You may have noticed, in recent years, an argument stewing among car people, specifically focussing on the rise of the performance Sports Utility Vehicle. There's no need for one of those, the gist of the retort typically goes, because those buyers after something fast, practical, usable and durable can just have a fast estate. Everything is there that characterises the quick SUV, albeit usually in a lighter, more dynamic, less expensive body. Not always, but often. So why would you go for the 4x4?
It's an argument that's currently being won by the SUV side, though, as makers flock to make them - encouraged by buyers who can't stop buying them. See the VW T-Roc R - a car surely ringing the death knell for the Golf R estate - and the fact that BMW is making an X3 M instead of an M3 Touring. Or else study the case in point: the Stelvio was made from the Giulia platform instead of a swoopy new Sportwagon, because that's where the market is.
So convincing is the sales volume case that it's almost a wonder that the fast estate hasn't faded from view almost completely. But - largely thanks to the Germans - the segment is still alive and kicking and still able to deploy a proper uberwagon in opposition to the feisty Italian upstart (that's not simply lazy cliché, either, as is about to be detailed). The C63 S has just been facelifted, too, boasting a new nine-speed automatic gearbox, an assortment of chassis tweaks and an imposing new Panamericana grille.
It delivers the same 510hp as the Stelvio Quadrifoglio, and comes with the same broad remit regarding functionality and ease of use - which means a side-by-side comparison of school run duties would be a perfect valid test. So naturally Dan T and I went to Yorkshire, drove them around on the moors for half a day, and then argued a bit about which one did it better...
Mercedes-AMG C63 S Estate - Matt Bird
Unquestionably, the C63 enters this test with the most to lose. After all it's the car that, across various generations and more than 10 years now, has been the answer to a host of questions. As its predecessors were for decades previously. It's a commodious estate car, an opulent Mercedes and a wild AMG, all in one sophisticated and subtle package. The fear could be, of course, that its way of doing things is made to look a little old hat by the trendy, fierce, frenetic Alfa Romeo. What a turn up that could be.
And let's be honest for a second. Tell the average person - perhaps even the average car fan, in fact - that your grey C-Class estate left the showroom with a sticker price of £90k (blame the ceramic brakes, mainly) and they may well question your judgement. Or sanity even. Because one person's subtle is another person's staid, and the C63's air of restraint is possibly too effective for a world seemingly all about making a statement. The Alfa may not be pretty, but it will get you noticed - as much of a priority as anything nowadays. Or so it appears.
Moreover, it's not like the C63 can claw back any numbers on the spec sheet. As tested it's more expensive, slower, more polluting and not a great deal lighter than the Stelvio. The differences are tiny, granted, but they exist nonetheless. Assuming the fast car moral high ground becomes trickier still...
Well it does until you stop thinking so hard and start driving the C63. Because if this is the old way of doing things, a fad that's passed and something too quaint for 2019, then sign us up for the time machine. Because this is a magnificent car, and a near-perfect fit for any situation you care to throw at it.
While the Alfa might impress on the driveway and on the bottom line, the Mercedes is enthralling from the moment you're in. Every material, from seat stitching to steering column, feels an order of magnitude better than in the Alfa, the £10k price difference seemingly immaterial given how much more expensive the Mercedes feels. Combine that with a better driving position, improved visibility and vastly more successful integration of assistance technology, and the Merc's case gets stronger by the second.
Don't assume, either, that this is simply a lumbering estate car brought to life by a hell-raising V8 - not a bit of it. That wouldn't be the modern Mercedes way, would it? While the Alfa is the quickest in slushy conditions (and admirably silly), the C63 counters with the sort of omnipotent completeness that AMGs are swiftly becoming known for. While the Alfa's quirks take some getting used to - super quick steering and snatchy brakes to name but two - the Mercedes just delivers. No acclimatisation, no excuses; just dynamic quality, finesse and enjoyment of the highest order.
This new nine-speed gearbox is sharper than its rivals transmission; there's an argument to say that the twin-turbo V8 might be more exciting as well. Just. The steering response is more predictable, and although the ride might be firmer, AMG's damping expertise means the C63 can probably handle fast road driving with greater aplomb (it doesn't have to make any concessions to off-road driving, after all).
The latest range of dynamic updates and configurability options have only improved the car, too; because while the Alfa can do the Race mode showboating, the AMG's new nine-stage traction control gives great scope for precise, accurate management of 510hp going to just two rear tyres. That the car also has great inherent traction - no, really - only makes the process more satisfying. There's the old AMG way to drive, or the more measured, technical, new AMG way to drive - the C63 is happy to accommodate either, or anything in between.
That's perhaps its makers most notable stroke of genius, and why it remains as relevant a choice as ever. It's just sort of brilliant, whatever you choose to do with it. The Alfa is an interesting alternative, one brimming with effervescent charm and tangible ability, but that's the key point - it's an alternative. From here at least, anachronistic perspective though it may seem, nothing can quite beat a fast estate for a blend of objective talent and subjective desirability. And right now nothing can quite beat an AMG Mercedes at doing so.
Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio - Dan Trent
How to defend the indefensible? Well, there's no point arguing against cars like the Stelvio Quadrifoglio - folk love the format and more than one sports car manufacturer owes its continued existence to them. Suck it up.
