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Click for pictures“Mercedes’s new E350
  Estate is cool, versatile
  and desirable — and
  it does exactly what it
  says on the label...”

MERCEDES HAS A LONG history of building exceedingly good executive estate cars which have, quite deservedly, built up a loyal following. Large families, antiques dealers, company directors and all sorts of people are among their satisfied customers. With the latest 5th generation E-Class estate, Mercedes has produced the ultimate carry-all. In fact, having just tested the sleek new E350, we think it has more going for it than many similarly priced saloons.

Build quality is excellent, and clearly the latest models coming out of Germany are being put together with great care and attention. The cleverly considered design with its lithe, clean-cut looks and tapering roof line, topped off by elegant roof rails, neatly masks the fact that this latest version is both longer and wider than its predecessor.

The front wears the by now familiar four-headlamp Mercedes face with a rakishly backward sloping nose and slatted five-bar chromed grille. The tail treatment is smooth, with large rear lamp clusters wrapping around the rear wing into the tailgate to discreetly emphasise the understated wedge-shaped profile. Overall, the uncluttered design makes much of the competition look somewhat fussy.

Which is exactly as it should be, because the E-Class is aimed positively at the top end of the estate car market. Despite this, prices start at a very reasonable £25K for the E200 Kompressor, rising to £57K for the rapid range-topping V8 E55 AMG. In between are two diesel and three petrol-engined models.

The E350 makes excellent use of Mercedes-Benz's latest petrol engine — a silky 268bhp 3.5-litre V6 mated to a seven-speed 7G-Tronic automatic gearbox, available for £38,600. Fitted with leather upholstery, SatNav with CD and DVD, Parktronic, sports suspension, 17-inch alloy wheels, 6-disc CD autochanger, heated front seats and wiring for a hands-free telephone, our test car cost exactly £44,000.

You certainly don't need to drive the five hundred miles we covered to appreciate that it is a superb and versatile load-carrier, optimally equipped to perform a multitude of estate car duties. Self-levelling pneumatic rear suspension, fitted as standard across the range, maintains a constant ride height no matter how much weight — luggage or passengers — is being carried.

Courtesy of the optional powered luggage compartment floor, loading has never been easier. It automatically extends 150mm out over the knee-height bumper for loading heavy items up to 200Kg (roughly 30 stone). Of course, it's just as useful to sit on while picnicking or pulling on your Wellies. And all it takes to move the floor back into the load area is the push of a button.

Everyday load space — the area behind the rear seats and below the window line — has increased by 50 litres and now provides an outstanding 650 litres of usable storage space. Need to carry more? No problem. The 1/3:2/3 split rear seats fold easily away complete with their headrests with one easy movement to release a massive, fully-carpeted load space of 1,910 litres capable of accommodating items up to two-metres long.

The versatile seating arrangement can be whatever you want, anytime you want it. One-, two-, three-, four- or five-seater. And it takes only seconds to adjust the seats. More storage is provided by the large storage box concealed behind the rear seats. Running the width of the car, it is accessed by flipping forward the offside rear passenger backrest. Ideal for carrying all sorts of oddments, like umbrellas, weatherproof clothing or muddy boots, it can be removed from the car simply by folding the rear seats forward. Providing flexibility is an optional dividable, multi-adjustable luggage area racking system.

A second load compartment floor can be found beneath the carpeted boot floor. Multi-partitioned, it's ideal for tucking away smaller items such as torches and bottled water. An exceptional feature is that the main floor lifts and lowers on hydraulic struts for ease of access — something we haven't seen on any other car and that does its job laudably.

Every E-Class has power tailgate locking as standard and an Easy-Pack load cover which has two features. One, a luggage net rolls out to fix to the roof — whether the rear seats are upright or folded — and two, a retractable load cover keeps the luggage concealed safely out of sight. Press a button on the key and the tailgate opens automatically. And, as it does so, the load cover automatically powers out of the way for easier loading/unloading. Close the tailgate and the load cover glides back into place. Another handy standard feature is Tailgate Stop. This comes into its own in low roofed garages or multi-storey car parks by allowing the tailgate to be stopped anywhere in the last third of its opening travel. Fully automatic opening and closing at the touch of a button on the driver's door, a button on the tailgate, or by the remote key is available as an option.

