Jaguar XF Sportbrake vs Mercedes CLS Shooting Brake CAR Giant Test

Published: 26 September 2013

CAR took the Jaguar XF Sportbrake 3.0D S and Mercedes CLS350 CDI Shooting Brake to Scotland for a head-to-head showdown of the world's most stylish estate cars. Read on for Anthony ffrench-Constant's complete feature.

Jaguar Director of design Ian Callum has dusted off his tricorn and conjured a boat. No, I’m not being derogatory about the lines of the new XF estate; he really has designed a boat. It’s a rather spiffing, 20ft long sharpened suppository with teak decking, a curved rump reminiscent of Riva’s glorious Aquarama, fuel filler caps pilfered from an XJ6 and a D-type-inspired carbonfibre fin.
Powered by a marine version of the V6 diesel we’re sampling today, it would be good for 55 knots, which on water, with seagulls in your teeth, feels akin to a tad over 200mph. And, should it go into production, I do hope he calls it a ‘Shootingboat’.

I mention this because, on learning that Mercedes has dubbed its new CLS estate ‘Shooting Brake’, had his hairline not engaged reverse and stamped its foot to the Axminster some years ago, the eyebrows of the ever-affable Mr Callum would undoubtedly have careered into it at some speed.

Indeed, having only just delivered a short but succinct soliloquy on the inappropriateness of using the word ‘shooting’ in the context of today’s estate car market, it was all he could do to avoid inadvertently projecting a mouthful of rather good red into the launch proceedings of the new Jaguar XF, um, Sportbrake.

Odd, really… Given that a ‘brake’ was originally a carriage to which unruly horses were tethered in order to break them of their spirit – the name hijacked by the British blood sports brigade in the early 19th century and gummed to the back of ‘shooting’ to describe the vehicle which carried them to the grouse moors – I’d have assumed that Jaguar’s concern over the use of the term would have less to do with political correctness and rather more to do with a desire to leave any hint of anachronism as far behind as the more ancient elements of its customer base…

All of which poses two questions. Firstly, to what extent is Jaguar design still shackled from true flights of fancy by a fear of sales to the somewhat walnut-faced coming over all Icarus? And, secondly, with the relentless rise of the SUV, isn’t the estate car itself fast becoming something of an anachronism?

As to the second question, it would seem not. Unprisable from generations of granite-cast E-class estates and the projectile propensities of fast, all-wheel drive Audi Avants, it is, ironically, the very folk who can still say ‘shooting-brake’ without flinching who have assured the estate market is very much alive, nee burgeoning.

As to the first, stand the XF Sportbrake alongside the CLS Shooting Brake and some might argue the jury’s still out. At first glance the Merc’s couture is so immediately striking and the Jaguar’s so relatively demure that they could almost hark from different generations.

The XF was never conceived as an estate, so Callum has had to work within fairly tight constraints, nothing below the belt line changing from the saloon until you reach to the top of the rear wheel arch. Two inches taller and (though it doesn’t look it) an inch longer than the Mercedes, with over an inch advantage in the wheelbase, the Jaguar boasts exceptionally clean lines and very little frippery in the metal, giving it a Bramley apple plumpness which may not find universal appeal.

The Sportbrake benefits from the facial tweaks recently visited on the saloon which, this being the S version, include a deeper chin. I still struggle to love the grille, however; what a shame it’s deemed too expensive these days to fold the peripheral metalwork into proper lips such as you find on, say, an Aston DB5. A chrome trim return alone doesn’t really cut the mustard and the result is a front that still feels a tad flat and inarticulate (the forthcoming F-type sports car is in for the same broadside, I fear).

In profile, the long sweep of the glasshouse is emphasised by blacked-out B-, C- and D-pillars, and, as is the fashion, the rear glazing is heavily tinted to mollify the owners of ugly children. The downside of blacking out the D-pillar is that it enforces a somewhat uncomfortable collision between side and rear glazing and the dropping roofline; an impossible detail to resolve with total ocular comfort and one which looks best on Sportbrake specimens finished in white.

Whilst the Jaguar stoops no lower that the polite ‘ahem’ of the best butler to draw attention to itself, the Mercedes clamours for attention from every angle, leaping up and down shouting ‘Pick me… Pick me’ in the manner of that annoying donkey of Shrek fame.

Striking it is, and undeniably handsome. But stunning, as some would have it? Low, lean and deliciously aggressive from every viewpoint I’ll give it, but whether or not the CLS Shooting Brake utterly bowls you over depends on how you feel about a gently rabid demonstration of the possibilities afforded by the French curve, whether or not you feel coachwork lines should both start and end somewhere, and how comfortably a D-pillar swollen into undue prominence by the steep tapering off of the side glazing sits with you.

On board, conversely, the story is different. Whilst the Merc interior remains (to paraphrase Sir Henry at Rawlinson End) ‘timeless as canal water, Teutonic as sauerkraut’, the Jaguar cockpit is not, I fear, ageing with such grace. Considered spanking modern by company standards when the XF broke cover four years ago, and subject to a recent mild overhaul, the dashboard design is now looking a little dated. Finished here in crisp aluminium and piano black, the whole is undeniably clean and tidy, but the dials in the instrument binnacle are woeful small and unappealing, the multi-media touch screen presentation remains inelegant and little joy to use, the steering wheel may be a delight to wield but the boss is plain ugly, and the phosphor blue backlighting has aged as well as the Motorola Razr phone that inspired it. On the positive side, Lear has been thrashed into making both front and rear seats far more comfy than before, the driving position – albeit higher than that of the CLS – gives no cause for complaint, and plenty of rear-seat knee room is now abetted by a whisker under two inches more headroom, courtesy of estate packaging.

