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Top Gear Awards: Family Car of the Year

  1. DAY ONE

    SP: As races go, it’s an odd one. There’s no prize for arriving first - we’re not even heading for the same finish line. We will start in Stuttgart, home of Mercedes, with a pair of identical C220 CDI estates, both brimmed to the gunwales with fuel. I, with photographer Simon Thompson, will head south, while Vijay Pattni - dressed like Scott of the Antarctic, for some reason - will aim north with Tom Salt. The goal? To get as far as possible on a single tank, with one proviso: the locations we splutter to our respective halts at must be fittingly exotic and… un-German. No doubt you could get extraordinary economy by doing 50mph laps of the Munich ring road, but that’d be no fun. Points will be awarded for style, not mere distance.

    Pictures: Tom Salt and Simon Thompson

    This feature originally appeared in issue 264 of Top Gear magazine.

  2. With the larger 66-litre fuel tank installed - the C-Class comes as standard with a 41-litre tank, but all UK cars get the big ‘un - and official combined economy of 68.9mpg, the C220 boasts a theoretical range of 1,000 miles. We all know official economy figures bear bugger-all resemblance to the real world, but still, that’s the potential for some serious distance between refills.

    Beyond its grand stomach for fuel, the new C-Class estate should be a fitting machine for the job. Mercedes bills it as executive travel, a mid-size estate with the comfort, lux and tech of a big limo. We shall see. I swing the grey Merc south onto Benzstrasse - in the direction of Austria and eventually, theoretically, Italy’s Amalfi coast - and watch Vijay’s C-Class totter north at walking pace.

  3. VP: Tom and I will do this properly. We will hypermile, employing a roster of motoring skills that, if applied correctly, should see us wheeze across the finish line somewhere majestic. Somewhere Scandinavian. Norway, basically. Saving weight would be the obvious first step, but as I’m forbidden from ditching Tom and his pesky camera kit, we must instead focus on the other aspects of the art: keeping below 60mph, anticipating traffic and braking events, coasting and making sure the aircon is turned off. Sorry, Tom.

    Worryingly, the Merc’s range readout straight out of the fuel station stands at a pitiful 575 miles. It’s over 700 miles just to the top of Denmark. Very quickly we realise Sam and Simon might have nicked the cushier gig. See, the drive to Hirtshals - a Danish coastal town far, far north of Stuttgart - is pure motorway. A 730-odd mile slab of soul-crushing motorway. Tom and I resolve to do it all in one hit, to get the pain out of the way in one go.

  4. Two things become clear. Thing One: hypermiling sees you become inextricably betrothed to the range readout. An efficient 10 minutes that boosts the predicted range by a dozen miles returns elation like nothing on earth. When it goes down, thoughts hit rock bottom.

    Thing Two: when you’re travelling at 60mph on a derestricted autobahn, the world is a very, very scary place. We find solace in our equally lethargic motorway buddies, lorries. Not only did Herr DB Schenker and his cargo of god-knows-what aid our efficiency as we drafted within a few inches of his rear bumper, he also shielded us from the ludicrously quick traffic in the fast lanes.

    After two hours and a mere hundred miles, we’ve boosted the range from 575 miles to 722. Sheer joy. We bid DB Schenker farewell as he turns off for Bamburg, and continue north and into the night.

  5. SP: As Team Oop North pussyfoots across Germany, Team Beautiful South has already clocked up three countries: the southern corner of Germany, a quick hop across Austria and into northern Italy. Unfortunately, this gain has come at the expense of a significant chunk of our fuel reserves. While Vijay schlepped through flat, featureless central Germany, we’ve been winding our way over the Alps. Alps are bad for economy. As am I.

    Hypermiling? Forget it. Life’s too short for drafting trucks and up-changing at 1,300rpm. As we battered down a derestricted section of three-lane highway at 90mph, watching three miles of range readout disappear for every mile travelled, Simon quietly suggested I might want to drive a little less spiritedly if we wanted to make it to Milan, let alone the Amalfi coast. I patiently explained that travelling any slower on the autobahn is frankly dangerous, and that the German police will definitely possibly confiscate your licence if you drop below 85mph. As we climb into the Alps, I notice Simon googling ‘jerrycans diesel Austria’ on his phone.

  6. Around 10pm, a mile above sea level, with the Merc’s gauge reading -3.0°C and a flurry of snow in the air, we abandon driving for the night, and make camp in the deserted ski town of Vipiteno, just over the Italian border. The C-Class reckons we’ve got 400 miles left in the tank. Amalfi is much further than that. At least the one restaurant has plentiful supplies of hot pizza and cold beer. I text Vijay a photo of our dinner, and receive a reply that can’t be printed in a family magazine. It seems Team North is not done for the night.

