By Cheryl Jensen, Special to Tribune Newspapers
July 1, 2010
It is not often one gets to drive a species that — at least in the U.S. — is endangered. But I am. It is a station wagon, a segment that is being virtually wiped out by sport-utility vehicles and crossover car-like SUVs.
Just recently Volvo, once synonymous with the station wagon, and BMW announced they were ending U.S. sales of their larger station wagons, the V70 and 5-Series respectively, due to lagging sales.
Yet, Mercedes-Benz with its new 2011 E350 wagon is involved in a one-company wagon preservation effort. After a week and several hundred thoroughly pleasant driving miles, I applaud the effort, although conservation doesn't come cheap.
The E350 is the only station wagon Mercedes sells in the U.S. and all are equipped with Mercedes' 4Matic all-wheel-drive system.
On a six-hour roundtrip on two-lane country roads from my home in northern New Hampshire to Gray, Maine, I have never felt more protected. The base price of this vehicle is $57,075 (including $875 destination charge). For that I get a rearview camera to keep me from possibly backing into the black bear that recently upended our composter. I have all the basic safety equipment, such as electronic stability control and anti-lock brakes plus more exotic technology.
Should I hit a moose on Route 302, I would be protected by Pre-Safe, which can sense and take protective measures before a crash such as closing the sunroof and side windows, by nine airbags (including a driver's knee airbag and pelvic airbags), and by active head restraints to help protect against whiplash. The "mbrace" emergency calling system would connect me with someone who would send emergency assistance if I needed it. Should I get drowsy, Attention Assist would supposedly identify my erratic steering, trigger an audible warning and light up a "Time for a Rest?" message and coffee cup icon on the instrument panel.
All this technology doesn't make me completely invulnerable, since I don't have optional equipment such as Lane Keeping Assist or Blind Spot Assist.
Still, I'm willing to chance it since I'm comfortably ensconced with tons of standard features such as leather seats, sunroof, dual-zone climate control, 14-way power front seats and Bluetooth for hands-free calling. On top of that I have a $3,500 package with rear side window sunshades, iPod/MP3 interface, satellite radio, Harmon Kardon sound system, and heated front seats.
The E350 comes in Sport and Luxury models. My Sport model has a slightly lower suspension and front and rear bumpers that look sportier and more aggressive than those on the Luxury model. It has a wheel package ($760) with 18-inch wheels. A few other optional features bring my cocoon-on-wheels to $62,715.
The 7-speed automatic transmission makes it seem as if the 3.5-liter V-6 engine has much more than 268 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque. Those who want a sportier driving experience on twisty roads can choose their own gear using paddles on the steering wheel. In fact, someone forgot to tell this wagon that it's not a sport sedan. Most people wouldn't realize it could be hustled down a two-lane road as quickly as it can. The 4Matic gets an estimated 16 miles per gallon in the city and 23 on the highway.
The E350 can seat five or seven. Although it doesn't look it, even someone 6 feet 4 inches tall has enough legroom in the second row. The seats are 60/40 split and fold down for additional cargo space.
If you need to transport two additional children there is a standard third-row, rear-facing seat that pulls up from the floor of the luggage compartment. But the whole arrangement is so cramped I can't imagine many children wanting to sit back there once the novelty of riding backwards wears off.
Although it has a rather considerable price tag, the E350 delivers a polished ride, surprisingly sporty driving and what appears to be an extraordinarily safe way to get around.
Contact Cheryl Jensen at
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