­vated be­fore any­thing ap­proach­ing a nor­mal driv­ing ex­pe­ri­ence be­comes avail­able. I spent a small but prickly eter­nity surf­ing menus in the 5-se­ries in or­der to de­ac­ti­vate a lane de­par­ture sys­tem which rudely yanks the wheel from you when you’re glee­fully straight­en­ing a B-road. I’ve spent more layby time de-TRONICing di­verse Mercedes only to find that the dis­tance con­trol sys­tem doesn’t ac­tu­ally have an ‘off ’ set­ting.

The Volvo, mean­while, wouldn’t even let me inch the car around for static photography un­less I fas­tened the seat­belt. Hap­pily, how­ever, one swipe of that touch­screen gives you ac­cess to the en­tire list of driv­ing as­sis­tants and nan­nies in icon form, after which an ec­stasy of stab­bing fa­mil­iar only to the likes of Julius Cae­sar will un­bur­den your driv­ing of same.

‘It’s not the cus­tomer’s job to fig­ure out what they want,’ Ap­ple’s Steve Jobs once said. Nope, in the case of the au­to­mo­tive in­dus­try it’s the cus­tomer’s job to fig­ure out how the hell to switch off what they don’t want...

Un­der all three bon­nets lurk ex­am­ples of that paragon of mid­dle-of-the-road per­for­mance for which the phrase hum-drum must surely have been coined to de­scribe it at idle, the four-cylin­der, 2.0-litre tur­bod­iesel.

Both 5-se­ries and V90 de­velop 187bhp, while the E-Class musters 191bhp, and all three gen­er­ate 295lb ft of torque, with4

The 5-se­ries is the in­est, most so­phis­ti­cated drive here, even in Sport mode

lit­tle to choose be­tween them in terms of straight-line per­for­mance. They are all smooth, quiet and ef­fort­less when it comes to in­hal­ing mo­tor­way miles.

Tra­di­tion­ally, you’d ex­pect a 2.0 diesel to have a power­band too nar­row, and a sound­track too un­ap­peal­ing, for it to en­cour­age bouts of lead foot. Yet mat­ing th­ese units to ut­terly oleagi­nous gear­boxes boast­ing more cogs than a Spiro­graph set, and lob­bing in Sport modes and – in the case of the 5-se­ries and E-Class – flappy pad­dles has man­aged to un­earth an ad­e­quate turn of speed and just a whiff of en­ter­tain­ment.

The E-Class’s en­gine is far qui­eter than the unit it re­places. In Sport mode with pad­dles to hand, changes be­tween the gears – all nine of them – are switch-click fast yet so smooth the rev counter re­mains the only record of their oc­cur­rence. The ride qual­ity’s so good that progress is in­vari­ably swifter than you sus­pect and suf­fi­ciently iso­lat­ing from the road sur­face to re­move al­most all the gris­tle from the blanc­mange.

The steer­ing’s nicely weighted and pleas­ingly ac­cu­rate but any at­tempts to hus­tle, with their at­ten­dant rapid changes in di­rec­tion, tend to elicit a fair de­gree of body move­ment, un­der­steer in the bows and vomit astern. Thank the fun­da­men­tally re­laxed at­ti­tude of the un­der­car­riage.

There’s an un­der­ly­ing firm­ness to the V90’s sus­pen­sion, most no­tice­able as it thumps over car park sleep­ing ana­con­das. It doesn’t float quite so much over crests as the E-Class, and there’s more road sur­face in­for­ma­tion com­ing through the seat of the pants, but cer­tainly not the helm.

The steer­ing is the Volvo’s worst dy­namic at­tribute; it’s dis­turbingly elas­tic in feel, and numb at top dead cen­tre. This makes the car feel re­luc­tant to turn in with any real alacrity and, though it evinces more out­right grip than the E-Class, it never presents as a car that wishes to be thrown around.

The ab­sence of flappy pad­dles here serves as ap­pro­pri­ate recog­ni­tion of this. The se­lec­tion of Dy­namic mode brings faster gearchanges and higher revs in each of them, a faster throt­tle re­sponse and added steer­ing weight (read, a tighter elas­tic band), but equally brings no de­sire to take greater con­trol over the pow­er­train.

All of which, de­spite its gen­tly over-slushy ap­proach to gearchanges, leaves the 5-se­ries as the finest, most so­phis­ti­cated drive here. Ride qual­ity is sub­lime; even in Sport mode there’s a sup­ple­ness and sub­tlety to progress at any speed.

Hap­pily, there’s an Adap­tive set­ting for the dampers which, tak­ing data from your in­puts, the road sur­face and the sat-nav’s take on the road ahead, works so well that the only rea­son to en­gage Sport mode is to sharpen the throt­tle and gearchange re­sponses. A good rea­son...

Ac­cu­rate, well-weighted steer­ing tin­gles pleas­ingly with road sur­face in­for­ma­tion, and the nose re­sponds to in­puts with an im­me­di­acy and in­volve­ment lack­ing in both E-Class and V90. This pro­motes smooth yet lithe and ag­ile progress that ut­terly be­lies the size of the car. If ever a ma­chine mer­ited stronger en­gine per­for­mance, it’s this.

So, as you will have dis­cerned, you have to nit-pick pretty as­sid­u­ously to find fault with any of th­ese three ad­mirable ma­chines.

As ever when deal­ing with cars of this qual­ity and class, each boasts at­tributes its ri­vals can only envy and ad­mire. The E-Class has had mas­tery of long-haul cos­set­ing stamped into its genes for gen­er­a­tions, and con­tin­ues that tra­di­tion in fine style here.

While the Ger­man duo main­tain the even strain of painstak­ing evo­lu­tion, the V90 smacks of a far more dra­matic, rev­o­lu­tion­ary ap­proach – par­tic­u­larly within the cabin – with which, on this show­ing, it is hard to ar­gue.

How­ever, not just be­cause they’ve fi­nally fixed the ruddy in­di­ca­tors but, rather, be­cause CAR is, ul­ti­mately, all about the sheer plea­sure of driv­ing, the qui­etly mar­vel­lous 5-se­ries Tour­ing sim­ply will not be ig­nored.

V90 sits hap­pily in this com­pany. There’s still a dy­namic gap, but it’s clos­ing

BMW lis­tened to com­plaints that the head-up dis­play wasn’t level. It now has tilt ad­just­ment, buried deep in a sub-menu. Con­sole not swapped for right-hand drive, so iDrive con­troller part-ob­scured by gear­lever, but easy ac­cess to gi­gan­tic auto-park­ing sen­sor. In­stru­ment bin­na­cle’s faux ana­logue dials trapped in place by real trim, so no chance of ad­just­ing size and place­ment.

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