There’s something classless about a big estate. You could be a double-glazing salesman, a newly minted millionaire, or tweed-bound aristocracy; a big estate is a vehicular poker face when it comes to image, and who doesn’t enjoy that?
The BMW 5 Series Touring is the latest addition to the class, and here we’re testing it in all-things-to-everyman guise – the 2.0-litre diesel 520d. It’s complete with a standard eight-speed automatic gearbox and lb985 adaptive dampers, so is well set up to take on the might of the Mercedes E220d Estate and Volvo V90 D4, both of which are also automatic 2.0-litre diesels.
We’ve opted to test the cars here in their entry-level trims, as they all seem abundantly equipped and pricey enough even in their cheapest forms. Don’t worry, though – your eyes don’t deceive you; the cars pictured are in higher trims. The BMW and Mercedes are in M Sport and AMG Line trims, while the Volvo is a Momentum Pro.
Which one’s the most practical?
We’ll start with the boot talk, because being estates that’s the significant aspect, and it goes without saying that all of these cars will carry a couple of chunky buggies or a family holiday’s worth of luggage and detritus no problem at all. They’re big cars with big boots, that all have low load lips and long, squared-off boot spaces and powered bootlids.
However, the Volvo is the first to be knocked out of the load-lugging round. Officially it’s the smallest, with 560 litres of space, and it’s the only one of our three estates that doesn’t have 40/20/40 split rear seats. Mind you, that’s a meagre 10 litres off the 570 litres of the BMW 5 Series Touring and the 60/40 split-folding bench does get a ski hatch that allows you to slide long items through the middle of the rear seats while leaving space for a passenger either side. Its boot aperture is also the least practical of the three as it narrows towards the roof.
At least there’s very shallow hidden underfloor storage, bag hooks, four lashing eyes, a loadbay cover that rises automatically for easy access when you open the boot, and a nifty lift-up divider that stops your shopping from rolling around. It’s the smallest, sure, but you’ll need to be of the serious outdoor-equipment wielding lifestyle before you find the V90 too small or impractical.
The BMW is the next most practical. You can drop the seats via buttons in the boot, the broad loadbay is a convenient, boxed-off shape, the rear seats fold flat in a 40/20/40 split and there’s a shallow storage area under the floor that’s ideal for hiding a laptop.
BMW, of course, has also fitted its big estate car with a loadbay cover that slides upwards to give you instant access when you open the tailgate (powered as standard). Not only that, but you can flip open the rear window separately to the hatchback, so you can chuck small items in really easily even if you’re short of space to open the bootlid.
Which leaves the Merc E220d Estate. It doesn’t have the funky opening rear window of the BMW, but lift the boot floor and you’re a lion, a witch and a wardrobe short of Narnia, because the underfloor space is cavernous. It’s like having a city car boot tucked away underneath your estate car, and it comes with handy sectioning device and fold-away crate, or if you take that out it’s big enough to store a full-sized cabin bag as well as the laptop bag that you’d get in the others. This is how the Mercedes has such a huge boot capacity of 640 litres.
If you step up to the four-wheel drive E-Class Estate then you can even add two occasional, rear-facing seats that fold up out of the boot floor when you need them, but they’re not available on standard rear-wheel drive SE.
The Merc also ticks the same boxes as the 5 Series with seats that fold in a 40/20/40 split, via levers in the boot or from the side door. BMW and Mercedes also both offer enhanced boot space practicality; lb295 extra on either car will get you sliding lashing eyes and dividing straps so that you can section off the boot space.
Beyond that, you can safely assume that two adults will be able to lounge about in comfort in the back of any of these cars, although the Volvo has a touch less headroom in the back than the others. You’ll also get comfortable in any of the drivers’ seats, although notably you’ll want to add lumbar adjustment to the BMW (lb225) and Mercedes (lb195). The Volvo gets lumbar adjustment as standard, and all three cars get heated seats, even in these entry-level trim levels.
Which one’s cheapest?
Well, if you’re buying outright then it’s the Volvo by a margin of some lb3k and more, and it even promises to hold its value reasonably well. Buy on finance and it’s the Mercedes that comes out on top, saving you lb100 per month or more over the other two, at lb425 per month if you put down a 20 percent deposit over a three-year contract.
Both the Merc and Volvo come in at virtually the same company car tax costs of lb11,700 over three years for a 40 percent tax payer, while the BMW’s higher list price pushes company car tax up by lb500 over the same period.
Official fuel economy claims are all well over 60mpg, but the Volvo’s slightly lower figure does reflect in the real-world economy, since we only saw around 45mpg over varied town and motorway driving where the BMW and Mercedes both saw closer to 49mpg.
Have a look below for a breakdown of the key equipment and options prices.
Y = Standard N = Not available lb = Optional
**Part of the Premium Package that includes electric seat adjustment with memory, keyless go and panoramic sunroof.
^ Part of Driving Assistance Plus package that includes lane assist
^* Selective, passive damping. Fully active air suspension costs lb1,495.
^^ Rear self-levelling air suspension available for lb900, or full adaptive suspension for lb1,500.
Gallery: 2017 BMW 520d Touring
Which is the best to drive?
One word answer? The BMW. It’s got the sort of silky balance and fluidity to it that you feel the instant you leave the car park, but do remember that our car came with the adaptive dampers, which is key to getting that perfectly seasoned ride and handling balance.
