Mid-size passenger wagons compared, in premium trim. In a world gone mad for SUVs, what will happen to the classic family stalwart?
WHO would’ve thought that the traditional station wagon would become an anti-fashion statement? Once upon a time, that ignominy belonged to families lumped with a 55- or 60-series Landcruiser, but today the aspirational vehicle of the working and middle classes appears to be an SUV of some kind, in all its rapidly expanding forms. Which leaves the mid-size wagon where exactly?
On the shopping lists of the clever folk, that’s where. Lighter, faster, thriftier, more space-efficient, easier to park and more fun to drive than their jacked-up nemeses, about the only area where the traditional wagon apparently doesn’t score is in the kid-loading department. Or does it?
The beauty of indulging in a medium wagon from a bourgeois brand is what you get for the money. Close to 50 thousand smackeroos is plenty to spend on a top-shelf model, but you’ll be left wanting for almost nothing. And if being true to type seems a little predictable, as championed by Ford’s all-new Mondeo Titanium wagon and Mazda’s freshly facelifted 6 GT wagon, then how about Subaru’s new-generation, all-wheel-drive Outback Premium or Citroen’s haute couture seven-seat Grand C4 Picasso for the same money?
Nearly 50 grand for a European Ford turbo-diesel might seem a fair wedge, but that’s at least $10K less than BMW’s entry-level 318d Touring, not to mention $15K less than a Benz C200 BlueTec diesel estate, and more than $20K less than Audi’s sole A4 diesel wagon, the Allroad TDI. And you get everything but a Fijian holiday for the Mondeo’s $49,340 sticker, including 10-way electric heated front seats, leather trim, seat heaters for the outer rear passengers, rear seatbelt airbags, a full-length glass roof (with sunroof), 18-inch rims, dynamic LED headlights with daytime running lights and sequential indicators, radar cruise, city auto-brake, pre-collision assist and park assist. Options total zero, unless you count ‘prestige’ paint ($450) or two alternate 18-inch alloy wheel designs.
Ford’s former bed partner and now confirmed bachelor, Mazda, offers a similarly stacked deck for near-identical money, and a similarly sizeable saving over premium-brand Euros. Our test 6 GT Diesel wagon ($47,220) was straight out of the box, though an optional safety pack with rear cross-traffic alert, blind-spot monitoring and city auto-brake would’ve taken its total to a still-competitive $48,280, with a sunroof, 19s, heated front seats, a head-up instrument display and adaptive LED headlights garnishing the deal. For those wanting the full safety suite, there’s an even pricier Atenza variant ($50,920) that looks identical to the GT yet adds radar cruise, adaptive high-beam, forward collision warning, lane assist and lane-departure warning to impress the kidlets.
Curiously, Subaru’s Outback Premium turbo-diesel isn’t available with the ‘Eyesight’ safety tech offered on the top-spec petrol, though the well-equipped Subie’s carrot is a super-competitive $43,490 list price. For that you get plenty of metal for the money, given Outback’s 4815mm length, and an SUV-ish aspect thanks to its 1675mm height – making it taller than Citroen’s MPV – with the added benefit of 213mm ground clearance and full-time all-wheel drive. Otherwise, the Outback 2.0D Premium’s equipment list is par for the course, though hill-descent control and a full-size 18-inch alloy spare will impress anyone with aspirations of getting their fingernails dirty.
The Citroen is the odd man out, for good reason. As one of the sexiest people-movers of all time, it’s so goddamn stylish that its MPV categorisation carries minimal ‘mumsy’ baggage. And it proves you can have seven seats for the price of five, with a slimline pair best suited to children or small adults folding away into its rear floor, without affecting boot space.
It has an appealing starting price, too – $44,990 – though our test car came with metallic paint ($800), an electric tailgate ($1000), and a full leather interior ($5000), raising its total to a fairly premium $51,750. While $5K for full cow is the price of a quality lounge, it does include massaging and heated front seats, an electric ottoman for the front passenger, ‘butterfly’ headrests, LED courtesy lights for the second-row tray tables and third-row air-con. That’s over and above unique features such as its 360-degree parking camera displayed on a 12-inch high-definition centre instrument screen, and three individually adjustable and slideable centre-row seats.
All four contenders tread a similar path in the engine department, with a few key differences. Unlike its six-speed automatic rivals, the Subaru uses a ‘Lineartronic’ CVT to power all four wheels, and unlike its 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo-diesel compatriots, the Mazda boasts a 2.2-litre capacity for its brilliant ‘SkyActiv-D’ turbo-diesel.
It’s no exaggeration that Mazda’s force-fed oiler is one of the finest diesel engines in existence. Smooth and vibration-free, yet also muscular and amazingly free-revving, the 6’s 129kW/420Nm diesel has a redline that isn’t a pipedream, and will extend to 5700rpm without choking itself to death. Steering-wheel paddles enhance the fun factor on twisty roads, all to the tune of a sporty induction note, yet Mazda’s SkyActiv diesel is actually more refined than its petrol equivalent when giving its all.