So credit to Alfa Romeo for making some merry mischief with the myth a high-riding car can be made to handle like a low-slung one. Porsche will happily support the delusion a Macan or Cayenne is basically a 911 with extra ride height and usable rear seats but the Stelvio accepts an SUV will never be the dynamic equal of a Giulia, M3 or C63 and gives customers what they really want. Which is to say unapologetically brash looks, Ferrari-engined bragging rights, a parpy exhaust and the handling manners of a 510hp Focus RS on stilts. It's also £10,000 cheaper than the C63 and more likely to score domestic approval and the admiration of friends, colleagues and neighbours. All of which matters more than many of us might care to admit.
A pity then that the cabin makes it hard to deny a qualitative gap with the AMG. Sounds shallow to fixate on switchgear but sharp, plasticky edges on touchpoints like the gear selector and column stalks are corners the Stelvio can't afford to cut if it wants to stand showroom comparison with the Germans. See also iffy calibration of the electronic parking brake, which makes it feel like something in the drivetrain has snapped every time you pull away.
Still, it's the bit after you've pulled away that we really care about, and it's here that the QF feels better resolved. OK, you can't see out of it but that's common to all vehicles of this type. In its regular modes it's commendably wafty, refined and more relaxing than the AMG. In auto or manual the eight-speed transmission is bang-on, smooth when needed and fast to respond when you use the big, column-mounted shifters. Their tactile, Ferrari-inspired action encourages you to do so, the double pull for neutral, fast-geared steering and the ability to select Race powertrain but dial back the dampers for bumpy roads additional prancing horse references those in the know will appreciate.
More generally the ride has a brittleness at lower speeds but strikes an acceptable balance for the dynamic demands of higher ones, suggesting money saved on switchgear may well have been invested in chassis calibration. Driven in the three main modes on the DNA dial the Stelvio feels as you'd hope - fast in a modern turbocharged way, commendably composed and secure whatever the conditions. Select Race and it turns into an utter lunatic though, this being the moment the Stelvio lets rip at its rivals.
Certainly, conditions on test favoured the Stelvio's all-wheel drive traction over a rear-driven AMG. Or would have done, were the Alfa to behave like any other AWD car. Like many, it divvies the power between default rear push and stabilising front axle pull when required. Except that in Race mode the black boxes in charge of sending power forward take a commendably casual approach to the latter - meaning the clutches in the active rear diff lock tight and enthusiastically torque vector the Stelvio into meaningful oversteer at every given opportunity (in slippery conditions, at least).
There's a clue when you select Race and ESC OFF appears writ large but, even so, the Stelvio's appetite for going sideways will wake you up faster than an intravenous ristretto shot. Hopefully in a good way if you provoked it and were ready. Possibly not if you didn't allow space to gather up the ensuing slide or were too slow with the corrective lock. Commit to it and the front axle will eventually stub out its fag and join the conversation, pulling you straight as you might have expected. But if you poke an angry Quadrifoglio with a stick don't be surprised if it bites.
It's less of a surprise that a performance SUV can be made to handle this way, given the tricks modern drivetrain tech can pull. But the fact it got signed off with such a wild side is genuinely astonishing, especially in a segment where customers expect grip, not slip. Credit due to Alfa Romeo for going full Italian in this respect, just as AMG's approach takes a decided step to maturity and the C63's electronic diff prioritises traction over showboating. That the wilder, more sideways car on the day was the all-wheel drive SUV was not the expected result. You may still hate the game. But, in this instance, you can love the player without need for excuses.
SPECIFICATION - MERCEDES-AMG C63 S ESTATE
Engine: 3,982cc twin-turbo V8
Transmission: 9-speed auto with lock-up clutch (MCT), very rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 510@5,500rpm
Torque (lb ft): 516@2,000-4,500rpm
Top speed: 174mph (limited)
Weight: 1,825kg (EU, with driver)
MPG: 25.5-24.8mpg (WLTP combined, dependent on options)
Price: £76,933 (£89,213 as tested, comprising Driving Assistance package inc. Active Blind Spot Assist and Active Braking Assist, Active Distance Assist Distronic, Active Steering Assist, Active Speed Limit Assist, Active Lane-change Assist, Evasive Steering Assist, route-based speed adaptation and Pre-Safe Plus £1,695; Premium Plus package inc. Burmester sound system, 360deg camera, Keyless-Go and panoramic glass sunroof £2,595; ceramic brakes £4,825; 19-inch cross spoke wheels in black £1,735; Selenite Grey metallic paint £685; carbon fibre trim and analogue clock £700; AMG Night Package inc. black chrome exhaust trims, trim and window surrounds in black, privacy glass £585)
SPECIFICATION - ALFA ROMEO STELVIO QUADRIFOGLIO
Engine: 2,891cc, twin turbocharged V6
Transmission: eight-speed automatic, all-wheel drive
Power (hp): 510@6,500rpm
Torque (lb ft): 443@2,500rpm
Top speed: 176mph
MPG: 24.6 (WLTP combined low)
Price: £69,500 (£78,305 as tested, comprising Metallic Paint £770; dark painted wheels £590; yellow painted brake calipers £595; Sparco Carbonshell seats £3,250; leather/alcantara/carbon fibre steering wheel £425; Harman Kardon audio £950; cargo net £85; panoramic glass sunroof £1,250; active cruise control £890)
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