The 2011 Mercedes-Benz E-Class wagon will go down in history as one of my family's favorite test cars ever. Sure, it drives incredibly well, has all the ooh-la-la extras you'd want in a $70,000 Benz, but even more importantly, it sports one of the best automotive inventions for families of all times: the rear-facing jump seat. Oh, did I mention it has all-wheel drive?
The E350 wagon is a full-sized station wagon like the ones many of us grew up riding in during the '70s, but it's been whisked into the 21st century with its modern styling and amenities.
Driving the E350 wagon was a pleasure with its 3.5-liter V-6 engine and standard all-wheel drive. It's no tiny urban eco-car, but it drives much smaller than it looks. Tight parking spaces were a cinch with its small 36.9-foot turning radius. The ride was smooth enough to cancel out rough roads. It was comfortable enough for daily driving or longer road trips while maintaining a responsive feel that wasn't too floaty.
The E-Class is also available as a sedan, coupe and Cabriolet. The E50 wagon has a starting MSRP of $56,200. My test car cost $70,485.
The E350 wagon seems to alternate between looking like a retro station wagon from my youth and a pimped-out swagger wagon. Sorry, Toyota, but the term swagger wagon fits this German Benz much better than your Japanese minivan.
From the side, the old-school wagon inspiration is apparent with the E350 wagon's grandiose cargo area that looks like the large posterior segment of an ant's exoskeleton. There you have it, people — I am in fact using my zoology degree.
Then your eye carries you to the sporty rear spoiler and roof-mounted antenna, and you see more "rapper chic" than creepy insect. The 268-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 engine is paired with a seven-speed automatic transmission, and it gets an EPA-estimated 16/23 mpg city/highway that will carry you to the recording studio, the carpool lane or the ant farm.
This is a low-to-the-ground wagon, so people of all sizes will be able to climb in and out of it easily due to its low ground clearance and reachable door handles.
A power liftgate is standard, and as expected, the cargo area is expansive. When the rear-facing jump seat is folded flat into the cargo floor, the wagon is ready for anything you can throw at it. With the jump seat up, there's obviously less overall cargo space, but there's some extra space for a couple of grocery bags under the load floor where a kid's feet would normally rest when buckled into the jump seat.
SENSE AND STYLE
Family Friendly (Not Really, Fair, Great, Excellent): Excellent
Fun-Factor (None, Some, Good Times, Groove-On): Good Times
The E350 wagon's interior is where this Benz makes its case to be your new family car.
The rear-facing jump seat was the most fun my kids have had in a car in forever. They loved that we had space to pick up a friend for a last-minute sleepover when typically the "we don't have enough space in our car" excuse precludes such fun endeavors. All three of my kids plus our weekend plus-one spent a fair amount of time arguing over who would sit in the back. Finally, they worked out a rotation system to keep it fair.
The jump seat fits two small-sized children in seat belts; most teenagers won't have enough headroom to fit back there. My kids often complained of overheating in the way back, though. There are no air vents in the jump seat area and all the windows made for a hot ride during the scorching summer months.
Not all the fun is reserved for the lucky two that get to sit in the way back. The second row in my test car featured an optional rear entertainment system ($1,910), with two screens mounted on the back of the front head restraints and wireless headphones. While this feature may work for some families, my family now skips these systems in favor of our iPad on road trips. The kids can easily operate the iPad and toggle between movies, books and games.
The second row also has enough legroom to accommodate both kids' legs and their backpacks. That's no small feat in today's world. There's also a fold-down armrest in the second row with two cupholders plus a storage cubby. Two huge sunshade-covered panoramic sunroofs in the E-Class kept the cabin light and airy, while manually operated sunshades on the second-row windows kept the direct sun off my little ones.
In the front row, my test car had the optional Drive-Dynamic Multicontour driver's seat with massage ($660). This is worth every penny just for the massage feature. With two drivers of drastically different sizes (I'm 5 feet 3 inches tall and my husband is 6 feet 2 inches), the 14-way power-adjustable driver's seat allowed both of us to get a customized fit. This seat's active bolsters also hold the driver in place when cornering.
The optional heated and active ventilated front seats ($450) were a disappointment when it came to the ventilated part. The seats took a long time to cool down. Even then, the pleasant breeze normally associated with ventilated seats was so gentle it was almost unnoticeable.
The center stack features Mercedes-Benz's Comand multimedia system with its huge 7-inch screen. Someone buying this seven-seater will eventually figure out how to navigate through the screens and menus, but for the one week I was in the E-Class, I found this system to be more complicated than I'd like. For me, the pure definition of luxury is cleanliness and simplicity, and the E-Class' Comand system could definitely use some simplifying.
IT'S THE LITTLE THINGS THAT COUNT
Storage Compartments (Puny, Fair, Ample, Galore): Ample
Cargo/Trunk Space (Puny, Fair, Ample, Galore): Galore
The Mercedes-Benz E350 wagon has some of the best Latch anchors tested to date. The two sets of lower anchors are housed behind flexible rubber gaskets in the seat bight, where the back and bottom cushions meet. To access the lower Latch anchors, you simply push in the rubber gasket. Voila: a Latch anchor for installing a rear-facing infant-safety seat, convertible seat or Latch-connected booster seat.
For bigger kids in booster seats, both parents and kids alike will appreciate that the wagon's seat belt buckles. They're on stable bases, making it easy for kids to buckle up independently. There's also enough seat width in the second row that wider boosters fit without riding over the buckle.
While I loved the rear-facing jump seat in the E350 wagon, I don't love that its side curtain airbags only extend to the second row rather than all the way back to the jump seat. The E350 wagon has nine airbags standard, including a driver's knee airbag.
The E350 has a standard backup camera, though it takes a couple of seconds for it to engage after the car is put in Reverse. I often started to back up without the camera working, rendering it useless.
The E350 wagon also has standard all-wheel drive, all-disc antilock brakes with brake assist, an electronic stability system, traction control, active front head restraints and Attention Assist, which monitors the driver's drowsiness.
Optional safety features include side-impact airbags for the second row, blind spot and lane departure warning systems, collision detection with automatic braking and night vision with pedestrian detection.
Photo Courtesy of Ian Merritt, MotherProof.com
Photo Courtesy of Ian Merritt, MotherProof.com