Payne: Battle of the super wagons, Mercedes vs. Jaguar

Henry Payne
The Detroit News
Detroit News auto reviewer Henry Payne compares the 2018 Jaguar XF Sportbrake, left, and the Mercedes AMG E63 S wagons nose to nose.

When I was a kid, my mom would drive me to the race track in an old Ford Fairlane station wagon to watch my dad race sports cars. Last year I drove a Mercedes station wagon to NCM Motorsports Park in Bowling Green, Kentucky ... to track it.

The Ford had a rear-facing, third-row trunk seat for spectating. The Mercedes has a 4.0-liter, twin-turbo V-8 putting out 603 horsepower for gulping straightaways.

How times have changed.

As I’ve been faithfully reporting in this space, the world has gone mad. In 2017, I took a Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk on Maine’s formidable Club Motorsports race track. Then I hauled an Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio SUV around the Circuit of Americas Formula One track in Texas.

Now come the 2018 Mercedes AMG E63 S and Jaguar XF Sportbrake wagons. You know, family cars.

Americans prefer SUVs over station wagons, so I admire European manufacturers' persistence in trying to make them attractive as performance vehicles. Detroit automakers gave up long ago after the beefcake Dodge Magnum and Cadillac CTS-V failed to even get a wink from the public despite their V-8 ferocity.

Compared to the Mercedes, the Jaguar XF Sportbrake's interior feels dated with a slow screen and plain layout. The pop-up, rotary shifter adds a touch of class.

Europeans know sexy. Their wagon designs are so sultry they inspired even GM to try again with the Buick TourX (a rebadged Opel Insignia wagon). The Jag and Mercedes are so alluring that I’m surprised Elastigirl — aka, Mrs. Incredible — isn’t driving one of them around in "Incredibles 2."

In a Bloomfield Hills service station, a woman parked her giant SUV next to my Jaguar XF Sportbrake tester: “Wow!” she said. ”Now that’s a good-looking red car! What is it?”

Another ute sidled up to me on the interstate and shadowed the Jag for a couple of miles.

At the grocery, a group of young girls stopped in their tracks and stared as the Sportbrake drove away.

A pal did a full lap around the car: “Now that’s the hottest-looking wagon I’ve seen since the Magnum,” he says.

Those twin pipes mean business. Gorgeous and practical, the Jaguar XF Sportbrake can load all your stuff - in a hurry with 380 horsepower.

And so on.

Jaguar’s station wagon is a knockout. Um, sorry. Their shooting brake. That’s Europe’s preferred name for wagon. Thus the Jag’s moniker “Sportbrake.” Anything to get away from the dreaded w-word.

The Jaguar XF Sportbrake comes with loads of cargo room -and a spare tire for when a Detroit pothole eats a tire.

With its short front overhang, long hood and swept greenhouse sitting over the rear wheels like the muscular haunches of a... well, jaguar, the Sportbrake looks like something special even before you gaze into those signature Jag headlights and mesh grille.

Unlike the dramatic Jaguar Sportbrake, the Mercedes-AMG E63 S wagon looks relatively civilized -but for its huge front air scoops and the rumble of its V-8 engine.

The Mercedes AMG E63 S, in contrast, is a stealth mobile.

Like all Mercedes these days, it’s a stylish sculpture — a long way from the stodgy bankers' cars of old. But its lines are conservative (no long rear aerofoils or bulging hood scoops). Only the huge, lower front air intakes (which seem to have been stolen off an F-22 fighter jet) and AMG E63 S badge on the rear give it away.

The Mercedes-AMG E63 S wagon boasts the German maker's latest tech, including an integrated instrument and infotanment screen that spans the dash.

About that badge. The first two letters of AMG stand for Aufrecht and Melcher, the two engineers who founded Mercedes' performance division before Mercedes brought it on-house in 2005. The G stands for Grossaspach, Aufrecht's birth town. The E is for E-class, the mid-size Mercedes upon which it's based. And the 63 S is engineering code for “track monster.”

This thing roars like a T. rex chasing Jeff Goldblum.

