Hands up those of you who spent their childhood in the back of a good old-fashioned family wagon?
There’ll be plenty, I’ll bet, although most will have a birth date settling comfortably in the meat of the 20th century.
Things are likely to be different for this generation of back-seat riders. Years from now they’ll be getting all nostalgic about mum and dad’s Territory, not the Falcon.
But the wagon, although pushed into the background by the rampant rise of SUVs, is not dead. Far from it. Holden’s Sportwagon has proved a hit and a variety of brands – including Mazda, Ford, Volkswagen, Hyundai and Subaru – all offer wagon variants.
For buyers with a little more cash to throw around, there’s now a BMW 3-Series Touring to ponder. We grabbed one to find out how it stacks up against Audi’s A4 Avant and Mercedes-Benz’s C-Class Estate.
Audi A4 2.0 TFSI Quattro Avant
The current A4 Avant landed in 2009 and was updated last year with new engines and a sharper value focus but no significant alteration to its tasteful good looks.
Here we are sampling a 2.0 TFSI quattro, the top dog of the two-tier petrol line-up, ignoring the sport S4 and RS4 variants. It kicks off from $67,500 plus on-road costs and – with satnav, leather, power seats, auto stop-start and 18-inch alloys, plus this group’s only keyless entry and start, and tri-zone climate control – is decent value. Its biggest omission is a reversing camera, which adds $900.
The Avant has a 490-litre load space that expands to 1430 litres with the back seats folded, and includes a floor that can be reversed to make a waterproof tray.
The Audi is competitively roomy in this company, though the low, hard back bench is a bit tough on posteriors and the front pews are too flat for optimum support.
Mostly, though, the A4’s cabin is special. There’s little to make it stand out from countless other Audis but it’s typically well executed, beautifully put together and the logic of its switchgear is hard to fault.
The 155kW 2.0-litre turbo petrol four is also a charmer. Kick it in the slats and it responds like a grown-up VW Golf GTI, accelerating eagerly and unleashing a volley of satisfying pops as it slams through the gears of the slick seven-speed double-clutch auto.
The A4’s fuel economy of 7.1 litres per 100 kilometres, however, trails the competition and so did its 11.2L/100km test average. While our mostly open-road test played to the advantages of its gearbox, we know it can be a little hesitant in some stop-start urban situations.
There’s room for improvement in the driving, too. The suspension fidgets over smaller bumps, and really big bumps can upset its balance, though its cushioning isn’t bad.
Push it hard and it rolls more than the other cars here, while steering that is too light and waffly adds to the slightly disconnected feel. On the positive side, the quattro all-wheel-drive system offers great traction and a feeling of security in slippery conditions.
How much? From $67,500 (auto only) plus on-road costs
Engine 2.0-litre turbocharged 4-cyl. 155kW/350Nm
Fuel use/emissions 7.1L/100km and 163g CO2/km
How safe? Five-star NCAP rating. Eight airbags, stability control, parking sensors
What’s it got? Tri-zone climate control, power front seats, leather, keyless entry/start, satnav, CD/MP3 stereo, Bluetooth, 18-inch alloys.
Pros Exquisite cabin, engagingly rorty engine, competitive utility.
Cons Reversing camera costs extra, handling and economy fall short, back-seat comfort could be improved.
Our score 3.5/5
BMW 320i Touring
The 320i Touring sits on an altogether lower plane than the A4 Avant 2.0 TFSI quattro and C250 Estate we were supplied with for this comparison. But with the 328i Touring not yet on sale, it was this or nothing.
Pricing starts at $62,600 plus on-road costs, so it’s a more expensive option than an A4 1.8 TFSI Avant ($58,500) or C200 Estate ($60,600), but it has features those cars don’t, such as a power tailgate and a standard reversing camera.
How would a 328i stack up? Well, prices will start from $69,900 when it lobs midyear and it will include satnav, leather, power seats, auto stop-start and that tailgate in its kit bag. But it will also have fewer airbags than its rivals (six) and no Bluetooth audio streaming (it adds $500).
Countering that is a 180kW 2.0-litre turbo petrol four – which we know from the sedan and absolutely love – that sets the standards for power and economy.
Even in 135kW 320i form, the Touring is a willing performer. While beaten here for outright pace, it delivers usefully eager response, elastic low-rev flexibility and official economy of just 6.2L/100km (we averaged 9.1L/100km on test). An impeccably adept eight-speed auto means it’s rarely caught off the boil.
The BMW’s boot is also the biggest here, if only – at 495 litres and 1500 litres respectively – by a trifling amount. It’s the most user-friendly, too, with a back window that can be opened separately from the tailgate, deep underfloor bins (run-flat tyres mean there’s no spare) and a 40-20-40 split-fold back seat that offers more versatility than the 60-40 set-ups on its rivals.
Up front, it’s not quite as touchy feely as the Audi in terms of material quality but it’s ergonomically sensible and counters with more interesting design.
