Versus the competiton:
With the new E320 Station Wagon, Mercedes-Benz has introduced a car that is essentially obsolete.
The dramatic rise in minivans and then sport-utility vehicles in the last 15 years has made the station wagon almost extinct. Only Subaru’s sporty all-wheel drive Outback wagons are selling well. Nearly all other automakers have thrown in the towel and switched from wagons to vans and sport-utilities.
As I test-drove the E320 Station Wagon, I couldn’t help but think of Mercedes’ own sport-utility, the ML320, and how much more it offers.
The ML320 comes with the same V-6 engine and five-speed transmission as well as standard all-wheel drive. It offers about the same level of equipment, yet the ML320 sells for about $10,000 less.
You’d really have to want a Mercedes wagon to make a compelling case for the E320.
Mercedes’ first V-6 engine is a marvel.
It’s an aluminum 3.2-liter overhead cam motor outfitted with three valves and two spark plugs per cylinder. Horsepower is rated at 221. Performance is terrific. Mercedes says the E320 Station Wagon can bolt to 60 mph in less than eight seconds — not bad for a car that weighs nearly 3,700 pounds.
I’ve driven cars with V-8 engines and more horsepower that can’t match the performance of the Mercedes V-6.
When you press the accelerator, the engine hums nicely as it winds up. The car moves forward very briskly — and instantaneously. One reason for the E320’s responsiveness is that it’s one of the first cars on the road to be equipped with a “drive-by-wire” system. Instead of the accelerator being connected to the engine’s fuel injection system in the traditional way, with mechanical linkage, the pedal’s movements are measured electronically. A computer instantly signals the engine when the pedal moves.
The five-speed automatic transmission delivers smooth shifts. A computerized program in the transmission adjusts theshifts in accordance to the habits of the driver. For instance, if one were to drive with a heavy foot, the shifts would be delayed slightly.
Another standard feature: a traction control system that uses the brakes and throttle to restore traction once the wheels lose their grip on slippery roads.
The four-wheel independent suspension system keeps the car planted firmly on the pavement, even in sharp, fast cornering. At first the E320 wagon feels a bit unwieldy, but when you toss it into a curve the suspension seems to tighten up. In an emergency accident avoidance maneuver, such as a very fast change of directions, the E320 wagon will remain stable and easy to control.
I was most impressed with the car’s excellent turning radius of 37.1 feet. This makes the big car easy to handle in tight parking situations or when you need to make a U-turn on city streets. The steering wheel has a light, smooth and easy feel.
The E320 Station Wagon comes with standard p ower-assisted four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes. The brakes are strong, and the anti-lock system stops the car quickly and without trauma.
FIT AND FINISH
The interior of the Mercedes-Benz E320 is functional and handsome but lacks the warmth and sensuousness of a Jaguar XJ8.
When you sit in a Jaguar, your senses are attacked by the wonderful smell of Connolly leather upholstery, soft wool carpet, large planks of wood and a gold Jaguar logo on the steering wheel. That makes you feel like you bought something special.
The upholstery in our test car was some kind of vinyl or plastic, not the aromatic leather you might expect in a $50,000 automobile. I also found some of the switches in the Mercedes awkward to use.
To engage the cruise control, you have to flip a lever behind the windshield wiper on the left side of the steering column. But the two levers are too close together. Several times I turned on the windshield wiper when I wanted to set the cruise control.
Also, I think Mercedes could do a better job with the dual-zone air-conditioning switches. A rotary knob system instead of the buttons and switches would simplify the system.
With the rear seats folded forward, the interior of the E320 wagon is cavernous. I stuffed an adult bicycle in the back and closed the rear door. In the tail section, there’s a fold-away rear-facing seat that, when up, increases seating capacity to seven. Only kids could be comfortable back there, though. However, the mid-section’s rear bench seat offers plenty of comfort and ample room.
The E320 Station Wagon comes with everything– cruise control, power sunroof, electric seats with memory and more. Dual front and side air bags are standard. Mercedes expects to sell about 3,500 of these wagons per year in the United States– which is not very many.
If I wanted a Mercedes-Benz that could move a lot of people in comfort, I’d get the ML320 sport-utility and save $10,000. It’s better looking and more fun to drive than the E320 station wagon.
Specifications: Base price: $46,500. Safety: Dual front and side air bags, anti-lock brakes, traction control and side-impact protection. Price as tested:$50,370. EPA rating: 16 mpg city/21 mpg highway. ncentives: None.
Truett’s tip: Though it performs well and comes with a long list of standard equipment, the E320 Wagon is not one of Mercedes’ best ideas.