Road Test: Audi and Mercedes estates

High-flying shooting brakes

By the nature of its very name, the cars Motor Sport is mainly concerned with are all at the fastest end of the scale. Yet coupes and convertibles are of limited use to many people, and even a four or five-door saloon may not be capacious enough for the large family or the small business. So does carrying capacity rule out performance? We brought two large estates together to find out – the conventional Mercedes 300TE and Audi’s 200 Avant quattro.

Perhaps it is significant that the three usual terms for cars like these all derive from a background of affluence: the terms “shooting brake” and “station wagon” have been overtaken by the broader phrase “estate car”, but all three are redolent of country houses and gentlemanly outdoor pursuits. This may tie-in with the UK’s exceptionally high proportion of sales of such vehicles, since every Englishman (and I make the intra-national distinction deliberately) is popularly supposed to aspire to a life in the country.

At first sight the Mercedes 300TE and Audi’s 200 Avant quattro may seem far apart in concept, but they are of similar carrying capacities, have about the the same power and torque, and the price gap can easily be closed by adding the many and expensive extras to the £23,900 Mercedes to meet the Audi’s near the £29,000 price tag; in fact our test example of the former make totalled £27,927 once its metal paint, alloy wheels, extra head restraints, rear child’s seat, and electric goodies were loaded on.

Powering the two-wheel drive Mercedes 300 is a particularly smooth six-cylinder in-line engine of 2962cc, fed by a mechanical/electronic injection system and a seperate electronic management which incorporates a diagnosis socket. Valves are hydraudically adjusted, and all the ancillaries such as the alternator and air-conditioning compressor are driven from a single V-belt, claimed to reduce noise and friction. Output is 188bhp, produced at 5700rpm, and the torque figure is a very healthy 191 lb ft at a middling 4400rpm.

Although a five-speed manual box is a no-cost option, standard issue is a four-speed auto with lock-up in top, and sport or economy programmes, selected by a small switch beside the gear selector.

Anti-lock braking can be added to the powerful all-disc system, but I especially disliked the foot-pedal which engages the separate drum parking brakes. It is released with a bang by tugging a handle on the dash which gives a sort of fly-off action – all right for standing start dashes, but it is an all or nothing idea with no possibility of smoothly catching the car at an uphill junction. Obviously designed for the lazy driver who sits at the lights in gear with his foot on the brake, it is a particularly bad idea for a manual car.

Extensive research gives the latest series of middle-sized Mercs good resistance to the sort of angled impact which is common in crashes, and neat as the rubber bumpers are, they will absorb low-speed collisions without damage. Window glass is not quite flush, but added to careful door seals and the streamlined integral roof-rails, overall drag has been kept very low.

Front wheel location is by a strut and a separate spring acting on the wishbone, while at the rear is found the complex independent scheme locating each wheel with five links. This very sophisticated system provides unparalleled stability and comfort with soft coil springing.

Under the Avant things are more straightforward: Macpherson struts in the bow, with a tubular axle on trailing arms located by a Panhard rod and acting through coil springs behind.

The unconventional Audi five-cylinder sohc engine produces 182 bhp in turbo intercooler form, and torque is similarly a little less than its rival six, at 185 lb ft, though this peaks at a commendably low 3600 rpm. Bosch K-jetronic injection introduces the fuel.

This longish unit reaches right forward to the nose of the car, so that the radiator is alongside it; behind the front axle is the gearbox, from where a central differential drives forward through the hollow layshaft to the front differential, and back via the prop-shaft to the rear differential. Torque split is fixed at 50/50, and the rear or centre diffs can be locked pneumatically with console push-buttons.

From inside, very different characters emerge, both in road behaviour and interior appointments. Even shutting the door with its satisfying thud sets the tone of the Mercedes, in which minute thought, quality engineering, and careful assembly are everywhere apparent. Every control is large and solid, from the pull-to-open door handles to the chunky catches which release the side storage panels in the boot— even with the car fully loaded, these allow access to spare wheel, jack, warning triangle and the First Aid kit which comes as standard.