And boy can it give. The faster the pace, the clearer the Mazda’s lead, though Ford’s ageing but able turbo-diesel runs it surprisingly close. Where the 6 sounds genuinely sporty, the Mondeo still sounds like a diesel, though it’ll rev to nearly 5000rpm while pulling strongly – much better than the somewhat breathless Citroen – and it boasts an excellent dual-clutch gearbox that’s as lag-free as the Mazda’s auto.
In rolling response, the Mondeo is also on the money, though its hefty 1707kg mass – 118kg more than the Mazda – ultimately dampens its 132kW/400Nm outputs, and its real-world economy. While 9.2L/100km over a fairly hard-driven route is still pretty good for such a capacious wagon, even the heavier all-wheel-drive Outback managed to out-sip it (8.7L/100km), not to mention the Mazda (8.3L/100km) and the light, efficient Citroen (7.9L/100km).
The Grand C4 Picasso is actually a much better bus than anyone’s given it credit for. While one of PSA’s beefier diesels – like the 133kW/400Nm unit in the 308 GT HDi – would be a better fit, there’s essentially nothing wrong with the Picasso’s 110kW/370Nm version, or its off-the-line punch and fluency on the move. It’s not an inspiring diesel like the Mazda’s, and loses its lustre approaching its 4700rpm ceiling, though Citroen claims she’ll nudge 207km/h given a long enough road. Somewhere in Germany.
The Outback’s intriguing flat-four diesel – the only one of its type in the world – is even less keen on revs and is more obviously a compression-ignition engine, though it’s a sweet one. Done and dusted by 4000rpm, if you nail the Outback Premium’s throttle pedal, its CVT reverts to stepped ratios (like Nissan’s X-Trail and Qashqai CVTs), slurring upshifts home at just 3950rpm while sounding quite a bit faster than it actually is. But despite Outback’s impressive urban driveability and its transmission’s all-round goodness, the boxer diesel struggles to overcome its power-to-weight deficit, as a tardy 7.7sec from 80-120km/h proves. That’s a full two seconds adrift of the Mazda.
Yet the Subaru fails to allow its relative lethargy to affect its cross-country ability. Tackling Australia’s big distances with enthusiasm, the Outback is quiet and relaxed, displaying good body control and nice balance through faster corners, despite its elevated ride height and mud-and-snow tyres. Add excellent visibility and an imperious SUV-rivalling driving position and you can see why Subaru is currently flogging Outbacks like nobody’s business.
At a decent clip, its steering isn’t too bad, being reasonably accurate and less intrusively weighted, but at more sedate speeds it proves Outback’s main dynamic weakness. Often heavy and treacly, to the point where it can make your thumbs ache driving at a quarter-to-three wheel position, the Outback’s Oz-tuned steering set-up improves in really twisty stuff. But it ultimately can’t escape its jacked-up reality. Those all-terrain tyres exacerbate its lack of front-end point, making it understeer more than it should. And while there’s a good chassis underneath the Outback, without the Liberty’s road-biased tyres and lower centre-of-gravity, it’s all washed down the drain, along with any memories of GT and Spec-B wagons.
In contrast, the Mondeo is brilliant. While almost as heavy as the all-paw Subie, it has a fluidity of movement that elevates it beyond all others here. Ultimately, it isn’t as overtly sporting as the Mazda when having the pants driven off it, but the oiled and nuanced cohesion in everything it does is exemplary. Its driving position is perfect, its polished steering is crisply interactive, and even on fat and grippy 18s, the ride is supple, controlled and quiet (if not as brilliant as lesser Mondeos on smaller wheels). It would take a cleverly specced 3 Series to outhandle a Mondeo, and even then I doubt it could match the Ford’s silky ride/handling balance. Here is a mid-size, mainstream-brand front-driver that gives away nothing to premium-badge social-climbers.
As a sporty Euro-flavoured, Japanese-engineered wagon, the Mazda 6 occupies the territory once dominated by Subaru’s Liberty. With sharp, carving handling and loads of grip, not to mention that stunning turbo-diesel engine, the 6 GT is a proper sports wagon that also happens to look the part. It’s a real driver’s car.
And an improved one. The facelifted model’s revised steering is lighter, creamier and more consistent than before – if still mildly prone to kickback when pushed hard through rippled corners – matched to a more absorbent and quieter ride. But alongside the Mondeo’s almost nerdy dynamic excellence, the 6’s sharper reactions to bumps, greater noise intrusion and slight float in its front suspension when tackling poorly surfaced country roads four-up mean it isn’t quite the all-rounder that its former cousin is.
Surprisingly, the Citroen has both the firmest ride and the most road noise, though neither are intrusive enough to be offensive. What it does have is excellent damping control and an unexpected ability to tackle roads of all kinds with enthusiasm and amusement, begging the question “is this the greatest-handling MPV of all time?”
