First Drive: 2017 Mercedes-Benz E400 4MATIC Wagon
A Cult Classic Returns
LÜBECK, Germany — On a Friday morning in light traffic, the round white sign with four diagonal black stripes welcomes us to an unlimited section of the A1 autobahn, so we paddle the 2017 Mercedes-Benz E400 4MATIC Wagon from ninth gear to sixth and floor it. A polite yet commanding snarl is heard from the 3.5-liter V-6. Characteristic of the immediate and agreeable connection we have made, the engine note seems to say "Schnack mit"—or rather, "Chat with me."
Lushly green, the countryside near Lübeck now becomes more than delightful north-German scenery: it's also the head-up display's uniform backdrop. Helped by a 0.28 coefficient of drag, the E400 Wagon speeds to 140 mph, not far from the electronically limited top of 155 mph, yet the wind-rush over the front pillars remains unobtrusive. A monotonous radio voice relays unsettling events in North Korea and exciting ones in U.S. Open tennis. Meantime, the chassis remains as stable as worldwide demand for marzipan candy, as serene as the women wrapping special orders of it back in the Niederegger Company's factory outlet, where we had nearly filled the cargo bay. The E400 flashes by other wagons. And there are so many. In fact, we have learned that about 50 percent of all E-Class models sold in Germany have four doors and a tailgate.
All good things must come to an end, though. We have nearly finished smacking our lips after glugging down cups of the marzipan trinkschockolade when a new sign instructs us to slow because of bumps ahead. We dip into the brakes, laugh at the German notion of bumps, and note how the three-stage air suspension—which had lowered the body by 0.6 inch at speed—smooths these trifling disruptions. The E400 Estate ambles along without hiccup or eructation from the 20-inch wheels and Pirelli PZero tires.
Light inputs from the driver have brought agreeable responses and we find ourselves already loving the E400 Estate. For one thing, the gorgeous, macchiato beige, leather-wrapped steering wheel has the right substantial nature. Even the sun visors seem capable of creating deeper shade.
In truth, we were predisposed to love even before brushing a smartphone past the door handle, sliding into the cabin, and setting the "key" on the charging pad concealed inside the center console. (The phone key must be capable of Near Field Communication and have a secure SIM/NFC card.) Hosting us the previous night at a Baltic Sea hotel, Mercedes-Benz had displayed a vintage 280TE on the grounds. Soon to turn 40 years old like our driving partner, whose birthday dictated the candy store detour, this old wagon had the rigor of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein but wore a Disco-era coat of lime-green paint.
Our E400 Wagon test car, on the other hand, is pure elegance. Diamond White in color, it has the jut of a snout to bear the massive three-pointed star. A long crease extends from headlamps to tail section while the roofline tapers away. The sleekness that is 194.2 inches of avoiding too-straight lines and too-flat surfaces culminates in what the optimistic product developer Michael Kelz described as "a coupe-like finish." The overall alert appearance means Gorden Wagener and his body design team deserve all felicitations.
At dinner the previous evening, interior designer Frederik Knothe had explained how the sweeps of LED ambient lighting allowed his team "to draw," emphasizing form and defining space. Our test car beamed a blue smile around the dashboard's perimeter. And with an instrument panel of side-by-side 12.3-inch displays, it said, "Touché, Tesla!"
We asked Knothe, an engineer's son who was encouraged to draw and sculpt, about new colors. He described the palette's expansion with macchiato leather but might have described falling into a vat of pastry cream. Quilted in a diamond pattern, cut in lamp-shaped figures for the seats, paired with espresso brown for contrast, its beauty rendered us nearly helpless: the finishing touch came from the magnolia wood dashboard insert in rich brown with flowing white horizontal stripes. Even the cargo area is breathtaking, although without the help of a liner, keeping the light-toned carpeting clean would be like swinging all day at tennis balls off the top of the net.
"It's subtle," Knothe said of the whole, "but it still has contrast and looks elegant, like a proper well-fitted suit." Asked who would choose it, he contributed, "I would!"
Factoring in the increased cargo capacity, which expands from 22.6 cubic feet to 64.2 cubic feet with the second row folded, we have to inquire, "why crossovers?" For one thing, the E400 Estate is 1.2 inches lower in height than the previous car, so you never reach and strain your neck, nor do you rub your nice slacks against a dirty bumper. Mercedes will also offer a third row for youngsters. Only a few buyers will figure out the secret, though.
The lime-green 280TE could perhaps have imagined this new car's enhanced functionality, but 0 to 60 mph in 5.4 seconds was a secret fantasy. Now, the 3.0-liter twin-turbo V-6 makes 329 hp at 5,250 rpm and 354 lb-ft of torque at 1,200 rpm. There is nothing hokey about it, no late surge after a pause, no dumb whooping, no added complexity. It excels in all aspects.
Besides all of the above, we could talk about the leaps and bounds taken by the E400 Wagon's driver assistance features and wondrous electronic systems. But who wants to? Yes, you can get out and use your phone to park the damn thing, but on an exceedingly tight and curving left-side stretch of Schmiedstrasse, in downtown Lübeck, our driving partner nailed it on her first attempt, amazing the dopes idling on the sidewalk. Yes, there is partially automated driving and steering—for subscribers to knitting magazines.
As lovers of this great automobile, we are among the cognoscenti, willing to sacrifice for the greater good while gaining in every other way. Joining a cult has never had dressier appeal.
2017 Mercedes-Benz E400 4MATIC Wagon Specifications
|On Sale:||Late 2016|
|Engine:||3.0L DOHC 24-valve twin-turbo V-6/329 hp @ 5,250 rpm, 354 lb-ft @ 1,250 rpm|
|Layout:||4-door, 5- to 7-passenger, front-engine, AWD wagon|
|L x W x H:||194.2 x 72.9 x 57.3 in|
|Weight:||3,800 lb (est. )|
|0-60 MPH:||5.4 sec|
|Top Speed:||155 mph|