In every market segment, from performance to luxury, crossovers dominate the sales charts. Yet there are other choices, particularly in Canada. North of the 49th parallel, Mercedes offers a number of fire-breathing wagons that combine practicality with performance. Let’s see how the smallest of them, the C43, lines up against some pretty fierce crossover competition.
Price as tested: $70,690
Engine: 3.0-litre twin-turbo V-6; 385 horsepower
Transmission/drive: nine-speed automatic/all-wheel drive
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 12.4 city, 8.9 highway
2020 BMW X3M
Price as tested: $99,150
Engine: 3.0- litre twin-turbo inline-six; 503 horsepower
Transmission/drive: eight-speed automatic/all-wheel drive
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 16.6 city, 12.1 highway
X3M: BMW’s signature design element is the twin kidney grilles that adorn the front of everything they make. Here, the grilles are flared like the nostrils of a rampaging rhinoceros. That resemblance, as we’ll see, is highly appropriate.
Around back, the X3M’s badging is a bit of a jumble, underlined with the word “competition.” What competition might that be – the Whole Foods parking lot 500? Still, this muscled-up crossover certainly looks properly infused with BMW’s M division tarmac-destroying performance.
C43: The wagon variant of Mercedes-Benz’s entry-level C-Class is a handsome machine. The tweaks performed by their in-house tuning division, AMG, haven’t ruined the effect by trying too hard.
Quad exhaust pipes, a set of optional 19” wheels and surprisingly discreet badging allow the C43 to fly under the radar somewhat. All the performance is here, but in a secret-handshake form that only other gearheads will recognize.
X3M: What was once the entry into BMW’s X range of crossovers is now a full-grown family car. Yes, the price tag will make your eyes water, but the top-of-the-range X3 is as luxurious as any 5-series. The seats are comfortable, well bolstered and highly adjustable.
As the X3 has grown, it’s become bigger than the 3 Series that used to be BMW’s mainline sedan. It’s roomier than the Mercedes and also features nicer materials.
C43: Organized around a touchscreen that seems to float in space, the interior of Mercedes-Benz’s C-Class is a little less button-heavy than the BMW. There’s plenty of high-end trim throughout the cabin, but here and there, you can see where the C43 shares its bones with more-basic four-cylinder models advertised at low leasing rates.
Rear-seat passengers aren’t exactly cramped, but the C43 is less spacious than the X3. Furthermore, getting in and out of the sport seats isn’t quite as easy as in the higher crossover.
X3M: This is one of the most violent cars BMW’s M Division has ever produced. It’s almost as if BMW, knowing that they were going to be accused of watering down their brand by building a performance crossover, decided to dial everything up to maximum attack.
Things kick off with a 503-horsepower twin-turbocharged engine that’s the most-powerful inline-six that BMW has ever fitted to a production car. The all-wheel-drive system is shared with the BMW M5 and generally sends all the power to the rear wheels.
The result is a family-sized SUV that will tear your face off. Provoke the throttle with most of the performance settings turned up, and the X3M will step its tail out and then claw at the pavement, rocketing forward with enough pace to shame some of the best BMWs of the past.
It’s essentially far too fast for street use. On the track, where most owners won’t actually take it, the X3M was easily able to reel in the likes of the smaller M2. It’s an outright brawler, a hammer blow to the solar plexus of physics.
C43: As with the ride height, the ride quality of the C43 isn’t likely to sway any would-be crossover buyers into choosing a small wagon instead. It’s far too stiff and, over rough pavement, downright uncomfortable. There’s also quite a lot of road noise at speed.
However, where the X3M’s performance is shocking, the fleet-of-foot C43 is charming. According to the specifications, it won’t quite win a drag race with the overpowered BMW, and the X3M’s clever all-wheel drive and huge tires would probably result in better lap times, too. However, the C43 is the one you’d want to be in on a curvy mountain road.
Instead of fighting physics, the C43 simply takes the dynamics of a well-engineered sport sedan and flows with the road. The twin-turbo V-6 isn’t handmade, as is the case with full AMG products, but it does provide excellent power and a nicely gruff soundtrack. The real delight is in the steering, which is well weighted and provides genuine feedback. Half the time, you forget you’re driving a practical wagon.
X3M: Two buttons on the X3M’s steering wheel can be programmed to hold a variety of presets for how aggressive the transmission shift points or throttle response is. They’re labelled M1 and M2, but you might as well call them Jekyll and Hyde. I put everything in comfort for M1 and everything in maximum performance for M2. Apart from the odd on-ramp, M1 was the most-used setting.
C43: Mercedes-Benz’s tech system is another mild annoyance. It’s less than intuitive to learn, although it looks pretty. The C43 doesn’t get the latest system, which is present on the E-Class and entry-level A-Class.
X3M: With a voluminous 812 litres behind the rear seats, the X3M can haul in all senses of the word. It essentially has all the capability of the first X5, just with more speed.
C43: The Mercedes wagon is much smaller, at 460L, but the large hatch means it’s just as flexible. Fold down the rear seats of both vehicles, and the Mercedes will essentially carry just as much as the X3M. You never got an antique table home faster.
X3M: As a do-everything machine that combines practicality with M-badged performance, the X3M is a triumph on paper. In person, it’s possibly too potent to actually be fun and it’s quite expensive.
C43: In comparison, the C43 wagon comes with a number of foibles that an owner will have to put up with. It’s a niche vehicle and unlikely to break into the mainstream. However, it is really enjoyable to drive, has as much performance as you can reasonably use and is just as practical as any comparable crossover. At a price considerably less than the BMW, the C43 is the one that’ll get the groceries – and steal your heart.
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