Cameron McGavin August 09, 2011
Adam is trying to pin down a comfortable, fun-driving prestige wagon.
Adam is looking to replace his 2005 Subaru Liberty 3.0R-B sedan with a new or near-new prestige wagon.
He wants plenty of space for his family and everything they need to carry, and he’d also like it to be fun to drive without too much of a comfort sacrifice on longer trips.
Adam has Audi’s A4 Avant 2.0 Turbo, BMW’s 323i Touring, Mercedes-Benz’s C250 CGI Estate and VW’s Passat V6 FSI wagon in his sights but doesn’t know which one will suit him best.
The budget: About $70,000
Honestly, there isn’t a dog to be found on Adam’s shortlist, so he can count on getting a package that satisfies his basic needs.
One car, though, has to get the chop here and we’ve gone for the A4.
Why? Well, it’s far from a bad thing (indeed, it’s quite good) but in this company it doesn’t manage a significantly enticing selling point. Both the BMW and Benz are more fun, and the VW caters better to utilitarian concerns while offering similar design values and technology.
BMW 323i Touring, from $64,999
The 3-Series has long been the driver’s choice in this segment and it’s still hard to beat if you value agile, rewarding handling above all else.
However, while the 323i’s 140kW 2.5-litre six is sweet and sounds great – and can be had with the only manual gearbox of this group – it isn’t amazingly flexible or economical. Nor is the suspension especially adept at pampering occupants.
Those who put a price on the latest design might also find the BMW – which has been around since 2006 and is due for replacement soon – just a little passé. But its space, practicality and safety, while no longer cutting edge, are on the ball, and value is sharper than it was at the start of its life.
Mercedes-Benz C250 BlueEfficiency Estate, from $67,031
The current C-Class was already a good thing and a recent update has made it even better.
All models are now sharper looking and boast a higher-quality cabin ambience, more technology and sharpened specification. C250 models, meanwhile, get a new 150kW 1.8-litre turbo four/seven-speed auto drivetrain that outperforms the bigger naturally aspirated engine in the 323i while drinking less.
The Benz isn’t eye-wideningly engaging through the bends but it runs the BMW close while being quieter and more comfortable. No issues with safety, either, but the slightly tight back seat and engine’s bland soundtrack might sour the taste.
Read Drive’s Mercedes-Benz C-Class reviews: Mercedes-Benz C-Class first drive.
Volkswagen Passat V6 FSI Highline wagon, from $57,990
The semi-prestige Passat lives a segment below the A4, 3-Series and C-Class, but buyers who put value above badge appeal will find a lot to like.
It’s the biggest car here, with the roomiest cabin, the largest boot and by far the strongest performance from its snarly 220kW 3.6-litre V6. It has toys like heated seats and switchable suspension, items that cost extra on the BMW and Benz, yet costs less.
So what’s the catch? Well, in terms of safety, technology, functionality and refinement, not a lot. But it is the thirstiest here, the least entertaining to drive and, in this company, has a comparative dearth of street cred.
Read Drive’s Volkswagen Passat reviews: Volkswagen Passat first drive.
Remove emotion from the equation and the Passat wins. It offers the most space, performance and equipment, and for most buyers will be more than good enough to drive, yet costs the least. Its one significant flaw here – the thirst of its sporty V6 – is balanced by the availability of thriftier petrol and diesel models.
The BMW, contrastingly, is the heart’s choice, the car you’d most want to drive on a challenging road, but it also has niggles that stop it from mounting a real attack on the top step of the podium.
That honour can only go to the Benz. It isn’t the quickest, roomiest, most rewarding or sharpest value here, or perfect, but if you want a prestige wagon that seamlessly caters to the full breadth of emotional and rational expectations you won’t be disappointed.