We can’t vouch for the standard seats but our car’s optional sports numbers (fitted as part of an M Sport package) were wonderfully supportive and pampering. However, while the back seat has good leg and foot space, the bench – like the Audi’s – is too low and hard for optimum comfort.
Our test car was also skewed a little by running M Sport suspension and 19-inch rubber rather than the standard set-up. It delivered the sharpest turn-in, heaps of grip and rolled less than the other cars when pushed hard, while soaking up small bumps and undulations with more delicacy than BMWs with sports suspension of recent times.
That initial bump compliance, however, gives way to a much sterner reading of sharp patchworks and – if a bump is big, sharp and hit hard enough – even a touch of crudeness.
Price From $62,600 (auto only) plus on-road costs
Engine 2.0-litre turbocharged 4-cyl. 135kW/270Nm
Fuel use/emissions 6.0L/100km and 145g CO2/km
How safe? Five-star NCAP rating. 6 airbags, stability control, parking sensors, reversing camera
What’s it got? Dual-zone climate control, power front seats, power tailgate, CD/MP3 stereo, Bluetooth, 17-inch alloys.
Pros Sweet and frugal drivetrain, enjoyably agile handling, versatile and user-friendly load space.
Cons Stern ride on poor surfaces, back-seat comfort could be better.
Our score 4/5
Mercedes-Benz C250 Avantgarde Estate
At $67,600 plus-on-road costs, the C250 Estate runs the A4 close for price and – with satnav, leather, power seats, auto stop-start and 18-inch alloys – gets a similar array of kit. It doesn’t have that car’s smartkey or tri-zone climate control but fights back with internet connectivity, more airbags (nine) and a reversing camera.
On balance, that’s probably enough to put it ahead. It’s probably also better value than the phantom 328i, which only really has its power tailgate to show for its higher price.
The Benz isn’t easy to fault functionally. In terms of outright capacity, the boot is much the same as the Audi and BMW (it measures 485 litres, or 1465 litres with the back seats folded) and it gets a handy luggage or security blind that folds with the seats rather than having to be removed. And where the Audi has a space-saver spare wheel and the BMW has none, it comes with a proper full-sizer.
It also makes a strong back-seat argument with a bench that offers superior location, support and comfort to its rivals. That makes up for it feeling a little tighter, though our back-seat rider reported no serious space issues.
Up front, the C’s slabby, upright dash and clunky foot-operated parking brake give it a slightly dated ambience but the seats are respectably comfy and supportive, and there’s nothing in the switchgear, instruments or fit and finish to leave a nasty taste.
The 150kW 1.8-litre turbo petrol engine has excellent flexibility and plenty of power when you put the foot down. Its 6.9L/100km official economy rating is marginally superior to the Audi’s and it was a little thriftier on test, averaging 10.6L/100km. If it’s not quite as sporty-sounding as the Audi and BMW, and the seven-speed auto can occasionally be slow to respond, it’s still a very decent thing.
The same can be said of the way it drives. The steering isn’t razor-sharp but it’s nicely linear and has good feel. The suspension delivers decent big-bump cushioning so – while it’s not quite as agile or flat through smooth corners as the BMW – its behaviour doesn’t degenerate in line with the tarmac. To these ears, it also seemed marginally quieter on coarse-chip roads than its hard-to-split rivals.
Price From $67,600 (auto only) plus on-road costs
Engine 1.8-litre turbocharged 4-cyl. 150kW/310Nm
Fuel use/emissions 6.9L/100km and 161g CO2/km
How safe? Five-star NCAP rating. 9 airbags, stability control, parking sensors, reversing camera
What’s it got? Dual-zone climate control, power front seats, leather, satnav, CD/DVD/MP3 stereo, Bluetooth, 18-inch alloys.
Pros Good value, nicely balanced ride and handling, comfy back seat, competitive utility.
Cons Starting to feel old inside, engine not quite a benchmark, seven-speed auto can be a bit slow.
Our score 4/5
Sorry, Audi, but your A4 Avant is this contest’s bridesmaid, even though it’s a capable package with solid value, the usual lush Audi cabin and brilliantly engaging engine.
No, it comes down to the BMW and Benz, which offer similar functionality and a perceptible step up in driving appeal without an unreasonable price premium.
There’s absolutely no doubt a whole lot of buyers are going to be perfectly comfortable, relaxed and happy in a C250. It remains a great compact prestige wagon despite its odd blemish and age-related wrinkle.
The BMW’s inferior back-seat comfort, occasionally stern ride and odd minor omission mean it’s far from perfect. But it also feels more contemporary than its arch-rival, is that bit more user-friendly inside, marginally more engaging to drive and its drivetrains are closer to state-of-the-art.
Which leaves us with a choice of a spotless, slightly ageing all-rounder or a more contemporary rival with some advantages but also a few pimples.
It’s not an easy call, and made harder by the fact that we’re not really comparing apples with apples here.
However, while mounting a serious case against the Mercedes is a devilishly hard task, the BMW lifts the bar in enough areas to have a small edge. It’s the compact prestige wagon we’d be buying, niggles and all.