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Jaguar XF Sportbrake vs Merc CLS Shooting Brake

  1. Spindrift streams off the roof of the Sportbrake, a glittering trail of frozen particles that spills into the biting, brittle Lakeland air and hangs motionless. A crystallised snapshot and then the gently floating cloud is blown apart, the particles scattered by a bow wave of turbulence, as the Shooting Brake punches its way through.

    Frost twinkling on bodywork, the Jaguar and the Mercedes flow along, a vapour trail of diamond dust in their wake. They look absolutely gorgeous. Estate cars aren’t meant to look gorgeous. They can occasionally be well-designed, handsome even, but on the whole this is a class in which a fit-for-purpose mentality dominates. That purpose being practicality. But why should this be so? Why should the compromise always come down on the side of space, not style? After all, how much room do you actually need? Couldn’t you just improve your packing skills?

    Words: Ollie Marriage
    Pics: John Wycherley

    This feature first appeared in Top Gear magazine

  2. So, the Jag XF Sportbrake and Merc CLS Shooting Brake. An interesting pair. Not the biggest estates, certainly - the Merc arguably not an estate at all - but aren’t they just cars you want? That you’d consider, even if you didn’t need an estate?

    That may sound perverse, buying a car with features you might not use, but don’t try telling me that everyone who buys an SUV takes it off-road (the SUV question is an interesting one in relation to these cars, something we’ll come on to at the end). Conclusion: we don’t buy cars purely to fit our needs.

  3. So, on the surface, this is a matter of style: Jag’s pert new rear versus Merc’s elongated tail. Let’s look at the Jag first. What I love about the Sportbrake is that it adds so much to the XF. The saloon is a fine, distinguished piece of design, but the estate has so much more about it. Part of that could be down to this being a top-spec Diesel S model on 20-inch wheels with the full Portfolio finishing kit, but we needed the £51,505 price point to haul the Sportbrake up to the CLS’s level - £55,995 for a CLS 350 CDI in AMG Sport trim. The Jag can, of course, be had for £20k less; the Merc, however, can’t.

    But let’s not get unduly distracted by cost. If we know anything, it’s that people will pay more to own beautiful things. The detail work here is great - the blacked-out D-pillar, kinked-up spoiler and a droop-free tail that the XF carries high, like it’s been hoiked up in a pair of spandex knickers. Still the more conventional car here, mind you, what with the longer roofline and more upright tailgate, both helping to maximise its internal capacity.

  4. Lovely overall visual balance, arguably better than the Merc’s, but doesn’t it look big in comparison? I’ve always viewed the CLS as more saloon than coupe, but here, parked next to the glistening XF on the Kirkstone Pass, I’m amazed how much lower it is, how much sleeker and narrower and thinner. This is mostly misleading. The Shooting Brake is a solitary centimetre shorter, and actually wider by 4mm. It is 52mm lower, but it’s the more sculpted design work that has done most to reduce the appearance of mass.

    With the E-Class covering the estate basics, the CLS has this freedom to be more playful/less practical - all slopey tailgate, wing-profile window line and teardrop light clusters. Fully featured boot, mind. The tailgate whirs up electrically, the bootfloor is gas-strutted and there’s a veritable plethora of load straps, rails, cubbies and hooks all arrayed around a boot that’s a sight bigger than I expected. 590 litres big. Family-holiday big. Bigger than the 550-litre Jaguar big.

  5. That’s a bit of a surprise, but, as with the exterior dimensions, the figures don’t tally with the findings. Try loading something large and awkwardly shaped into the Merc’s more, erm, triangular-shaped load area (taller at the back than near the bumper) and you’ll struggle more than you would in the rectangular Sportbrake.

    But is that the point? Not really. The idea of these two is that they’re large enough to cope, not so big as to look bulbous and create the wrong impression. And here’s the thing: while I wanted people to imagine that inside was nothing more than my wife and me on our way to do some skydiving or spend a five-star weekend in the country, the reality on the other side of the darkened glass was two small children, two bikes, four pairs of wellies and many coats, hats and scarves. Both cars coped with these trials and tribulations, and that’s more than enough.