With those dampers in place, it slicks over bumps and ripples in the road while also keeping neat and tidy body control, and hearty steering bite that seems to draw you into the perfect cornering line.
Neither the Volvo nor the Mercedes really come close to the BMW’s level of driver satisfaction, but equally neither is disappointing. Our Mercedes test car came with four-wheel drive (a lb1,600 option), but experience in rear-wheel drive examples of the E-Class as well as this more high-spec car shows that the steering is never consistent or ideally-weighted enough to compete with the BMW’s keyed-in feel.
The Merc’s steering feels overly light as you turn into a corner, and then delivers an unnatural build of weight, so it’s never as organic or intuitive as you might want, whether you’re winding around a car park or stropping down a b-road.
Gallery: 2017 Mercedes E-Class Estate
The Volvo’s steering is a touch more predictable and linear in its weighting, but it doesn’t turn into corners with the verve of the BMW. It’s got bigger problems in terms of it body control, which is quite loose and allows a lot of body float that you don’t get in the Merc or BMW, and it rolls more through direction changes, too.
On top of that, the Volvo’s gearbox is a touch disappointing, being hesitant to respond from a standstill, so it’s easy to over-compensate on the throttle and before you know it you’re lurching forwards more aggressively than you meant to. It’s not a bad car to drive even in this company, but it does feel quite flat-footed and short of the suaveness achieved by the BMW in particular.
The Merc’s engine is the most potent here by a fraction, and it does feel keen as the proverbial mustard – strong and smooth to build revs and shuffle through its nine ratios, plus it’s a quieter engine than the Volvo’s. In fact, it’s a fraction quieter than the BMW’s engine under load, too, keeping vibration and that diesel grittiness to a minimum, although all three cars cruise along in a peaceful bubble when you’re up to speed.
Equally, all three will serve up a hefty slug of acceleration in the mid-range to make fast merging or overtaking no hassle at all, but the BMW’s gearbox is the quickest and most intuitive in its speed and ratio-selection.
Gallery: 2017 Volvo V90
Which is comfiest?
Ah, well funnily enough that’d be the BMW, too. Certainly the Volvo has a more overtly squishy ride comfort, even on standard suspension of our test car, but it’s still prone to a rather uncouth bump and wobble over scruffy roads – particularly over bigger potholes around town.
Similarly, the Mercedes (our test car came with standard selective damping and 15mm lowered ride height thanks to its AMG Line trim) became a bit jarring over certain town roads yet never felt as impeccably controlled as the BMW.
And that’s the real joy of the BMW. Such is the precision and control of its dampers that it manages to soften bumps brilliantly while also maintaining effortless poise to its body control. It’s the most fun, the most comfortable and the most effortless, which is quite a trick to pull off in such civilised company.
Which one’s got the best Infotainment?
The Volvo is the only one of our posh, big-booted trio with a touchscreen system, and unusually the 9.0-inch screen is portrait rather than landscape. It works well enough, with clear graphics and reasonably fast response times, but it’s sometimes hard to find sub-menus and it’s not as easy to hit the screen’s icons precisely on the move as it is to use the rotary-controlled systems in the BMW and Mercedes.
Talking of the Mercedes, our test car came with the lb1,495 Comand Online system, which brings with it a bigger 12.3-inch screen, wifi hotspot, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. The widescreen cockpit (lb495) is also a feature on our car, which means you get the one-piece screen stretching across the dash and behind the steering wheel.
Somewhat shockingly, though, you can’t add those useful Smartphone apps (which turn the car’s screen into an extension of your phone’s screen) separately – you have to spend that lb1,495 for the upgrade, where BMW and Volvo allow you to add Apple CarPlay and Android Auto for a few hundred quid to the standard infotainment screens.
Even with the Comand Online upgrade on the Mercedes, and despite having voice control, a rotary controller and a touchpad as methods of using it, it’s a surprisingly confusing system. To an extent, it’s actually the sheer variety of control methods that can be a bit overwhelming and, somewhat perversely, make it harder to execute a simple action such as changing a radio station.
The BMW’s system is the best here, with the biggest standard screen, the best graphics and the most intuitive control system. The rotary controller, surrounded by its cluster of shortcut buttons, makes it easy to hop between functions and find the sub-menu you’re looking for. You really don’t need to add anything dramatically expensive to get a great multimedia system in the BMW and Volvo, where everything about the equipment levels of the Mercedes makes you feel as if you must add the lb1,495 Comand System to get the user interface that the car deserves.
** Part of Comand Online, which includes traffic assist, 12.3-inch screen, voice control and wifi hotspot.
And the winner is…
There’s plenty to commend all three of these cars. The Volvo you’d buy for its icy, Scandinavian looks and minimalist interior, the Mercedes you buy for its astonishingly huge boot space and great finance costs, and the BMW… well, you buy the BMW for all of it, really.
For its supremely precise, fluid ride and handling balance, for its wonderfully modern-looking and well equipped interior, for its smooth, refined yet efficient powertrain. It does it all. And that’s why it justifies the extra expense that it will remain burdened with until the shiny newness of the model wears off and better deals and finance offers start to trickle through.
Even so, if you’re staring down the barrel of a lb40k estate car purchase, we’d heartily recommend you find the extra for the BMW. It feels worth every penny.
*Finances shown relate to standard rear-wheel drive Mercedes E220d Estate SE. Car pictured is a 4Matic.