The Mercedes-Benz E-class wagon—with lineage stretching back to the W123-series cars of the late 1970s—has always exuded an understated classicism. It’s lower and sleeker than any crossover, yet the E wagon boasts an extra measure of practicality over the sedan, making it the perfect vehicle for dropping the progeny at Brown.
Although wagon sales in the United States are minuscule, these cars sell in the most desirable zip codes, and buyers of the E-class wagon are among the most affluent in the Mercedes-Benz family. In Europe, wagons are a much bigger deal; there, one in three E-class models sold is a wagon, and in the home market of Germany, the wagon accounts for half of all E-class sales.
Mercedes-Benz is edging this model toward crossover territory with the new All Terrain version, but despite the popularity of that genre here (the Outback wagon effectively made Subaru in America), we’re supposedly not going to get the All Terrain in the U.S. market. Instead, the latest E-class wagon, at least at launch, is coming to our market in only one guise: E400 4MATIC. (We are told, unofficially, that the all-conquering E63 model also will return.)
The E400 designation, as opposed to E300, is a tip-off that the wagon forsakes the sedan’s 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder; instead, it gets a 3.0-liter twin-turbocharged V-6. Compared with the naturally aspirated 3.5-liter six in the previous E350 wagon, the new twin-turbo 3.0-liter produces 27 more horsepower and an additional 81 lb-ft of torque. More important, the new totals of 329 horsepower and 354 lb-ft represent 88 more horsepower than the 2.0-liter turbo four in the E300 and 81 lb-ft more torque. With that extra output, you never get the feeling—as you sometimes do in the sedan—that it could use a little more grunt. The V-6 also sounds better, which is a nice bonus, although the wagon generally is a near-silent cruiser (more so if you opt for the Acoustic Comfort package, with its acoustically insulated laminated glass).
The engine is mated to the same nine-speed automatic found in the E300, and although it’s mostly well behaved—and snappy enough to downshift when braking into corners in Sport and Sport+ modes—we did experience a few rough 3-4 upshifts in Sport+ mode. Frankly, though, we don’t imagine most owners will use Sport+ mode often.
Longer and Lower
All-wheel drive is standard here, as it has been in E-class wagons for a while. In what is also becoming M-B tradition, the wagon (like the sedan) can be had in a choice of two versions: Luxury, which gets a chrome mesh grille topped by a hood ornament, and Sport, which has a grille featuring a pair of thick horizontal blades and a center-mounted star.
The Sport version also brings 18-inch wheels, rather than 17s, and a slightly firmer suspension tune. The one we drove was further outfitted with the available air-spring adaptive suspension (an option on either model), and it felt just about perfect. The adaptive suspension allows some body motion, but the wagon’s moves are dignified, never sloppy. The steering is creamy but not overboosted, and we found the E400 easy to place in corners—not too surprising, given that it’s effectively the same size as the sedan.
The latest-generation wagon sees its proportions change slightly, with shorter overhangs front and rear but a 2.6-inch greater stretch between the axles. It’s just over an inch longer than before and 1.3 inches lower. There’s more rear-seat kneeroom and fractionally more legroom and shoulder room, and the rear seat is comfortable for two adults. And yes, the rear-facing third-row seat—kid-size but still cool—returns once again. For thoroughly modern access to that retro third seat, the power rear liftgate now can be opened or closed via a kick motion under the rear bumper.
Aside from the V-6 powertrain, standard 4MATIC all-wheel drive, and wagon-specific furnishings, the E400 otherwise will mimic the standard and optional equipment offerings of the E300 sedan when it goes on sale in early 2017. That means the same sumptuous interior and the same standard 12.3-inch center screen. A second identical-size screen in front of the driver is part of the Premium 3 package (a five-figure option), and it creates a techno-fabulous display that beats even Audi’s new Virtual Cockpit. Getting what you want out of all that technology, though, isn’t easy. With the clickwheel controller, the touchpad above it, and the twin touchpads on the steering-wheel spokes, there are plenty of ways to manipulate the displays, but the multilayered system of menus and submenus is far from intuitive.
The E400’s Drive Pilot semi-autonomous driving system (also included with Premium 3) is equally impressive and easier to use. The active cruise control with steering assist allows for up to 60 seconds of hands-free driving before a beep prompts the driver to put a hand on the wheel. If you ignore that warning, the cruise control will switch off, and the car will decelerate. So you can’t ride in back and take videos of the E-class cruising with an empty driver’s seat—Mercedes isn’t interested in those stunts—but the automated steering is smooth, and the car will even change lanes to execute a pass if you give it the go-ahead via the turn signal.
The cars we drove in Europe had a new tech feature: the ability to use one’s smartphone as the car key. Although this sounds neat—you’ll never forget your car keys!—it’s somewhat less cool in practice. Whereas cars equipped with passive entry can detect a key in your pocket or purse and lock or unlock at the touch of the door handle, the smartphone key can’t be detected in your pocket. So you need to hold the phone up against the door handle—in exactly the right way—so the sensor can read it, and do the same again to lock the door. And the key has to be sitting in the charge tray in order to start the car. This smartphone car key isn’t coming to the U.S. imminently but might be offered in the future. We say there’s no need to rush on that one.
One of the Few, the Very Few
No car these days wants to appear behind the times, technologically—and there’s no danger of that here—but modern tech is not what’s going to sell the E400. Although there are smaller wagons in the U.S. market—the Audi A4 Allroad, the BMW 3-series, the Volkswagen Golf SportWagen, and the Volvo V60—for those who feel that a luxury sport wagon complements their lifestyles, the E400 stands alone, at least until the arrival of the Volvo V90. Looked at within the E-class pantheon, the E400 offers added versatility and, to our eyes, a sleeker look than the standard E300 sedan, and its twin-turbo six provides welcome additional grunt and a superior soundtrack to the turbocharged four-cylinder that powers the E300. At the same time, its mellower suspension tune and more natural steering make it a more relaxed tourer than the Mercedes-AMG E43 sedan, also powered by a twin-turbo V-6. Sadly, none of this is likely to materially alter the sales equation for the E-class wagon in the United States, but those few who do seek one out will be getting the sweetest machine in the current E-class lineup.