First Drive: 2011 Mercedes-Benz E350 4Matic Wagon

Some people refuse to get with the program. They will not go with the flow. Ignoring trends, they do-and buy-what they want. When it comes to cars, no group swims against a stronger tide than the people who buy station wagons. So while the arrival of a new Mercedes-Benz E-class wagon is an absolute non-event for the vast majority of America's new-car buyers, for one tiny, independent-minded group of traditionalists, it is no doubt a reassuring symbol of constancy in a fast-changing world.

What's new and different
For all that, the 2011 E-class wagon is, in fact, changed. Following in the tire tracks of the E-class sedan-which was redesigned for 2010-the wagon has been treated to new, more creased sheetmetal, although the wheelbase and overall length are within an inch of the previous measurements. The new interior features the latest Comand multi-function controller, which is fairly easy to master, if not flawless in its logic. But the biggest change is the addition of a raft of new high-tech features.

Assist, and assist some more
The new E-class wagon adds all the electronic helpers that arrived with the new E-class sedan. The most novel is called Attention Assist, which monitors driver inputs and assesses whether the driver might be zoning out due to fatigue. If so, a coffee cup symbol appears in the gauge cluster with the words, "Time for a break?" When it's time for a brake -- that is, when the E-class is closing in too fast on an object ahead -- the new Brake Assist Plus (paired with the optional active cruise control, Distronic) first warns the driver, then if the driver fails to react, it can automatically apply partial braking power to mitigate the collision. Other new systems include high beams that continuously vary their pattern (Adaptive Highbeam Assist), lane departure warning (Lane Keep Assist), a blind sport warning system (Blind Spot Assist), and a night vision system (Night View Assist Plus) that can scan for pedestrians. All four are options.

A familiar powertain
The 3.5-liter V-6 returns, again paired with a seven-speed automatic transmission and standard 4Matic all-wheel drive. (The previous, special-order-only, 6.2-liter V-8-powered E63 AMG wagon is not currently offered, although that may change.) The V-6's 268 hp is not as competitive as it once was; it's now outmuscled by both of the Cadillac CTS wagon's V-6 engines and by the Audi A6 Avant's supercharged six as well. With 4200 pounds to tug around, the engine produces adequate -- if not super lively -- acceleration. The perfectly mannered seven-speed automatic offers a choice of a sport setting that changes the shift logic (and the throttle mapping) but it's barely discernable and must be selected again each time you start the car. The powertrain's 16/23 mpg EPA numbers are 1 mpg lower here than in the sedan, but they are far better than in the R-class, which gets 15/19 mpg. The Cadillac and Audi wagons do better though; both clock in with 18/26 mpg EPA ratings. On a 200-mile highway trip travelling hilly terrain at a relatively modest 65-75 mph-car loaded to the gunwhales with four people and luggage-we exactly matched the 23 mpg highway figure; around town, we did a bit better than advertised, at 18 mpg.

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