Wednesday, September 14, 2016

2017 Mercedes-Benz E400 wagon is the anti-SUV and it ups the ante

Some people spend their lives waiting for the Rapture. Others cling to the belief that somewhere out there, Elvis is still alive. Me, I’m still holding out for the renaissance of the wagon.

In Germany, every second car marauding the autobahn passing lane at 200-plus kilometres an hour is a wagon. This side of the Atlantic, it’s a lonely crusade. Here, three fingers are enough to count the remaining true, unadulterated wagons available and two of those don’t actually call themselves wagons; a few more fingers cover the wagons-at-birth that have evolved into pseudo-SUVs, à la Subaru Outback.

At least Mercedes has the courage to stand by its wagons – and yes, there is more than one to choose from. A wagon version rejoins the compact C-Class lineup for 2017. And now, we have the wagon sister vehicle of the mid-size E-Class sedan, which was renewed from stem to stern for 2017.

Observe the ride height that is almost identical to the sedan’s and the absence of faux-SUV body cosmetics. It’s not ashamed to be a wagon. It provides the all-wheel drive traction and versatile cargo space of an SUV, without having to drive an SUV.

Its return for this sixth generation of the E-Class family confirms that even in North America there are enough break-from-the-herd car-lovers to make a business case – helped by a hefty buy-in price.

While the E-Class sedan lineup comprises a four-cylinder base engine (E300) and two levels of turbo V-6 (E400 and E43 AMG), the wagon comes to Canada only in E400 form. A 329-horsepower version of the 3.0-litre bent six drives all four wheels through a nine-speed automatic transmission.

Of course, talk of powertrains seems almost redundant alongside the industry-leading suite of active-safety and autonomous driving aids that headlined the new E-Class Sedan, and which are also present in the wagon. Even from the left seat, the preview in Northern Germany at times felt more like a test ride rather than a test drive.

To name but two unique features: active lane-change assistant, which will make the lane change for you in response to your activating the turn signal; and adaptive cruise control that automatically adjusts the car’s speed to changing speed limits.

Those are just two of the newest wrinkles in a laundry list of more familiar automatic steering, braking and cruising capabilities that bring the E-Class ever closer to full automated-driving capability.

Still, isn’t the car-like driving experience the point of a choosing a wagon over an SUV for your haulage needs? The E-Class wagon delivers the goods on both counts.

Pricing hasn’t been set but the 2016 wagon asks about $6,000 more than a comparable GLE SUV, and $7,000 above the equivalent E-Class sedan. Expected it to be in the $70,000 range, making exclusivity part of the deal. Look for the E-Class Wagon in showrooms early next year. It’s a bit of a wait, but it beats waiting for the Rapture.

Interior: The pièce de résistance: side-by-side 12.3-inch screens that are part of the Premium Package. There’s a digital gauge cluster on the left, COMAND infotainment display on the right, all under a single glass pane. Arguably, though, the ultramodern rectilinear wide screen is aesthetically at odds with the organic sculpting and natural materials of the rest of the interior. Comfort at the wheel is easy to find though in the context of a lowish driving position that may compromise visibility for smaller drivers.

Performance: The twin-turbo V-6 launches the E400 with minimal lag en route to a claimed 0-100-km/h time of 5.3 seconds. It’s not the silkiest of sixers, though, when the hammer’s down; of three we tried, NVH ranged from a somewhat hard-edged snarl at best, to gravelly at worst. All is transformed, though, in cruise mode: 1,500 silent rpm at 120 km/h, and negligible wind noise even at autobahn speeds twice that high.

Technology: In terms of automated driver-assistance technologies, this is state of the art. You won’t find much missing in terms of convenience and connectivity – though the wagon can’t be optioned with the Burmester 3-D sound system available on the sedan.

Cargo: Mercedes claims the most cargo room in its (admittedly tiny) segment. The 40/20/40 second-row seatback folds perfectly flat and flush with the main deck, and there is no rear lift-over to impede loading and unloading. But the standard-in-Canada third-row seat occupies what would otherwise be a cavernous under-floor cargo hold.