Quite possibly. The C4 is superbly balanced and lets its Peugeot 308 DNA shine through in its rear-end involvement in corners. Torsion-beam bum or not, the Citroen is both fun and confidence-inspiring, even on the torrentially wet roads of our drive loop, though you tend to drive more on the feel of its chassis than what you experience through its steering. And why is its steering-wheel boss so big? In a Citroen ferchrissake? And its shift paddles don’t move with the wheel, making life rather busy on really windy roads.
But what a view. The Citroen’s ‘Zenith’ windscreen enables its sunvisors and front headlining to be slid right back to above the driver’s head and, combined with a full-length glass ceiling, it gives a unique mise-en-scene best not experienced in the height of summer. Thankfully, all three rows get climate-control vents, the middle with its own fan controls.
There are other quirky touches, such as the futuristic, interesting and informative dashboard with multiple screens and a column-mounted gearshift wand that is small, light and simple. If only the steering wheel was the same and didn’t hide the column stalks.
Like its ride quality, the Citroen’s seats are firmly padded and at their best in the front row. With supportive bolsters and three-position side armrests, the C4’s front buckets are great for big distances. Its middle trio aren’t quite as comfy, with hard backrests lacking a bit in the lumbar-support department, but each seat has its own fore-aft adjustment and will semi-recline, like on a plane, with neck-pillow headrests if you option full leather. Indeed, the Citroen is the only true five-seater here, plus it has another pair stashed in the rear floor, and easily the biggest boot (632-793 litres beneath the parcel shelf, depending on middle seat position).
The Mondeo’s interior is about as predictable as a politician’s lies, and about as colourful as Canberra’s architecture, but it works. Superb front seats – easily the best here – plus a great steering wheel and fabulous audio quality are appreciated every time you drive it, plus there’s ample room to complement its excellent ride and refinement. Even better for its load-lugging functionality, the Mondeo wagon scores a decently sized boot with Audi-style side rails that allow you to slide a luggage net and rail dividers to hold cargo in place. Smooth to operate and brilliantly effective, it’s this level of functional cleverness that will keep traditional wagons relevant.
But the Mondeo can’t match the facelifted Mazda 6’s interior presentation, nor its feeling of expense. The Mazda looks and feels premium, like a Japanese Audi, and it’s this sort of quality that will keep buyers hunting in the mainstream-brand wolf pack.
The Mazda’s perforated leather seats aren’t quite as plush as the Ford’s, but its trim is of a higher quality, and it has more rear headroom thanks to a shorter sunroof. Its Bose stereo doesn’t quite have the Ford’s staging clarity, and it has more hollow bass, but this is all nit-picking because the 6’s rise to interior excellence deserves to be praised. And so does its still-brilliant ‘Karakuri’ rear-seat backrest that folds almost flat in the flick of a switch, though the 6 is the only car here without an electric tailgate.
The Subaru doesn’t have the Mazda’s colour and design flair, but is of a similar quality. It’s hugely roomy, with a commanding view from every position, though you sit on the Subaru’s seats, not in them. It’s closer to being a full five-seater than the Ford and Mazda, with a rear backrest that can be reclined in three positions, and it uniquely squeezes a full-size 18-inch alloy spare wheel into a package that also includes a rear driveshaft. Plus, Subaru’s new infotainment touchscreen thingy is superb – especially compared to the fiddly piece of shite it replaces – with terrific audio quality.
However, it’s the Outback that brings up the rear in this comparo, mainly due to the strength of its competition. The new-gen Subaru is a seriously good car, with the space and spec to tempt swinging SUV buyers away from the dark side. And it’s a guaranteed winner for country folk who value its road ability, its durability and its evergreen residual value. But a Liberty wagon with a similar level of attention to its suspension tune would have had a better chance here, and that car sadly doesn’t exist.
The best thing about the Citroen is that it’s hard to categorise. Much sexier than an MPV, yet similarly space efficient, it’s a surprising contender in the fun-to-drive stakes, and it’ll have design types all aflutter with its quirky, airy, interesting interior. But its cabin materials aren’t quite up to PSA’s recent best, and its seats and ride comfort could use some finessing, to the benefit of overall passenger comfort. It also has a pretty dismal projected three-year resale value (44 percent), though its six-year, unlimited-kilometre warranty provides hope, as does Citroen Australia’s revival of fortunes since joining management forces with Peugeot.
So, Mazda versus Ford. It’s 626 versus Telstar for a new era, except this time they share absolutely nothing, besides all-round ability. The 6 is the sportier of the two, and prettier, with a higher-quality interior and one of the greatest diesel drivetrains in existence. But the Mondeo’s polished refinement, dynamic fluency and overall comfort make it the new global benchmark for driving quality in the mid-size sector, even alongside premium-badge entrants.
Yet Mondeo misses exactly where the 6 scores, making this test an extremely close one to call. The Mazda is a fine wagon and an almost classless object of desire, mixing Japanese reliability with Euro-style design flair. As a neat wagon for an active couple, it triumphs. But if you want your wagon to cop everything your family can throw at it, balanced with the stress-reducing qualities of class-leading comfort and refinement, the Mondeo remains unmatched.