Does anyone still want an estate car? The inexorable, illogical rise of the SUV and its crossover cousin might have displaced it as the default family car, but in a year bookended by rude shocks – the death of David Bowie, the ascension of Donald Trump – there’s something reassuring about the humble station wagon. They’re so stable that even when decorated with a death metal band, they’re not phased.
Not that the E-Class or V90 are particularly grunge spec. Merc prices start at £37,935, Volvo at £34,955, and that’s before you dip into options (less a dip, more an immersion in an Olympic-sized swimming pool). Thankfully, it’s the entry point into two of 2016’s most compelling and progressive automotive experiences.
Let’s examine them from the inside out. Merc’s design director Gorden Wagener told that the improvements in the new car’s interior actually propelled things forward two generations.
Wagener has had to bide his time at Mercedes, but there’s no question the new E-Class is both a testament to his talent and a great place to be. Granted, there’s still a Stuttgart taxi-spec version, whose instruments are likely coal-fired, with in-car entertainment powered by a hamster on a wheel. Ideal band transport, given the E’s inherent toughness. But level-up, and you are treated to saddle-stitched leather, sublime wood trim and a swooping canopy that contains a panoply of digitalised wonderment. Oh, and seats that look like Alicia Vikander in Ex Machina, and a car that can apparently drive itself, more of which later.
Into options land we must now venture for the 220d we feature here. Find £1,495 and you get Comand Online, which nets you the full media interface, a WLAN hotspot, HDD navigation and smartphone integration. Stump up another £495 and you can add a second 12.3in screen to the one you’ve already paid for. The main TFT instrument cluster is fully configurable, into Classic, Sport or Progressive forms, while the central infotainment screen can display navigation or audio, or both together in eye-popping resolution. Choose, too, from 64 different ambient interior colours. Suddenly, your living room starts to look very drab indeed, unless your name is Kevin McCloud.
The steering wheel incorporates a pair of thumb-sized touchpads on either spar, which I hated the first time I tried them, then decided I couldn’t do without (their response time can be tweaked so the haptic is less hyperactive). There’s also a rotary controller and a touch-sensitive spar where the gearlever once lived (ask your grandparents), which makes this either overkill or the touchiest-feeliest car ever made. Whatever, the E-Class’s cabin knocks rivals in Munich, Ingolstadt and Coventry into a cocked hat.
But what of Gothenburg? Well, not so fast. Step into the Volvo from the Mercedes, and you can’t help thinking the Germans are trying a little too hard. Somehow, the Swedish entry manages to be the antidote to 2016’s obsession with total connectivity and instant gratification while being totally connected and instantly gratifying. The seats are superb, both to look at and sit in, the driving position is faultless, and the Sensus Connect 9.0in portrait touchscreen nails the swipey Apple thing that has become the tech evolutionary equivalent of opposable thumbs.
Kids love it, of course, although in truth the sub-menus are fiddly, and the display isn’t immediately readable. Which means it risks taking your eyes off the road for too long, and I for one will always prefer actual physical contact when it comes to adjusting the climate control to the simulated sliders the V90 has.
Volvo gets around this by arming the car with so many safety systems it’s a wonder it isn’t too frightened to leave the driveway of a morning. This thing is more paranoid than Julian Assange and Edward Snowden put together; Run-off Road Mitigation and Protection (which applies steering if you’re about to fall off the road and tightens the seat-belts if all else foils), City Safety (which detects cyclists, people and large objects), Pilot Assist and adaptive cruise (which gets close to offering autonomous driving), in addition to blind spot detection, parking assistance and all the rest of it… it can all get a bit much, frankly, especially when the car has a propensity to perform an emergency stop before you do, and with sufficient suddenness to give the average Volvo estate owner a premature coronary (possibly causing an accident behind, which would be ironic).
You can turn all this stuff off.
So convincing are these cars as places to be that it’s easy to forget that their primary job is as transport. Not just for hairy humans, but their drums and guitars, too. The Volvo will swallow 560 litres with the seats up, 1,526 with them folded, and trades that last portion of practicality for a sharper-looking rear end. The Merc has it comprehensively licked here: it offers 640 and 1,820 litres, and is wide enough in beam to take a pallet.
(For those runs to the Majestic Wine warehouse.) It swallowed more amps, ergo it makes the better tour bus.
The 220d uses an all-new 2.0-litre turbodiesel with an aluminium block and oil-cooled steel pistons in reinforced bore linings, reversing the usual pattern to deliver reduced friction and better thermodynamic efficiency. Untreated emissions are dealt with via improved exhaust gas recirculation, and Mercedes has worked very hard to minimise NOx. The upshot is a combined economy figure of 72.4mpg, 102 C02s, and a future-proofed engine that should defy the challenge of ‘real driving emissions’.
Diesel is currently having to fight for its credibility, but the 220 is utterly vibration-free at motorway speeds, and doesn’t grumble much if you do bury your right foot and call on all 295 torques. The 9G-Tronic auto wafts through the ratios like there’s nothing but a mechanical soufflé inside, and progress is seamless unless you indulge your inner Nico. But why bother?
“When it comes to autonomous cars, we have to be the first; we cannot be a fast follower,” Mercedes CEO Dieter Zetsche told me earlier this year. Witness, then, Drive Pilot (another £1,695 please), which uses a stereo camera, radar sensors and a small box of tricks stashed inside the rear wing to accelerate, brake, and change lane without any input from the driver, on top of performing other safety functions.
The new E-Class also extends Merc’s ‘car-to-X communication’ smartphone and cloud-based infrastructure, relaying info or warnings from further up the road. It’s all highly admirable, and Dr Z will surely have his way in the fullness of time, but it also doesn’t fully work yet: my first go saw me, the very flawed human, intervening several times, and I certainly didn’t feel like trying it on the A40 out of London in the rush hour.
The Merc’s inconsistent ride quality is a more old-school glitch; on the optional air suspension, it’s unflustered over long-range bumps, but surprisingly abrasive on the gnarly, nasty sudden stuff we specialise in here in Britain. The chassis is terrific, though, and five ‘drive’ modes tweak steering, damping and powertrain across progressively sportier parameters. Mostly, the E220d Estate makes a very serious bid for ye olde ‘best real world car in the world’ accolade.
Then again, there’s the V90. “Refreshingly laid-back”, we concluded following our first encounter. Since then, I’ve driven both the AWD S90 saloon powered by the 235bhp D5 – which uses Volvo’s PowerPulse system to force compressed air into the intake to reduce turbo lag – and now the 190bhp/295 torques version that must get by without it, and those extra driven rear wheels. Let’s be clear: this is no rocket ship, and the standard composite leaf rear suspension and its avowedly comfort-oriented mien mean the Volvo is a car that lives life at its own pace. Which is… relaxed. This is a good thing.
The company’s decision to base its entire range around its Scaleable Product Architecture (SPA) chassis matrix and various iterations of 2.0-litre petrol and diesel engine seemed ballsy when first announced, but they really have found their own distinctive groove. You won’t want to go the long way home in this car, but you might also actually not want to get out of it once you’ve got there.
In a year in which all manner of certainties went right out of the window, here’s one we can hold onto: the middle of the road isn’t such a bad place to be, especially if you’re driving the new Volvo V90.
Mercedes E220d AMG Line Estate
Volvo V90 D4 Inscription