Model: Mercedes-Benz C320 CDI estate
Price: from £32,600 approx (range from £24,000 approx).
On sale: spring 2008
Engine: 2,987cc, six cylinders, 24 valves, turbodiesel, 224bhp at 3,800rpm, 376lb ft at 1,600-2,800rpm
Transmission: seven-speed auto gearbox, rear-wheel drive
Performance: 152mph, 0-62 in 7.9sec, 38.2mpg official average
This is a two-faced car, but there is no ambiguity about the message from its other end. It is is one of volume and versatility, of the fact that the new Mercedes C-class estate is the most load-capacious of all the compact estate cars with covetable badges, of the usefulness that comes when the tailgate is made near-vertical again in the way estate-car tails used to be before they pretended to be fastback coupés.
That tail verticality goes rather well with the faces' profiles, too, more vertical than they in the previous-generation C-class. Mercedes says this is to make the front end more imposing, but it also helps a lot with today's design legislation.
So the tail is bluff, but the estate still has the racily rising but convex waistline and the daringly diving lower body-sides of the saloon. And as in that car, the shape cleverly contrives to possess both the gravitas demanded by Mercedes-Benz traditionalists and the visual dynamism sought by those lured away from another brand. It's the face that sets the required tone, trad with three-pointed star aloft or slatted-sporty with the badge in the middle of the grille like those of Mercedes sports cars.
The aft-end design makes this a very good-looking estate car, much shapelier than the one before it. It's inside the ample load bay, though, that this new estate car stabilises the quality wobble that slightly spoils the saloon and undermines the notion of a rock-solid, last-for-ever Benz.
The boot area is cheaply made in the saloon, with ugly hinges and a nasty handle to the boot-floor. In the estate car, all is fixed, with all fittings expensively and durably finished.Yet better, there is a pair of channels along the edges of the load bay, into which you can clamp the posts which form part of the "Easy-Pack" range of useful options. You can have pull-out tapes to curtail cargo movements, or a phalanx of clip-together shopping bags. Or a tailgate able to open and close automatically via its own inside or outside buttons, further buttons in the front cabin, or buttons on the ignition key.
The pull-out blind which covers the load bay is retracted by pressing down on its rear edge, upon which it retracts in a smooth, damped manner. The same construction also contains a pull-up dog guard. But it's a shame the rear seats don't fold perfectly flat.
In other respects the C-class estate is much like the saloon. That means a range of eight engines, five petrol and three diesel, and standard six-speed manual transmissions on all models except the C350, whose 272bhp, petrol-fuelled V6 comes only with a seven-speed automatic. This is available with the other V6 engines (C280 petrol, C320 CDI turbodiesel), while the four-cylinder units (C180 and C200 both with superchargers, the C230 and the C220 CDI) can have six-speed autos. History suggests that the great majority of UK-market cars will be automatics.
I have only sampled one variation of the estate, but it's likely to be the best, if far from the most popular. I couldn't try the four-cylinder petrol versions because too few had been made for them to be available for test. The same applied to the C200 CDI, and I failed to get my hands on a C220 CDI. So I settled for a C320 CDI Avantgarde, the sporty-faced C-class that is sold as the Sport in the UK.
It would be a good test; the Avantgarde has slightly lower, firmer suspension than the Classic (now SE in the UK) and the wood-trimmed Elegance models, and estate cars sometimes have firmer suspension than saloons to cope with heavy loads. So if the C-class ride comfort I have praised was to be compromised, this was the car to reveal it.
No need to worry. The estate car rides beautifully, with a well-damped all-of-a-pieceness that makes you feel secure and serene. The particularly good thing about the C-class, though, estate and saloon, is the way this calm, composed, confident ride is matched to unusually engaging steering. It helps if your C-class is an Avantgarde/Sport, because the steering's speed of response is increased, but there is a precise, proportional response to inputs and a weighting which really makes you feel in contact with the road.
Central to the way the C-class feels to drive are its suspension dampers, part of the so-called Agility Control system which allows supple suspension movements when the car is driven gently and firmer ones to damp the bigger movements that come with keener driving. It's simple, electronics-free, very effective and helps disguise the weight of that big 3.0-litre, 224bhp turbodiesel in the nose.
This is a very pleasant engine, quiet and sophisticated-sounding and not at all diesel-like apart from its effortless pulling power. Its efforts were sent in my test car via that seven-speed automatic gearbox, and the torque and the multiplicity of ratios meant there was never any point in intervening manually because the gearbox did the job perfectly by itself. And so an automatic should, but success is more likely with a hefty, high-torque engine such as this one.
You'll gather by now that I like the C-class estate. I like its solid Mercedes feel, the combination of flair and sobriety in its interior, its ultra-clear instruments. Some of the cabin's textures look coarser than you might expect in a Mercedes, but that's a deliberate design decision rather than a shortfall in quality. There are plenty of padded surfaces, precision in the switchgear and some very clever optional electronics – including a voice-activated sat-nav with a pretty remarkable knowledge of place-name pronunciations.
Alfa 159 Sportwagon 2.4 JTDm Q4 Lusso £27,750:
Five-cylinder turbodiesel is smaller than rivals' engines, but is smooth and punchy. Four-wheel drive gets ample torque cleanly to the road.
Audi A4 3.0 TDI quattro Avant £30,075:
Another with 4WD, and V6 turbodiesel is most powerful in the class. Audi interiors are admired for quality but this isn't the roomiest estate.
BMW 330d SE Touring, £31,465:
Rear-wheel drive, similarly satisfying to drive. It's less load-capacious but has a separate opening rear window. Straight-six is powerful.