Do you really need an SUV? These three premium estate cars are just as spacious - but which one is the best all-round load lugger?
SUVs have currently usurped the estate as the practical family car du jour, but that’s not to say the traditional load-lugger has had its day – especially when it comes from a premier German brand.
The country’s Big Three have always excelled when it comes to producing large, sporting and well appointed wagons, which are cheaper to run than equivalent SUVs and better handling, too.
We’ve gathered the all-new Audi A4 Avant, recently revamped BMW 3 Series Touring and Mercedes C-Class Estate - all in diesel form - to see what comes out on top.
The skies the limit with these estates: From left to right, Audi A4 Avant, BMW 3 Series Touring, Mercedes-Benz C-Class Estate
On the road performance
Our damp test conditions singled out the front-wheel-drive Audi, which struggled for grip off the line more than its two rear-driven rivals. However, once up to speed all three performed strongly.
The Audi is the quietest at a cruise, with the others not as sound-proofed from diesel noise as this market point would lead you to expect. The BMW is the worse culprit, letting in the most noise from road and wind, too.
In terms of performance on the road, the BMW feels the most accomplished and is the most engaging car to drive
The Audi (left) is a close second for driving dynamics, though the steering feels a little more vague than the BMW. The Mercedes (right) has the most comfortable ride quality
Where the 3 Series does excel, though, is dynamically. Tidy steering, accomplished handling and a comfortable ride mean it handles its size well.
The A4 Avant is almost as good, but on country roads it loses some of the stability felt in motorway driving, because the steering lets things become a touch unsure. Still, the front grips the line well and handling is tidy and neat.
The Mercedes has the most comfortable ride, but handling at higher speeds could be better controlled and the steering a little more communicative.
On the inside, the Audi is the winner - it has the classiest and most robust feeling cabin - which is testament to the brand considering the company it keeps here
The BMW 3 Series (left) interior feels a little too plain while the dashboard in the Mercedes C-Class (right) we had on test creaked
Interior quality, practicality and running costs
The cabins are all well built, although the Mercedes’ dash creaks annoyingly when pressed.
The BMW’s interior styling is plainer than its rivals’ here, and the Audi’s is both beautifully appointed and beautifully put together.
All three rear spaces can easily carry six-foot passengers, although the 3 Series’ is slightly smaller, while the all-important load areas are of comparable generous sizes, ranging from 490 to 505 litres.
All can be extended using the 40/20/40 split-fold back seats, and each is easily accessible via a powered tailgate. Only the BMW lacks the automated electric luggage cover the other two have as standard.
At 505-litres, the boot capacity in the Audi is the biggest
The BMW (left) is overall the smallest car but it has the second largest boot, at 495 litres. The luggage compartment in the Mercedes (right) is the smallest of the lot at 490 litres
When it comes to spec, the C-Class is most generously kitted out. Especially impressive are the standard-fit all-round parking sensors, reversing camera and self-parking system, which would cost around £2000 to spec as options on its rivals.
And while the other two look and feel sportier, the Merc’s reasonably priced £1,495 AMG Line spec adds the requisite sports suspension and bodykit.
Running costs over three years are similar, but favour the Audi for cash buyers. The BMW suffers the highest depreciation and costs the most to tax.
The BMW might be the best to drive but it feels dated in comparison to the other two cars here. The cabin is bland and the level of refinement can't match the two German rivals
The Mercedes-Benz comes with plenty of spec and the best ride comfort, but even that's not enough to win this test
Cars & motoring verdict
The BMW 3 Series’ age counts against it here, as revamp or not it’s been around for four years. That shows in the noise, comparative lack of kit and slightly conservative cabin. We still love to drive it, but its disadvantages in this company are apparent.
Meanwhile, the Mercedes C-Class has a fabulous cabin, plenty of equipment, a very comfortable ride, and is refined and well specced. It’s cost-effective, as well.
The Audi A4 Avant is the outright winner, with the combination of a hushed ride, powerful engines and a responsive chassis making it the best estate of the three
Ultimately, though, the new Audi A4 beats its more than worthy competitors, with its superb build quality inside and out, refined powertrain and taut chassis. It truly can take in the miles in comfort, laden or unladen – and that’s what a large estate is all about.
PREMIUM ESTATE SHOOTOUT
AUDI A4 AVANT
Spec tested: 2.0 TDI 190 S line S tronic
Engine size: 2.0-litre diesel
List price: £35,830
Target Price: £32,042
Torque: 295lb ft
Top speed: 143mph
Fuel economy: 65.7mpg
CO2 emissions: 113g/km
Boot capacity: 505 litres
BMW 3 SERIES TOURING
Spec tested: 320d M Sport auto
Engine size: 2.0-litre diesel
List price: £35,760
Target Price: £30,833
Torque: 295lb ft
Top speed: 140mph
Fuel economy: 62.8mpg
CO2 emissions: 119g/km
Boot capacity: 495 litres
MERCEDES-BENZ C-CLASS ESTATE
Spec tested: C 220 d Sport auto
Engine size: 2.1-litre diesel
List price: £35,500
Target Price: £31,536
Torque: 295lb ft
Top speed: 142mph
Fuel economy: 64.2mpg
CO2 emissions: 114g/km
Boot capacity: 490 litres
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