EXPERT REVIEW

Boston.com's view

Mercedes E-Class wagon has the heart of an SUV

It has all-wheel drive for pounding through bad weather. It seats seven people in three rows and weighs more than two tons. And it sucks gasoline in the 15 to 20 miles per gallon range.

An SUV, right?

No, it’s a station wagon — a Mercedes-Benz station wagon that is, in some ways, a stealth SUV: thirsty, hearty, utilitarian, a great family car for New England winters.

This is the 2004 E-Class wagon, available as either the E320, as tested, or the E500. Each comes in either rear- or front-wheel drive.

It was last year that Mercedes redesigned its E-Class family, adding sleeker lines and pushing all-wheel drive through virtually its entire lineup.

And, indeed, the new E-Class wagon is a far sharper-looking vehicle than its boxier predecessor, which, like so many wagons, seemed to push its way into the wind. From its boldly slanted grille/hood line — straight from the sedan — to the downward rake of the roof at the rear, the wagon is a finely sculpted piece of machinery.

It’s meant to compete with wagons from Audi, BMW, Volvo, Saab, and even Volkswagen and Subaru. (Mercedes realized that there were many New Englanders who, though they could well afford a Benz, opted for an AWD Subaru.)

Further, the new E-Class wagon is an intermediate step for Mercedes as it prepares to move into the fertile new ground of “crossover” vehicles. That’s why the automaker maintained its AWD system, and why it gave the wagon an optional third row of rear-facing seats.

Yet DaimlerChrysler plans to plow even further in this field. Already, with much Mercedes DNA at its core, DaimlerChrysler has given us the Chrysler Pacifica, a big wagon/utility that, while pricing may have been a bit high at first, is nonetheless one of the more intriguing cars in recent years.

Sometime in the next year, Mercedes will up the ante in what it is calling this niche of “grand sport tourers,” meaning the size, heft, and utility of an SUV, with elegant, car-like amenities. Its grand sport tourer will likely be built on the M-Class platform and be a larger vehicle than the E-Class wagon. Meanwhile, the E-Class wagon holds the Mercedes slot in the I’m-not-an-SUV scramble quite well.

The interior, burled wood and leather, is solid elegance. The front seats have 10-way adjustable controls. The cushion can be lengthened for better under-thigh support and the seat back can be air-adjusted for side and lumbar support.

The middle row of seats has a bit of a hump in the middle, but will hold three passengers. The seat cushions fold up against the backs of the front seats and the seat backs fold flat for extra cargo space (as does the passenger-side front seat for hauling long objects).

The optional third row seats two and folds flat into the floor. Buy the E-Class wagon without the third row an d a warren of storage areas becomes available beneath the rear folding panels.

Designed to haul lots of people and/or gear, the E-Class needs oomph to get the job done. Here, you have the option of two engines: a 3.2-liter V-6 at 221 horsepower (as tested) and a 5.0-liter V-8 with 302 horsepower. The V-6 in the test car was smooth, powerful, and quiet, and the five-speed automatic transmission was transparent in its operation, holding back nicely on upshifts when long bursts of speed were needed.

The suspension (independent wishbone upfront, an independent, five-arm multilink system in the rear) gave a firm ride but was not harsh in highway lane changes or relatively hard back-road cornering. Electronic stability control is standard, and standard safety equipment includes a rollover sensor that deploys head protection side air bags, side air bags front and rear, and dual front air bags.

It is easy to drive the price of this $52,000 car toward $60,00 with just a few options, such as a lighting package that includes headlamp washers and B-Xenon headlights ($1,180); an upgraded sound system ($950); and a package that includes heated front seats and heated steering wheel ($900).

This is a thirsty car, but if you can afford the sticker price, a few hundred dollars a year extra for gasoline likely won’t dent your wallet.

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