Subaru started it. For the 1994 model year, they jacked up the Legacy wagon, tacked some plastic cladding around the wheel wells and bumpers and called it the Outback.
Pundits like yours truly laughed and all but wrote it off as a silly exercise. Wrong again! The Outback became the most popular model in the Subaru lineup.
Volvo applied the process (jack it up, tack on plastic, etc.) with the 1998 V70 XC (Cross Country). Audi’s marketing department followed with the A6 Avant allroad in 1999.
2021 Mercedes-Benz E450 All-Terrain is a bit late to the jack-it-up, tack-on-cladding party
Mercedes-Benz may be a little late to this weird party, but the 2021 E450 4Matic All-Terrain wagon fits the bill perfectly – a great wagon with a raised suspension and some unique styling touches.
You can’t blame a company for this approach. Amid the rush to SUVs and crossovers, wagons have fallen from favour.
Europeans still love them for their practicality and car-like driving dynamics. But that giant American market wanted something taller and more rugged looking, with off-road pretensions. I say pretensions because research has shown few if any of this new breed of vehicle ever ventures further off-road than a dirt path to the summer place.
Thus Audi, Volvo and Mercedes-Benz, who all still produce wagons, now make a version they hope will appeal to consumers leaning toward a crossover.
Mercedes used the mid-cycle makeover of the E-Class to introduce the All-Terrain.
For the 2021 model year, the E-class got a fresh new look and a new drivetrain. The grill, bumpers, head and taillights are new along with updates to the infotainment system and various safety features. The All-Terrain gets some extra chrome and plastic along with a three-centimetre increase in ride height and a new hood with a pair of faux power bulges. The cosmetic touches are minor.
The mechanical updates are major!
The twin-turbo V6 used previously has been replaced by a turbocharged in-line six-cylinder engine with a 48-volt electric hybrid system sandwiched between engine and transmission.
The new engine produces the same amount of power as the outgoing version (362 horsepower and 369 lb. ft. of torque) but the addition of the electric starter/generator puts an extra 21 horses in the corral.
Throttle response is a little soft in comfort mode but wakes up nicely in Sport or Sport Plus. The result is an impressive five second sprint to 100 km/hr and better fuel economy than the V6. I easily managed 7.5-7.6 km/100 litres on the highway, numbers I normally associate with much smaller and less powerful vehicles.
The high-tech 48-volt hybrid system shuts the engine off when you are coasting to a stop, instantly firing it up again when you resume.
The integrated starter/generator, paired with a lithium-ion battery supplies power for the water pump and a/c compressor, tasks normally handled by engine-driven belts.
As you’d expect from Mercedes-Benz, the transformation from wagon to a taller wagon was accompanied by some serious engineering.
The All-Terrain gets an air spring at each corner and 19- or 20-inch wheels vs 18 or 19 on the regular wagon. The suspension can be raised for those treks into the unknown, but lowers automatically when you engage ‘sport’ or ‘sport plus’ via the console-mounted switch.
The ride quality Is impressive and would be even more so on the standard 19-inch tires.
The minimal sidewalls on the optional 20-inch rubber left little room for absorbing sharp-edge road blemishes. Handling is equally impressive. Throw this 4,800-pound wagon into an off-ramp or in the twisties and there is no sense of the added height.
The interior is nothing less than gorgeous with slashes of wood trim complimented by adjustable ambient light.
The instrument panel and infotainment screens are each 30 centimetres wide and independently configurable.
The resulting 60-cm display has to be seen and experienced to be fully appreciated. Controls consist of a console-mounted track pad, tiny little units on the steering wheel and the ability to use Siri or Alexa-like voice commands prefaced by “Hey, Mercedes”.
The well-optioned tester had a host of unique features including heated armrests, AWESOME multi-beam LED headlights, studio quality sound from a Burmester audio system, and an augmented-reality navigation that displayed a high-res picture of the scene in front when approaching a turn or intersection.
The front seats are adjustable in more ways than I was able to sample during 10 days and more than 1,500 kilometres of driving.
They were supremely comfortable and supportive at all times, even during uninterrupted five-hour sessions.
Strangely for a $90,000 vehicle, they were heated but not ventilated. The second row seats are far from second class in terms of comfort or space and a slick little rear-facing third row provides room for two small people or occasional use. Without that little seat in use, there is a very large cargo area under a rolling cover.
There is no provision however for storing the cover when the third seat is in use.
The tester featured a vast array of active and passive safety features, some of which were a little nanny-like for me, but undoubtedly safe. There is not enough time or space to get into all the details, so please see below under the ‘Significant Options’ heading.
When using cruise control, Active Speed Limit Assist system can be set to detect speed-limit signs and automatically adjust vehicle speed accordingly. Evasive steering assist is activated when the driver initiates an evasive manoeuvre. When sensors detect the likelihood of a collision with a pedestrian, a calculated amount of steering assist is provided, and helps bring the vehicle back into the intended path after the threat is removed.
PRE-SAFE Impulse Side inflates the side bolsters in the front seats when an impending side impact is detected, moving the occupant away from the door.
The navigation and driver assistance systems can utilize the information in the map database to automatically slow the vehicle when approaching turns, tollbooths or traffic circles, and resume the set speed.
Despite the cosmetics, the 2021 Mercedes-Benz E450 All-terrain is all wagon and all the good that favours wagons over crossovers – superior driving dynamics with no loss in all-season traction and cargo or people capacity.
FACTS & FIGURES – 2021 Mercedes-Benz E450 4Matic All-Terrain wagon
As tested: $94,100 plus freight
Hyacinth red metallic paint, $1,400; 20-in bicolour alloy wheels, $1,250; premium package, $3,400 (includes: 360-degree camera, Burmester Surround Sound system, foot activated tailgate release, heated rear seats, Keyless go, enhanced heated front seats, heated front armrests); technology package, $,2,400 (includes Multibeam LED lighting system, adaptive high beam plus, heads-up display and MBUX exterior assistant); intelligent drive package, $3,000 (includes active distance assist, active steering assist, evasive steering assist, active blind spot assist, active lane keeping assist, active lane change assist, active brake assist with cross-traffic function, congestion emergency braking, active emergency stop, pre-safe impulse side, Pre-safe plus, route based speed adaptation, active stop and go assist, active speed limit assist, enhances stop and go); design piano black trim, $1,000; dash cam, $300; tire pressure monitoring system, $450.
Turbocharged 3.0-litre inline six cylinder, 362-horsepower, 369 lb.ft. of torque; premium fuel, nine-speed automatic transmission, all-wheel-drive, NRCan rating (litres/100km city/highway): 10.6/8.4
Length, 4,947-mm; width, 1,872-mm; wheelbase, 2,939-mm; weight, 2,055-kg
Audi A6 allroad, Volvo V60 Cross Country