An air of tough­ness

Mercedes hints at off-road prow­ess but the wagon’s sus­pen­sion brings it back to earth

The Weekend Post - Motoring - - PRESTIGE - JOSHUA DOWLING NA­TIONAL MO­TOR­ING EDI­TOR joshua.dowling@news.com.au

AUS­TRALIA’S appetite for SUVs has killed off one of the most lux­u­ri­ous wag­ons avail­able lo­cally: the Mercedes E-Class.

With the ar­rival of the lat­est gen­er­a­tion, the Ger­man brand has in­stead in­tro­duced a high­rid­ing all-wheel drive vari­ant called the All-Ter­rain, with rugged looks aimed at ap­peal­ing to SUV buy­ers.

About 100 peo­ple a year bought the pre­vi­ous E-Class wagon. Mercedes hopes body cladding and the pre­tence of of­froad prow­ess may boost sales of this model. Oth­er­wise the Al­lTer­rain may also dis­ap­pear.

In essence this is the Mercedes ver­sion of the Subaru Out­back, which starts life as a Lib­erty wagon be­fore the of­froad kit is added.

The Benz might look the part but it doesn’t come cheap.

Priced from $109,900 plus on-road costs (about $119,400 drive-away), the E220d Al­lTer­rain is al­most $17,000 dearer

than the E-Class sedan that shares the diesel en­gine — and a whop­ping $20,500 dearer than the full-size diesel SUV sta­ble­mate, the GLE 250d.

Mercedes says the long list of lux­ury equip­ment com­pen­sates.

Stan­dard fare in­cludes su­per­wide high-res­o­lu­tion instrument dis­play and cabin con­trol screens, as in all E-Class mod­els, plus nine airbags, radar cruise con­trol, lane-keep­ing as­sis­tance, au­to­matic emer­gency brak­ing from free­way speeds, elec­tri­cally ad­justable heated front seats and real wood trim (in a matt fin­ish).

There are also air sus­pen­sion, in­tel­li­gent LED head­lights (high-beams that don’t daz­zle on­com­ing cars), leather trim, sen­sor key en­try and 360-de­gree cam­era.

The new gen­er­a­tion 2.0-litre turbo diesel is matched to a nine-speed au­to­matic trans­mis­sion and per­ma­nent all-wheel drive.

Mas­sive 20-inch al­loy wheels with low-pro­file run-flat tyres are stan­dard (Pirellis were fit­ted to the ex­am­ple tested). A 19-inch wheel and tyre com­bi­na­tion, more suit­able for off-road use, is a no-cost op­tion.

You can or­der at ex­tra cost ($1300) a tem­po­rary spare — there is no room for it un­der the boot floor so it would take up cargo space. All this means you prob­a­bly don’t want to ven­ture too far off the beaten track.

The air sus­pen­sion’s ride height in stan­dard driv­ing mode is just 136mm, only 29mm higher than an E-Class sedan and less than a Toy­ota Yaris. Switch­ing to “off-road” mode (pos­si­ble at less than 35km/h) in­creases ride height to 156mm, which is sig­nif­i­cantly less than the Out­back’s 213mm.

So the All Ter­rain’s ground clear­ance is more suited to un­kempt gravel drive­ways than rugged out­back ad­ven­tures.

Mercedes says most of its SUV buy­ers don’t take their cars off-road any­way. They’re buy­ing SUVs to keep up ap­pear­ances — and to bet­ter see the road ahead from the com­mand­ing seat­ing po­si­tion.

ON THE ROAD

It may be small in ca­pac­ity but the diesel en­gine has more than enough oomph for this type of ve­hi­cle. Its power out­put of 143kW is close to that of a petrol 2.0-litre turbo but it’s the moun­tain of torque (400Nm) that gets things mov­ing.

Matched to the smooth shift­ing nine-speed auto, the All-Ter­rain feels re­spon­sive at any speed, be­cause the trans­mis­sion can slip into the ideal gear.

The en­gine and trans­mis­sion com­bi­na­tion is the main rea­son for the su­per low fuel use claim of 5.7L/100km, al­though con­sump­tion was more like 8L/100km (still re­spectable) dur­ing our pre­view drive on mostly open and wind­ing roads.

The steer­ing is an­other high­light. It’s not too heavy, not too light, and it’s pre­cise while not be­ing too sen­si­tive for the size and weight of the car.

The big­gest disappointment was the air sus­pen­sion, stan­dard on all mod­els and nec­es­sary on this model to ad­just ride height.

On per­fectly smooth roads, it was su­perb. But so is pretty much any car that does not need to con­tend with bumps.

And the All-Ter­rain did an ad­mirable job of deal­ing with small and medium size ruts on sealed roads.

But on pot holes and cor­ru­ga­tions on dirt roads, the com­bi­na­tion of the low-pro­file tyres, large di­am­e­ter wheels, and sus­pen­sion with not enough travel pro­duced an almighty bang on ev­ery im­pact.

Even when we did our best to avoid the worst bumps in the road, the All-Ter­rain still got up­set on the smaller ones. No dam­age was done, de­spite how it sounded.

Fur­ther, the elec­tronic sta­bil­ity con­trol seems not to have been cal­i­brated for gravel roads. It did its job at pre­vent­ing a skid into a cor­ner but it got up­set by bumps and loose gravel when try­ing to drive out of cor­ners — cre­at­ing a stut­ter­ing ef­fect on the en­gine.

VER­DICT

The All-Ter­rain oozes lux­ury in­side and out and will ap­peal to those who want to defy the SUV trend. But com­pared to Mercedes-Benz’s full-size SUV, it’s a hefty pre­mium to pay for a smaller and less ca­pa­ble ve­hi­cle.

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