We like--no, make that love--station wagons. Their melding of utility and driving pleasure is unequalled in any other type of vehicle, and because they can do so many things so well, they're usually the most heavily used of any cars in european car's garage.
Unlike minivans, with their "soccer mom" reputations and un-sporty handling, or the huge SUVs that are mostly big wastes of space, the modern station wagon boasts so many positive traits that it overcomes any lingering, negative connotations left by the wood-sided behemoths that many of us grew up with. In fact, today's designers have injected such style into the breed that some qualify for the Best of Show ring rather than being relegated to the Working Group trials outside the arena.
Now, a company that has made wagons a central part of its lineup is presenting a new and improved version. Twenty-five years after the launch of its first station wagon, Mercedes-Benz is bolstering its winning E-Class cars with a handsome new Estate, the fourth generation of its type. It's full of the technology that's made the new Es such shining stars in the Mercedes firmament, and it's full of additional features that expand its utility and safety in clever new ways.
Even though the wagon has almost identical dimensions to the E-Class sedan, different roof contours and seating arrangement mean more headroom and more space between the seats.
Mercedes calls the wagon's solutions for hauling people and stuff (why else own one?) "load compartment management." The formal nomenclature is the EASY-PACK system, the means by which loading, unloading and stowage are made easier and more secure. Varying the configuration of seats can increase load capacity from 690 to 1,950 liters (24.4 to almost 69 cu ft), accomplished in steps that transform the five-seater wagon into four-, three-, two- and then one-seat layouts, possible, for the first time, by folding flat the front passenger seatback.
Access to the luggage area is made easier by a large liftgate that can be stopped anywhere in the upper third of its opening range. A button-operated electrohydraulic drive system is optional.
Also available as an option is a hydraulically operated rear compartment floor, capable of supporting objects weighing up to 200 kg (440 lb). The floor extends rearward by 400mm (15.7 in.) for easier loading and unloading. The floor can also be folded up, held by a gas-pressure spring, to access the spare tire well (U.S. and Canada only; the rest of the world gets Mercedes' TIREFIT sealant kit and two stowage areas). Standard across the line is the rear compartment cover that moves upwards as the tailgate is opened and then returns to its original position when the tailgate is closed.
Additional elements of the EASY-PACK system include a stowage box that makes use of the wedge-shaped space behind the rear-seat backrests, and the optional FixKit, a system that divides the compartment and secures the load. It consists of aluminum rails in the floor; fixing elements that lock into place in the rails; a telescopic bar that slides into the fixing elements and which can divide the load compartment either laterally or diagonally; a retractable belt with a fabric strap that can be locked into the rails with the fixing elements and which also divides the area laterally or diagonally; and load-securing rings.
If you've got livestock to haul--kids up to 140cm (55 in.) tall and 50kg (110 lb) in weight--there's an optional, two-passenger, rear-facing third row of seats. Cupholders and a small stowage net help keep the area neat, and when the seat is not in use it folds away under the compartment floor. As expected from a company which attends very closely to passenger safety, this third row has height-adjustable head restraints and automatic three-point seatbelts.
In addition to the same level of safety offered in the E-Class sedan, including two-stage adaptive front airbags and weight sensors, the wagon sports several additional technologies. Enlarged crumple zones in the nose deflect forces in frontal collisions, and, given that some cars will be ordered with the third row of seats, there's also a new, U-shaped extruded aluminum section to protect the footwell area. Even the rear seat backrest features a tubular steel frame and robust hinges and locks to protect against any loads that might shift forward in the collision.
Active safety is augmented by the new, aptly named Active Light System, premiering in the Estate and optionally available with the bi-xenon headlamps. The system mat-ches the light distribution to the steering angle by swiveling the headlamps, more quickly at high speeds and more slowly when the car is at a sedate pace. Illumination of the bends in the road ahead is increased by up to 90%.
Optimum handling comes hand in hand with the optional AIRMATIC DC air suspension already offered in the E-Class sedans. A new feature of this adaptive adjustment of damping and springing is its ability to tighten or soften the spring rate while on the move in response to road conditions. The AIRMATIC DC wagons also get integrated all-around self-leveling control. Even those without the air suspension get level control for the rear suspension.
