SENSE AND SENSIBILITY - JSE MAGAZINE

SENSE AND SENSIBILITY

Marketing gurus continue to give the venerable old station wagon a word makeover, but whether described as avant, shooting brake, GT or cross country, it remains a practical and stylish way to move people and things

SENSE AND SENSIBILITY

In motoring, as with everything, fashion dictates trends. What’s trending today is the movement away from conventional segments – the three-box saloon, the simple hatchback, the station wagon – towards a crossover that is all things to all people.

But, as with so much that is fashionable, sense sometimes disappears and basic practicalities are forgotten – such as the need to transport people and their odd-shaped things together across distances.

When Ford popularised and personalised ‘depot hacks’ of the 1920s, it did so to reach a sophisticated market of large families and their considerable appurtenances. For decades, wagons were top-of-the-line, flagship models – proof of wealth and prosperity.

Station wagons, with their new makeover, are set to capture an ever-increasing market share

SA’s relationship with the estate has always been a curious one. Commentators suggest that after the big American wagons of the 1960s, South Africans took to pick-ups and never looked back. Station wagons, however, remain the most efficient way of transporting unwieldy loads and, with their new makeover, are set to capture an ever-increasing market share.

We have now come full circle, with the populist SUV and crossovers taking care of the traditional mom’s taxi role and estates moving back into the role of lifestyle accessory.

Audi
Nowhere is this clearer than with Audi’s approach. The luxury German marque, known for its cutting-edge design and performance cars, combines grunt with wagon practicality. All Audi estates on sale in SA, save one, are high-performance models. The company uses the label ‘avant’, and both the Audi RS4 Avant and the Audi S4 Avant Quattro are exciting machines, meant as much for the racetrack as the Sunday cruise to Hartbeespoort Dam.

Of the two the RS4 is the lightning hot rod, featuring the 4.2l V8 petrol engine so loved by petrolheads. Allied to Audi’s iconic Quattro 4×4 drivetrain and 7-speed S tronic gearbox, it manages 0 to 100 km/h in under five seconds.

But speed is only half of the story – few road cars have the RS4’s ability to stick to the racing line in a series of hard, fast corners. There is simply nothing like it, a combination of poise and brutality, incisiveness and blunt-force trauma. It is almost incidental that the car is an estate, but this is due to its history.

Audis of the 1980s, the famed rally Quattro included, combined practicality with performance, and so it is today. There is a shortage of passenger space, due to the bulky – but brilliant – sports seats and the gorgeous though tapered tailgate. That said, the incongruity of loading a race car with clubs or a surfboard makes many owners smile.

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The less hardcore option is the S4 Avant Quattro, still a beast in 3l V6 petrol guise, and as capable of ruining competitor reputations. It is the better-balanced car, lighter, sharp to inputs and elegant, where the RS4, with its massive profile tyres, is confrontational. It will still manage the 100 km/h mark in 5.1 seconds but use a lot less squashed coal.

The other Audi wagon is the new Allroad, as much part of the company’s tradition as the performance avants. It comes with decent ground clearance, the proven 2.0 TDI engine and a tweaked Quattro system that reads the road and adapts the drivetrain accordingly. It also has the tyres to cope with the Cedarberg, if necessary.

The future looks promising too. Audi is rarely caught napping and has seen the success of the fast, extremely beautiful RS7 and announced tantalisingly, the strong possibility of an Audi RS6 Avant launch in SA year. SA likes its performance cars big, Audi suggests, and they may be right. The RS6 Avant will be a brute – its beating heart the same sublime twin-turbocharged V8 engine as the RS7. Most definitely something to look forward to.

Mercedes-Benz
Across the fields in Stuttgart, Mercedes-Benz has a different take on estates. The premier manufacturer chooses to punt tradition rather than performance, elegance rather than speed. This may change soon.
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A seismic shift has occurred in Daimler policy recently as the company moves aggressively to appeal to the youth market. This will be evident in the soon-to-be-launched C-Class estate. Its load hauling capacity has been increased and there will be a new 40:20:40 split of the rear seats, air suspension and an electric release for the fold-flat mechanism. Most notable is its styling – echoing the modish CLS Shooting Brake rather than the previous C-Class. That CLS, massively fast as the V8 63 AMG is, has its issues. In attempting to disguise the station wagon element, the practicality is somewhat compromised. The jury is out on whether it is an audacious or awful design. Time will tell.

Far less controversial is the big E-Class estate, as bland a station wagon as it’s possible to buy these days. The entire range stands alone in the Mercedes line-up as the last outpost of the uncomplicated, and the estate flies the flag high.

Available only in E250 guise, it uses a simple turbocharged 2l petrol engine, which means performance is stately, to be kind. But the back is where it matters, nearly 2m2 of loading space with the seats folded flat. It has another plus: an unhurriedness to it that is rare these days, and it does its job without fanfare or drama. In a week of testing, the E-Class became a firm favourite, memorable long after more exotic machinery had been forgotten.

BMW
Still European (curious, seeing as the station wagon is a US invention) BMW has perhaps the most radical local policy concerning estates. They don’t ‘do’ them anymore – at all. Or so they say.

Except they do. But not in a recognisable way. Confused? Many are, and Bavaria is working hard to clear up the discombobulation. Replacing of the 3 and 5 Series wagons of old, BMW now offers the 3 and 5 Series GT. Of course a grand turismo is traditionally a large coupé, hence the confusion.

But BMW’s new GTs are neither station wagon nor SUV … nor grand tourers. Quite what they are is still a matter of debate – generally over a third whiskey while discussing the evolution of motoring.

They are ostensibly sedans but with hatchbacks and bulbous rear ends. Curiously for a marque that worships design, neither are things of beauty. They are, however, extremely big inside – cavernously so, especially under the hatch which hinges almost to the middle of the car, exposing a vast flat expanse.

Fold the rear seats and that area is increased to as much as 1 750l in the 5 Series GT. Both the 3 and 5 Series have a wide spread of engine options, mirroring their less stout brethren. The gem of the lot is the silky smooth straight six cylinder, 3l, confusingly employed in both as the 335i and 535i. The extra weight seems to have no effect on either GT until truly laden down and even then, the rear wheel drive helps to keeps things entirely stable.

A combination of poise and brutality, incisiveness and blunt-force trauma

Volvo
Further north, Chinese-owned Volvo has a long tradition of wagons and it is heartening to see that the company not only embraces that heritage, but champions it in new designs. So much so, the entire range either looks like – or actually is – an estate, from the svelte V40, tapered at the hatchback to mimic a station wagon, to the Volvo V40 Cross Country and the beautiful V60.

The latest XC60 and the recently launched XC90 are essentially SUVs but ape the looks and practicality of a station wagon. Arguably Volvo’s design is among the best globally, and its many awards are well deserved.

_4 We have now come full circle, with the populist SUV and crossovers taking care of the traditional mom’s taxi

The V60 is the pick of the bunch, dynamically and design-wise. It brings to mind some of the better forays Alfa Romeo made into the estate market, and walks a fine line between compact and capacious. Inside, the high waistline and minimal glazing might make for a somewhat claustrophobic interior but there is plenty of room and a plethora of voguish touches that embody contemporary elegance.

On the road there is a solidity that is satisfying and a surprising responsiveness, especially in the diesel engine derivatives. Volvo will soon produce just two four-cylinder, 2l engines: one a common rail diesel and the other a direct-injected petrol. This Drive-E range will see Volvo manufacture their own engines and say goodbye to Ford’s various units. Good news indeed.

By Peter Frost
Images: BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Volvo, Audi