Driving

Which is the most entertaining car from behind the wheel? We hit the open road to reveal all.

Ratings BMW hhhhh IN M Sport trim, the 535d is the keen driver’s choice. Meaty and direct steering has bags of feel, while body control is excellent. The twin-turbo 3.0-litre engine delivers blistering performance and excellent fuel returns. Ride is very firm around town and can get fidgety on motorway, but noise levels are low. Mercedes hhhh COMFORT and refinement are the luxurious E-Class’s trump cards. Ride is supple over most surfaces, although potholes send a shudder through cabin. Handling is composed and predictable, and while it lacks the sharp responses and feedback of the BMW, the refined 3.0-litre diesel delivers muscular overtaking pace. AUDI hhhh ON paper, the Audi is the slowest car here. However, sharp throttle response and all-wheel-drive traction mean it feels faster than the figures suggest. Although there’s plenty of grip in corners, the steering is over-assisted and the sharp brakes could be more progressive. Our S line’s stiff suspension results in a crashy ride, especially around town.

*****

Don't be fooled into thinking estate cars should be dull to drive. Powerful diesel engines and sporty saloon underpinnings mean our trio of contenders promises to be loads of fun.

The Mercedes appears to be at a disadvantage, because its 228bhp 3.0-litre V6 is the least powerful unit here. But at the test track, the E350 blasted from 0-60mph in a hot hatch-rivalling seven seconds exactly – that’s two-tenths faster than the Audi.

Head out on the road and this blistering pace is disguised by the car’s refined power delivery and low noise levels. The sensation of speed is further reduced by the slick- shifting seven-speed automatic transmission, which can be slow to respond to the throttle. That’s certainly not the case with the Audi. If anything, its six-ratio unit is too keen to kick down. Combine this characteristic with the four- wheel-drive traction, and the A6 feels extremely rapid from a standing start. It’s an illusion, though, as the Avant proved to be the slowest car in the benchmark 0-60mph sprint, with a time of 7.2 seconds. The undisputed performance champion in this test is the BMW. With its 286bhp twin- turbo engine, it set the pace, covering 0-60mph in only 6.4 seconds. The growling six-cylinder unit is even more impressive in the mid-range, where it delivers scintillating overtaking ability. The 5-Series maintains its advantage when you enter a series of corners. M Sport models get lower and stiffer suspension, and 18-inch alloys. As a result, our test car turned in sharply and generated plenty of grip. Better still, the weighty steering is full of feel, while the body control is excellent over fast and bumpy back roads. The downside is that the ride is firm around town and fidgety on the motorway. Bumpy surfaces also upset the stiffly set-up Audi, which in S line trim matches the BMW for sporty intentions. Potholes and motorway ridges send a shudder through its cabin. As you’d expect, there’s very little body roll in corners and the A6 is composed at higher speeds. More impressive is the all-wheel-drive traction in slippery conditions. Only the lifeless steering lets it down. The Mercedes is more laid back than its rivals in this test. Our Avantgarde model has quite soft suspension, and is better suited to cruising, while only severe bumps test the otherwise supple ride. Turn into a corner and the E-Class is composed. But it doesn’t feel as agile, while its direct steering lacks the BMW’s feedback. Keen drivers can specify a Sport version of the E350 for an additional £1,500. This pack brings stiffened suspension, uprated brakes, a subtle bodykit and heavily bolstered AMG front seats. Stick with the Avantgarde, and the E-Class is the most refined choice – over long distances, it’s impressively relaxed and cosseting.

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