Antique dealers are a canny bunch. The one thing they hate more than spending money, is losing it. So when it comes to buying a car to transport their Chippendale, they’re particularly fussy about who gets to bid for their business.
Volvo was always the default choice, but these days there’s something so much more Lovejoy about the antiques world, making image just as important as capacity. Although it’ll be a few years before the new E-Class estate filters down into cheap-as-chips territory, the E320 CDI of our test is set to be the ‘must have’ model.
Gone is much of the slab-sided look of the previous generation E-Class. The tailgate is less abrupt, and the window line towards the rear is curved to soften the remaining boxiness. The quad-headlamp set up remains, although the front is now far less upright and the wings have a definite taper towards the front. It’s a more contemporary look, with less of a surprise on its face.
The scalloped doors have a weighty feel to them, and shut with a mechanical click-clunk that’s more interesting than the rubber-insulated thump of most cars. The rear tailgate retains its soft-close feature, and opening the tailgate banishes the electrically-operated luggage blind to the top of the boot aperture, lowering again automatically when the tailgate is closed. There are also no hydraulic struts to get in the way, and the hinge mechanism incorporates a system to stop the tailgate rising too far too quickly and striking the ceiling in a low multi-story car park. Electric operation for the tailgate, a la Honda Accord Tourer, is available as an option.
The rear seats are easy to fold flat, although the heavy luggage blind fitted to the seat backs can make the task more fiddly than necessary. The seat bases flip up on hinges, or can be removed entirely, and once all seat origami is complete the cargo floor is almost completely flat. The sides of the cargo area feature clips to keep the rear seat belts out of the way, as well as the full complement of tie-down hooks and power sockets. A range of optional features, dubbed Easy-Pack, are available, including a powered load-bay floor that extends out of the vehicle at the press of a button, and rails set into the floor to accommodate multi-adjustable points to secure odd-shaped loads. As far as antique-swallowing capacity is concerned, it’s an impressive 1,950 litres (VDA).
The front seats are electrically adjustable in more directions than you’ll ever need and, combined with the reach-and-rake adjustable chunky steering wheel, it’s easy to find a comfortable position. The high transmission tunnel promotes a cosy rather than claustrophobic feel and the central armrest forms a natural and comfortable place to relax against. As you’d expect, it’s a comfortable place to spend time.
This latest iteration of the E-Class estate marks Mercedes’ most technologically-laden model yet. It’s packed full of jauntily-spelt technical terms such as COMAND and ASSYST and enough silicon chippery to make you feel you’re piloting a PC with wheels and an engine attached.
The instruments are clear and classy, with segmented bar graphs for the fuel level and temperature gauges, and a floating speedo needle adding interest. In the centre of the speedo, a small screen relays information from the sat nav, stereo and various trip functions. The steering wheel-mounted buttons cycle through ‘pages’ of information, within which a further series of options exist, accessible through another set of buttons.
This system is also used to configure some of the car’s more intelligent features – whether the door mirrors retract automatically when the car is locked, whether the headlights illuminate to help you find the car in a car park, the brightness of the interior ambient lighting, and so on – but it’s a process best performed at your dealer and then left well alone.
The trademark single column stalk controls wipers, indicators and main-beam through a range of pushing, twisting and levering as before, but now also incorporates a lane-change feature that flashes the indicator three times if you push the stalk in one direction briefly. It’s a good idea, although the stalk requires so much force to cancel an indication to, say, turn right, that you find yourself indicating left as the stalk springs away from you in the opposite direction.
It’s difficult to know where to peg the Merc’s interior. It’s a comfortable place to be, but the switchgear still feels behind the competition. Mercedes engineers would do well to spend 10 minutes with a notebook inside any Lexus or even Honda.
Where the E320 CDI does excel, though, is in the engine room. The 3.2-litre straight six diesel is a fine engine. Although a little reminiscent of a Stuttgart taxi on start-up, it soon settles down into a gentle thrum. It’s also house-tuggingly torquey (500Nm between 1800 – 2600 rpm) and offers quite explosive off-the-line pull. The five-speed automatic isn’t fully au fai with the engine’s low-revving characteristics, and will often hold on to a ratio when changing up would have yielded better acceleration, but otherwise it remains smooth and decisive. The Tipfunction is wonderfully intuitive and is activated by moving the transmission lever to the left to change down and right to change up.
It’s the engine’s huge wave of torque that’s responsible for the 0-62mph time of 8.2 seconds, and no doubt helps the 204 broken horses to propel you and your antique writing desk up to the 145mph top speed. While combined fuel economy is published at 38.7mpg, the addiction of lunging off the line in such a composed package means you’ll be more likely to see 28mpg. Still, let’s be realistic here: 2,460kg takes more than a puff of wind to hustle along.
And hustle it can. The estate models are fitted with self-levelling air suspension at the rear and, while all-round air suspension is available, the front otherwise makes do with steel springs and dampers. While door-handle-scraping cornering isn’t strictly speaking the Mercedes style, grip is good and the body well controlled. There’s still some initial stodginess, but there’s no reason why enthusiastic drivers can’t make good progress. Ride quality is as it should be, seemingly adopting that usual Mercedes trait of smothering the bumps into submission, and tyre and road noise are both well suppressed.
The steering, however, with ‘Parameter’ variable power assistance as standard on the E320 CDI, can feel both too light at low speeds and too heavy during enthusiastic cornering.
Mercedes’ electro-hydraulic braking system, Sensotronic Brake Control (SBC), is fitted as standard, and ensures maximum braking efficiency is available when you need it. Should the system detect that the driver has pressed the brake pedal in a manner consistent with trying to avoid an accident (a.k.a. panic), the system will apply the maximum safe braking force to each wheel to stop the car as quickly as possible. The system also gently applies the brakes occasionally when driving on a wet motorway, to ensure the brakes are dry should the driver need them in an emergency.
One aspect we couldn’t get used to, however, was the system’s automatic application of the brakes in stop-start traffic. It’s designed to make crawling easier, but in reality we found it too rough on passenger comfort. We also found it difficult to bring the car to a stop smoothly at times; the brakes have to not only slow the vehicle, but also overcome the huge torque of the diesel engine, and this often results in a jolt that potential chauffeurs will have to work hard to eliminate. That said, the brakes are supremely powerful and fade-free.
The E320 CDI Estate starts at £36,365 for the Elegance model (there’s no Classic E320 CDI), £2,000 more than the new BMW 530d SE Touring and £5,000 more than the admittedly smaller-engined Audi A6 Avant 2.5 TDI Quattro SE. Options are expensive, too, and our test car came out at just under £40,000 with its optional COMAND system, 6-disc changer, memory seats, rear-facing child seats, leather, and Parktronic parking radar. Residual values are among in the best in the business, though, and low-mileage examples in good colours with a useful specification can retain up to 60% of their value after three years.
Of course there’s one thing the Mercedes has that its rivals never will: the badge. And to some people, that’s worth the price of admission alone.
A fantastic engine, good practicality, and solid residuals. It’s an accomplished mile-muncher, too. However, Mercedes still don’t make ’em like they used to, and there are some ergonomic frustrations.