When it comes to moving the most amount of stuff round in one go without having to dispense with a normal car-like body, the first name to many lips would be the cavernous Mercedes E-Class Estate.
But where the Stuttgart brand goes, there’s usually a Bavarian close to hand and the E-Class’s biggest rival is BMW’s excellent 5 Series Touring.
There are die-hard fans on both sides of the fence, but for the undecided it’s a nice dilemma to face. So to which side of the German power struggle should your money go?
It seems as if BMW is having a bit of a styling crisis at the moment, as the company exits the “Bangle era” of design, in which designer Chris Bangle took BMW’s look in a successful-but-controversial direction. The cars of that era may not have been to everyone’s tastes but they were at least distinctive in a manner that some of the current models lack.
The 5 Series’ nose is a case in point. It is desperately generic, to the point of being almost indistinguishable from any other car in the range (save for the 4 Series), with the ever widening kidney grille utterly swamping the front end – you won’t even notice how nicely creased the bonnet is.
From the side and back though, the 5 is a bit of a stunner. It looks like the designers have taken a step back in time and redrawn the now much-celebrated “E39” (1995-2003) generation of 5 Series, as if Chris Bangle’s slab-sided, Dame Edna spectacled effort never existed. The rear screen is more sharply sloped that that model but, save for little details, it owes a lot to its predecessor’s predecessor and it’s no bad thing.
The Mercedes is, by comparison, a bit more challenging. We really like the big grille up front and the beautiful LED tail lights – maybe even the curved parallelogram shape of the exhausts too – but it’s beset by details that don’t gel as well as on the Beemer.
The headlights and scoops in the front valance are a little weird and the centre section of the car, when viewed from the side, could be just about any car on sale today. The real oddness is in the rearmost “D” pillars between body and roof, where the windowline and roofline both curve down to meet the body, but at completely different angles. This leaves a wedge of oddly-shaped bodywork that you can’t unsee. Points to BMW here.
Lift that attractive BMW tailgate – which still offers split-opening (meaning you can open the glass portion separately from the main boot), and we love it – and you’ll find a 560 litre space. It’s worth noting that this is absolutely loads – if you’re off to a hand out drinks at a marathon, you could fit one thousand 500ml water bottles in there – but it’s getting close to the sort of volume that smaller cars are offering in their estate versions these days.
Fold the seats down and it’s a very useful 1,670 litres, and with all sorts of useful additions like tie downs, cargo nets and underfloor storage it’s likely to prove the equal of just about any challenge you might throw at it. It is, however, some way short of the class leader’s space.
That class leader is, of course, the E-Class. There’s nothing second rate about these figures – 695 litres with all seats up, 1,950 litres when folded. It’s not just the best in the class but the best of any car. It’s so big in fact that Mercedes will fit a pair of rear-facing seats to make your E-Class a seven seater.
When it comes to cabin space, the Mercedes is a cut above too. You’re not exactly going to be squeezed into the BMW, but if you happen to have four friends who are prop forwards who like to play basketball in the off-season, the Mercedes is the winner. There’s also far more adjustment in the seat and wheel, so the amazingly tall and surprisingly short will both find a decent driving position.
However it’s a little clinical and restrained, like an interior designed to look as clean and functional as a mortuary table, whereas the BMW has a flourish to go with the ergonomics. You’ll need to steer clear of basic black-on-black in either car though, which make the interiors a little dingy – both cars offer beige, white or brown leather at no cost on even the base models, so there’s no excuse.
Both cars are almost peerless motorway cruisers that will cause you no stress of any kind between sliproads, regardless of your chosen speed – but the Mercedes certainly has an edge on all round ride. Critics say the 5 Series offers a slightly more brittle experience around town and on poorly surfaced roads, but just about everyone agrees that the optional variable damper control brings it up to meet the E-Class head-on and are a must have option (at £985) for your 5 Series.
However, even without them the BMW offers a driving experience that’s second to none in the class, with agility, poise and steering feel that the Mercedes just can’t match. It’s worth noting that in Touring specification you won’t be able to select the optional four-wheel-steering that the critics say moves the 5 Series game on even more, but adaptive self-levelling suspension is standard (as it is on the E-Class), so the estate will maintain its dynamism even with half a tonne of gravel in the boot.
There’s an engine for almost all purposes in the 5 Series, with versions of BMW’s 2.0- and 3.0-litre diesels and 2.0- and 3.0-litre petrols. It’s effectively a case of picking your desired power output and fuel economy and going with the engine nearest to it.
However the Tourer has to go without the ActiveHybrid or V8 engine options and, unlike the previous generation, there is no M5 option in the Tourer this time round. This means that if you want to go incredibly fast in your German estate car you’re going to have to look elsewhere.
At Mercedes, for instance, which does offer the bonkers E63 AMG in the estate body. With 585hp, it’s one of the fastest and quickest production estate cars the planet has ever seen.
However the rest of the range reads much like the BMW’s, only more limited. There’s a pair of 2.2 litre diesels (E220, E250), a V6 diesel (E350) and a single 2 litre petrol (E250) option. These models go head to head with the BMW’s 520d, 525d, 535d and 520i and for the most part offer slightly superior performance but slightly inferior fuel economy.
Value for Money
Ignoring that fabulously expensive E63 AMG for a moment, the bulk of the figures for the two cars are pretty firmly locked together. Running costs are comparable enough to make very little difference over your custody of either and, though the BMW starts at over £5,000 cheaper, those models that do face off against one another are all in the £38k-£47k range.
Both offer fabulously extensive options lists that could utterly ruin you too. You can double the price of a base model with a list of fripperies that includes Alcantara headlining (BMW, £1,060) or a massaging seat for the driver (Mercedes, £255). Specify your trim carefully, rather than picking a lower grade model and adding bits.
It’s a flat out stalemate here – even the insurance groups are the same.
It seems that the two cars are stuck together in an eternal battle for supremacy, but the choice is really night and day. The Mercedes is the clear winner when it comes to having absolutely the most amount of room for people and things and you shouldn’t even glance at the BMW if that’s what you’re after. If you want to do it at Warp 7, there’s the E63 AMG and the BMW has no answer to that.
While the 5 Series doesn’t meet the E-Class head on for outright space, it does have more than enough for most purposes and it backs it up with being a much more enjoyable car to actually drive. Throw in the greater breadth of engine choices and it’s the Mercedes that starts to look more like a one trick (okay, two tricks) pony. The BMW seals the deal with better looks too.