Want a luxury SUV? Mercedes' E400 Wagon urges you to think smarter

If you're of a certain age or older, you probably remember the joy -- and possibly the nausea -- of sitting backward in the third row of a station wagon. Watching the world go by on rewind, waving to trailing cars was once a rite of passage for young kids. Today, there's exactly one way to get that sensation in a new car, and you're looking at it: the 2017 Mercedes-Benz E400 Wagon.

Riding backward is a peculiar childhood joy, and today, it's one only the youth of America's well-to-do will probably ever get to know.

Surprisingly, Mercedes officials say E-Class Wagon buyers have among the highest education levels and top average household incomes of any model wearing a Three-Pointed Star. In fact, the average E-Wagon family packs their coffers with a startling $100,000 per year more than their E-Class sedan equivalents. And while Benz's wagon is rare enough to qualify as an eccentricity on North American roads, in Europe, where wagons are far more popular, one out of every three E-Class models sold is a longroof. In Germany, where Mercedes invited me to test the E400, it's fully one out of two.

2017 Mercedes-Benz E400 Wagon - Front 3/4 view

Mercedes' new E400 packs AWD and SUV-like utility, but without the dynamic clumsiness.

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So...what do America's wealthy and all of Europe seem to know that most of the rest of us don't?

For starters, they've learned that wagons tend to handle better than their crossover SUV brethren, thanks to a lower center of gravity, and more often than not, less weight. They've also learned that wagons tend to be more fuel efficient. And they probably recognize that if a wagon is well designed, it can be quite handsome. To my eyes, this sleek E400 is significantly better-looking than its sedan counterpart (which, like all contemporary Mercedes four-doors, seems to suffer from a slightly droopy-looking rump).

While available with a panoply of engines in Europe, in the US we'll get a single powertrain combination, at least for starters. In this case, that means Benz's 3.0-liter bi-turbo V6 with 329 horsepower and 354 pounds of torque yoked to standard 4Matic all-wheel drive. That's no bad thing -- the V6 is a pleasingly refined partner, and the extra power is welcome, because the estate body totes around roughly 400 pounds more than its sedan equivalent. That may seem like a lot of extra weight in glass and metal, but not only is the larger engine itself heavier, the Wagon is also blessed with additional standard equipment, including key items like an adjustable auto load-leveling rear air suspension.

(Curiously, there's no E400 sedan in the US. If you want V6 power, you have to plump for the sport-minded E43 AMG, which brings 396 horsepower and 384 pound-feet to the party.)

2017 Mercedes-Benz E400 Wagon Engine

The E400's 3.0-liter bi-turbo V6 yields 329 hp and 354 pound-feet of torque.

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Owners of the outgoing E350 Wagon should be particularly pleased with the new powertrain. Not only does the 3.0L muster about 30 percent more torque than the outgoing 3.5-liter V6, the well-behaved new nine-speed automatic should also help improve fuel efficiency and acceleration. In my testing, belting along on the unrestricted portions of the Autobahn revealed ample passing power deep into triple digit speeds.

Under more humdrum commuter-like conditions, I also found plenty of torque for pulling away from stoplights with authority, aided by smooth, well-timed shifts from the gearbox. Incidentally, Mercedes is claiming a believable 5.4-second 0-to-62 mph time, which is plenty quick to give kids in the jumpseats a thrill.

Existing Mercedes wagon customers stepping up to the new model should also be pleased with the added space. A longer wheelbase and slightly longer overall length means that the E400 offers up to 64.3 cubic feet of cargo room with the 40/20/40 split/fold rear seats stowed -- a substantial improvement over the outgoing model's 57.4 cubes. Even with the rear seats in use, there's still 22.6 cubes behind the second row, and you can gain an extra cube if you're willing to endure a 10-degree steeper seatback rake.

2017 Mercedes-Benz E400 Wagon Dashboard

If there's a more posh, more tech-forward cabin in a midsize luxury car, we don't know about it.

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Like the E300 sedan we already know and love, the E400 Wagon is a technological juggernaut, featuring industry-leading advanced safety and semi-autonomous drive technology available through Benz's optional Drive Pilot suite. Shortly, features like out-of-car self-park (operated via smartphone) will be on offer in North America, as will the market's first production connected car tech. The latter will enable E-Class models to talk to each other, warning trailing cars about road conditions like traffic and slippery surfaces lurking ahead.

(The E-Class is already available in other parts of the world with such features, but for the moment, they're ensnared in Washington red tape).

2017 Mercedes-Benz E400 Wagon - Rear 3/4 view

This E-Class isn't just long on space, it may just be bigger on style, too.

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Also like the sedan, the E400's interior fittings are best-in-class stuff, with a rich variety of materials and finishes that all feel very well screwed together. The cockpit's centerpiece is a lozenge-shaped floating instrument cluster housing, which contains a pair of 12.3-inch widescreen displays mounted under a single pane of mineral glass. So much high-resolution real estate could've been overwhelming to view, but the information on the screens is smartly and clearly arrayed, and there are three different styles to choose from, Classic, Sport and Progressive, so it's easy to pick what view you like best. These large screens are optional, but to my eyes, they are must-splurge equipment.

Pricing for the E400 has not yet been released, but it's fair to assume given its more powerful engine and greater equipment levels, it'll start at a sizable chunk more than the E300 4Matic Sedan's $55,575 asking price. The outgoing 2016 E350 starts at $59,900, so figure on a slight uptick based on the new generation's additional features.

Mercedes minted its first production wagons some 50 years ago, and the new E400 faithfully carries on a lot of the original 200D and 230S models' innovations, including their self-leveling rear suspensions and third-row jump seats. A half-century later, the E400 is still a winning formula, and you needn't be a little kid in the way-back seats to appreciate just how wonderful living with a wagon can be.

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