    VP: Somewhere between Hamburg and Hanover, Tom regales me with the story of Donald Crowhurst, a British sailor who in the Sixties entered a round-the-world yacht race, realised he couldn’t make it, fabricated lies about his position and eventually went mad and killed himself. I decide this is an excellent plan, but before I kill myself, I sketch out a series of elaborate strategies to murder Sam for ‘inviting’ me to tackle the northern leg of this trip. Hypermiling on a derestricted German motorway should be classed under Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights. It’s torture. You’re constantly fearful of brake lights ahead, always checking the real-time mpg. Should you encounter slower traffic, you must perform the slowest overtake in history, while checking your mirror for any incoming land rockets that might split you in two.

  7. As the drudgery rises, the night darkens. No road lights, just the lasers of a million BMWs and Audis and vans bombing past at lightning speed. I couldn’t tell you anything specific about northern German motorways, except it’s dark, we’re slow and the radio is weird.

    At 2am we hit Denmark, with 480 miles of range left. I notice Danish roads are better surfaced, which should lower the rolling resistance of the car, which should aid my fuel economy. This makes me impossibly happy. Dear God, what have I become?

    A mere three-and-a-half hours after that brief punctuation of happiness, we finally reach the top of Denmark, and a bed for the night. What’s left of it.

  8. DAY TWO

    SP: Barely an hour after Vijay and Tom hit the sack in Denmark’s cheapest motel, Simon and I awake to a frozen, clear morning in the Italian Alps. Europe’s great mountain range is in all its autumnal glory: bolt-blue skies roofing lush green meadows and snowy peaks, a gentle mist and the waft of woodsmoke hanging in the still dawn. It’s a morning to blast the senses, to have you singing with joy at the miracle of existence. At least, it would be if your existence for the next two days was supposed to entail driving 650 miles on half a tank of fuel.

    Today’s resolution to be more economical is immediately scuppered by reports of a monster traffic jam on the main road south to Bolzano, so we detour into the hills and discover a stunning mountain pass. The Passo di Pénnes twists its way up the side of an Alp to some 2,200 metres above sea level, a twinkling, permafrosted paradise presiding over wooded valleys and tumbling streams. I try to be frugal, but switchbacks aren’t conducive to 70mpg consumption. By the top of the pass, we’ve covered just 20 miles since stopping last night, but our range has plummeted a further 100 miles. A quick back-of-a-coaster calculation shows we’ll struggle to make Florence. At least the descent to Bolzano gives us 30-odd miles of free motoring…

  9. VP: Bleary-eyed, we awake in Hirtshals, a Truman Show town packed with character: die-hard seagulls, trawler boats and a general sense of calm and quiet with an underlying menace. We spot an old S4 Lotus Esprit.

    Though the Night of Motorway Terror should never be spoken of again, at least the Merc proved a perfect companion; supremely comfortable - thanks, air suspension - and beautifully equipped, with a senseof deep engineering integrity. Proper business class.

    The Hirtshals ferry makes an 80-mile crossing to Kristiansand, Norway, from where we’ll pick up the coast as far west towards Stavanger as the Benz can manage. We pray for a peaceful boat trip, to catch up on some kip. We are rewarded instead with four hours of choppy, terrifying passage across the North Sea.

    As the ferry sashays this way and that, I realise a) we’re gaining free miles thanks to the ferry’s monster diesel engines and Rolls-Royce thrusters, and b) I am not a sea person. Delays mean we land late, only a couple of hours before dark. We breathe a sigh of relief that we’ve reached our third country, Norway.

  10. SP: A confession. As Vijay bobbed across the North Sea, we were cheating. No, actually, worse than that. We were trying, and failing, to cheat, which is probably worse. See, somewhere around Trento, I cracked. With the Amalfi coast still 520 miles away, C-Class’s onboard range readout telling us we had 300 miles to run and the looming threat of total humiliation at the hands of Team Pattni, I pulled into a service station. A quick 20 litres, I thought with the deranged self-justification of a fix-crazed junkie. One quick hit. No one will ever know. But - and Simon will attest this to be gospel - the damn diesel pump wouldn’t dispense. As I flapped away, a burly service station attendant wandered over, a wrinkled 60-year-old gent burnt walnut-brown by the sun, sporting a straggly grey beard. He shook his head and bellowed something in Italian. “Inglese, scuse,” I apologised. He shrugged, searching for the phrase, and eventually came out with, “Not possible.” “Not possible?” I asked. “Not possible,” he repeated, ambling off back into the shade. So we drove off without filling up. That man saved us from ourselves! Filling Station Saviour!

    That visitation from my own spiritual eco-guardian resolves me to do this hypermiling thing properly. Sixty on the cruise control, aircon off, and as we crawl across the Italian plains - home to Ferrari, Lamborghini and balsamic vinegar - I decide there’s something therapeutic about driving like this. You don’t worry about speed cameras, or traffic cops. It’s peaceful. Spiritual, almost.