Everything is where you left it aboard the Mercedes. The seats are firmer than those of the XF, but ergonomically superior over a long haul. There’s similar knee room astern, and less, but still adequate headroom. Overall, the dashboard design is clear and classy, but since this is the third CLS iteration I’ve visited in recent times, I’m going to pick nits.

Though the driving position is first class, I’ve suddenly noticed that the steering wheel is offset to the left of the seat centre line by a good three quarters of an inch. So now that niggles. The temperature control dials feel flimsy and plastic, and isn’t the centre console amber backlighting starting to feel tired? I’m not crazy about the aged ivory facing to the driver’s instruments either, nor the overworking of information presentation on the screen set into the speedo; even the digital speed readout is boxed in by an unnecessary frame the shape of an old black-and-white telly.

And, yes, I do realise I’m criticising the Jaguar interior for quasi-modernism that has dated too fast, yet simultaneously suggesting it might, finally, be time for a gently radical overhaul of the classic Mercedes interior. It’s a conundrum…

The steeply sloping rear of the Merc suggests its loadspace has succumbed to, erm, lifestyling rather more than that of the Jag, but in terms of practicality and volume, there’s precious little to choose between the two. Both boast powered tailgates and levers within the loadspace walls which fling the split folding rear seats (not quite) flat with elan. Thus modified, the Jaguar loadspace capacity swells from 550 to 1675 litres, that of the Mercedes from 590 to 1550 litres.

A quick pricing interlude: Mr Callum’s eyebrows worked overtime on the evening of the launch, clambering rapidly north once more at the suggestion that the CLS Shooting Brake might constitute a rival for the XF Sportbrake. He deemed the former much more expensive. But hang on…

Though the Jaguar in 3.0-litre V6 Diesel S spec is available from £44,355, this range-topping Portfolio variant comes in at £51,505, and is here fitted with some £4313 worth of optional extras. A similarly powered CLS350 CDI starts at £53,000, this AMG Sport version coming in at £55,995 and groaning under the weight of £11,920 worth of extras.

Stick with the base model and shun all superfluous toys except electric, heated seats, keyless go and a multi-media interface upgrade, and the resultant £55,935 price tag offers pretty precise parity with that of this Jaguar variant.

The Jaguar shades the Mercedes’ 261bhp power output by 10bhp, whilst the latter offers 15lb ft of torque more than the former’s 442lb ft. Abetted by eight- and seven-speed automatic transmissions with paddle-shift override, both laugh in the face of weight increases wrought by the addition of a box on the back (70 and 95kg respectively), the CLS lunging to 62mph in just 6.6 seconds, the XF, lighter by 30kg, completing the dash in just 6.1. Both machines have a governed top speed of 155mph.

Both estates stick with their saloon-variant suspension at the front; the Jaguar double wishbone, the Mercedes multi-link. And both bolster their multi-link rear systems with the self-levelling abilities of air springing. This Portfolio spec Jaguar further benefits from an adaptive suspension system, whilst the AMG Sport CLS benefits not in the least from beefed-up, yet non-adaptive undercarriage.

Whilst the Jaguar’s ride remains little short of sublime at all speeds, the hapless Mercedes once again calls Shrek’s donkey to mind, bouncing around with uncontrolled excitement at low speeds, and steadfastly refusing to settle in the high-speed cruise on all but mirror-finish surfaces. Utterly inappropriate behaviour for such a classy estate.

Both cars prove pleasingly quiet in said cruise, the XF a fraction more vocal in the engine department, the near silent running of the CLS engine room countered by significantly more tyre noise, despite riding on 19in rims – an inch smaller than those of the Jaguar. The power delivery of both machines is little short of silken, both in fully automatic guise and with the paddles in play. Yet, it’s only proper that the Jaguar should have a little more to say about proceedings because, though the Mercedes could hardly be deemed a slouch, it is consistently trumped by the former’s unrelenting eagerness both off the line and through the gears.

And the same is true in the handling stakes. Evidence of the Mike Cross magic reveals itself with every twist in the road and twitch of the helm. The addition of a box astern doesn’t appear to have diminished the XF’s appetite for agility in the least. The accurate, beautifully weighted steering is nothing short of fabulous; hilarious levels of information tingle through the fingertips and the nose goes exactly where you point it with almost absurd alacrity and poise.

Though marred by unnecessarily tough suspension, the CLS still acquits itself with honour; the steering is, perhaps, the finest on any Mercedes to date, and the big estate can be hustled through bends with an engaging ease, admirable poise and no little enjoyment. It simply cannot, however, hold a candle to the Jaguar’s extraordinary meld of ride comfort, body control and agility; an endless delight.

With a high(er) performance, four-wheel-drive XFR Sportbrake waiting in the wings to further take the fight to Audi, and engineering constraints shackling right-hand-drive CLS Shooting Brakes to a rear-wheel-drive-only future, the Jaguar makes an increasingly persuasive case for itself with every mile driven.

In truth, I’d be delighted to own either of these largely magnificent estates. But which shall adorn the crunchy gravel? Accepting that, perversely, it’s the Jaguar that really should be called the Shooting Brake here, I suppose it comes down to a question of the generation in which you wish to live. Watching photographer Barry climb into an enormous padded anorak to fend off the Grampian climate reminds me that the phrase ‘getting down with the ’hood’ has age-dependent connotations. Whilst many will recognise it as an invitation to hang out with mates, older types might be more inclined to pop to the shops in search of a heavily quilted, waterproof jacket. As Frank Zappa suggested, then; the crux of the biscuit is the apostrophe.

Words: Anthony ffrench-Constant Photography: Barry Hayden

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