It seems the once staple of family motoring, the humble station wagon, is splitting into two unique streams.
On the other side, where curiosity and adventure rule the roost, are the crossovers.
For the most part, though, it looks to be a case of one or the other, as most manufacturers don’t seem to focus on the middle ground. There’s no Liberty wagon, Audi has dropped the A6 Avant, the Volvo V90 has been delayed, and for the first time since the arrival of the W123, Mercedes-Benz will not offer a ‘regular’ E-Class Estate.
That's right, for three-pointed star buyers, it’s All-Terrain or nothing.
What’s more, the crossover E-Estate is offered in just one variant: the $109,000 (before options and on-road costs) E220d 4Matic.
This puts the new 143kW/400Nm 2.0-litre turbodiesel under the bonnet, and Benz’s constant AWD system and nine-speed 9G-Tronic automatic at the helm. And, you know what? In a world of almost infinite choice, a ‘this or nothing’ approach to the load-lugging E works pretty well.
As cool as the six-cylinder twin-turbo E400 option was in the previous generation E-Class wagon, most buyers went for the $107,900 E250 diesel, so the engine choice in the All-Terrain makes sense.
And given that over 2700 GLE SUVs were sold in 2016, against just 130-odd E-Class estates, makes the skew toward an all-terrain All-Terrain just that little bit more sensible for today’s SUV-centric market.
But, fear not, wagon fans, as the crossover All-Terrain manages the best of both worlds role as well as any, and in some ways might be a better family wagon than the actual family wagon.
As a large car, the E-Class Estate has a substantial footprint. At 4987mm long, it is 128mm longer than the GLE SUV - and it has 24mm of that between the wheels.
It’s a handsome shape, with some familiar design cues from the C-Class Estate and even the CLS Shooting Brake working their way into the final sheet metal. That tapered D-Pillar base is becoming a bit of a Benz signature.
Part of the crossover brief requires black plastic wheel arch cladding, which helps balance the overall design and gives the All-Terrain a robust stance, even with the extra 29mm in height over a regular E-Class.
This comes both from the taller tyres (275/45/20 rear and 245/35/20 front) on large (standard) 20-inch wheels, as well as the multi-chamber ‘Body Control’ air suspension.
With the air system, the E-Class can adjust its ride through 35mm of movement, offering ground clearance between 121 and 156mm. That’s not overly tall, meaning that the wagon-like dynamics can be maintained, but also keeps off-road adventures within the softer realm.
A further benefit of the air suspension is the ability to manage the ride height even with a load on board, so you can feel free to fill up that cavernous boot space.
At 640 litres, the regular boot (behind a powered tailgate with a hands-free kicker as standard) is a class-leading size, eclipsing the 560 litres of the Volvo V90 Cross Country and 565 litres in the Audi A6 Allroad.
The parcel blind lifts up when the boot opens and the removable cassette includes a barrier net to keep all your luggage where it should be.
Flip the 40:20:40 seats, with remote release, and space expands to 1820 litres. You even get a 1x1-metre load area on the main boot floor for larger items.
But sadly, the space under the boot floor hides a little extra room, the now common Mercedes market crate and high-visibility vests, and nothing else. No spare wheel (one can be optioned that sits on top of the boot floor), and more crucially, no rear-facing jump seats.
Yes, a hallmark of large Mercedes wagons dating back to the W123 of the late 1970s, a pair of rear-facing, fold-out dickie seats is not available on the E-Class All-Terrain, even as an option.
That means a whole new generation of children won't experience the joys of pulling faces and giving 'hand signals' to the cars following, with mum and dad blissfully unaware of why the angry man behind keeps tooting…
As a strictly five-seater option then, rear space is good, although the bench feels a little short under the thigh. Knee and headroom is impressive, even with the panoramic sunroof (part of the optional $4990 vision package), but toes can feel a bit tight.
I am tall, though, so children should be pretty cosy.
You can option a third climate-control zone to really spoil the kids, but the standard vents provide decent enough airflow. There’s a central armrest with a cubby and cup holders, plus a 12-volt accessory outlet but no USB points. There are two in the armrest between the front seats.
Up front, the now familiar W213 E-Class ‘Enterprise’ cockpit still impresses, with the pair of 12.3-inch wide-screen LCD display panels and steering wheel-mounted touch pads.
We continue to have no issue with glare or clarity of the screens, but the pads can be slow to react, especially if your thumb-tips are even slightly damp or greasy. It’s often easier to control the centre screen using the COMAND wheel, and just leave the driver display to a set preference.
All the latest Mercedes-Benz driver assistance, safety and infotainment goodies are fitted as standard, including adaptive cruise control with lane-keeping function, automatic braking, nine airbags, DAB digital radio and the impressive 360-degree camera system.
As it is, the All-Terrain is so well-featured in standard trim, the only option worth considering is the Vision pack. There are eleven exterior and three interior colour options, with the metallic attracting a $1990 premium and the ‘designio’ hues (which includes the lovely Hyacinth Red) a $2990 option.
We’d stick with the nut-brown interior of our photographed car and choose maybe a simple polar white (no cost option) to balance the contrast of the wheel arches and glass roof panel.
So now we have the 'looking good' part sorted, how does it drive?
The 2.0-litre diesel offers peak power at 3800rpm and all 400Nm of torque between 1600 and 2800rpm, giving the All-Terrain decent performance away from the lights and enough mid-range response to build quickly up to touring speeds.
