The whole “car writers love wagons” thing has been a cliché for so long that even pointing out that it is a cliché is probably a cliché as well. Yet despite the body style’s niche appeal, we’re in the midst of a wagon mini-renaissance; a fresh crop of longroofs from the likes of Jaguar (the XF Sportbrake S), Volvo (the V90) and even Buick (the Regal TourX) now competes for this minuscule but dedicated corner of the American market.
Of course, enjoying a certain type of vehicle after a series of sporadic and relatively brief test drives is one thing; living with it day to day is another. And so we added the Mercedes-Benz E400 4Matic wagon — a contemporary interpretation of a segment standby — to the Autoweek fleet for a season-long test. In addition to getting us more seat time in an elegant, practical vehicle, it was a chance to figure out what it is about these things that we can’t get enough of.
You’re probably familiar with the basic wagonista propaganda: You get the ride and handling and low center of gravity of a sedan with almost all of the cargo-toting capacity of a modern crossover (which, come to think of it, is really just an awkwardly tall wagon that masquerades as a rugged SUV). In this case, the base sedan stock comes courtesy of the W213 E-Class. The only engine option for the E400 wagon (known internally as the S213) is the 3.0-liter turbocharged V6: a smooth, 329-hp, 354-lb-ft motor paired with an equally smooth nine-speed automatic. Instead of a trunk, you get 35 cubic feet of cargo space (an impressive 64 cubic feet if you fold down the second row)—and two rear-facing, fold-out child-size jump seats, which bumps theoretical passenger capacity to seven.
The wagon certainly didn’t collect any dust during our test period. Road test editor Jake Lingeman toted three buddies and four sets of gear on a long golf weekend in northern Michigan; he loved it, while said buddies (who do not, it must be noted, write for car magazines) would have preferred an SUV. Fools! Managing editor Robin Warner worked in a Lake Michigan lighthouse tour with his mother, wife and young son in tow. Everyone (but Warner) was quickly lulled to sleep by the vehicle’s near-S-Class levels of cabin comfort, which seems like a best-case scenario for a family road trip.
To be fair, it did carry a near-S-Class price tag at $89,155—sky-high for something we’re billing as a practical family vehicle. But our tester was capital-L Loaded, with everything from massage seats and a Burmester sound system to plush-but-useless designo floor mats in dirt-magnet light beige filling out the build sheet.
The base price is $63,255. Pick and choose what you need from there; the air body control air suspension, for example, gives you that wafty ride for an extra $1,900. You might fall for the heated rear seats ($620, in addition to the $450 heated and ventilated front seats), and so on. But the point is, you don’t have to spend close to 90 grand to enjoy the E-Class wagon experience. The niceties are, well, nice, but they only enhance an already fundamentally great vehicle.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, there’s the E400 wagon’s fire-breathing alter ego: the Mercedes-AMG E63 S. With a 603-hp, 627-lb-ft 4.0-liter turbo V8 up front and its ample cargo capacity acting as a sort of fig leaf to help justify the whole thing to your practical side, it’s the obvious do-all choice for the sensible enthusiast with (at least) $107,945 to spend. But the E63 S wouldn’t be what it is if it weren’t for this: the humble, if only by comparison, E400.
I didn’t manage to work in grand road trips, so I’ll have to take Lingeman and Warner at their word on that front. I did find the wagon to be a very easy vehicle to fit into my daily life; whether I needed to get groceries or make a hardware store run, or just a crosstown slog through traffic, there was never a moment when it let me down—or when I was disappointed to be handed the keys.
And yet I never managed to pin down what it is about this body style that inspires such dedication. I’m sorry to report that I have failed to formulate some Grand Unified Theory of Wagon.
Let’s review the E400 wagon’s attributes: It looks great, especially in our tester’s Piedmont green metallic paint ($720). It’s comfortable whether or not you have the seat massagers activated. And though it’s never exactly a heart-pounding thrill to pilot, neither does it ever want for cruising or passing power. It is, simply put, an immensely satisfying vehicle to drive at any time, on a trip of any duration, in any weather. None of those things I mentioned is wagon-specific; you could say almost all of them about the E-Class sedan.
There’s the additional cargo space, sure, but also something less tangible at play here. Maybe the key with wagons is that they take competent vehicles and make them feel just a bit more special. A wagon stands out, quietly but proudly, in today’s sea of all but indistinguishable crossovers. When you find one as well-executed as this E400, you’ll want to keep it around for a while. We sure did.
"Heirloom Quality" was originally published in the 4/23/18 issue of Autoweek, subscribe here.
On Sale: Now
Base Price: $63,225
As Tested Price: $89,155
Powertrain: 3.0-liter DOHC turbocharged V6, AWD nine-speed automatic
Output: 329 hp, 354 lb-ft
Fuel Economy: 19/25/21(EPA City/Hwy/Combined)