SEE ALSO: Mercedes Buyer's Guide
Station wagons may be best remembered as the official American family cars of the 1950s and 1960s, forerunners of minivans. But, before mass popularity, station wagons were often more upscale conveyances. Many early wagons were custom-modified cars used to transport wealthy customers between railroad stations and luxury hotels. Despite mass production, popularity, and the subsequent eclipse of the genre by minivans and sport-utility vehicles, there are still some wagons made in the luxury tradition.
One such is the new Mercedes-Benz E320 wagon. Mercedes- Benz has been selling wagons for over twenty years, and has a very loyal customer base in the class. When the new midsized E-Class sedan was introduced two years ago, it was only a matter of time until a wagon based on it became available. The new E320 wagon will not only please Mercedes wagon loyalists, it may convert people who thought "sport-utility" for their transportation needs as well. The 1998 E320 wagon, and its sedan sibling, are available with all-wheel drive for all-weather traction. Both also have a new V6 engine this year, replacing the previous inline six.
Mercedes-Benz already makes a very good sport-utility, the ML320, so why the all-wheel drive sedan and wagon? Choice. Some people need all-wheel drive traction but don't like the access height of a sport-utility vehicle. The E320 AWD models have normal automobile ground clearance and are not designed not for off-road use, but for slippery urban, suburban, and rural roads - the same habitat in which the vast majority of sport-utilities get the vast majority of use.
I recently had the E320 all-wheel drive sedan and wagon for two back-to-back weeks. I will concentrate on the wagon, as it is completely new and the sedan is little changed from last year with the exception of the engine and optional all-wheel drive system. Both the sedan and wagon benefit greatly from the new V6 engine. The E320 sedan has all of the good qualities of earlier models, while the wagon adds an amazing amount of useable space for passengers or cargo with very little compromise in ride and handling.
APPEARANCE: The face is familiar. In a direct frontal view, only the optional sport-utility-style roof rack, if fitted, tells that the E320 wagon is not a sedan. The wagon shares front styling with the E-Class sedans, but is unique from the windshield back. Like the sedans, it is gently rounded about the corners. The roofline is highest at the windshield and tapers slightly to the rear. The taillights are similar in shape to those of the sedan, but larger. The wagon's inch of extra length is not readily apparent.
COMFORT: Inside, the E320 wagon is every bit an E-Class Benz. As is the Mercedes-Benz way, the interior is less opulent than that of most American, British, or Japanese luxury cars, but it is very well-designed and uses the highest-quality materials. Leather upholstery, standard on the sedan, is an option on the wagon. Burled walnut trim is standard, as are dual-zone climate control, 10-way adjustable power front seats with 3-position memory for seat, mirror, and steering wheel position, one-touch up or down power windows, and an AM/FM/weather band/cassette sound system. The wagon has more interior space than most midsized sport-utilities, and is much lower for easier access. It is as versatile inside as any vehicle made. The rear split bench seat cushions flip and fold individually to accommodate long loads. A folding, rear-facing jump seat holds two small people in reasonable comfort. A full-sized spare is hidden neatly and unobtrusively to the side of the rear compartment. The E320 wagon rates high for convenience, comfort, and versatility.
SAFETY: The 1998 Mercedes-Benz E320 wagon has safety cage chassis construction, front and side airbags, the BabySmart(tm) child seat recognition system, and Automatic Slip Control traction control. The standard antilock braking system has Brake Assist to ensure maximum braking under emergency conditions. All passengers in the E320 wagon, even those in the third row seat, have 3-point safety harnesses.
ROADABILITY: Only in a back-to-back comparison between all- wheel drive versions of the E320 sedan and wagon is the extra rear weight of the wagon is noticeable, and then barely. The all-wheel drive system is unnoticeable in normal operation, and sends power to the wheel or wheels with the most traction. In a wet week of driving on city streets, highways, and mountain roads, I found the all-wheel drive E320 wagon to be a smooth, comfortable, and very good-handling car. It is a far better vehicle for the road than a sport-utility. Several laps around a wet and slippery Sears Point Raceway really showed the superiority of all-wheel drive.
PERFORMANCE: Mercedes-Benz's new 3.2-liter V6 is a sweetheart of an engine. It is lighter than the old inline six, and requires less maintenance. It makes slightly more horsepower, 221 versus 217, and the same 232 lb-ft of torque, but maximum torque is developed at a lower engine speed. The result is much improved low-speed acceleration for safer merging and passing in traffic. The 5-speed automatic transmission has control electronics that adapt shifting strategy to the driver's driving style.
CONCLUSIONS: The 1998 Mercedes-Benz E320 wagon, in all-wheel drive form, is a very useful alternative to a premium sport-utility vehicle.
SPECIFICATIONS Base Price $ 49,250 Price As Tested $ 56,650 Engine Type 90-degreeV6, single overhead cam, 18 valves Engine Size 3.2 liters / 195 cu. in. Horsepower 221 @ 5500 Torque (lb-ft) 232 @ 3000 to 4800 Transmission 5-speed electronically-controlled automatic Wheelbase / Length 111.5 in. / 190.4 in. Curb Weight 3868 lbs. Pounds Per Horsepower 17.5 Fuel Capacity 18.5 gal. Fuel Requirement unleaded premium Tires P215/55 HR 16 Michelin Energy MXV4 Brakes, front/rear vented disc / solid disc, antilock with Brake Assist standard Suspension, front/rear independent double wishbone with coil springs / independent multilink with coil springs Drivetrain front engine, all-wheel drive PERFORMANCE EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 20 / 26 / 23 0 to 60 mph 8.2 sec 1/4 mile (E.T.) 16.5 sec Coefficient of Drag (cd) 0.34 OPTIONS AND CHARGES (NOTE: base price of AWD wagon includes $2,750 for the AWD system) Brilliant silver paint $ 695 Blue leather upholstery $1,695 LF multi-contour seat $ 390 RF multi-contour seat $ 390 Headlamp washers $ 340 Xenon headlamps $ 960 Integrated luggage rack $ 390 Heated front seats $ 595