Ethos

Hot Euro Wagons: Jaguar XFR-S vs. Mercedes CLS63 AMG vs. Audi RS6

The concept of the hot Euro wagon got its start in 1994, when Porsche helped transform the pedestrian Audi 80 station wagon into a hot rod grocery-getter called the RS2 Avant. With all-wheel drive helping put the turbocharged five-cylinder engine’s power to the pavement, the Audi RS2 Avant offered staggering acceleration. It beat the McLaren F1 from 0 to 30 mph, and topped out at 163 mph.

Audi never offered the RS2 for sale in America, and save for such notable (and rare) exceptions as the recently departed Cadillac CTS-V Wagon, such utilitarian performance cars are forbidden fruit for U.S. enthusiasts. Our market tends to shun wagons, so manufacturers don’t offer us many at all, let alone the pricey, hot examples. We’ve had some warm versions over the years, but only Mercedes-Benz has gone to the trouble of importing true European high-performance wagons, starting with the 2005 E55 AMG, then progressing through the 2007 E63 AMG with a 6.2-liter V-8, and the 2012 E63 AMG with a twin-turbo 5.5-liter V-8.

In Europe, on the other hand, there’s a whole world of crazy-fast wagons. The catalyst for our gathering is the new Jaguar XFR-S Sport Brake, the first wagon of its kind for the British marque. Its 550-hp, supercharged V-8 clearly shows the Brits are ready to play in the deep end of the performance pool. These are German waters, and in this comparison, the Jag faces the 549-hp Mercedes-Benz CLS63 AMG Shooting Brake and the latest Audi RS6 Avant. The CLS63 Shooting Brake undoubtedly has the most aggressive styling of the lot, while the RS6 Avant shares its 560-hp, 4.0-liter twin-turbo V-8 with Bentley. These wagons would make for some expeditious carpooling.

We spent a week in England playing with all three, on a variety of challenging roads and in changing weather conditions, to see which illicit wagon tops the dream list.


Audi RS6 Avant

The Audi RS6 Avant is the most traditional car of the group. Remove the badges, pick a more subtle color and the standard 20-inch wheels, and it could be mistaken for an A6 wagon, making it quite possibly the ultimate sleeper. The RS6 offers loads of cargo space, a power luggage cover, and capacious passenger room. As in most of Audi’s products, the interior is a lovely place to spend time.

Fire up the RS6, though, and the quiet gentleman image quickly fades. The boosted V-8 ignites in a fury of aggression, amplified by the optional sport exhaust. Acceleration is brutal—the Audi is clearly the quickest of the bunch. The standard 155-mph speed limiter can be raised to either 174 mph or 189 mph, if you tick the right box on the order form.

A refined mega-wagon: The Audi has the poshest interior. A large, clear navigation screen; fantastic seats; vast leg- and headroom; and excellent visibility add to the everyday brilliance of the RS6 Avant.

The RS6 devours the English Midlands’ narrow country roads like an offshore powerboat motoring along your local creek at full tilt. Quattro all-wheel drive puts the power down efficiently in all conditions. The eight-speed automatic is flawlessly tuned to the brutal engine, handling ratio swaps perfectly.

Unfortunately, the RS6 feels heavy and synthetic when pushed. The standard power steering is relatively accurate and linear but offers little feedback. (Audi’s equally mediocre dynamic steering is optional.) The rear torque-vectoring sport differential helps counter understeer, but you feel as if the Audi is using its full bag of technological tricks to deliver impressive pace rather than to reward the driver.

The RS6 devours the English Midlands’ narrow country roads like an offshore powerboat motoring along your local creek at full tilt.

Our test car featured the standard adaptive air suspension (coil springs with interconnected Dynamic Ride Control, or DRC, dampers are optional). In its sportiest setting, the air suspension improves handling on billiard table-smooth roads at the expense of ride quality, though overall, its refinement makes the RS6 very engaging in day-to-day use. Except when the optional 21-inch wheels crash over sharp bumps, the RS6 plays the quotidian A6 brilliantly. Isn’t that the sort of personality that makes a mega-wagon so appealing?

