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car review

The Mercedes-Benz E450 All-Terrain.Jeremy sinek/The Globe and Mail

Many of us profess to love cars, but often the passion is superficial, rooted in a perception of the car and of the image it projects. There is, however, an inner core of car guys who really get it. They only need the car to impress themselves, not other people. And one kind of car they “get” is the station wagon.

Don’t believe me? Just look at the collectible-car auction site Bring a Trailer, and see all the BMW and Mercedes wagons for sale amidst the vintage Porsches and Mustangs and Jaguar E-Types. Or consider this: the Audi RS6, the uber version of Audi’s mid-size car, is sold in North America only as a wagon.

In similar vein, Mercedes offers both sedan and wagon versions of its C-Class and E-Class cars, but here in Canada, buyers of the muscled-up AMG models are “far and away” more likely to choose the wagon than its sedan equivalent, according to a Mercedes-Benz spokesperson.

Up front is Mercedes’ signature widescreen instrument panel – two 12.3-inch screens side by side under a single pane.Jeremy sinek/The Globe and Mail

Maybe now, however, that phenomenon will spread to the lesser E-Class wagon. For 2021, Mercedes has “done an Outback,” and sells the non-AMG wagon in Canada only in the quasi-SUV form examined here. Anything that makes a vehicle more SUV-like makes it more desirable, right? (No, I don’t get it either).

The All-Terrain’s off-roadiness isn’t all that obvious, as the ride height is only 15 mm higher than the regular wagon’s. However, its standard four-wheel air suspension maintains the ride height constant regardless of load, or can raise the car an additional 20 mm (below 35 km/h) if more clearance is needed for light off-roading (or more realistically, rough-roading). It also lowers 15 mm from baseline for reduced drag at highway speeds.

As well, the A-T adds Offroad and Offroad+ DYNAMIC SELECT drive modes, with downhill speed regulation. Standard rubber is 19-inch all-season run-flat tires but the test sample’s optional 20-inch wheels wore Pirelli performance rubber.

The 2021 transformation to All-Terrain coincided with a new engine for E450 wagon and sedan. After a quarter-century of V-shaped six-cylinder engines, Mercedes has reverted to a classic in-line configuration. The new 3.0-litre turbocharged straight six is paired with an electric starter/motor/generator (EQ Boost) that can (briefly and at low speeds) assist the gas engine with up to 21 horsepower and 184 lb.-ft. of torque.

The electric motor never drives the car solo, but it does enable engine shutdown while coasting, and it helps reduce city fuel consumption by 10 per cent, from 11.8 to 10.6 L/100 km. Its inputs are not included in the engine’s ratings of 362 horsepower and 369 lb.-ft of torque, which are relayed to all four wheels through a nine-speed automatic transmission. But they are certainly felt; the traditional lag-then-lunge launch of turbo engines is conspicuously absent.

The All-Terrain delivers a balanced portfolio of performance, refinement, comfort and athleticism.Jeremy sinek/The Globe and Mail

Mercedes asks $80,900 as the starting price for the All Terrain, though there’s a plethora of options to help separate you from more of your money. The test sample included enough of them to inflate its MSRP to $94,100. Other quasi-SUV wagons are limited to the Audi A6 allroad (base MSRP: $78,500) and the Volvo V90 Cross Country ($65,950). That’s about it in Canada, unless you count the Porsche Panamera Sport Turismo at $113,000 and up.

Thanks in part to the air suspension, the SUV-isation of the E-Class wagon hasn’t altered its underlying luxury-car persona. You can buy even faster wagons, but the All-Terrain delivers a balanced portfolio of performance, refinement, comfort and athleticism, along with modest off-road ability, up to seven seats, and lots of versatile and usable load space.

Most people will say that you can also get most of those attributes in an SUV, and Mercedes-Benz will happily sell you one of those instead. But if you get wagons, you may want to get this one.

Tech specs

Mercedes-Benz E450 All-Terrain

Price (base/as tested): $80,900/$94,100

Engine: 3.0-litre turbocharged and electrified in-line six-cylinder

Transmission/drive: Nine-speed automatic/AWD

Fuel consumption, L/100 km: 10.6 city/8.4 hwy

Alternatives: Audi A6 allroad, Porsche Panamera Sport Turismo, Volvo V90 Cross Country

Looks

How can anybody think that SUVs are fashionable, but a sleek, long-and-low wagon isn’t? Just look at it.

Interior

A touchpad in the centre console can be used to interface the main screen.Jeremy sinek/The Globe and Mail

Yes, it still has a rear-facing fold-up bench seat out back. Mercedes says it’s only for use with child seats for six-year-olds and younger. Up front, there’s no pretence of being in an SUV. There’s ample adjustability but basically you sit quite low and somewhat straight-legged like in a car. Facing you is Mercedes’ signature widescreen instrument panel – two 12.3-inch screens side by side under a single pane – and a steering wheel crowded with tiny switches, some of which you stroke rather than press. The gear selector is a small column stalk (easily mistaken by newbies for a wiper switch), leaving space on the centre console for a touchpad to interface the main screen (though the latter is also a touch-screen). Alongside the touchpad is a knurled barrel style switch for radio on/off/volume. Surprisingly, the second row seating is not the last word in luxury; there’s decent legroom but the low bench mandates a rather knees-up posture.

Performance

Its maker credits the All-Terrain with a 0-100 km/h time of 5.2 seconds, which is slower than its Audi rival. But what makes this car memorable is the holistic harmony of all its moves (at least, most of the time). The power pours forth with syrupy smoothness, while the chassis and quick, light steering flow the car through curves with a sense of confident, relaxed athleticism. The exceptions? On full-bore acceleration you do feel a slight engine vibration unexpected in a straight six; and bigger, sharper bumps sometimes disturb the suspension’s serenity unexpectedly. The latter, we suspect, may not apply on the standard 19-inch wheel and tires.

Technology

Mercedes was a pioneer in auto safety, so no surprise the E450 has more standard detect-and-protect safety system than most people have even heard of. Even so, Mercedes managed to devise 15 additional “Assist” systems – most with “Active” in their titles – that come together in the $3,000 Intelligent Drive package and bring you close to autonomous driving (albeit not as close as Cadillac’s SuperCruise).

Cargo

There is 1,820 L of cargo space with the seats down.Jeremy sinek/The Globe and Mail

The Mercedes has the most cargo room among its wagonoid peers, at 640 L seats up and 1,820 L seats down. It’s a practical space, too: the seatbacks fold perfectly flush with the rear deck and very nearly flat. There’s also some shallow hidden storage below decks. The maximum payload is an impressive (for a car) 625 kg. There’s no tow rating for North America but, just so you know, in Europe E-Class wagons are rated to tow up to 2,100 kg with a braked trailer.

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