There are also three new elements to the standard Sensotronic Brake Control system. First is the Softstop function that adjusts brake pedal pressures to keep stops from being abrupt. It's always active but forfeits priority during panic braking. Second is Anti-stall Assist, which keeps the car from rolling forward or backward when stopped on a steep hill. It's activated by a short, sharp stab of the brake pedal and is released when the accelerator pedal is pushed. Third is Tailback Assist, which slows the car without the driver having to push the brake pedal. It's particularly effective in stop-and-go traffic, as the driver need only operate the accelerator instead of having to constantly switch between two pedals. It's activated through the cruise control lever and remains in operation up to around 38 mph.
The many electronic aids of the E-Class sedan are part of the standard package and deliver the safe and stable road manners that have come to characterize today's Mercedes-Benz vehicles.
The best news is that this new and improved Estate will not cost much more than the current version, which has a MSRP of $49,970. Sales of the E 320 and the pricier and powerful E 500 wagons begin in the U.S. in the fall of 2003.
The E-Class Estate Lineup
Outside of North America (which will get only the E 320 until the E 500 joins it later this year), there are initially six models available, three with gasoline engines and three powered by common-rail diesel powerplants.
The standard transmission for the E 220 CDI, E 270 CDI, E 200 Kompressor and E 240 models is a six-speed manual. For the E 320 and E 320 CDI, the familiar five-speed automatic with Touchshift is standard. New for this model year is a torque converter lockup clutch that is possible in any gear, not just in third, fourth and fifth as in previous versions. It is used to prevent slip between the pump and the turbine wheel, improving mechanical efficiency and delivering better fuel economy.
Petrol-powered E-type Estates
The gas-powered models include two six-cylinder versions and a newly developed supercharged four:
Model: E 240; 2597cc V6; 177 bhp; 240Nm (177 lb-ft) of torque. Despite its badge, the 2.6 liters of the E 240's six develops 7 more hp than its predecessor. Also, 75% of its torque peak comes by 1500 rpm, 95% of twist is delivered from 3000 to 4000 rpm, and the maximum is available at 4500 rpm, meaning the engine's power is seen across a wide rev range. The revised engine also makes the car faster yet more economical to operate.
Model: E 320; 3199cc V6; 224 bhp; 315Nm (232 lb-ft) of torque. One of the most economical cars in its segment, it can also scoot from 0 to 62 mph in 8.5 sec.
Model: E 200 Kompressor; 1796cc inline four; 163 bhp; 240Nm (177 lb-ft) of torque. Highlights of this newly developed DOHC engine, designed to provide the pulling power of a six with the economy of a four, are an intercooled supercharger, four valves per cylinder, a Lanchester balancer, and a new vane-type adjuster with integrated control valve for the adjustable valve timing.
High-tech, High-performance Diesels
The refined, second-generation diesel powerplants deliver up to 8% more torque and 5% more horsepower than previous oil-burners, and fuel consumption has been reduced as well. Notable improvements include a seven-hole injector replacing the previous six-hole unit, enabling a smaller nozzle hole diameter and thus more finely dispersed fuel into the combustion chamber for optimum burn.
There's also a new "double pilot" injection system, introduced to reduce the combustion noise associated with diesels. Now, two small quantities of pilot fuel flow into the combustion chamber in quick succession, ensuring better pre-heating and reducing diesel clatter.
Model: E 320 CDI: 3222cc inline six; 204 bhp; 500Nm (369 lb-ft) of torque. Bottom-end power and flexibility have been increased with higher firing pressures (from 145 to 155 bar), optimizing the in-cylinder gas cycle and implementing the VNT turbocharger with electrically adjustable guide vanes. Half of the available torque comes on at just 1000 rpm, and about 85% of the torque peak is available between 1800 and 2600 rpm. The wagon can accelerate from 0 to 62 mph in 8.2 sec., and consumption has also improved.
Model: E 270 CDI; 2685cc inline five; 177 bhp; 400Nm (295 lb-ft) of torque. The peak torque is increased by 8% and is available by 1800 rpm. The optional five-speed automatic allows a torque increase to 425Nm. Despite the increase in output from its predecessor, it retains identical fuel milage.
Model: E 220 CDI; 2148cc inline four; 150 bhp; 340Nm (251 lb-ft) of torque. A major goal with the development of this engine was smoothness, achieved with the use of twin balancer shafts that counter-rotate at twice the crankshaft speed and thus offset intertia forces caused by the motion of the pistons, the gudgeon pins and the connecting rods. The 0 to 62-mph run is 10.6 sec., 0.3 sec. faster than its predecessor.
All in the Family