Battle of the Bens… and Benz Ben Oliver
‘I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.’ and Ben Whitworth meet in a rural layby to swap cars
LAST MONTH’S BRIEF jaunt in Ben Oliver’s very shiny All-Terrain left me horribly disappointed with the way the Merc bounced and blancmanged its way along some challenging Welsh blacktop. As an enduring lover of both the Mercedes-Benz marque (despite its too-regular transgressions) and of big family-sized estates, the all-wheel drive E-Class should have been bang on my target. It missed by a Conwy mile. So once back in the sunny south, this Ben and that Ben swapped cars.
Despite the yawning chasm that separates their social standing, these high-rise haulers are identical in concept and execution: big swallow-all estates with torque-laden diesel grunt, four-wheel drive and a raised ride height for clambering over kerbs and tackling the craggy and acned paths that masquerade as roads in this so-called first world nation. They even wear similar body cladding to signify their faux Paris-Dakar credentials.
So, let’s start with that which made me shake my head. First up – the Mercedes’ eye-bleeding £61,260 price tag. Dear God. Sixty one large for a family estate. Agreed, the 350d is
nd bursting at the seams with high-tech safety, lighting, sound and driver-assistance kit, much of it standard, but it makes the £35,685 Insignia look very much like the bargain it arguably is. If I’m eBaying my kidney to afford business-class family transport, I’d also want something much sleeker and less chintzy than the dull-looking chrome-splattered All-Terrain. The Vauxhall’s starkly contrasting lipstick-red paintwork and matt plastic armour may not appeal to all, but look beyond the colour and it’s a far more arresting car to look at.
And to drive. Punt the Insignia along and, for a chunky topheavy estate, it rides and handles with a degree of athleticism and dynamism you don’t expect but you can certainly enjoy. Not so the Mercedes. Sure, it brings 254bhp, a stout 457lb ft of torque and intelligent all-corner grip to the go-faster party, but with a 2010kg kerbweight, fuzzy steering and a redlinereluctant engine, the E-Class is best kept to fast motorway and A-road work.
Where the Mercedes does claw back points – and lots of them – is where you’d expect it to. Levels of refinement are first class. It cocoons and cossets, where the Vauxhall merely transports. Its muscular V6 engine is so discreet and urbane you barely hear it above car park speeds and the satiny-smooth nine-speed ’box slips imperceptibly between gears, while the air-sprung suspension sponges away all but the worst intrusions. The vast single-screen dashboard may be an absolute eyesore to look at, but my, its clarity, seamless phone hook-up, and overall intuitive navigation through its central Comand controller are all wonderful. Same goes for the Burmester audio system, which despite horrific chrome doily speaker covers offers superb sound quality.
I guess I’ll miss the Mercedes, with its mile-eating refinement and software sophistication. But not nearly as much as I hoped I would.
OF THE MANY CAR Bens, I am the best upholstered but Ben Whitworth is easily the most premium with his dapper refinement and sharp creases. Yet somehow I’ve ended up with the more premium of our two jacked-up estates.
Functionally these cars are almost identical: both are just shy of five metres in length, but Ben’s Vauxhall Insignia Country Tourer is 39mm longer and provides a little more legroom at the expense of boot space, with 1665 litres to the 1820 litres of my Mercedes E350d All-Terrain. Yet despite their near-identical dimensions and intent, the Mercedes costs more than twice as much in standard trim, at £58,880 to the Vauxhall’s £28,435.
The Vauxhall narrows the price and kit gap with a lightly-used Corsa’s worth of options at £7250; the Mercedes adds ‘only’ £2380 as almost everything is standard. But the E-Class is still asking pretty much twice the price for essentially the same package. So why on earth would any sane person choose it over the Insignia?
The name is easily the least premium thing about Ben’s car: ‘Country Tourer’ sounds like it should be adorning the beige plastic sides of a four-berth caravan. It’s a good-looking car, though. The torpedo styling makes a virtue of its length, while the cabin borrows cues from supercars (the faux passenger grab handle) and is far more exuberant in form than my E-Class.
Both the Country Tourer and the All-Terrain suffer the same plastic wheelarch cladding which clumsily announces almost all such raised-ride-height wagons, but just looks to me like the unpainted, cheap-to-replace bumpers on a van. I’m told the red was chosen by the designers for press cars to make these hideous addenda stand out. I’d go for a grey to disguise them.
I like the Insignia’s chassis. It gets Flexride adaptive damping and the clever GKN Twinster AWD system which vectors torque across the rear axle with pair of electronically-controlled clutches. Together they give it a crisper turn-in than the autobahn-orientated Mercedes, while the smaller, 18-inch rims give better secondary refinement over coarse surfaces.
But ask more of the Vauxhall and it starts to struggle; once the suspension components begin to move you can feel them doing so through a bodyshell which is palpably less solid than the Merc’s. Overall the Mercedes is the far more soothing companion: the Insignia cannot approach the E-Class’s world-beating long-haul chops.
The Merc’s killer advantage lies in its software rather than its hardware. Swapping cars made me realise how much my perception of my own car is influenced by its information, assistance and entertainment systems, which are a class above the Vauxhall’s in both their individual competence and their seamless, near-sentient interaction.
In airline terms, the Insignia is premium economy, but the
nd E-Class really is the business. The competitive finance deals which have doubled Merc’s UK sales in the last five years may well soften that list price hammer blow. If I could stretch to one, I would.
‘The Insignia is premium economy, but
the E Class really is the business’
Two cars that are ready for anything. Two drivers ready for a nice cup of tea