Load-lugger It is hardly the most glamorous profession in the automobile world. And essentially this is what the Mercedes-Benz E-class estate is. But it is to high-capacity estates what Louis Vuitton is to shopping bags.
To ensure the car retains the top spot as the world's most upmarket estate, Mercedes-Benz is keen to emphasise a number of key areas – it claims the highest load volume, class-leading flexibility, technological specification that few can match and enough panache to keep its rivals chasing.
Many fleets already know what happens at the front half of an E-class, but it is from the B-pillar back that most of the effort has been focused for this model. The estate is 32mm longer than the saloon at 4,850mm, due to the increased overhang, although the wheelbase remains the same. It is also 11mm longer and 23mm wider than its predecessor, which has sold more than 266,000 units worldwide since 1996. But use of space is where the E-class is outstanding. With the second row of seats in place, there is 690 litres of space, which with a bit of pushing and pulling can be increased to a 1,950 litres, matching the volume of leaders in the mini-MPV sector. Payload capacity is 575kg.
The estate might not look particularly exciting - as a result of its high volume it is no trendy sports/lifestyle crossover - but it is no shed tacked on the back of a saloon either.
The rear side window is swept low, although the rear pillar is more upright. Its large dimensions have been neatly hidden by tidy design from the C-pillar back and are in keeping with the theme of the rest of the car.
To take advantage of the potential capacity, the E-class has a set of rear seats that fold flat – the backrests fold into the floor while the squab can be hinged up against the front seats in a similar way to most Volkswagens, or can easily be taken out altogether for even more room.
The rear headrests do not need to be taken out, as is often the case with these systems, because they are automatically folded and lowered into the seat backs. That creates a 2m-long load area. A display on the instrument panel informs that the seats have been moved, and an acoustic signal sounds when everything has been locked in its original position. For really long loads of up to three metres, the front passenger seatback can be folded flat, although this is an optional extra. The flexibility of the E-class is impressive.
But there's more. The Easy Pack option adds some extra practicality to the car, with a hydraulically-operated load floor compartment. Press a button and the floor rises and floats 40cms out of the cargo bay to allow heavy goods to be plonked on, and then swallowed without effort.
In the higher-end models, the E-class loses the spare wheel but gains a compartmentalised tray. Consequently, the estate comes with a tyre sealant kit instead of a spare. There is also a stowage compartment running behind the rear seats. For approximately £150, owners can opt for the Fixkit system that is designed to add extra space and includes a number of cunning gizmos to stop shopping careering around the boot as you drive.
There are two runners, one on each side of the bay, with aluminium stoppers and eyelets that twist in and out with the requisite German efficiency, bars that can separate off areas of the boot, and a movable nylon belt that can be used to pin objects against the side of the cargo bay. It is all very cleverly done, in high-quality, robust materials.
To add to its heavy load-carrying ability, all E-class estates come with self-levelling rear suspension, while the all-round Airmatic DC air suspension is available as an option. Another cunning standard feature is the drive-by-wire Sensotronic brakes, which come with Brake Assist and Tailback Assist. This new feature can be activated by the cruise control in stop/start traffic at speeds below 40mph. The car automatically brakes when the driver lifts off the accelerator to bring the car to a smooth halt.
All cars are likely to come with climate control, six airbags, stability and traction controls and alloy wheels. As for engines, most of the usual suspects from the Mercedes stable are here. There are three petrol units, a 163bhp 1.8-litre Kompressor, 177bhp 2.4-litre and 224bhp 3.2-litre V6 unit, but the diesel engines are where most buyers will head. There is the four-cylinder 150bhp 220CDI, the five-cylinder 177bhp 270CDI, and the inline six-cylinder 204bhp 320CDI.
All cars come with a five-speed automatic, and all except the 320CDI come with the option of a six-speed manual.
Behind the wheel
It is no surprise to find that from the driver's seat everything is as much as expected with any E-class, and despite the extra weight of the estate, it drives much as the saloons do.
The estate feels more compact than it is and the car will heave through bends flat, fast and with little fuss. For such a large and heavy car, it shows remarkable poise. It has a near-perfect driving position, wonderfully tactile switches, buttons and materials that signal Mercedes is back to its best after some wobbly efforts in the ML and C-class.
The petrol engines are all fine and deliver exactly what you would expect, although the E200K is a little under-powered, but from a fleet point of view, the diesels are the only way to go.
Taking top billing, not surprisingly, is the diesel-engined 320CDI. With 369lb-ft of torque from as low as 1,800rpm, it pulls like a bull in a bad mood, and just keep flinging itself forward. But it is all done with remarkably little fuss, seamlessly nipping through the auto gearbox.
The six cylinders ensure smoothness that at motorway speeds makes this as quiet a cruiser as you could want.
There is also very little noise in the five-cylinder E270 CDI, even under heavy acceleration, although the engine note is a little choppier, as you might expect. But it is still a fine engine.
The E220 CDI is less refined than the other two. Although there is little noticeable performance difference between the E270 and this on the road, with a heavy load on board the larger units will hold sway.
The E-class estate, like its saloon brother, is the best in its class - best build, great engines, stylish looks and class oozing from every panel gap. Top quality in virtually every respect, with no compromises on load-carrying ability.
|Mercedes-Benz E-class estate|
|E200K||E240 auto||E320 auto||E220 CDI||E270 CDI||E320 CDI|
|Max power (bhp/rpm):||163/5,500||177/5,700||224/5,600||150/4,200||177/4,200||204/4,200|
|Max torque (lb-ft/rpm):||177/3,000||177/4,500||232/3,000||251/2,000||295/1,800||369/1,800|
|Max speed (mph):||137 (auto: 135)||137||145||129 (128)||139 (137)||145|
|0-62mph (secs):||10.1 (10.6)||10.1||8.5||10.6 (11.1)||9.3 (9.3)||8.2|
|Fuel consumption (mpg):||31.0 (30.0)||26.0||26.6||40.9 (39.8)||39.8 (39.2)||38.7|
|CO2 emissions (g/km):||218 (225)||262||252||183 (188)||188 (193)||194|
|Transmission:||6-sp man/5-sp auto|
|Prices (est):||£27,600 - £36,500|