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First drive: Benz's clever E-class wagon

Wonder wagon: The E-class wagon has a wonderful build, tight fit and finish, elegant interior, comfortable cockpit and clean instruments.

Mercedes keeps those wagons rolling with a new generation E-class

9 Oct 2003

AS MUCH as car designers the world over would have us believe that the traditional station wagon is doomed, Mercedes-Benz has made a counter claim with its new generation E-class estate launched this week.

Arriving some 12 months ahead of BMW’s E60 5 Series Touring, the load-lugging S211 E-class wagon is imbued with character and cleverness to ensure the vehicle remains relevant for its constituents – and enables Benz to depart with a forecast 20 vehicles per month.

"I don’t think it’s going to die," insists Mercedes-Benz Passenger Cars Australia managing director Horst von Sanden. "This is a personal statement, but I think we have not fully explored the potential of this segment as yet.

"You don’t have to apologise for driving it, you can actually be proud and say, ‘Look, this car gives me the beauty of a normal sedan and it gives me thousands of additional options to actually live my lifestyle.’ So I see a certain opportunity here." True, there does seem to be thousands of options when looking down the price list for the range, which starts from $96,900 for the baseline E240 Classic. These include a $1690 electric tailgate, $680 load securing kit, $590 ski bag and $320 out-of-sight storage box.

But the corral, comprising E240 and E320 models in Classic, Elegance and Avantgarde trim levels (with Classic restricted to E240), becomes more enticing when the increased specification and new-fangled load-related details are studied.

As before, a rearward-facing dicky seat is fitted standard in the luggage compartment – and can be folded out of sight beneath the cargo floor. Accommodating children up to 140cm tall and 50kg in weight, the seat positions each have height-adjustable head restraints and a three-point seatbelt.

If seven seats are not required, customers can order a (no-cost option) hydraulic platform embedded into the floor that extends back into the vehicle 400mm at the touch of a button to assist with loading.

Said to be the first of its kind in a station wagon, the mechanism can hold items up to 200kg.

And the neat tricks don’t end there. Also included are a flat-folding second row, backrest angle adjustment, removable seat squabs, seat-fold warning devices ensuring proper seat engagement and a tailgate that remains open at various angles throughout the top third of its travel.

General features and mechanicals mirror the well-endowed equivalent sedan models – inclusion of self-levelling rear suspension is a main departure point – and propulsion duties are handed to either the 130kW 2.6-litre V6 (E240) or 165kW 3.2-litre V6 (E320). Both are mated to a five-speed automatic transmission with Touchshift sequential manual operation.

The Classic line includes front, side and window airbags, anti-lock brakes with brake assist, stability control, automatic headlights, climate control air-conditioning, a 10-speaker stereo with CD stacker, cruise control with variable speed limiter, trip computer, electric seat adjustment, partial-leather trim, veneer panelling, rain-sensing wipers, 16-inch alloy wheels and roof rails.

As usual, Elegance adds plusher details and some additional equipment (including the long storage box) and Avantgarde has sportier elements such as 15mm lowered suspension. New for the estate range are bi-xenon active cornering headlights (costing up to $4590) and the improved Comand sat-nav and premium stereo ($7950 on E240, standard on E320).

The estate has the same 2854mm wheelbase as the sedan, although its rear overhang extends overall length 32mm to 4850mm. Compared to its predecessor, the estate is 11mm longer and 23mm wider, resting on a 21mm longer wheelbase.

Luggage volume has increased 15 per cent, now ranging from 690 litres to 1950 litres depending on seating arrangements. The luggage floor depth is 1190mm without the third row installed and increases to 1836mm when the second row is folded.

The 60/40 Australian sales split is expected to favour the E240, a model claimed to be a 5.8 per cent improved value proposition over its predecessor (Sensotronic Brake Control accounts for most of this).

Worldwide production is set at 45,000 for the remainder of 2003 and 60,000 for 2004, with diesel and V8 models under evaluation for import to Australia at a later date.

The first Mercedes-Benz station wagon was the 123-series circa 1976.

E240 Classic Estate $96,900
E240 Elegance Estate $101,500
E240 Avantgarde Estate $103,500
E320 Elegance Estate $126,900
E320 Avantgarde Estate $128,900


ASIDE from some isolated problems with the Comand unit, the E-class sedan won friends in an instant 13 months back with its pleasing aesthetics and excellent execution. And these positive vibes are carried over with the load-lugging version.

Time will tell whether the new Harman/Becker Comand system will create headaches like a limited number of Bosch-sourced units did with the sedan. But in this, and other respects, first impressions are that Benz has created a fine bit of work here.

Wonderful build, tight fit and finish, elegant interior, comfortable cockpit, clean instruments and acceptable ergonomics remain.

A tour through some unchallenging roads in the E320 highlighted other things we like about this particular variant – the refined and economical (and somewhat over-rated) engine, smooth and intelligent transmission, simple and effective Tipshift operation, for example.

First-rate refinement, sensitive brakes and an accomplished ride are also evident.

The attractive, curvaceous rear-end section rules out Volvo-like room in the rear seat and luggage compartments, however these are the areas in which Mercedes-Benz has worked hard to make the additional $6000 over the sedan equivalent a serious consideration.

There’s no talk of design inspiration from a children’s doll as Mazda did with its ‘karakuri’ fold, however the 60/40-split centre bench can be folded down in a simple process – with automatic headrest lowering, and provided the front seat is far enough forward – to create an almost-flat floor. Each section also has a 90-degree seat cushion fold that can be fixed against the front seatbacks or removed within a couple of seconds.

Rear seat passengers are allocated acceptable room in all directions bar foot space and outboard occupants can take advantage of the centre rear armrest, more comfortable seats and height adjustment for the seatbelt sash.

Most intriguing are the various load configurations available.

Stowed under the luggage floor with the space-saver spare wheel, the third row bench base and backrest will flip up with two effortless actions and has pull-out cupholders included – although the seatback does not feel rock-solid when in place, the area will be too tight and uncomfortable for some children and the child lock on the tailgate could pose exit problems in an emergency.

Let us also sound our concern at the manner in which the optional automatic-closing tailgate – sent down with a press of a button on the underside of the tailgate – operates and the potential for it to cause harm (to children in particular), even with an impact-stop feature.

The other load-related features are excellent. New hinge and gas pressure springs concealed in the roof channel enable the tailgate to be stopped and locked into position anywhere in the upper third of its opening range – it works a treat – and the electronic platform makes light work of moving leaden objects. As we found, it will indeed hold more than 200kg and, again, is operated from well positioned, easy-to-use switches on the tailgate.

A gimmick? Sure. But we suspect owners will never tire of moving bags or boxes, whatever their weight, back and forth – just for the fun of it.

Luggage space is still quite generous without the third row in place, the excellent storage box is well concealed behind the second row and the elaborate (if overpriced) load-securing kit is also able to stow various-sized items. Even the basic load area has side compartments, a 12-volt power outlet, tie-down hooks, stretch-net and warning triangle.

Attention to detail like this, some unexpected treats and good aesthetics do indeed earn the E-class estate a position in the OK corral. And it will be fascinating to see whether BMW can match it with its new generation 5 Series Touring.

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