If you had asked me at any point over the last six months which family car I intended to buy, you would have had a different answer every time. The job is a familiar one, but the winning candidate must balance a disparate variety of tasks. Nursery runs, trips to Ikea, drives across Europe and space for a couple of adults and a couple of child-seats, maybe more. Scaling up or scaling down the bearing of any of these criteria will give you wildly different answers. A Ferrari 456GT would whizz self across the continent, but forget picking up furniture. I daresay a Volkswagen Up! would carry offspring to nursery, but that is like taking vitamin pills instead of eating food. I need a bit more meat for my money.
In the build-up to any big purchase, the anticipation is to be savoured. Everything seems possible, and the distinction between an idea and a decision is deliciously obscure. Countless hours were spent on used car websites, made all the more tantalising because a new arrival in the family meant I actually had to buy something. It all started with the G-wagon. A big, blocky, go-anywhere car built to outlast your grandchildren. But considering the criterion of long-distance travel, wind noise and comfort relegates this to impractical curiosity.
Next up, a Land Rover Discovery. A couple of friends swear by theirs, but it really is a big car, and for our budget we would have to compromise on mileage and the engines. But that didn’t stop me looking at Range Rovers. If ever there were a Porsche 911 of off-roaders, the Range Rover is surely it. From three doors to five, short wheelbase to long, the cab-back short front-/long rear-overhang proportions have remained unchanged. Today’s Range Rover introduces a whole host of new technology and lightweight materials, and design director Gerry McGovern has slicked it back too, making it the first Range Rover to be so stylized. In this way it reminds me a little of the 996.
The previous Rangie was different. It was the 993 of off-roaders. The design pure, the character defiant, and from inside low windows offered an unmatchable atmosphere. It truly is one of the great designs. I remember meeting one of its designers when it first came out, and he described it as an off-road Bentley. This was an avant-garde idea at the time. Fifteen years later Bentley has gone ahead and made one of their own with the new Bentayga. Rolls-Royce will soon follow.
But a family car is not bought to validate design judgement. It has a job to do. Back to Mercedes, and this time the enigmatic appeal of the W124. I once drove a 500E, and found it extremely impressive as a story, but space was tight, performance rivaled by today’s turbodiesels and the electrics are liable to overheat. I still gape each time I see one, but that Porsche-engineered story isn’t quite enough to compel. Four seats only rules it out, plus, sadly, the exquisite first generation CLS. Sanity ruled out a Maserati Quattroporte.
Let’s try the S124 estate instead. This has to be one of the finest proportioned cars made. My wife made the excellent observation that it was a big Fiat Panda. Put the two side-by-side and one has to acknowledge the similarities. The surfaces are a little fuller on the big Merc, but those clean lines and exquisite details mark both out as intellectual superiors. Certainly one could buy an S124 for less than half the price of a contemporary car and be sure to get something almost as smooth, reliable and comfortable. Many weeks were spent trying to justify it, but fuel consumption, surpassed safety and missing Isofix tethers are strong points against it. In the end buying a twenty year old car to last another twenty years didn’t quite make sense. Neither did a Panda.
The fact a S124 was even on our list is remarkable. It is very easy to get caught up in details when comparing today’s Passats/Mondeos/Mercs, when all we really needed the car to do is what our Peugeot 505 and Austin Montego estates had done thirty years before. For every time I found myself musing that a facelift was worth the extra money, I countered that pretty much anything would be at least as good as our Peugeot 505 was in 1988. Half an hour was even spent looking at 505s –getting scarce, y’know.
The hunt continued, and inevitably when one searches for a big estate, Volvo must surely find its way onto the list. I am going to have to regurgitate the Porsche analogy. The V70 is the 911 of estates, bearing immediately recognizable and unique proportions that have been carried through several generations. We found a black D5 AWD from Monaco and came very close to buying it. That five-cylinder engine has so much character and power, and the seats fabulously comfortable. My wife absolutely loved it, so we tested a more frugal, newer version with integrated child-seats, and went away to think about it. But I couldn’t quite shake something that a colleague said. Volvos are great, but buy one and you are getting technology that is fifteen years older than BMW or Mercedes. As I pawed the clunky controls and heard the various bongs of safety warnings, I did wonder.
And then Dieselgate. The emissions scandal enshrouding Volkswagen made me realise that the era of diesels is over. Not just yet, but certainly within the lifetime of our car. In Europe, only Britain has a steeper levy on diesel than petrol. Others will surely follow. And as NOx now enters the parlance of the population, so voters will demand tighten controls. True, hauliers and more than 50% of drivers use the black pumps, so change will be gradual. But the day of electric hybrids is fueled by petrol, not diesel, and it comes ever closer.
Change the search term to petrol, and a whole new world of possibilities opens up. BMW in particular offers petrol cars with fuel consumption bettering diesel Discoveries and Volvo XC90s. And then there is the refinement. I had almost forgotten how much nicer a modern petrol engine is to drive. No shake on start-up, or shuddering centre-consoles at idle. More linear power. It is the more modern experience. Getting into a diesel afterwards is just a little bit uncouth.
So we found another Mercedes, the W212 estate. A big, simple Labrador of a car that is utterly undemanding and does the job without fanfare. Fantastic seats, nimble steering and a colossal boot helped too. There is something wonderfully calming about following that three-pointed star at the end of the bonnet. Knowing you can never catch it means one never tries, and the car assumes a more gentlemanly gait. Mercedes used to boast that the heart-rate of their drivers was lower than those of any other marque. It is a quality not to be underestimated: the Mercedes-Benz E-Class is our new family car.