In-gear acceleration from 80-100km/h, for the all-important country-road overtaking manoeuvre, can test the range of the diesel, and while it doesn’t offer the silky smooth power of a six-cylinder, it does a good enough job.
It’s good for a 2100kg braked tow rating too, although, I wouldn't imagine the overtaking would go as well with a Jayco on the back.
Where the All-Terrain works best though, is at touring speeds where it will sit all day, both quietly and efficiently. Mercedes claim 5.7L/100km consumption for a combined cycle, and on our drive from Melbourne through the Kinglake National Park, over a mixture of sealed and unsealed roads saw consumption of around 7L/100km.
We'd suggest that an owner, in a more regular touring run, would come very close to the brand's claim.
Much of this efficiency can be attributed to the nine-speed gearbox, which tries to select as high a gear as possible to keep the diesel drinking to a minimum. Kicking down a ratio or two when making sharp throttle changes can take a moment, but the car reacts, performs the task required, and then settles back to ‘waggoning’ about.
You can choose from five drive modes, Comfort, Sport, Eco, Individual and All-Terrain. These all alter the throttle sensitivity, gear change timing, steering feel and traction control programming to suit. 'Individual' allows you to mix and match to your preference.
Each feels suitably different enough to warrant the program too, with All-Terrain automatically raising the car's suspension to the maximum level at speeds below 35km/h. The ESP calibration is adjusted for slippery or loose surfaces, and the car manages quite well even with a constant 45:55 front-to-rear torque split.
We took in a basic off-road trail, with some short climbs and slick ruts, and the wagon managed just fine.
Sure, it was the sort of terrain that a Land Rover Discovery would do backwards, blindfolded, at night, in a storm… but was at the boundary of the level where Mercedes would expect E-Class All-Terrain customers might realistically take their car.
That said, the car park at Hawthorn Coles can get pretty sketchy, so it was a fair test.
The standout behaviour of the Estate, though, is ride comfort and compliance.
While much of the hardware and implementation is the same as other E-Class sedan models, the All-Terrain seems to manage just that much better, thanks to its ever-so-slightly higher stance.
It may just be 29mm, less than 3cm, but it makes a huge difference, especially when driving in the default Comfort setting.
Where a regular E-Class sedan, like the E300 we drove recently, can sometimes feel under damped and even soft and slappy over harsher surface changes, that little bit of extra travel in the All-Terrain’s suspension helps take the worst of this away.
You’ll still feel bigger bumps and potholes but man-made edges like speed humps and railway crossings, that tend to make a standard E-Class bounce around, are softened and smoothed just enough to see the wagon maintain composure.
It’s the same way that I see the GLA as the pick of the A-Class derivative models, where the extra travel, however minor it might be, just takes the harshness out of the ride, especially in the AMG variants.
Where a regular E-Class feels most composed in Sport and is a little more firm because of it, the All-Terrain is excellent in Comfort, making it a much more mile-competent tourer than the sedan.
Plus it is worth calling out a car that doesn’t need any settings to be changed to exhibit its best performance.
As competent as it is though, there are a couple of areas where the All-Terrain left us scratching our heads.
It’s a minor thing, given most of these won't see anything steeper than a speed hump, but there is no hill-descent control function for managing speed down steeper terrain.
Even manually shifting to first gear with the steering-wheel paddles will see the wagon pick up the pace if you aren’t taking care with the brakes. Given the level of technology packed into the car, surely an HDC function, as an extra aid for those caught outside their comfort zone, would be a nice inclusion.
There is also a minor sense of irony when you consider that the All-Terrain might be the perfect answer for the weekend ski set, but you can’t actually fit chains to the standard 20-inch wheels.
You can elect a chain-friendly 19-inch option (245/45/19 all-around) as a no-cost option, but that won't look nearly as cool at school pickup, and, well, needing to switch wheels so that the car can go where it is marketed to do so just feels a little silly.
In the overall scheme of things, these are minor quibbles. When you step back and look at the E220d as a package, both in function and form, the All-Terrain is really an impressive machine.
It's just that when you put everything together, you can't help but feel the All-Terrain is a bit expensive.
Don’t get me wrong, I drink from the ‘specification is value’ Kool-Aid cup more than anyone. After all, when measured against the previous generation E250 Estate, which was $107,900 before on roads, the new car seems well-priced.
Even the $20,000-odd jump from a current GLE 250d can be rationalised by considering the high level of standard equipment bundled into the All-Terrain, notwithstanding the much newer and more advanced E-Class platform underneath.
The issue is not so much the premium competitors, but the premi-ish ones.
Is the All-Terrain twice the car the $54,990 Volkswagen Passat Alltrack is? How will a Skoda Superb Outdoor stack up? Not forgetting the Subaru Outback, which might not have the lustre and polish of the Mercedes, but for $45,240 it really doesn’t need to.
No, these are not traditional competitors, but they all do the same job, in well-equipped and efficient comfort. There's no argument the Benz is a lovely car and wants for nothing, but we can't help feel that it's a little pricey.
But Mercedes-Benz is aware the 2017 E-Class All-Terrain will be a niche product, appealing to a very specific buyer, although still answering the luxury and quality requirements so set by traditional E-Class Estate buyers.
It might not have the power and urgency of its right-brain brethren, but for adventurous left-side leaners and wagon fans alike, the All-Terrain crosses over just fine.
Listen to the CarAdvice team discuss the 2017 Mercedes-Benz E-Class All-Terrain below, and catch more like this at caradvice.com/podcast.
Click on the Photos tab for more images by James Ward.