Mercedes Unveils Shapely New Station Wagons

Mercedes-Benz is about to unleash two shapely new models and they are guaranteed to create a stir. The E-Class station wagon joins the boldly styled sedan that made a strident debut last year. And Mercedes also has a new load-lugging version of its C-Class contender, to target buyers of more compact station wagons for the very first time.

The latter will be vying with Audi's handsome and effective A4 Avant, and also with BMW's 3-series Touring. This will leave the E-Class to slug it out with the A6 Avant and the forthcoming 5-series Touring.

There is a new station-wagon model to match every C-Class sedan in the range, and each is due to cost about $2,100 extra. These new station wagons easily square up to their direct rivals in the styling stakes, with their elegantly curved rear pillars giving them a streamlined look.

According to Mercedes-Benz, the C-Class station wagon's back seat storage area is the largest in the class, boasting a capacity of 415 liters (measured from floor up to the rear-window line). This can be increased to a useful 510 liters by taking advantage of the folding back seat.

But this car is not just about carrying cargo. It is also an effective passenger carrier. Legroom and headroom are more than generous, and although the seats are firm, they are also very comfortable.

As you would expect of any Mercedes-Benz product, everything you touch -- from bodywork trim to switchgear to cabin plastics -- is superbly put together, which allows totally refined, squeak-free progress. Controls at the facia are logically arranged, and the driving position would be faultless if it wasn't for the low-slung steering wheel, which, surprisingly for this day and age, is non-adjustable.

As expected of the Mercedes pedigree, the C230 exhibits road manners that are highly accomplished. Its 2.3-liter gasoline engine provides strong, smooth and refined performance, although it sounds a little strained when worked to its uppermost limit. Taut suspension ensures secure and rewarding handling, yet maintains silky-smooth and highly absorbent ride comfort.

Only the manual gearshift, with its awkward cruise control, comes as a let-down to an otherwise highly rounded package, but by the end of the summer -- at least in Britain -- a five-speed automatic transmission will be available as a very worthwhile option costing $2,175.

To coincide with the launch of this station wagon, the C-Class range is being given a new 2.5-liter turbodiesel engine -- one of the most powerful in its class -- to accompany Mercedes' naturally aspirated 2.2- and 2.5-liter oil burners. The existing diesel engines are enormously refined units with very acceptable power, but they have always begged turbocharging to bolster much-needed mid-range torque.

The prayers of many Mercedes diesel devotees are now being answered.

The new 2.5 turbodiesel is as free-revving and punchy as it is smooth and refined. This makes the station wagon a well-rounded and rewarding car to drive and, being a diesel, also very frugal.

But if you have real mountains to move, you will need to go instead for the new E-Class station wagon, which has greater carrying capacity. Its vast, practically shaped load area has a colossal 1,825-liter cargo capacity, and that's with the split-folding and removable rear seat in place.

It also boasts self-leveling rear suspension, so drivers who have complained about the sluggishness of some Mercedes station wagons in the past can now be assuaged.

Passenger space and production quality are, of course, excellent. Equipment levels are generous too, with side-impact air bags available on every model in the new station wagon range.

Power is provided by the new 2.3-liter engine shared with the C-Class, and the smaller 2-liter unit, which felt quite underpowered in the test car. When linked with an automatic gear shift, this 2-liter is unacceptably slow. Six-cylinder gasoline engines and a turbodiesel are in the pipeline, though, and are bound to be worth waiting for.

The E-Class is unfortunately also blighted by a clunkily-performing gear shift, and to compound matters it doesn't soak up road-bumps as well as its smaller relative.

Overall, though, it's a very refined long-distance vehicle. In the E-Class range, each station wagon costs $4,200 more than its sedan counterpart. But, with their impeccable quality, meticulous engineering and the cachet of the Mercedes-Benz name, both newcomers are destined to retain their value in an exemplary manner.

With their elegant upper-class looks, their suave behavior on the road and their very practical nature, these new German station wagons are bound -- literally -- to be carrying a lot of weight with well-heeled motorists.

Ivor Carroll is a writer for Auto Express in Britain. He contributed this article to The Moscow Times.