There are two kinds of car enthusiast. I used to be one of the normal kind – we’ll call them ‘group one’ – but I’ve changed. Life has turned me into a ‘group two’ sort of feller.Here’s how you tell. Imagine a gleaming, box-fresh, 500bhp estate car parked 50 feet in front of you, in dead-on profile.
The passenger doors are all closed but the bonnet and tailgate are both open. So where do you go first?
‘Group one’ car buffs are drawn straight to the front, like wasps to a sugar cube, to gawp at the hulking lump of engine confined therein. It’s understandable. A few years ago, I’d have been the first one there. You don’t know an engine until you’ve stared at it for at least 10 minutes.
But these days I’d amble to the rear end first with all of the other ‘group two’ pragmatists, wondering whether the rear seats fold totally flat and how many cargo nets and lashing points one gets on a 500bhp load-lugger in 2015. Living with cars turns you into a ‘group two’ sort of bloke, I reckon. It teaches you that, regardless of what they are, big estates in particular only really earn their corn by what they can actually do for you.
Welcome, then, fellow ‘group two’ types. The following test is for you. It contains minimal references to powerful turbocharged multi-cylinder engines, and I’ll keep the sections about performance and handling short and sweet. Because we’d sooner read about load space, in marvellous, gratuitous detail, wouldn’t we?
And we’re all very excited that there’s a new estate on the block with a load bay of apparently unprecedented vastness. The Skoda Superb has an exceptionally large boot even in normal hatchback form, but as an estate, that hold grows to the kind of volume you’ll need binoculars to truly appreciate: up to 1950 litres, as claimed.
That makes any other wagon available for the same money look tiny. On paper, it even eclipses the carrying capacity of the estates that spring to mind as the most capacious and most useful available at any money – Mercedes-Benz E-Class (1855 litres) included.
Doesn’t that make this new Skoda the best estate in the world, then? In order to answer that question, you need an all-time load-lugging great to compare it with, such as the latest Mercedes E220 Bluetec – as well as a tape measure. You’ll need some props, too. Bald statistics seldom reveal where real-world brilliance is to be found, after all. And parting a two-year-old from her trike, as it turns out, is relatively easy on a rainy afternoon.
Before we get our hands dirty, an admission. We’re aware that the number of Mercedes brand devotees willing to defect to Skoda on the strength of Autocar’s say-so will be low. There will be a gulf between the average UK transaction prices of the E-Class and Superb estates, and the fact that we’ve managed to raise versions that are quite closely matched on power and performance level, and separated by less than £5000 on list price, suggests the cars are closer rivals than they really are.
Yet the Skoda wastes few opportunities to confound the inferiority that the badge snobs will expect of it. The vast load bay we already know about, but the Superb is also shorter and lighter than the E-Class, as well as more powerful and faster-accelerating. More capable, too, thanks to the availability of Haldex-type four-wheel drive, whereas the Benz remains rear-wheel drive only.
The E-Class counters meekly on paper, with slightly lower CO2 emissions and better claimed fuel economy. But the vitals more important to estate regulars, from maximum allowable towing weight on a braked trailer to maximum payload weight in the boot, are all on the Superb’s side.
Credit to Skoda, too, for keeping the Superb’s costs of ownership low. Our market sources suggest that even this top-of-the-range Superb will retain 43% of its showroom value after three years and 36,000 miles – impressive considering that the E-Class is rated at only 45.2%. The Skoda also charts 11 insurance groups lower than the Mercedes – a difference of hundreds of pounds a year for a typical renewal premium.
So far, so good for the Skoda. Tougher territory now, though. Attractiveness is a facet so tightly bound up with desirability and brand allure that it seems impossible to discuss the Superb’s styling in isolation. It’s a handsome car, sure enough – to these eyes, better looking than the E-Class, whose boxy rear end and high roofline both seem relatively awkward. Handsome enough that you wouldn’t care about turning down a Benz for a Skoda, though? I doubt it.
The Superb’s cabin, as well as being large, is rich, solid and very pleasant indeed. Nonetheless, it’s on cabin quality that the E-Class distinguishes itself. The difference between the two isn’t huge. Both have lined storage bins and smooth, carefully stitched leathers. Both are cars of apparent quality.
The Skoda has bigger oddment cubbies. But the E-Class’s fixtures and fittings feel that little bit more substantial in your hands than the Skoda’s and its cabin is, by a nose, the nicer place to be.
Time to measure up and get loading. I had hoped that this bit would be straightforward – that the car with the bigger real-world load bay would swallow the golf clubs, stepladder, baby buggy and toddler’s trike, while the other one would refuse. In fact, with the smaller section of the split-fold rear seats folded in both cases, both cars surmounted the challenge. There is little, it seems, that a Superb Estate will carry that an E220 Estate won’t. If only we’d had a washing machine, a 70in flatscreen TV and an enormous cuddly toy.