Climb into the Audi after the Mercedes and it is at first hard to believe that it costs nearly £5000 more; handles and switches might have come from the meanest Golf, the plastic moulding fails to look appropriate to a £28,000 car, and the silver plastic trimmings detract from instead of adding to the impression of quality. This sounds hard, because I know that the engineering of the big Audi is of a particularly high standard, but it simply does not show through in the way that Stuttgart manages it.

Of course, both of these cars are the most expensive in the range; give up the turbo, the 4WD, and the electric extras and an Avant comes down to £14,500, at which price one might not grouse at the appointments. However, a base Mercedes 200T is only £1000 more than this, and will inevitably simply feel more of a car. Not all designers appreciate that luxury means more than just being well-equipped.

But the Mercedes is by no means an easy victor in this contest: despite looking so comfortable, its wide seats are exceptionally unyielding and not very supportive, whereas those in the Audi give much better comfort over long or short journeys. And although I commend the 300TE’s interior, it does include a large expanse of unpleasant orange wood veneer which, real though it may be, looks like genuine imitation plastic. The rest of the fascia is black, the only proper colour, with light grey below; this breaks up the expanse, whereas the Avant spreads the same slate-grey plastic all over the cabin, emphasising how much there is.

Panels of check cloth inserted into the shiny black leathercloth on the Audi’s seats and doors look rather precious (one presumes that the Gucci version will be available soon), and the chrome switches for the electric seats look especially cheap; but the Avant system remembers four different combinations of position against the Mercedes’ two. On the other hand, the latter can include the steering column and the head restraints, and uses a clever 3D diagram on the door to control the movement.

Turning to the rear compartment, the Mercedes is undoubtedly the more complete: both cars have the usual split for the folding seat-backs, but the Audi’s simply fold on top of the squab, leaving a slightly irregular surface, whereas the other goes the whole way, and could hardly be easier to use. No seat-back levers to fumble for; simply slide a hand under the squab and lift — a large integral catch releases both halves of the mechanism, allowing the base to tilt up and the back to drop down and lock in place, leaving a perfectly flat floor. A quick-release lever also enables the squab to be removed completely.

True, the three (optional) headrests must be pulled out, but of course there is somewhere in the seat base to store them. Behind are two panels which fold out to make the extra bench seat; the equivalent space in the Audi is used for the spare tyre which is a space-saver, although the well is huge and would easily hold a full-size wheel. Both cars have large and unobstructed rear openings, and the 300TE adds another luxury touch with its electric door closer – no need to slam the hatch, because once it is within an inch of closing a motor takes over and pulls it shut. Again, both come with a luggage cover, but here Audi have had the better idea with a concertina affair which remains at any intermediate position, while its rival has a simple roller blind; however, while the latter folds down with the seat, the former stays in place, somewhat restricting the load-space.

Dashboard layouts are fairly similar on both cars, with a deep central console, but where the Avant has four stalks for the most important functions, the other incorporates a big rotary knob on the dash for the lights turn it for side and headlamps, pull it for front and rear fog lamps. A single stalk covers indicators, flash, wash and wipe, and a row of console buttons deals with the ancillaries. Driver and passenger may choose differing temperatures thanks to the two thumb-wheels looking after this, and a good flow of fresh air is available from the central vents.

Audi’s designers have made their car’s dash look more currently fashionable with big square buttons, a trip computer, and their Auto-Check device which monitors a range of items down to windscreen washer fluid level, and lights up “OK” if everything is. On the left are a stalk for lights and one for indicators, flash, and cruise control, while opposite you have wipe/wash and a separate lever for hazard warning flashers.

Instrument visibility is good, and though the wheel seems rather high, the electric seat quickly rises to suit. Air-conditioning is integrated into the Electronic Climate Control, on which the temperature is set by push-buttons and does not fluctuate despite outside circumstances: but even on the bi-level position, the air to the face was too hot and dry.

Further down the console, the radio/cassette has a neat rocker tuning switch, but is so low down that the driver needs to duck his head to read the display. Mercedes scores here for positioning, and also by providing one of the expensive but excellent Becker units, which seem to be the only in-car units to display good logical ergonomic design.