However dazzling the E350 estate's attention to detail and carrying abilities are, they represent just one facet of its wide-ranging appeal. The whole car reeks of quality. Swing open the door and settle behind the wheel and you'll find a smart, spacious cabin trimmed in an appealing mix of leather, aluminium and Bird's eye maple wood. Nothing is overdone and the resulting ambience definitely enhances the pleasure of living with an E-Class — which could be for a very long time indeed as the E-Class comes with Mercedes-Benz's industry-leading mobilo-life corrosion and breakdown warranty that runs for 30 years from the date of first registration.

A broad range of adjustment for both the four-spoke multi-function steering wheel and the supportive multi-adjustable front seats means that anyone fortunate enough to get to drive this Mercedes is going to be very comfortable indeed. Optional multi-contour seats hold you tight when cornering, their side bolsters automatically inflating to give greater lateral support — as you corner through a left hand bend the right bolster inflates, and vice versa.

The logically organised, crystal-clear instrumentation and handsome fascia are easy on the eye, while all of the most important controls are exactly where they should be — including the cute little stubby selector lever. The instrument binnacle houses striking white-on-black chrome-bezelled dials, clustered around a large central speedometer with an internal electronic display that is controlled by the multi-function wheel. An analogue clock and rev counter flank the speedometer and are themselves between two neat vertical bar displays for fuel and engine coolant temperature. Particularly relaxing is the dimmable ambient roof lighting that bathes the cabin in a soft restful glow at night.

If it's entertainment you want, a 9-speaker audio set-up takes care of the music while the DVD-based cockpit management and navigation system is one of the easiest to use. You can watch DVDs on the 6.5-inch widescreen TFT display when you're parked and picture quality is excellent. Being DVD-based, the navigation system needs only one disc to guide you practically all over western Europe. The 6-disc autochanger is conveniently located in-dash, which saves all that fiddling around in the boot that can be so irritating. Other convenience features include voice-activation for the audio and navigation functions.

If you haven't seen inside a new Mercedes for a while you'll be pleasantly surprised at the amount of equipment that now comes as standard. In the case of the E350 Estate, you get a 7-speed auto 'box with cruise control, 6 airbags, five-spoke alloys, ABS, automatic climate control, automatically-dimming rearview mirror and driver's mirror, electric folding door mirrors, one-shot electric windows, Electronic Stability Program with skid control, heated windscreen washers, multi-function leather-trimmed steering wheel with trip computer, lowered suspension, lumbar support on both front seats, radio/CD, power steering, partial electric seats (backrest and height), part-leather upholstery, rain-sensing front aero wipers, Sensotronic brake-by-wire brake control system, blue tinted glass, powerful bi-xenon headlights and metallic paint.

The other thing you get with the E350 Estate is a lot of space, for people as well as goods. A generous thirty per cent more capacity than its closest rival. Overall length is up by 11mm and width by 10mm. The wheelbase remains the same but there's 20mm more headroom and 13mm more rear knee room. There are plenty of sizeable cubbyholes throughout the interior, and larger families will no doubt appreciate the optional rear-facing third row of seats. Two little people (up to 50Kg in weight and 140cm tall) can travel comfortably in this light and airy back row where — just for good measure — there are three-point belts, head restraints and a couple of cupholders.

Check out under the bonnet for Mercedes' refined new 3.5-litre lightweight V6 engine — weighing just 240Kg — which first appeared in the new SLK-Class Roadster. Installed in the estate it may be wearing a less flamboyant set of clothes but its performance is undiluted. With 268bhp on tap driving the rear wheels through Mercedes' superb seven-speed auto (only available on the 350), the estate is both deceptively and effortlessly quick. It will leap off the line to hit 62mph in just 7.1 seconds, remaining silky-smooth right up to the red line. And it keeps on going (where the law and conditions permit) until it hits an electronically-limited 155mph. Straight line stability at speed is very reassuring and the car always feels completely under the driver's control.

A hefty 258lb ft of torque, available from 2,400 through to 5,000rpm, ensures it pulls strongly. You rarely need kickdown because whichever gear you find yourself in there is always more than enough power immediately available under your right foot. High speed cruising is refined, with an almost total absence of wind and road noise. Indeed, one of the first things you notice about this car is its quietness. Touring consumption works out to a commendable 37.7mpg. The official combined driving figure of 28.5mpg is entirely realistic and we matched it easily during our 500-mile road test over all types of roads in all kinds of weather. And the 80-litre fuel tank meant we didn't waste too much time at the pumps.

