All-terrain station wagons over an SUV?
In a market where SUVs are booming and performance SUVs are also gaining pace, does an estate (or station wagon) stand a chance to make numbers like SUVs do? Forget affordable estates – does the Mercedes E-Class all-terrain, priced at Rs 75 lakh, even make sense? Yes, the E-AT gets all-wheel drive but the tyres fitted on it are road-biased 19-inch Conti Sports. Its fitted with plastic cladding and some bumper protection to give it that ‘tough’ look but wouldn’t you be better off with a proper SUV? Sure you will point out the additional boot space but wouldn’t you rather have more legroom?
Estates, station wagons, cross-whatever-you-want-to-call-them, it’s tough to make a case for these cars especially with the elephant in the room – taxes. Nobody buys estates so there’s no business case in doing local assembly; because there’s no local assembly, estates are heavily taxed and are considerably more expensive than their equivalent sedans, and that’s before taking into account the road tax differential between CBU and CKD. Why spend more then? To answer that question we’re taking them off the paved roads. The task at hand: make a logical case for the All-Terrain, apart from the estates-are-so-cool verdict that you will get from every road tester. Well if cool were such a solid selling point we’d see many more of these so-cool-you-have-to-get-it Volvo V90 Cross Countrys on our roads, wouldn’t we?
It’s an estate okay?
Mercedes and Volvo people tell me that its not an estate, all too aware that the word estate means instant death in our country. Look, they say, look at all the SUV-ishness to the AT and CC. Look at the plastic cladding and the bash plates. Look at the roof rails for carrying the bicycles that you do not own or ride. Look at the ground clearance. Look at all the accompaniments to your active, outdoorsy, lifestyle-y, thoroughly imaginary life.
“A white E-Class is for the big boss to be driven to work in while reading the pink papers. The E-AT on the other hand is supposed to be outdoorsy, isn’t it?”
It’s all excellent marketing, and, sadly I’m too cynical for it all. Our wives do not run half marathons in their underwear and our kids do not camp out in the woods. An estate is an estate no matter how it’s dressed up. And that said, the V90 CC looks bloody cool. How many times have we said Volvo’s designers are going through a particularly purple patch? This is such a fantastic looking car! And they’ve done a proper job of Cross Country-ing it with more purposeful looking rims, more go-anywhere side cladding and general sense of lifestyle-ishness. It’ll encourage you to drive an hour out to the Decathlon megastore and buy a bicycle. And if you ever fall for the V90 CC you must follow Volvo’s PR departments’ lead and spec your car in a dark shade that looks even better with lots of mud on it.
It’s the colour that is this particular E-AT’s biggest problem. A white E-Class is for the big boss to be driven to work in while reading the pink papers. The E-AT on the other hand is supposed to be outdoorsy, isn’t it? We even had to clean the car before photographing it as it didn’t look good with mud on its flanks.
Keeping the specs aside, I think the E-Class looks great and the E-Class All-Terrain looks even better, after all I am particularly partial towards the estate/station wagon body style. I am only being rational here: the E-AT makes it difficult to not be labelled an estate.
Massive boot space
The boot is so massive that when you flip down the rear seats (electrically, via buttons in the boot) two full-sized adults can curl into sleeping bags and pass out in the boot. If you’re a painter, electrician or plumber all the paints, tools and building material will comfortably fit in the boot along with two ladders on the roof rails. If you’re a gardener 200 pots and 500 sacks of manure will fit in the boot while the onset of hernia will be delayed by another button that sinks the air suspension and drops the height of the loading bay.
Behind the wheel too you will like the E-AT, because it is no different from the E-Class. Great quality, great tactility to the controls, great ergonomics, that S-Class derived 12.3-inch central screen, large and comfy seats, it has everything and it is impeccably put together. The only real difference to the regular E220 is the rear seat space. The E-AT is based on the standard wheelbase E-Class and it only goes to highlight the product planning geniuses at Mercedes-Benz India who convinced the Board to make the necessary investments to bring the LWB E-Class. Oh the E-AT is spacious enough, with more rear legroom than the V90 CC, but the LWB E-Class has spoilt us on legroom.
Jenny too is spoilt. After the E-AT’s boot she doesn’t feel the love in the V90 CC. The E-AT’s 64-litre bootsexpands to 1820 litres while the Volvo’s 560 litres expands to 1526 litres. And in making it a damn sight more attractive the CC does compromise on width and height of the loading bay too. Those ears, perked up by years of show-dog training, brush up against the Volvo’s roof. And in the face of Mercedes’ absurdly phenomenal quality the Volvo still feels, not German.
