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There is a huge difference between how station wagons are viewed in Europe as opposed to North America. In the United States and Canada, station wagons have practically vanished from the roads since minivans burst onto the scene in the early 1980s, followed by sport-utility vehicles and light trucks in the '90s.

Europe wants wagons

On the other side of the Atlantic, however, station wagons are not only popular, their market share is growing steadily. This is due in large part to several important factors. First of all, our roads are extremely crowded, parking spaces are tight, and fuel economy is a hot issue because of the higher fuel prices. In Europe, gas in diesel can cost about four times as much as it does in North America.

That’s why practically every manufacturer marketing cars on the Continent offers one or more station wagon versions - in both compact and midsize classes. In addition, the four major European luxury car manufacturers (BMW, Mercedes, Audi and Volvo) also offer more wagons.

One of these is the Mercedes-Benz E320 station wagon. Not long ago, I had the chance to sample the E320 and found it remarkably roomy.

The car seats five adults, and two children can be seated on the rear-facing standard foldable third bench seat. When the third row is folded down, the versatility of the station wagon becomes evident, as the flat luggage floor can accommodate nearly 44 cubic feet of cargo space. With the middle seat row folded forward, that space can be expanded even further, to 83 cubic feet. That is only 2.4 cubic feet less than the cargo space that is found in the entire Mercedes M-Class -- the American-built SUV - with all seats folded down!

The new Mercedes E320 wagon ($46,500) offers a new all-wheel-drive option ($2,750). This full-time system uses a 35/65 front-rear torque split and requires no intervention from the driver. Four-wheel traction control is used to distribute torque to individual wheels under slippery conditions. In case only one wheel has traction, the all-wheel-drive system can direct power to that wheel in order to help keep the car moving.

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