First Drive: 2011 Mercedes-Benz E350 4Matic Wagon

Sport or Luxury?
One change for 2011 is that the wagon now follows sedan form with its choice of Luxury or Sport trim. The latter has an AMG body kit (different front fascia, side skirts, and rear bumper, and trapezoidal exhausts outlets); the seventeen-inch wheels and interior color scheme also differ from Sport to Luxury. Outside of cosmetics, the Sport has a firmer suspension and a slightly lower ride height; and it alone offers the option of eighteen-inch wheels. Our test example was the Sport with the larger wheels. Despite the 40-series rubber, the ride is not overly harsh, and the suspension isn't terribly stiff. Even in its most hardcore spec, the E-class wagon is more relaxed cruiser than canyon carver-appropriate, given its clientele. Steering effort is just right, and the E350 was very easy to place on older, winding parkways when threading our way between guardrail and lane-wandering neighbor. Whether traveling narrow byways or negotiating busy parking lots, a wagon like the E-class is definitely less stressful to maneuver than a bulkier crossover (the R-class packs on an additional 800-plus pounds) or SUV (the GL is more than 1000 pounds heavier).

Premium priced
One characteristic of the E-class wagon that is maintained with the new version is that it's premium priced. That holds true whether you're comparing it to the other offerings in its shrinking segment (the CTS Sportwagon and the A6 Avant) or even to other Mercedes models. At $57,075 (with destination) the E350 is at least a few thousand dollars more expensive than an R-class or an ML350, and about $5000 more than an E350 4Matic sedan. At that price, you might think that Mercedes would make leather standard, but it's an option here (for $1620) -- as it is on the E350, the R-class, and the ML too. Standard equipment does include a backup camera, a power tailgate, a load-leveling rear suspension, roof rails, and the driver drowsiness monitor. One truly unique standard item is the rear-facing third-row seat. The E-class is the last wagon that still offers this feature. It's cool for kids but don't expect to put adults back there (unless they're really, really short) -- maximum height for third-seat riders is four feet, seven inches.

Who are the wagonistas?
For all its charms, the wagon, which once accounted for more than 10 percent of U.S. E-class sales, has lately shrunk to half that. Although the Cadillac CTS is a new entry, the segment is still shrinking, as BMW has recently stopped importing the 5-series wagon, and Volvo has given up on its V70 wagon (although it continues to sell the higher-riding XC70 version). One has to wonder, is the E-class wagon still worth doing?

"It is, because of the loyalty of these customers," says Bart Herring, E-class product manager. "They've been offered every possible choice by now: an SUV of any size, a crossover of any size -- and they are very hard and fast station wagon customers. Based on that, we feel there's a place for it."

For the refuseniks that have rejected the onslaught of minivans, SUVs, and crossovers, the E-class wagon should certainly satisfy. It offers the traditional virtues to which they've grown accustomed, along with a bevy of modern updates. These wagon devotees are well heeled (even more so than most Benz buyers -- one in four has an annual household income of half a million dollars or better) and they are concentrated in the New York metropolitan area (far and away the wagon's largest market). Plying the country lanes of Greenwich or Pound Ridge in yet another new Mercedes station wagon, they can be secure that, for some people at least, the totems of status do not change and the rewards of hard work (their own, or an ancestor's) are very nice indeed.

2011 Mercedes-Benz E350 4Matic wagon
Base price: $57,075 (with destination)

Powertrain: 3.5-liter DOHC 24-valve V-6
Horsepower: 268 hp @ 6000 rpm
Torque: 391 lb-ft @ 2400-5000 rpm
Drive: Four-wheel

L x W x H: 192.7 x 81.5 x 58.9 in
Wheelbase: 113.2 in
Cargo capacity: 29.0/57.4 cu ft (second-row seats up/folded)
Curb weight: 4213 lbs
EPA fuel economy: 16/23 mpg

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