We get an early ride in the new Mercedes-Benz E-Class All-Terrain. These are our first impressions:
“We haven’t just added ride height,” says the man behind the steering wheel, “We’ve also done a lot of detailed work altering the characteristics of the Air Body Control suspension and tweaked the 4Matic four-wheel drive system to ensure it provides genuine dual role characteristics.”
He’s referring to the underpinnings of the new Mercedes-Benz E-Class All Terrain – a car that blurs the lines between traditional on-road biased luxury estate and mud-slinging premium off-roader in the same vein as the Audi A6 Allroad quattro and Volvo V90 XC. The man to my left is Hubert Schneider, manager of overall testing strategy for the E-Class, CLS and GLC, and someone who knows the new model in every detail.
The straight-talking German has contributed a lot to the chassis tuning of the latest E-Class model, and right now he’s guiding a near-production-ready prototype of the new Mercedes-Benz along a narrow trail, relying on the video from the parking camera that’s being displayed on a centrally mounted infotainment monitor to check the proximity of and deftly steer around a large rock.
The E 220 d 4Matic All Terrain prototype we’ve been invited to ride in is close to 100% representative of the definitive production version, reveals Schneider. “Mechanically, it’s identical to the showroom car. The tuning of the engine, gearbox, chassis and electrics is production specification. There’s some fine tuning to be done to body quality, and there are some fit and finish issues, but it’s very close to what you can expect when deliveries begin,” he says.
Power for the new model hails from Mercedes-Benz's new turbocharged 2.0-litre four-cylinder diesel. This OM654 unit provides the E 220 d 4Matic All Terrain with 191bhp and 295lb ft of torque on a relatively narrow band of revs between 1600 and 2800rpm. Drive is channelled through a standard nine-speed torque converter-equipped automatic gearbox and a specially tuned version Mercedes-Benz’s 4Matic four-wheel drive system.
Our route around a former army training ground about an hour’s drive south of Stuttgart, Germany, takes in a variety of different road surfaces, including loose chip, gravel, the obligatory sludge and a couple of moderately deep water crossings.
The new E-Class All Terrain takes it all in its stride, traversing them with surprising authority for a car eningeered primarily for road use. Given the fact the prototype is running the standard road-biased tyres, not the optional snow and mud suited rubber, it's a particularly impressive performance that fully underlines the car's ability on the rough stuff.
With the four-wheel drive system doling out power to either the front or rear depending on prevailing grip, the E-Class All Terrain makes light work of the variety of different roads. Traction remains strong despite challenging conditions, allowing us to retain good momentum even when we’re faced with steep inclines, muddy holes and, at one point, an creaky old bridge once used for military rescue training.
With limited ground clearance and an obvious lack of scratch production along its flanks, however, the E-Class All Terrain is never going to forge its own progress across uncharted territory in the way a tougher and truly dedicated off-roader like its stablemate, the iconic military-grade G-Class, might.
An optional digital display within the E-Class All Terrain's vehicle settings menu provides information on the angle of attack, which at one point reaches more than 50deg on a particularly slippery incline of wet, hard-packed gravel. As if to highlight the traction generated by the new car’s four-wheel drive system, Schneider stops before the summit and then, relying on the strong torque characteristics of the diesel engine, slowly creeps forward in first gear. There’s some whirring sounds from underneath but little slippage before traction is regained and we surmount the crest of the hill.
Progress on more demanding trails is aided by the All Terrain driving mode. It can be activated at speeds of up to 22mph, providing the car with an additional 20mm of ride height via the Air Body Control suspension for a total of 160mm of ground clearance. Thus configured, the E-Class All Terrain has respective approach and departure angles of up to 18deg and 17 deg as well as a maximum fording depth of 300mm, which is sufficient for it to easily handle our series of water crossings.
It doesn’t take long in the off-road conditions to come to the conclusion that the E-Class All Terrain will go places that would stop the standard rear-wheel drive E-Class Estate dead in its tracks. Even with only a moderate increase in ride height, the changes to the All Terrain's four-wheel drive system allow a full apportioning of available power to the front or rear wheels rather than just a partial sharing of drive, endowing it with the ability to take you places most potential buyers would never dream of tackling.
The E 220 d 4Matic forms is entry-level model in the new All Terrain line-up, and is expected to account for the majority of sales in the UK. Later, we'll also get to ride in the more powerful E 350 d 4Matic All Terrain. It has Mercedes-Benz’s familiar turbocharged 3.0-litre V6 diesel and, by dent of its extra power and torque, is even more capable off the Tarmac.
At the moment, this is the extent of the E-Class All Terrain range planned for the UK. Citing a lack of demand, Mercedes-Benz says it does not plan to introduce petrol or petrol-electric hybrid variants of the Estate-based model here, at least in the short term.
Visual differences between this model and the standard E-Class Estate all provide it with a more rugged appearance than its more on-road biased sibling. It gets a re-profiled, two-tone front bumper, a prominent twin blade grille, wheel arch cladding, roof rails, chunkier doorsills and a two-tone rear bumper with integrated trapezoidal shaped tailpipes.
Following our off-road excursion, an extended on-road route in the E 220 d 4Matic All Terrain takes us on a combination of multi-lane autobahns and smoothly paved two-lane country roads. You get a slightly more commanding view thanks to the nominal 20mm increase in ride height, but apart from this it's virtually indistinguishable from the standard E 220 d Estate from a passenger's point of view.
The interior and all its key appointments, including an optional 12.3in high definition instrument screen which incorporates the infotainment monitor in one single panel, are carried over from the latest E-Class with only subtle changes, including new trim applications, stainless steel pedals and floor mats with All Terrain identification. The build quality inside the All Terrain, even on this early example, is excellent and the materials used throughout are first-rate.
In terms of accommodation, there’s also little to fault. Space up front is generous and there’s also more leg room in the rear than in the GLE SUV. With 670 litres of boot space with the rear seat backs in their most upright position, the E-Class All Terrain has just 50 litres less than this larger off-road sibling. With the standard 40/20/40 rear seat folded away, this increases to 1820 litres.
Two things stand out as the miles begin to accumulate: the terrific support of the newly developed front seats and the superb refinement at typical motorway cruising speeds. Together, they combine to provide the E 220 d 4Matic All Terrain with outstanding on-road comfort that's yet further enhanced by a magnificently compliant ride.
The E-Class All Terrain’s standard Air Body Control suspension – a £1495 option on the standard E-Class Estate - has been individually tuned for the new model with unique mapping and load rates. While the overall travel remains the same with 100mm up front and 85mm at the rear, the 9mm higher aspect ratio of the tyres adds a further layer of compliance, providing the car with even more soothing qualities than that of the standard E-Class. Bump absorption is outstanding, as is the ability of the underpinnings to suppress road noise.
Pricing for the E 220 d 4Matic All Terrain is yet to be announced, but the equivalent Audi A6 Allroad quattro costs £46,505, carrying a rather hefty £11,410 premium over the standard A6 Avant estate.
Mercedes-Benz says the E 220 d 4Matic All-Terrain won’t attract such a big premium, hinting it will likely be priced at around £5000 more the standard E 2220 d Estate, which costs £38,230 in SE trim.