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.
1999 Mercedes-Benz E Class
New engine improves responsiveness
I test drove the E320 wagon, which is equipped with the new 221-horsepower 3.2-liter V-6 engine. This motor uses a unique three-valve twin spark plug design and is more powerful, more responsive and more fuel-efficient than the inline six in the previous E320 wagon. The new wagon sprints from 0 to 60 mph in eight seconds, but more importantly it has 85 percent of its peak torque of 232 foot-pounds available at 2,000 rpm. The engine works smoothly and is teamed with the "smart" electronic five-speed automatic transmission, which automatically adapts to each individual driving style. That is a feature I really like. When I want to drive aggressively, the transmission holds its gears longer, allowing quicker acceleration.
In 1997 I tested the E-Class sedan on a racetrack in France for the European selection of Auto One. That is the annual vote that determines the best European car. The event is organized by 10 car magazines from 10 European countries. The jury also includes Formula One drivers, who test the car at the racetrack. There is a technical jury that scrutinizes all finalists, while the final group of voters includes the editors in chief of the various magazines.
At the track, the E-Class sedan impressed us all due to the car's excellent driving capabilities. The wagon is not any different. The E-Class sticks to the road and feels strong and stable. It obeys driver’s orders immediately, eagerly turning into corners. Those are some of the reasons why driving this wagon is so much fun. And in the case of the E-Class, it’s also safe. Absent error, quick driving will not get operators into trouble easily. Drivers are warned by the feeling of a little oversteer (the car starts reacting in its rear) and, if they reduce the pressure on the throttle, they won’t lose control.
Safety saves the day
Mercedes E320 wagon 1
The sophisticated braking and steering on the car combines anti-lock brakes with a Brake-Assist feature that detects a panic stop and applies full-force braking faster than a human can. Those are added to the previously mentioned traction control. Combine the three, and you can see why the E320 is safe under almost any driving circumstance.
The car also has plenty of passive safety features, including driver- and passenger-side airbags, door-mounted side airbags, plus a BabySmart child seat recognition system and the availability of seven three-point safety belts.
In the United States, a Mercedes wagon is so rare in some parts of the country it might even cause a few heads to turn. And now that Mercedes has its own sport-utility, that vehicle has undoubtedly become more appealing to most North American buyers than the E320 wagon. In Europe, however, where as many as 22.5 percent of the cars in the compact class were wagons last year, it’s doubtful anyone would pay extra attention to the E320. Owning a car like this is simply regarded as a wise investment, rather than an interesting relic from the pre-minivan era.