  11. An hour later, I decide hypermiling is an evil akin to puppy slaughter. An hour after that, I seriously debate wedging the steering wheel straight with a shoe and climbing into the back for a kip.

    We’re clawing it back, though. One of the C’s eco-readouts tells you how many ‘free miles’ you’ve earned through your eco-driving. This may be completely fictional, but it’s a nice touch. The C-Class reckons we’ve gained 80 bonus miles as we trundle over the Apennines. On the uphill sections of the two-lane, hilly highway, trucks veer into the outside lane, overtaking at single-figure speeds, forcing us to a) slow and b) swear like Tourette’s-afflicted navvies. Every unnecessary millimetre of throttle or brake pedal feels like a sin. We stop for the night at a vast, creaking mansion near Orvieto, where the owners ply us with homemade pasta and wine. If not our reward for (unintentionally) avoiding temptation, it’s at least a welcome distraction from the pain that awaits tomorrow…

  12. DAY THREE

    SP: That pain, specifically, is 240 miles from Orvieto to Sorrento, straight down the A1 motorway with the C-Class’s fuel tank indicator reading under a quarter full. We jettison old water bottles and dirty socks to save weight, haul the cruise control back to 55mph and sit in silence as the range readout teeters glacially upwards. Cruel missions of revenge are plotted against Team North, who, as Vijay’s gloating texts attest, are reaping what they sowed with their 700-mile mission on the first day.

  13. VP: This morning, our gruelling epic has come good. Sweet universe, Norway in a drop of sunlight with an autumn chill in the air is simply beautiful. Dramatic fjords, mountain landscapes and a sense of well-being that feels handed down from the gods.

    The road from Kristiansand to Stavanger sweeps us along a slow, speed-restricted coastal route. It doesn’t matter. The point of this trip was to find somewhere picturesque and far away from Stuttgart, and we’ve already succeeded. As we lollop along at gentle pace, I have time to reflect on the C220’s attributes. It’s acquitted itself exceedingly well during the past three days, tackling everything from crushing motorway to small-town street to narrow, muddy back road to coastal heaven, with nary a blink. It got us here in one piece without ever making its presence felt, a discreet companion with a sense of comfort and expertise.

    At 900 miles covered - nine hundred! - the range readout flips from showing 35 miles to issuing a stern warning: a fuel pump sign. I feel like I’ve upset the car. We tentatively chance another 14 miles at snail’s pace before calling it a day, just south of Stavanger, overlooking a particularly gorgeous lake: 914 miles and scenery that’d take your breath away. Job done.

  14. SP: As Team North enjoys a happy finish, as it were, things are rather more frantic in southern Italy. Just short of Naples, some 40 miles shy of our intended end point on the Amalfi shores, the C-Class informs us it’s out of fuel. Partly through a desire not to grind to a halt in a bad area of one of Europe’s least appetising towns, partly because we won’t have to deal with the engine repair bill if we run it dry, we soldier on, crawling along the inside lane at 50mph, tucking behind any truck we can find. It’s an insidious, sticky feeling (not aided by the temperature climbing to 25°C and no aircon at our disposal) knowing that at any moment we might hear the death rattle of a diesel engine, and come to an abrupt, ugly stop. Into the long tunnel under the Amalfi peninsula’s north-east corner, the tension is hideous. If we broke down now, we’d block the entire tunnel, and, I suspect, would be lynched in the ensuing carnage.

  15. And then out into the blinding afternoon light, literally coasting downhill along cobbled streets to the Sant’Agnello harbour, where fishermen jostle for waterfront space with bronzed octogenarians and teenagers leaning affectedly on scooters. Golden afternoon light dances off azure water, seagulls wheel above, two fat gents engage in a bellowing, finger-wagging argument. Made it.

    Amalfi feels a mighty long way from Stuttgart 48 hours ago. We’ve covered 851 miles, our first-day fuel gluttony leaving us 63 miles short of the northerners. So they’ve gone further, but, hey, the beer’s cheaper here. And the coffee’s better. And it’s warm. You pick your own winners, reader.

  16. VP: Accept it, Sam. We won. That said, the hardship we had to endure for victory rather sours the sweet taste. Sure, you can theoretically get 1,000 miles from a C-Class tank, but you can also theoretically French kiss a mako shark. Neither is recommended. The individual you must become to perform such Herculean feats of eco-driving isn’t pleasant.

    Yet the high point of this trip was the C-Class itself. Capable of big miles, it’s the ideal companion for such a mission: a relaxed, gorgeously appointed estate that never once put a foot wrong. A worthy Family Car of the Year. Like the sound of it? Well, there’s one C-Class abandoned on the side of the Vaulenveien outside Stavanger, and another by the docks in Sant’Agnello. Just make sure you bring a jerrycan of diesel.

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