Dive into the load bays and explore in greater detail, though, and you can identify the better estate car. It may not be the one you’re expecting.
The tape measure confirms that, for passengers at any rate, the Skoda is the more spacious car. Rear leg room is more abundant in the Superb to the tune of almost 100mm. On head room, the cars are evenly matched; likewise on cabin width.
But measure up the load bay and you may wonder, at first, where the Skoda’s advantage lies. On loading length, there’s nothing between them: 1160mm behind the second row in the E-Class, 1140mm in the Superb, rising to exactly 2000mm when you flop the seats down in both cases.
But on width, the E-Class has the edge; the Merc’s load bay is 1140mm wide at its narrowest, the Skoda’s only 1000mm. So on everyday carrying capacity – floor space, essentially – the E-Class is marginally the more useful of the two.
Where the Skoda hits back, and ultimately delivers its overall capacity, is on load height. Floor to ceiling, the Superb offers a space up to 820mm high in which to stack things up, versus only 750mm in the E-Class. However, that extra height may only come into play on a handful of occasions during the average ownership of any estate car. By my reckoning, width is more useful than height in an estate – and the Merc has width to burn.
That’s not the end of the practicality debate, though. You can get a folding front passenger seat in the Skoda but not in the Mercedes. However, Skoda adversely affects the usefulness of that feature by failing to flip the layout of the split-folding rear seats around for right-hand-drive cars, leaving the larger section behind the driver.
What that means is that, in the E-Class, you could tilt and slide the front passenger seat as far forwards as it’ll go, flop the bigger portion of the back seats down, seat a passenger behind the driver and leave the maximum amount of load space available for bikes, potplants, flatpack furniture or whatever. In the Superb, there’s significantly less through-loading space.
The Superb’s practicality shortcomings don’t end there. I like proper, flat-folding back seats in my family wagon, with release levers positioned close to the boot opening for optimal convenience, and a flat load bay floor for easy loading. The E-Class offers all three things as standard.
The Superb’s seats won’t quite go flat, and if you want a flat ‘false’ floor or remote seatback releases, you’ll need to spend more for the required options – even on a £35k, top-of-the-line model.
You also have to pay extra for a proper load bay partition in the Superb, to keep those bathroom tiles you’ve stacked up to a height of 820mm from sliding forwards onto the rear seats when you brake. All of which makes it too easy to order a Superb that’s just a little bit disobliging to use.
Decision time. I said there wouldn’t be much about driving dynamics in this twin test – and what there is only makes the verdict tougher.
The Superb is the more refined car and has the more obedient automatic gearbox, marginally more overtaking and hauling power and a more comfortable, calming, big family car vibe about its ride and handling.
The E-Class is heavier in its control weights, a touch grippier and more direct in its handling, but less cosseting overall. The Benz feels more like a modern executive car, affected slightly by its need to feel multi-talented, assertive and sporty.
The Skoda is entirely laid-back – secure about the simplicity of its dynamic brief.
On that front, and not only that, I prefer the Superb, which feels, in many ways, like a truer modern take on an old Mercedes W123 estate than the E220. You’ve got to hand it to Skoda for exceeding so many of the standards of one of the best modern load-luggers on the market here, and then making the finished product available at a price to beat a like-for-like Ford Mondeo. All things considered, the Superb is a remarkable family car.
But it hasn’t slain the giant. With its layout, quality, convenience and desirability, the E-Class reeks of the decades of experience that have gone into making it arguably the greatest modern estate in the world and keeping its legacy secure.
As it happens, you can get one with a 577bhp turbo V8. But just in case you’re still not sure which end you’d go to first, rest assured that both contain no small amount of brilliance.
Read Autocar's previous comparison - Bentley Mulsanne Speed versus Tesla Model S P85D
Mercedes-Benz E220 Bluetec Estate AMG Night Edition
Price £39,995; 0-62mph 8.8sec; Top speed 136mph; Economy 60.1mpg; CO2 emissions 130g/km; Kerb weight 1760kg; Engine 4 cyls in line, 2143cc, diesel; Power 175bhp at 3200-3800rpm; Torque 295lb ft at 1400-2800rpm; Gearbox 7-spd automatic
Skoda Superb Estate 2.0 TDI 190 DSG 4x4 L&K
Price £35,040; 0-62mph 7.7sec; Top speed 142mph; Economy 55.4mpg; CO2 emissions 135g/km; Kerb weight 1635kg; Engine 4 cyls in line, 1968cc, diesel; Power 187bhp ay 3500rpm; Torque 295lb ft at 1750rpm; Gearbox 7-spd dual-clutch automatic
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