  6. Couple of things worth noting in relation to that: the soft, deep carpet in the Merc is a bit too special, and its narrow boot aperture can be an issue, while in the Jag, well, not much to report, really - it’s splendidly easy to use.

    A statement that accurately applies to the whole car. It’s the pace of the thing, and all Jaguars really do have a particular pace and rhythm. It’s in everything from the styling to the particular speed at which the gear selector rises from the dash and the air vents rotate open. So you get into the Sportbrake, and it imposes this pace on you. Sure, you can bully it into doing what you want, heaving it into corners, accelerating and braking aggressively, but, five miles down the road, you’ll realise it has won you over. You’re not travelling more slowly, just… more smoothly.

  7. So you settle back into the cabin and enjoy the ride. But the problem is that there are a few issues in here. The Sportbrake bodywork may be lithe and new, but the cabin design is getting on a bit now. The touchscreen is slow to respond and although well organised the lay-out doesn’t quite have the clarity of the Merc’s. Nor the quality.

    It’s not that the XF lacks in this regard, it’s that the CLS is so strong. The damn thing’s built beautifully. Tap panels, wiggle vents, press, squeeze, twist, do whatever you want, because you will not find a single weakness here. Well, not in terms of robustness, although the larger gentleman might find himself a little pressed for space - there are elements of coupe-dom in the proximity of the A-pillar and the way your legs tuck a long way under the dash. Quite conservative overall interior design, too - the boot is more rakish than the dash - but, all in all, this is a thoroughly pleasant car to be in.

  8. Both are diesel, with torque curves as flat as the still water on the lakes around here. It’s the Jaguar you expect more from - chiefly because it has an S badge on its back. It has a fraction more power, a little less torque, a mere 30kg less weight. It’s claimed to be half a second quicker to 62 mph, and it may be, but that’ll only be down to its snappier, superior eight-speed automatic gearbox.

    But, in general driving, it is busier - the shifts, though smooth, are more frequent, the gearbox not giving the engine enough of a chance to use its torque, always trying to whip through its bottom four ratios as fast as possible. The Merc, in contrast, digs deeper, uses each gear for longer, seems to have worked out it’s less proficient at the business of gearchanging (and it really is), so tries to do so less frequently. It’s swings and roundabouts, although I’m of the opinion that if you have all this torque
    you should be able to use it.

  9. So I find the Merc more satisfying under power, but the Jag more satisfying to drive. Perhaps even more satisfying than the saloon, as the balance appears to be spot on - you feel no extra weight, just lovely, light, accurate steering that breeds confidence. You wouldn’t describe it as languid, because that implies laziness, so how about lithe? The way it sweeps around corners, and lays satin over rough surfaces is brilliant. It’s undemanding and yet rewarding - you get out of it far more than you put in.

    The Shooting Brake strives to hit these heights but narrowly misses. The XF on 20s rides better than the CLS on 19s; the CLS feels heavier, there’s more sag in the suspension and it has to try a little harder in every area. Where the Jag is naturally talented, the impression with the Merc is that it’s had to put in the long yards.

  10. But you enjoy spending time in both. I can’t remember the last time I drove a car and actively looked forward to a five-hour Friday-night haul… I did in these. They make time tick, they soothe, massage the miles away, hum and purr happily and sip quietly at their fuel reserves. And, boy, is the Merc easy on fuel. In near-identical conditions, the Merc hit 41mpg, the Jag 34mpg.

  11. But of the two, it’s the Jag that does it for me. Not in every area, and you can make a strong case for the Merc simply because of the fact - and it is a fact - that it’s a more creatively designed car. I love it; I think it’s excellent. But I think the Jag’s better. Not by much, but by enough. The thing I was talking about earlier, about the XF having a particular pace and rhythm is true of every facet of this car. It’s so in tune with itself, so harmonious. You could make a very strong case for this being the best car Jag currently makes. And it’s a diesel estate. But not really an estate. It’s something more: a car you’d be proud to own.

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