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

CAR (UK) - - Our Cars - BEN WHIT­WORTH

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.

BEN OLIVER

‘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

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