It would be unfair to expect the big Mercedes to sprint like a sports-car especially as an auto-box is standard wear, but in fact it did turn in very fast acceleration times (0-60mph in 9.5sec) through its four-speed plus lock-up box, although I could not measure any real difference in performance between the ‘sport’ and `economy’ modes. Its generous torque makes it easy to drive, though kick-down took such a long time that flicking the lever into ‘3’ was always quicker, and the brakes, while rather over-boosted, repeatedly disposed of high speeds quickly and quietly. As is usual with the Stuttgart make, the wheel is needlessly large, especially as the system is so very light anyway.

One of the Mercedes’s strongest suits is its overall refinement: the in-line six is supremely smooth at all revs, and other mechanical noises are almost completely sealed off from the fortunate occupants whether rolling over urban pot-holes or swallowing main roads at well over a mile-a-minute. Air, too, slips over the shell with little fuss; this big machine is slipperier than its upright profile suggests.

On the negative side, it feels extremely soft, and while the complex rear suspension minimises the handling effects of body movement, it is difficult to make use of its good handling without upsetting any passengers. This is probably the biggest difference between our two express carriers: for overall comfort and effortless progress, the Mercedes succeeds admirably. But with a sporting driver at the helm, the Audi will begin to shine.

Having four-wheel drive is of course a major plus: its astonishing traction on water or mud should not be a surprise, but more than that is the quattro’s sensation of pulling itself around a tight bend, more apparent than with a front-wheel drive car. Where the Mercedes will be scrubbing rubber off those big front tyres, the Avant sails round without protest. Yes, it does ultimately understeer, but unlike an FWD car, it is not going to lose all steering and braking if its driver makes a major mistake. The risk of lift-off oversteer is banished, too; instead the vehicle simply runs a little wider.

Yet the Audi does not quite succeed in feeling like a sports-saloon; it feels firmly sprung compared to the Mercedes, but while the degree of body movement is less, it is also less progressive. It wants to roll left or right, almost as if all that glass is making it top-heavy. The steering, too, is rather lifeless, and goes vague on braking, while the brakes, which use a hydraulic rather than a vacuum servo to cope with ABS, are wooden in action. For a steady pedal pressure, the amount of retardation seems to vary — not a pleasant sensation. Their effect, however, is perfectly respectable.

Some turbo lag is apparent, but once on boost the Avant rockets forwards, so fast indeed that it is almost impossible to use full boost in first without triggering the rev-limiter, a very unpleasant experience since the car kangaroos violently as the driveline backlashes against the engine. In higher gears, too, one quickly learns to be wary as the needle whips round the dial after a moment’s pause for breath.

With a little familiarisation it is possible to forget the acres of space behind and drive the Audi very quickly indeed; more than once I glanced in the mirror and remembered with a start what I was driving. Perhaps the gearchange is notchy, and fifth to fourth hard to find, but the high seating position and good view all inspire confidence. A portion of the rear view is blocked by the glass mounted spoiler, but the canted window seems to stay clean.

Audi’s rationale for the choice of a five cylinder layout was that it is smoother than a four but less complex and lighter than a six, on the same basis that pilots used to say that the ideal number of engines for an airliner was more than two and less than four. Unfortunately, the company’s success at pushing into the higher executive market has pitched it against six-cylinder rivals rather than four, and there is no doubt that, working hard, the five is lagging badly.

Stepping from the six-cylinder Merc into the Avant was a revelation as far as engine noise goes: in place of serene quiet was a gruff rumble, rising to a disappointing harshness at 5000rpm and on up to the 6900rpm cut-off. It is quite a pleasant, off-beat sound, but you can feel it as well as hear it. This does not make the car tiring by any means: at a steady 80mph it settles to a low level of noise which is not far above the Mercedes; it is only under acceleration that its composure is spoilt.

For once it is not necessary to make allowances for rates of exchange as our duo both originate in the same country. Yet it is obvious that different priorities are held in Ingolstadt and Stuttgart: Audi’s pursuit of outright performance through advanced technology, is obvious in its advertising and in the metal. From the ingenious flush windows, through the extensive use of light alloys, to its pioneering use of 4WD and ABS, the cars sell on technical interest, and especially their exceptional fuel-efficiency.