Grounded to the earth by the Mercedes 4Matic all-wheel drive that can throw 100-percent of its torque to the rear wheels, the bi-turbo V-8 eats track at an alarming rate. At 4,697 pounds the Mercedes is no lightweight, but the four-wheel traction and gummy Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tires mean grip is never a problem. Massive AMG brakes aided by ABS help bring it to a stop.

On numerous occasions my colleagues exited turns at lurid angles as 627 pound-feet of torque threatened to swap ends like Mark Reuss' Corvette pace car. But all-wheel drive saved them every time.

“The electronics available today make these cars possible,” says Tommy Kendall, the champion Trans Am driver-turned-Mercedes track instructor. He is in awe that today’s wagons have as much horsepower as his Corvette Trans Am track animals of 20 years ago.

I didn’t have the opportunity to track the lighter Jaguar, but Car and Driver records similar g-load numbers for the two, so I expect the XF would be similar. Except for the power. At 603 horsepower, the AMG has a similar power-to-weight ratio to the Hellcat engine-powered Jeep Trackhawk.

Add the wagon’s inherent physical advantage of lower center of gravity. Mix. Bake. And the title of fastest family hauler goes to (drum roll, please) the station wagon.

NCM Motorsports track lap record-holder Andy Pilgrim (the IMSA pro pulverized the record with a 2-minute, 5-second lap in a new Corvette ZR1 last year) confirmed as much by lapping the Mercedes in 2.23. That’s a full six seconds clear of his Trackhawk lap. And I suspect Andy emerged with fewer white hairs after his AMG round.

Just thought you’d like to know in case you want to take the family for a track lap some day. Or if you just want to detour through Hell, Michigan, with your kids on your way to the next soccer match.

Along the way, of course, you’ll want to know more than just what’s under the hood, and here the Mercedes runs rings around the Jag. Indeed, it’s hard to find a nicer interior anywhere with Mercedes' exquisite digital screen, graphics, aviator-style air vents and gorgeous wood trim.

The Jaguar is second-class by comparison, right down to its slow touchscreen (the Mercedes remote rotary dial is not only precise, it's assisted by a touch pad) and lack of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity. Oh, well, at least the cool, rotary gear selector rises out of the console.

The Mercedes' steering wheel even has as its own touch-pad for navigating the instrument display. Very posh. And it’ll cost you.

The Merc’s sticker was a shocking $140,730, the Jag $84,815 in comparison.

Kendall said that when he was a kid watching Formula One racing, he noticed all the drivers drove home in Mercedes AMGs. It was his dream car.

But I bet he never dreamed there would be a 603-horse AMG station wagon.

Detroit News auto reviewer Henry Payne compares the 2018 Mercedes AMG E63 S, left, and the Jaguar XF Sportbrake wagons cheek to cheek.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.

2018 Mercedes-AMG E63 S wagon

Vehicle type: Front-engine, all-wheel drive, five-passenger station wagon

Price: $109,845 base including $995 destination fee ($140,730 as tested) 

Powerplant: 4.0-liter, twin-turbocharged V-6

Power: 603 horsepower, 627 pound-feet torque 

Transmission: 9-speed automatic with paddle shifters

Performance: 0-60 mph, 3.0 seconds (Car and Driver); top speed: 180 mph

Weight: 4,669 pounds 

Fuel economy: EPA: 16 city/22 highway/18 combined 

Report card

Highs: Astonishing acceleration; penthouse interior

Lows: Porky; sticker shock

Overall: 4 stars

2018 Jaguar XF Sportbrake

Vehicle type: Front-engine, all-wheel drive, five-passenger station wagon

Price: $71,445 base including $995 destination fee ($84,815 as tested) 

Powerplant: 3.0-liter, supercharged V-6

Power: 380 horsepower, 332 pound-feet torque 

Transmission: 8-speed automatic with paddle shifters

Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.1 seconds (Car and Driver); top speed: 121 mph

Weight: 4,351 pounds 

Fuel economy: EPA fuel economy: 18 city/25 highway/21 combined 

Report card

Highs: Head-turning wagon; AWD grip

Lows: Dated interior; slow infotainment screen

Overall: 3 stars