What's the best small premium estate money can buy?
19 April 2010

The BMW X1, Audi A5 Sportback and Mercedes C-class estate are very different cars, yet they share a price and a target market.

The benchmark is the Mercedes C250 CDI estate. It is the old-school compact family transport. In Elegance trim (we tested Sport) it costs £29,930.

See pictures from the three-car test

The BMW X1 makes rival cod off-roaders seem overpriced: our test X1 xDrive23d SE may have a silly name, but it costs £29,900.

The Audi A5 Sportback is not only good looking, but also practical, In range-topping S-Line trim it costs £29,975.


The C250 is substantially the best to drive of the three. Its 201bhp 2.2-litre diesel doesn't confer any speed advantage, because BMW extracts the same number from a 2.0-litre while keeping the kerb weight below the C-class's. But the Benz does feel quicker, thanks to a torque advantage and the widest power band of the three.

More decisive still is its ability to engage the driver in corners. The Merc's steering is better, and if you push on it is the only car here with proper balance. It also offers peerless ride quality - something your family will thank you for on a long journey.

The X1 shows that not even BMW can conquer the dynamic issues that result from a raised centre of gravity and the addition of all-wheel drive. It is quick, and has a smooth engine, but it also feels nose heavy and short on driver involvement. It is the quietest of the three at speed, too.

Audi hasn't helped the A5 Sportback's cause by hobbling it with a 168bhp engine, although it is 100kg lighter than its rivals here, and has a six-speed manual box that makes the most of its power.

It's also surprisingly appealing to drive. Its handling balance inclines towards neutral more than the BMW's and there's greater reaction to changes in throttle opening. However, it is compromised by steering with too much friction and not enough feel.


The A5 wins the contest of the cabins unopposed. There's nothing clever inside - it's all Audi - but it works. It's instruments are clearer than those in the Mercedes and the ambience is a league ahead of the BMW. It also feels naturally luxurious.

There are two reservations, though. Like all A4-based cars, the Sportback comes with a strange driving position with displaced pedals. It can also only carry four people.

These issues are potential deal-breakers; a shame as there's plenty of head room in the back and enough knee room to rival the Merc and BMW.

The Merc and BMW have driving positions beyond reproach, with preferences decided by individual priorities. That said, don't think the BMW automatically affords a clear view over every hedgerow - it's simply not that tall. The Merc also carries much more luggage.

The result

Third place belongs to the Audi, a car undone not so much by its lack of power as its shortage of seats. A marketing decision has limited the appeal of an otherwise impressive and likeable car.

The BMW X1 is the best of the compact soft-roaders we've driven, and its success is well deserved.

But victory goes to the Mercedes - with the proviso that if you want an auto you should wait until later in the year when the old five-speed unit is replaced by the smoother, more fuel-efficient and refined seven-speed transmission.

The old way remains the best way.

Read the full test drive feature in Autocar magazine, on sale now.

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Our Verdict

Audi A5

The Audi A5 is a classy coupé, hatchback and cabriolet, but are there talents beneath the pretty bodywork?

Join the debate


19 April 2010

Don't think they are really rivals myself. The 2WD X1 is roughly in the same market sector as an A3 Sportback and B-Class.

19 April 2010

Whats the deal with that random bit of information in the article about MG?

19 April 2010

What a pointless article. It's as if the 3 cars happened to be in the autocar car park and there was a gap to fill. It should have been C Class estate vs 3 Series estate vs A4 estate. That would have made more sense! And I too really don't understand the random piece about the MG!

Here's to the crazy ones......

19 April 2010

agreed! a pointless exercise however the merc would win for me out of this test

19 April 2010

"The old way remains the best way."

There! There's the line that defines the paradigm that caused england to loose their car industry! ...And also the reason for the MG bit.

Btw, I agree with all of the above.

19 April 2010

[quote J400uk]Don't think they are really rivals myself. The 2WD X1 is roughly in the same market sector as an A3 Sportback and B-Class.[/quote] I disagree - the X1 uses a 3-Series chassis and other hardware and the version tested was 4wd (I think). However, I think the X1 makes most sense at the bottom end of the range. The 118d version in 2WD trim is very well spec'd but comes in at something like 21k.

19 April 2010

OH, and whats with the conclusion...?

The C class wins - only if you choose it with the latest gearbox that is available later this year!!?

Doesn't that make the X1 the winner right now?

19 April 2010

The Audi wins the contest for me. Its the only car (in my opinion) that will still look modern and fresh in 10 years time

19 April 2010

VW just made a five seater version available of its Passat CC (at least here in Switzerland as a paying option), after also having succumed to the marketing nonsense that four seats only stand for a more exclusive image. Wonder how long it will take Audi to do the same....


19 April 2010

[quote Harrelson]will still look modern and fresh in 10 years time[/quote]

If I was in the market for a car that I wanted to keep for ten years, pretty much the last thing I would worry about is what it looks like from the outside.

Reliability. Rule of thumb: pick something that is near the end of the product lifecycle. All childhood illnesses sorted out, experienced mechanics at the garage, less desirability to car thieves.

Out of these three I would take the 325i Touring. :)


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