2014 Audi RS6 Avant Specifications

  • Base Price: $100,000 (est.)
  • Engine: 4.0-liter, twin-turbo DOHC 32-valve V-8/560 hp @ 5700 rpm, 516 lb-ft @ 1750-5550 rpm
  • Transmission: 8-speed automatic
  • Layout:
  • 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, AWD wagon
  • EPA Mileage (est): 16/26 mpg (city/highway)
  • Suspension: Multilink, air springs
  • Brakes: Vented discs
  • Tires T/R: 285/30R-21 (100Y) Dunlop SP Sport Maxx GT
  • L x W x H: 196 x 76.2 x 57.5 in
  • Wheelbase: 114.8 in
  • Weight: 4266 lb
  • 0-62 mph: 3.9 sec
  • Top speed: 155 mph (174 or 189 mph optional)

Jaguar XFR-S Sport Brake

The Jaguar XFR-S Sport Brake has just one dynamic specification available, with coil springs and adaptive dampers all around, rear-wheel drive with an electronic limited-slip differential, and a standard 186-mph speed limiter. It’s a nice counterpoint to the overcomplicated Audi.

The XFR-S Sport Brake’s design dances between the RS6’s traditional, upright stance and the CLS Shooting Brake’s aggressive profile. The Jaguar’s details are the most boy-racer of the three, from the hood vents and standard two-tone 20-inch wheels to the shiny black trim. It lacks the understated appeal of the German offerings.

A material matter: Interestingly, the Jaguar XFR-S Sport Brake looks better in photos than in person. That’s rare. The shiny black exterior detailing and two-tone, 19-inch wheels look inexpensive in the flesh.

The Jaguar’s interior betrays it as the oldest car here. Its touchscreen setup wasn’t very good when the XF sedan launched in 2008, and it has fallen further behind as the competition advances. Too many functions are buried in the small, low-resolution touchscreen, and the redundant hard buttons aren’t logically placed. Elsewhere, the Jaguar’s interior has some impressive styling details within a clean, linear design, but overall it feels dated.

Calling last decade: The tacked-on speaker on the upper dash, the carbon fiber-like leather detailing, and the frustrating controls add to the dated feel inside the Jaguar, but the XFR-S does offer a greater sense of space than the Mercedes.

We had high expectations for the XFR-S wagon on the road. The standard XF sedan’s dynamics are among the best in class, and a diesel XF wagon we drove in England just before the hot rod versions arrived was also impressive. All of which, unfortunately, made the XFR-S a bit of a letdown. It’s extremely quick and can cover ground at a tremendous pace, but it’s far too stiff, bouncing and skipping over undulating English roads. The steering also has a frustrating dead spot just off-center and the rack is a bit too quick as you dial in lock. Dynamic Mode improves the experience, though it amplifies the aggressive suspension and the touchy throttle response. The supercharged 5.0-liter V-8 pairs nicely with the eight-speed automatic, although the XFR-S doesn’t deliver power quite as incredibly as the German cars do. You certainly can have fun in this Jaguar, stepping the tail out and acting like a hooligan. Unfortunately, you never quite come to grips with the steering and you’re always clenching your teeth for that next bump in the road.

Unfortunately, you never quite come to grips with the XFR-s’ steering and you’re always clenching your teeth for that next bump in the road.

A good car is hidden away inside the XFR-S. Jaguar didn’t make incremental performance improvements to the XF wagon; it jumped to the top rung without offering a slightly tamer XFR Shooting Brake. We’re not sure that was a good idea. Engineers should have dialed back the chassis settings, remembering what makes the lower-spec XF models so good. Maybe Jaguar tuned the XFR-S for the utopian tarmac of Deutschland, looking to take on the Germans on their home turf. Or maybe this wagon was designed to appease certain journalists who only rate a car on how easily it goes sideways. Whatever the case, the Jaguar lacks the polish and breadth of capability of the Mercedes and the Audi.

2014 Jaguar XFR-S Sport Brake Specifications

  • Base Price: $110,000 (est.)
  • Engine: 5.0-liter, supercharged DOHC 32-valve V-8/550 hp @ 6500 rpm, 502 lb-ft @ 2500-5500 rpm
  • Transmission: 8-speed automatic
  • Layout:
  • 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, RWD wagon
  • EPA Mileage (est): 15/23 mpg (city/highway)
  • Suspension F/R: Control arms, coil springs/multilink, coil springs
  • Brakes: Vented discs
  • Tires F/R: 265/35R-20 (99Y)/ 295/30R-20 (101Y) Pirelli P Zero
  • L x W x H: 195.3 x 76.3 x 57.8 in
  • Wheelbase: 114.5 in
  • Weight: 4380 lb
  • 0-62 mph: 4.8 sec
  • Top speed: 186 mph

Mercedes-Benz CLS63 AMG Shooting Brake

AMG is all about its hand-built engines, and that focus works for the CLS, which has the best V-8 here and hides its turbocharger better than the Audi. Not that the Audi has any issue with lag, but the Mercedes feels more natural in its power delivery and linear throttle response. The CLS also wins the aural contest, especially when you hear the engine from outside the car.