The E350 may be an estate, but evidently nobody's told it. Because judging by the way it handles, it clearly believes itself to be a sporty saloon. Body movement is well controlled and the speed sensitive power steering quick and communicative, with fluid direction changes. And with just 2.8 turns lock-to-lock, threading through busy traffic is a piece of cake.

The 7-speed auto 'box is a delight, especially in Sport mode, moving up and down the scale intelligently and flawlessly. The Tipfunction's manual facility lets the driver override the automatic selection with a light nudge on the lever which is particularly helpful when pressing on along more challenging A-roads. You'll also find a foolproof chassis with a level of ability that you wouldn't normally expect of a five-metre estate car. And, as good as it is, it's still reassuring to know that the traction control is constantly alert, ready to step in and tidy things up should it prove necessary.

The E-Class utilises the same four-link MacPherson strut front suspension as its saloon sibling, while at the back there's an all-aluminium five-link arrangement with a self-levelling system. Between them they deliver first-class body control and a composed ride with high levels of grip. And despite riding on 17-inch alloys shod with 245/45-profile Michelins, the ride is smoothly compliant.

Among the long list of technical innovations found on all E-Class models is Mercedes' revolutionary Sensotronic brake-by-wire system, SBC. The brake pedal is connected electrically to the main brake cylinder and a powerful microprocessor passes the braking information to the hydraulically-activated brakes using electronic pulses. In order to maintain the driver's 'feel' for the brakes, a special simulator uses spring pressure and hydraulics to give pedal resistance. Not that you'd know.

Coupled to all-disc brakes with massive aluminium callipers, Sensotronic provides outstanding, well-modulated and authoritative braking on demand. To ensure maximum braking power is always available, the car can sense when it is wet or raining and gently applies the brakes — so gently you will not be aware of it — but regularly enough to keep them dry and ready to deliver full power the instant you need it.

Most E-Class estate buyers will doubtless opt for the superb two-pedal transmission. But in traffic the driver needs only one of them. To make driving even easier for the E-Class driver, Mercedes have included SBC Hold and SBC Stop. Hold keeps the car stationary without the driver needing to keep the brake pedal depressed. It comes into its own on tricky hill starts, manoeuvring on steep slopes or while stopped in traffic. Once activated — by quickly pressing and releasing the brake pedal — the car holds itself until the accelerator is pressed. SBC Stop helps relieve driver fatigue in traffic. Flick the column stalk, take your foot off the accelerator and the car automatically brakes itself to a complete stop without the need to press the brakes, making SBC Stop particularly effective in crawling traffic. As soon as the driver accelerates the brakes are released.

Mercedes drivers expect — and get — the best from their Mercedes-Benz. But they also demand superior safety aids. Here, too, the E-Class delivers. It is a very safe car, with an Intelligent Safety System for more precise response in deploying the six airbags (twin front, side and full-length window) and adjusting the force of the seatbelts in an accident.

There are also anti-lock brakes with brake assist, electronic stability control, brake-by-wire and even a rollover sensor that triggers the side airbags and seat belt tensioners. All five occupants have a three-point seat belt, and the outer belts are fitted with pre-tensioners and belt force limiters as standard. The rear outer belts all have four height positions.

A less obvious safety feature is the Speedtronic cruise control system that can, at the flick of a lever, keep the car within designated speed limits not only for safety reasons but also to reduce the risk of speed-related licence endorsements. Other safety innovations include Mercedes' Active Light System. This calculates the vehicle's speed and the type of bend being negotiated, accurately redirecting the headlights 'round the bend' fast enough to match the driver's eye line, thus increasing night time visibility by up to 90 per cent. The lights and wipers will also turn themselves on when necessary.

Every E-Class Estate has ASSYST PLUS variable servicing intervals. In addition to measuring oil change intervals, this checks brake pad wear and takes into account driving styles to set service intervals accordingly. It gives you plenty of notice — usually 30 days or 1,800 miles — before a service falls due and, just to be safe, the central display also includes a countdown function. Now, that's what you call 'service'!

Like the Sirens of legend, svelte coupés have traditionally lured saloon buyers away from their four-door siblings. Mercedes's E350 estate is unquestionably a very handsome, accomplished and versatile vehicle which could well start a brand new trend. Imagine choosing a five-door estate not only over a standard saloon, but over a coupé as well!

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Mercedes-Benz E 350 Avantgarde Estate | £38,600
Maximum speed: 155mph | 0-62mph: 7.1 seconds
Overall test MPG: 28mpg | Power: 268bhp | Torque: 258lb ft

------------------------------------------------ Mercedes-Benz E 350 Estate