Then again the V90 CC offers an absurdly large equipment list as standard including Bowers & Wilkins 19-speaker sound system, massage seats at the front, and a suite of safety systems. The V90 CC will vibrate and turn the steering if it thinks you’re veering out of your lane, the adaptive cruise control brakes and accelerates depending on what the car in front of you is doing, parking assist that’ll reverse the car into a properly defined parking spot, and City Safety detects and brakes for pedestrians before you do. The latter is way too paranoid for the unruliness of Indian traffic, performing heart-stopping emergency stops that’ll have poor Jenny slamming against the rear seats every time a biker cuts across in front of you.
“The smoothness and comfort is just outstanding and that’s at no expense to body control up the twisties”
It’s raining, we’re driving up familiar roads and things aren’t looking any different from our regular shoots. The drive up to Amby Valley, past the morons piled up around the Bhushi dam in Lonavala taking selfies under the waterfalls, up the lovely twists of mountains, through the thick fog that blankets the higher reaches, over the broken roads leading to Shillim, the E-Class All-Terrain delivers everything you’d expect of an E-Class. The smoothness and comfort is just outstanding and that’s at no expense to body control up the twisties. There’s a little more agility thanks to the shorter wheelbase, there’s noticeably better grip over wet roads thanks to the all-wheel drive and there’s less fear of damaging anything over the broken roads thanks to the higher ride height. Rather than offering compromises over a regular E-Class, the E-AT is actually better to drive than the E220 since it gets Air Body Control air suspension (to the latters’ steel springs) which makes it more comfortable in Comfort and more sporty in Dynamic. And then I click it into All-Terrain mode, point its nose down a steep dirt track, and gently clamber down.
This is not an off-roader, not by any stretch of the imagination. But what All Terrain mode does is alter the threshold for the electronic stability control along with altering the throttle, steering and gearbox mapping to improve its ability in off-road conditions. And the 29mm increase in ride height is increased by a further 20mm by the air suspension at speeds up to 25kmph. And with all the right buttons pressed, the E-AT will tackle some dirt trails that lead off into the woods, get you to the lake side where you can pitch tent and then curse your service provider for being unable to Instagram your lifestyle-y, erm, life.
Much the same holds true for the V90 CC; well actually Volvo has put in a bit more effort in CC-ing the V90 estate. The ride height of the chassis has gone up a more noticeable 65mm. Those plastic extensions to the wheel arches are not just for show but enclose wider tracks, 20mm at the front and 40mm at the rear. The tyres are all-terrain 20-inch Pirelli Scorpions. And the skid plates aren’t plastic – they’re titanium.
The V90 CC also gets air suspension, but only on the rear suspension, and that adjusts the ride height depending on load and preventing squat at the rear. To go with the positioning the suspension has been mapped for long-distance comfort rather than sportiness. You do feel the additional body roll thanks to the softer suspension and higher ride height but there is an additional suppleness over the S90 sedan that makes expressway runs an even more relaxed affair. That said Mercedes does a better job of ride and handling, the Volvo’s diesel engine is more audible at both idle and under acceleration, while the 8-speed gearbox is no match for the Merc’s super-slick 9-speeder.
Like the E-AT, the V90 CC too gets an off-road mode accessed via a rotary dial on the centre console, which uses the electronics to make off-road driving easier while visibly increasing the ride height at the rear. It even allows you to play around with a bit more oversteer on wet grass and mud, the tyres offer more purchase in off-road situations and the ground clearance is a massive 210mm (E-AT’s is 156mm) letting the V90 CC’s driver pitch tent further up the hill than the E-AT, where even JiO’s 4G network doesn’t reach.
An SUV is a better option
It wasn’t the V90’s fault. We got way too ambitious, thought the Pirelli Scorpions could handle anything, and sunk the Cross Country in the wet mud by the lake side. Stupid us, really. Good thing we had the Discovery Sport to run back to the nearest village, fashion out a tow rope, and then yank the V90 out of the gooey mess we’d gotten it into.
That’s when it dawned on us: if you want to go off-road you’re better off sticking with a proper 4×4 SUV like the Discovery Sport here. It is more capable at the off-roading stuff, even more so than the GLE or XC90; it is more comfortable over broken roads; you can option it with a third row of seats; and there’s enough and more room for Jenny at the back. Sure it doesn’t feel as expensive or lavish on the inside as either the E-AT or V90 CC but you’re also paying much less so that’s a fair trade-off. Or you could upsize to the Discovery.
Estates are cool, period
I did not say that. I still think the V90 CC is a damn cool car, and if you’re only going to do some light trail work or need all-wheel drive to motor up to the farm/plantation in the rains, it works brilliantly. If I were you I’d pay the six-odd-lakh premium and buy it over the S90. I might even contemplate saving some money over the XC90.
As for the E-Class All-Terrain I find it much harder to make a case for it. Not because it is inadequate or incapable, far from it. The hard truth though is the E-Class is just so brilliant at what is expected of an E-Class, especially in the Indian context of luxury and back seat comfort, that making a case for the E-AT is beyond me. Even though it is far cooler than the sedan and even the SUV.
Have you seen the all new Mercedes-Benz GLE? Read our test drive review here