Coupe wagon: All materials are of excellent quality in the CLS63 AMG Shooting Brake, but the sloping windowline makes for a bunkerlike interior.

That fantastic 5.5-liter AMG V-8 lives in a rear-wheel-drive chassis that is extremely supple yet still rewards the driver at a higher level than the Jaguar. You can really lean on the Mercedes, feeling the approaching understeer and using the throttle to balance the car. The optional limited-slip differential progressively claws for traction, doing exactly what is expected. The Mercedes’ suspension—coil springs in front and air springs in back, with adjustable dampers—keeps the chassis in check over road imperfections. On such challenging roads, the Audi reluctantly puts up with the rapid pace, and the Jaguar nervously jumps and pitches around like a hyperactive schoolboy.

The brilliance of the Mercedes-Benz CLS63 AMG Shooting Brake is that it offers nearly all of the comfort of the Audi while being far more special to drive quickly.

All is not perfect with the CLS, though. Mercedes-Benz’s seven-speed automatic isn’t as crisp or responsive as Audi’s ZF unit. Also, the gorgeous proportions of the CLS Shooting Brake compromise interior space. The back seat, while roomy, makes you feel as if you’re sitting in a coffin—the black headliner and sloping side windows combined with the optional privacy glass create a tight, closed-in feeling. The cargo area is large on paper, but the opening size and the luggage cover design aren’t as convenient as the RS6’s. It’s important to remember that the CLS Shooting Brake is a four-door “coupe wagon” and not a traditional station wagon. Still, if cargo capacity is not one of your top priorities, the lovely design will far outweigh any of these complaints.

2014 Mercedes-Benz CLS63 AMG Shooting Brake Specifications

  • Base Price: $110,000 (est.)
  • Engine: 5.5-liter, twin-turbo DOHC 32-valve V-8/550 hp @ 5250 rpm, 531 lb-ft @ 1700-5000 rpm
  • Transmission: 7-speed automatic
  • Layout:
  • 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, RWD wagon
  • EPA Mileage (est): 16/23 mpg (city/highway)
  • Suspension F/R: Strut-type, coil springs/ multilink, air springs
  • Brakes: Vented discs
  • Tires F/R: 255/35R-19 (96Y)/ 285/30R-19 (98Y) Pirelli P Zero
  • L x W x H: 195.1 x 74.1 x 55.7 in
  • Wheelbase: 113.1 in
  • Weight: 4310 lb
  • 0-62 mph: 4.3 sec
  • Top speed: 155 mph (186 with perf. package)

The Dream List

All three wagons are tremendously entertaining, and the fact that they even exist in an increasingly homogenous automotive world is something to celebrate. Still, a pecking order quickly emerged, and the third-place finisher was clear after day one. The Jaguar is just too much of an adolescent. Its chassis and interior shortcomings place it at the bottom of an impressive group.

Despite its dynamic faults, all it takes is a bit of rain—this is England, after all—and you’re drawn to the Audi as the one to live with day to day. But when the skies clear, it’s not as rewarding to drive hard as the Mercedes is. Because of that, it’s the runner-up.

The brilliance of the Mercedes-Benz CLS63 AMG Shooting Brake is that it offers nearly all of the comfort of the Audi while being far more special to drive quickly. Combine that with the best engine of the bunch, and it trumps the all-weather, everyday appeal of the Audi.

Sadly, none of these cars likely will ever be offered in the United States, though Mercedes-Benz USA sells a very similar car here. The E63 AMG wagon is available for $103,295, plus options, with even more power—577 hp—and standard 4Matic all-wheel drive. Yes, it lacks the stunning profile of the CLS63 Shooting Brake, the singularly British style of the musclecar Jaguar XFR-S Sport Brake, and the aggressiveness of the Audi RS6 Avant, but, crucially, it is available to us Yanks. Now, if only Audi and Jaguar would see fit to give Mercedes-Benz USA some competition.

Buying Guide
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2014 Audi SQ5

2014 Audi SQ5

MSRP $51,900 Premium Plus quattro

0-60 MPH:

4.8 SECS

EPA MPG:

16 City / 23 Hwy

Cargo (Std/Max):

29 / 57 cu. ft.