The Mercedes-Benz E-Class All-Terrain crossover should be making Audi and Volvo nervous
Mercedes-Benz spent the better part of 2016 launching its advanced new E-Class sedan and Estate range, its most important family cars by sales. Now at year's end, it’s time to fill out the ranks.
Last week it was the staggeringly quick Mercedes-AMG E63 S muscle car, a V8-powered executive rocket. Now it’s time for a genuinely new offering from the brand.
It's a familiar concept. Take the slick E-Class Estate, give it black cladding, a slightly elevated ride height, adjustable air suspension, all-wheel drive and some high-tech soft-roading software to shuffle torque where most needed.
At the forefront of this new mission for the German brand is winning the hearts of snow bunnies and well-to-do weekend adventurers eschewing SUVs such as the GLE.
Another point of note is news that the regular E-Class Estate is unlikely to go on sale in Australia at all anyway, meaning the All-Terrain may also need to appeal to these outcast buyers lest they go buy a BMW 5 Series.
Engine-wise, Mercedes has kept the All-Terrain simple. The sole offer at launch is the 2.0-litre turbo-diesel E220d making 143kW at 3800rpm and 400Nm between 1600 and 2800rpm. That’s less than the 160kW/500Nm six-cylinder Audi.
Europe will also a 190kW/620Nm 3.0-litre V6 diesel All-Terrain, though modest sales projected for the model here, and the bigger version's necessary price increase, make it an iffy business case.
Matched to this engine is a nine-speed (9G-TRONIC) automatic transmission with expensive metal paddles. The claimed 0-100km/h sprint time for this 1920kg heavyweight is a quick eight seconds, and combined-cycle fuel use is 5.2L/100km.
The new-generation engine is very refined, and much of the cabin quietude comes from the E-Class’ sound-deadening in the firewall. The ninth ratio is really only for cruising speeds exceeding 140km/h.
Urban manners are good and cruising along at speeds on motorways that would get your license confiscated in Australia, is simple. But it’s not exactly a powerhouse.
Matched is Mercedes’ 4Matic all-wheel drive system (Benz’s answer to Audi quattro) with fixed torque split of 55 per cent rear and 45 per cent front, though the system can send an extra 40Nm to either axle as needed, activated by traction-loss sensors.
The AWD system makes getaway crisper, and adds a layer of reassurance on snow and ice. We stomped the accelerator in fresh snow and it hunkered down and took off without fuss.
The regular Benz driving mode setup (Comfort, Sport, Eco etc) adjusts the parameters of the throttle, gearbox mapping, steering resistance, ESC response and ride comfort. This car's iteration also gets an All-Terrain mode like the GLE.
This program raises the chassis by 20mm at speeds below 35km/h. We’d rather that speed threshold be higher for our market's rough gravel roads. As you may have guessed, the E-Class All-Terrain gets Air Body Control multi-chamber air suspension.
Ground clearance varies between 121mm at its lowest setting activated above 125km/h, to reduce drag, and 156mm at the highest setting at low speeds to improve clearance. It’s 29mm higher than the E-Class wagon, and fording depth is 300mm. Modest.
The All-Terrain mode also adjusts the thresholds of the ESC, active yaw control and acceleration skid control for slippery surfaces, while the display screen shows steering angle, suspension level, slope angle, throttle/brake position and a compass.
We pointed the E-Class All-Terrain at a rocky and muddy slope and at a snow-covered mountain road, and found traction levels to be fine, and soft-roading dispatched well, with the wheels scrabbling easily over slippery surfaces.
Mercedes isn’t pretending that the low-ish E-Class All-Terrain is a real SUV, but it’ll do lighter stuff without fuss. Moreover, it provides surety and stability on gravel and snow, just like the allroad or the budget Volkswagen Alltrack family.
There’s an additional benefit to the air suspension (and the higher-sidewall tyres on 19-inch rims), and that's ride comfort. Where the steel-sprung entry E-Class models can crash over square edges and sharp hits in undignified fashion under hard driving, the All-Terrain glides in supreme comfort.
One car this reviewer has driven recently that offers equivalent levels of high-speed comfort and refinement is the higher-riding and similarly priced new Audi Q7 seven-seater with air suspension.
At 150km/h you barely hear a thing, and the massaging leather seats with cushion-like headrests, the suede headlining and the dual-pane glass roof make the interior remarkably nice. It’s a bit of an S-Class wagon surrogate.
Highways are also the ideal place to test the partial vehicle autonomy on offer, which rivals Tesla’s Auto Pilot.
You get lane assist that nudges you between the lines if you stray beyond your lane — in the appropriate setting you could drive for miles like this, though the steering wheel's sensors here detect your hands’ absence and beep when they do — a system that checks via sensors for gaps and changes lanes for you, and radar cruise control.
The cabin is familiar E-Class, with digital instruments and a central infotainment screen that occupy one long piece, a very good head-up display, silver trim finishes, Burmester speakers, good-grade leather and suede materials and ambient night lighting. Superb.
Rear seat space is fine for two adults, while the cargo space ranges from 670 litres to 1820L with the rear 40:20:40 seats folded flat (via switches in the cargo area). There are also clever loading rails to hold you gear in place and a sliding cargo rail. Benz loaded up some skis and even an old plane propellor shaft through the ski port easily.
The only downer is the lack of a proper spare wheel under the floor.
On first impression, then, the E-Class All-Terrain is really quite impressive. It’s capable and reassuring on slippery surfaces, looks glamorous, and is a remarkably comfortable and intuitive technological powerhouse.
Then again, just like the Audi A6 allroad, it won’t be cheap — a projected price around $110,000 is $20,000 more than a diesel Mercedes-Benz GLE — and the 220d engine should have more poke.
But we’re grasping at straws to find any real deal-breakers for those drawn to this market niche and who are aware of the trade-offs. And moreover, it'll serve prospective E-Class Estate buyers well.
That Audi comparison awaits.