Stuttgart, however, is selling a name, and while the Mercedes development budget is a huge one, their advances are incorporated without comment into the product; it is simply expected that each new model will be safer, use less fuel, and be better equipped than the last. Surface conventionality is central, even if underneath sophisticated systems are to be needed to maintain that image. This philosophy puts efficiency before fashion, and shows in the large solid detailing throughout the cars — quality that the customer can literally feel.

I have no hesitation in labelling the Mercedes as the more satisfying car to sit in and use; but its soft ride and hard seats are a facet of the German taste which I cannot absorb. On the other hand, although I have found more fault with the Audi because it does not accomplish all its objectives as thoroughly, it would in the end be my choice because of its more dynamic nature. It may have mean detailing, but to be able to carry freight at such speeds is a luxury of a different sort. GC

Model: Mercedes-Benz 300TE.
Importer: Mercedes-Benz (UK) Ltd, Milton Keynes, Bucks.
Type: Four-door five/seven seat estate.
Engine: Six-cylinder in line, sohc, 2962cc (88.5 x 80.3 mm). 2 valves per cyl, mechanical/electronic fuel injection, 188 bhp at 5700 rpm, 191 lb ft torque at 4400 rpm. Optional catalytic convertor.
Transmission: Front engine, rear wheel drive. Four-speed automatic ‘box with sport/economy modes. Five-speed manual available at no extra cost.
Suspension: (front) Macpherson struts with lower wish-bones. (rear) five-link independent system, coil springs, anti-roll bar, telescopic dampers with self-levelling.
Brakes: Servo assisted dual-circuit, discs all round, ventilated at front. Foot operated parking brake, anti-lock system standard.
Steering: Power-assisted rack and pinion. Hydraulic damper.
Wheels and tyres: Light alloy rims, 195/65 VR15 tyres.
Performance: 0-60 mph, 9.5 sec. 30-50 mph, 3.7 sec. 50-70 mph, 6.5 sec. 70-90, 8.1 sec. Max speed, 131 mph.
Economy: approx 21 mpg overall.
Price: £23,900, plus test car options: alloy wheels, £682; rear head restraints, £157; fire extinguisher, £68; metallic paint, £498; rearward facing seat, £567; electric front seats with memory, £694; electric sunroof, £734; tow bar, £536; outside temperature gauge, £91. Total: £27,927.
Summary: Careful thought is obvious in every detail of this handsome car. Fine handling compromised by soft ride, light steering and hard seats.

Model: Audi 200 Avant Quattro.
Importer: Audi Volkswagen, Milton Keynes, Bucks.
Type: Four-door five seat 4WD estate.
Engine: Five-cylinder in line, sohc, 2144cc (79.5 x 86.4 mm). Bosch. K-jetronic fuel injection, electronic ignition with anti-knock device, turbocharger with intercooler. 182 bhp at 5700 rpm, 185 lb ft torque at 3600 rpm.
Transmission: Front engine, permanent four-wheel drive. Single dry-plate clutch, five-speed manual gearbox, lockable central and rear differentials.
Suspension: (front) Macpherson struts, anti-roll bar. (rear) Torsion-crank axle, coil springs and telescopic dampers, Panhard rod, anti-roll bar.
Brakes: Hydraulic brake servo. Discs all round, ventilated at front. Antilock system standard.
Steering: Power-assisted rack and pinion.
Wheels and tyres: 6J 15 light alloy wheels, 205/60 VR 15 tyres.
Performance: 0-60 mph, 8.2 sec. 30-50 mph, 2.7 sec. 50-70 mph, 3.9 sec. 70-90 mph, 5.1 sec. Maximum speed, 140 mph (manufacturer’s figure).
Economy: 28.9 mpg overall.
Price: £28,727.
Summary: Stylish load carrier with outstanding all-round performance. Very well equipped in line with high price, but still gives spartan feel. Engine harsh at times, some turbo lag.