Super-estate or super-SUV? We find out, with the help of a massive frozen lake
“What’s wrong with a fast estate?” That’s the petrolhead response to top-heavy, cost-heavy performance SUVs. They’re flawed from the outset, and it’s cool to call them uncool. Lord knows, I’ve been guilty of it.
Words: Stephen Dobie
Images: Rowan Horncastle & Mark Riccioni
This feature originally appeared in the March ‘Winter Games’ issue of Top Gear magazine.
As well as hosting childishly big skids, though, a secluded frozen lake has another advantage. No one can see you. Deep between snow-capped trees, where the satnav still thinks everything should be blue and wet, only nosey deer know what you’re up to. For driving a vastly overpowered SUV without shame, it’s perfect.
That SUV is the Mercedes-AMG GLC 63S. We’ve got it in its more potent S trim, which means the same, thunderous 503bhp 4.0-litre V8 twin-turbo engine you’ll normally find in a C63. Or the new Aston Vantage. In a sensibly shaped 4x4, it feels as downright loony as you’d expect.
Mind, you could probably attach this engine to a set of aeroplane stairs and they’d become a gargling, drifting wonder. Yet the two-tonne GLC’s deftness and drama astonishes us all. It has all of the new E63’s AWD-assisted powersliding fun, but its shorter wheelbase makes everything feel a bit more urgent.
Its additional ride height means you’re far less afraid of the snowbanks, too, freshly confident to throw even larger shapes than in the other AMG we’ve brought here. It’s bonkers, and brilliant. If it performs with the same joyful boisterousness on the road, it’s yet more proof that AMG is on a stormer right now.
The 300kg-lighter Audi RS4 is the kind of estate we might normally divert you to, and a demonstration of subdued speed beside the madcap Merc. Beyond the red-tipped RS badges, its mildly inflated rear arches are the only real way of identifying it from an S line A4 diesel. Inside, it’s a world of plush stitching and techy dials, and it feels incongruously calm and posh next to the Merc’s centre-striped Alcantara wheel and tightly hugging sports seat. The car with the higher seating position feels more up for it.
Temperatures of -20ºC bring out the RS4’s feistier side. It’ll slide all over the place, but you do have to be willing to boss it around. Even with all the electronics turned off, its AWD tries to sniff out the most efficient line around our circuit, the car naturally drifting just a little to combat understeer. On a wet, wintry B-road, I suspect it would feel spot-on.
The latest RS4’s switch to 444bhp V6 turbo power – replacing its sonorous old naturally aspirated V8 – completes an aura of classy professionalism next to the slapstick GLC. It sounds pretty good for a modern V6, but nowt stands a chance in the company of that outrageous AMG engine.
On the road, with an audience beyond curious wildlife, the Audi’s greater Q car potential might be enough to give it the nod. Especially if you call yourself a proper enthusiast. With a bit of Swedish solitude, however, it’s the Merc I keep hopping in for “one last go”. The performance SUV is more fun than the fast estate. Just don’t tell anyone…