New cars

Mercedes Estates

Mercedes-Benz have rounded off their range of "compact" cars with the introduction to the British market of the T-series of estate cars, based on the familiar W123 chassis. Although private companies have converted Mercedes saloons to estate cars in the past, this is the first time that M-B have produced an estate car version themselves.

Three models are to be offered in Britain, the 240TD with 2.4-litre, four-cylinder diesel engine, the 280TE with 2.8-litre, DOHC six-cylinder fuel-injected engine and the 250T with 2.4-litre, SOHC carburetter engine. The 240TD and 280TE go on sale immediately, the 250T is expected in September.

Mechanical specifications are identical to the saloon equivalents, except that an automatic hydraulic self-levelling control device is fitted to the independent rear axle. This employs a sensor to monitor the overall load and the load on the rear axle. Soft coil springs and self-supporting spring struts are fitted instead of the standard shock-absorbers and coil springs of the saloon and coupé models. An engine-driven oil pump extracts oil from a reservoir and pumps it through pressure lines to a valve which is controlled by the anti-roll bar on the rear axle. When the car is unladen the pressurised oil remains in the reservoir. As soon as a load is taken aboard, however, oil is fed into the spring struts. The more oil is pumped into the struts the greater the pressure in the gas compartments, thus keeping the car level. Larger pistons are fitted in the rear disc brake calipers to adjust the amount of braking power to the specific weight distribution of the estate car layout.

We tried the complete range during a test session based on Goodwood House and were soon convinced that this really is the best-engineered estate car in the business. So many estate cars feel and sound hollow and tinny from within; this Mercedes is so quiet and solid in feel that one becomes oblivious of the vast cavern in the rear. It really does drive just as well as the saloon equivalent, a car which in 280E form we have previously rated very highly indeed, especially in terms of power-steering, handling and braking. In fact if anything we thought that these unladen estate cars rode a shade better than the saloons, thanks, presumably, to that clever self-levelling device.

Within the same wheelbase and overall length as the saloon, the estate car will carry articles up to 31" high and 112" long. The normal payload is 560 kg., but 240TD and 250T models can be ordered with a 700 kg payload specification. The one-piece rear door opens upwards with concealed, gas-pressurised struts to ease opening. A washer/wiper system is fitted to the rear screen. The 280TE's rear bench seat is split ⅓/⅔ to increase versatility, a sensible arrangement which can be specified as an extra on the other two models. There is an extra storage space beneath the floor and a rearward-facing children's seat is offered as an option.

Mercedes' research showed a tremendous growth in the UK estate car market over the last few years — an increase of 13%, to 190,000 in 1978, of which 21,000 were over 2-litres, a 72% increase over 1977 — and they intend to cream off the top end of this market with these Bremen-built models. With prices starting at £9,795 for the very pedestrian diesel (available with manual or automatic gearboxes — the six-cylinder cars are automatic), £10,995 for the 250T and £12,995 for the 280TE, they are in a rarified quality and price area of their own: until now, the top status estate cars have been Volvos, Citroens and Grenadas. Our own view was that the 133 b.h.p, 110 m.p.h. 250T was the best value and sure to attract the highest demand, though the 185 b.h.p., 121 m.p.h. 280TE is a very desirable motor car. Potential customers should put in their orders quickly, before these estate cars build up a queue as long as that for other Mercedes in Britain, up to four years' delivery being quoted on S-class cars! — C.R.

The Fiat Strada

FIAT's unusual-looking Strada is now on sale in Britain and we went down to Cornwall recently to sample the delights of country and car. Known as Ritmo throughout the rest of Europe, this practical little three or five-door, front-wheel-drive hatchback is offered with 1,300 (the 65) or 1,500 c.c. (the 75) versions of the transverse-mounted, OHC, 128 engine, with power outputs accurately reflected by the model designations. Luxe or Comfort Luxe interior trims are available on 65 models (CL only on the 75) and an astonishingly comprehensive range of standard equipment even includes stereo radio. A five-speed gearbox is standard on the 75 and optional, in place of four-speed, on the smaller-engined car. Automatic transmission is available only on the 75.

Suspension is by McPherson strut all round, using coil springs at the front, a transverse leaf spring at the rear. We found the nicely-balanced 65CL to handle superbly round the Cornish lanes, a bit rubbery and rolly-polly in Renault 5 fashion but tauter and more responsive with very safe tuck-in characteristics when lifting the throttle in mid-corner. The 1,300 c.c. engine felt willing to rev its heart out via the five-speed box, giving very commendable performance (Fiat claim a maximum speed of 93.2 m.p.h.). It stopped well via disc and drum brakes, was comfortable in seating and ride, and spacious.

Strangely, a 75CL tried subsequently was less pleasing in its handling and felt over-geared compared with the 65 (it has a 3.588:1 final drive against the smaller car's 3.765:1). Against the clock it would have proved quicker, but the sweeter revving 1,300 engine and gearing combination was more satisfying. The 75 will almost break the 100 m.p.h. barrier.

The Strada's looks may be peculiar, but at least they give it distinctive character. At prices between £2,900 and £3,600 it's not bad value and is sure to catch on. — C.R.