“Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.” So said John F. Kennedy.
Put more bluntly, “adapt or die.” And the established royalty of automobiledom have changed, some drastically. Twenty years ago, if you polled your above-average car expert about Mercedes and BMW SUVs, Porsche sedans or a legitimate Cadillac super-sports sedan with over 500 hp and athletics to embarrass most European sedans, he’d be ROFLHAO.
Even so, in the face of now-changeable stalwarts like the above brands, a very few things have not changed. One of which is the Mercedes station wagon. The world goes round, David Bowie turns 65, yet the Mercedes E-class wagon remains. What began in the US market about 40 years ago (and in Europe even prior) seemed like a good idea. Great, even. And great ideas die harder than merely good ones. Beer goes back 7,000 years, after all.
Station wagons (“estates” or “touring” models in the U.K. and Europe) are that great idea, especially so today. But medium-sized examples have almost disappeared. BMW, Mercedes’ closest rival, ceased 5-series wagon importation to the U.S. in 2010 with the last generation body style, but continues to sell them in European and Asian markets. Audi also sells their A6 “Avant” wagon in other markets, but not in the U.S. market. Cadillac offered the CTS wagon until recently, too. (Full disclosure – BMW does still offer the smaller 3-series wagon as does Audi offer the A4-based Allroad wagon.) Maybe that’s why Mercedes enjoyed a 10-percent lift in sales upon everyone else’s withdrawal from the market sector. As Barry White sang, “staying power” is worth something. Many marketers look at this segment as family truckster duty better aimed at SUV and crossover SUV candidates. They’d rather not go to the bother of building another variant off a sedan platform, especially considering the sales numbers.
That leaves Mercedes as the sole player in the mid-size luxo-wagon Olympic games. Which makes them either stubborn or geniuses. Or both. With a highly loyal following. In one fell swoop, the E350 wagon evokes simpler, halcyon days of suburban America when the upper-middle-class had tangible leisure time. When style was more distinct in the Westchesters, the Marin Counties, the Chevy Chases, the Westwoods, the Kenilworths, the Short Hillses and the Pacific Pallisades of 30 or 40 years ago.
|Vehicle type:||5-door station wagon|
|Seating capacity:||7 passengers|
|Price as tested:||$70,215|
|Engine:||3.5-liter V6; DOHC; 24 valves; 303 hp / 273 lb-ft of torque|
|Transmission/drive:||7-speed automatic with manual control / all-wheel-drive|
|0-60 mph:||6.6 sec|
|Top speed:||130 mph|
|Curb weight:||3,979 lbs.|
|Fuel economy, mpg:||19 city / 26 hwy / 21 combined|
The current E-class wagon adopts the revised front end of the sedan to the elegant wagon. Large lower front openings gobble up air and visual space, while headlights stretch up and back, creating a multitude of character lines over the hood and the sides. These lines rise, traveling over the door skins and don’t stop until the rear fender. A lower rising line near the rocker panel level never stops and continues around the back, cut off only to make way for the liftgate. All these rising lines deftly hide what is actually a rectangular overall shape of the wagon from A-pillar rearward. There’s a lot of effort here to distinguish the E-class from what some US buyers might think of as a sedate wagon family and it bloody well achieves that difference.
The Mercedes E-class interior has struck a bargain often thought tricky. At once modern and classic, the instruments, displays, controls, seats, upholstery (regardless of whether sewn from leather or pleather which, in this case, is a very high-quality MB-Tex) and overall space attract all types of people, cut across age, gender, profession, personal style and zip code. Some switchgear is placed in unfamiliar locations to newcomers like the transmission’s shifter mounted on the column. The seat adjustments also sit not on the seats themselves, but high on the door panels laid out as a pictogram, a long-lived Mercedes hallmark that goes back 30 years. Though a bit different, everything makes sense, plus all the visible shapes are pleasing and relaxing.
Wagons are, by definition, utility vehicles, so cargo capacity is a prime motivator. The E wagon provides plenty: 29 cubic feet with the middle seat up and 57.4 with it down. There’s also a rear 12-volt outlet, a thoughtful first-aid kit, six tie-down hooks and an active cargo shade that automatically lifts when opening the tailgate to provide better access and descends when closing the tailgate to hide your valuables.
The E350 is powered by a 302-hp 3.5-liter V6 mated to a seven-speed automatic transmission, the duo offering more than adequate power to move the nearly-4,000-pound wagon to 60 mph from a dead stop in 6.6 seconds. If that’s not enough, you can special-order the wagon as a bonkers E63 AMG firebreather with 577 hp and an obscene 3.6-second 0-60 run. The E350’s mission is more sedate than that, with supple but agile suspension calibration and deft brakes. This is an expensive car and it certainly feels that way from the touch of the controls to the way the doors shut to the precise click of the multifunction Comand system’s dial.
Any family-focused car needs safety measures and the long list of E-class safety includes the normal stuff like smart airbags, stability control and anti-lock brakes. But it goes much further with sensors that can detect when you’re about to be rear-ended, plus electric motors that retract the seat belts and adjust the headrest and seat cushions to prevent whiplash and knee injuries upon an impending crash. The test car’s optional Driver Assistance and Parking Assistance packages include active cruise control which keeps pace with a leading car, Active Lane Keeping which prevents unwanted lane creep, blind spot monitoring, PRE-Safe braking which detects and brakes for pedestrians at speeds of up to 45 mph and a good deal more. All tallied, more than 70 sensors, monitors, stereoscopic cameras and motors work behind the scenes to prevent potential disaster both self-inflicted and thrust upon you. Also, this suite of highly-useful safety technologies was a Finalist in a Technology of the Year competition late last year.
Kids don’t normally get a vote on car purchases, but if you allow it, just try to pry them away from the E wagon’s rear-facing 3rd row bench where the world recedes from view in the rear window and 3rd-row benchers are on a stage of sorts, looking at followers. It beats video games dead with a stick, and twice on Sundays.
The E-class wagon holds as polite a contrarian posture as possible toward the conventional SUV crowd. It swallows about the same cargo, will go anywhere that 95 percent of all four-wheel-drive SUVs will actually be driven with it’s own all-wheel-drive capabilities, yet offers better real-world fuel economy (we saw 22.6 mpg over the test period) and far better handling, braking and ride comfort than most SUVs could wish for.
It all does come at a cost, though, with a $58,600 base price and $70,215 as-tested with a bevy of options. Consider this though: Cliche or not, some people judge you by the car your drive. With the wagon, you are – as Wendy’s Russian fashion show TV commercial from the ’80s mocked – both daywear and eveningwear. True utility and true Saturday night tux and little black dress. But unlike the Wendy’s commercial, with the E wagon, being simultaneous daywear and eveningwear actually works.
by Jim Resnick
photos by Jim Resnick