Mercedes-Benz has a potentially serious marketing situation on its hands with the addition of the 2011 E350 4Matic Wagon to its E-Class range.
The problem? Why would anyone want to drive one of its SUVs when they could have one of these all-wheel-drivers instead.
The compact GLK-Class is neat but a little down-market by comparison and the full-sized GL-Class should only attract those for whom size (and maybe towing capacity) really matters. While the in-the-middle-M-Class really only offers one thing the wagon doesn't: off-road capability. And how many actually need that? About the only Mercedes the wagon can't beat in touring utility or family virtues is the sort of crossover/minivan-like R-Class.
Sure the M-Class - the vehicle Mercedes fans looking at a wagon might cross-shop - looks trendy, while the wagon can't help looking like a, well, wagon. But it's a really classy-looking wagon that semaphores a message that might be read as: the people who own this vehicle feel confident enough to drive something that makes sense to them, not merely a statement about them.
Not that it's shy on style with that elegantly elongated roofline that sweeps like an architectural arch from A- to D-pillar, sculpted flanks and interestingly-aero yet still Mercedes-substantial-looking front-end treatment. The redesign for 2010 gave all E-Class models a look that's more than a step beyond staid and the AMG styling package the wagon wears adds additional drama, highlighted by sparkly LED running lights.
The E350 4Matic wagon makes plenty of the "sense" just referred to, with the ability to carry five adults - the one in the middle in the back draws the short straw - and a couple of sub-50-kilogram kids in the standard rear-facing third-row seat (buyers can opt for a no-charge cargo system instead).
The load floor is long, flat and low, accessed by a large power liftgate and has a capacity, seats up, of a generous 695 litres and 1,950 litres with the seatbacks folded - using the handy D-Pillar mounted release. That compares to 2,050 litres in the M-Class and the 2,385 offered by the R-Class.
Payload is a weighty 575 kg and, when you pack it to capacity, the rear suspension adjusts to prevent old-style over-loaded wagon wallow. A word, incidentally, that would likely draw blank looks from Mercedes' engineers.
Despite the need to set the wagon's suspension up to haul a load - and its extra 110 kg over the sedan - the ride and handling doesn't suffer. Well, if you're used to being treated Mercedes-style, anyway. The former is hard enough that city street bumps certainly don't go unregistered but the trade-off is back-road handling that brings one of those little half-smiles to your face.
Overall performance is reduced just a little, with the wagon accelerating to 100 km/h in 7.5 seconds, three-tenths slower than the sedan. Both are powered by the same 3.5-litre, twin-cam V-6 that is rated at 268 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque which is fed to the full-time 4Matic all-wheel-drive system through a seven-speed automatic transmission. Premium grade fuel economy is rated at 12.8 litres/100 km city and 8.6 highway, just a little bit lower than the sedan.
The test wagon was a delight inside its now wider cabin with light-grey leather upholstery covering substantial and comfortable seats and dark wood trim. A classic five instrument display is viewed through a leather-rimmed wheel, with the multifunction COMAND screen - that displays various system control functions operated by an aluminum knob on the console - adding a high-tech touch to the otherwise uncluttered centre stack.
The base price of $66,900 buys you a lengthy roster of equipment and some additional neat stuff like Bluetooth, heated steering wheel (you get very used to this luxury feature) and Parktronic park assist (handy, although the wagon is far from unwieldy).
The test car came with a premium package that added navigation, DVD player, Harman/Kardon Logic7 audio system, media interface, Keyless-Go, panoramic sunroof and rear-seat roller window blinds, which upped the price to $72,950.
Wagons obviously carry another kind of "baggage" in North America to the type you can stow inside - a less than cool image issue that's unfortunately well entrenched - but for those who can get over that the E350 4Matic Wagon would make a great choice.
Car show models: Does sex still sell?
2011 Mercedes-Benz E350 4Matic Wagon
Type: Station wagon
Base Price: $66,900; as tested, $72,950
Engine: 3.5-litre, DOHC, V-6
Horsepower/torque: 268 hp/258 lb-ft
Transmission: Seven-speed automatic
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 12.8 city/ 8.6 highway; premium gas
Alternatives: Audi A6 Avante, BMW 5-Series Touring, Cadillac CTS Sport Wagon, plus some luxury-level crossovers