How much do you want an SUV? It might have escaped your notice, but every other car we now review seems to be an SUV or crossover. And every time someone tells us they've bought a new car, it's called something like Qashqai, Kodiaq or Kumquat (ok, yes, that last one is a fruit, well spotted) – but generally some weird invented name that evokes visions of drinking orange squash while trekking in the Himalayas. Or more likely doing battle for a space in a Waitrose car park.
The SUV has become the default family car – replacing the hatchback and estate – and in 2018 it's expected that SUVs will outsell regular cars, such as hatchbacks and saloons, for the first time ever. So what has this got to do with the Mercedes E-Class All-Terrain, we hear you ask?
First cousin of the G-Wagen
German premium brands can be criticised for a lot of things, but what they do well is conceive of a product type and then gradually refine and perfect it over the years. Mercedes has been in the SUV game far longer than most. Its Geländewagen, or G-Class as it's more commonly known, has just been updated – but has been around since the 1970s.
Mercedes has developed a broad line-up of SUVs off the back of the G. But what it hasn't done, unlike its rivals over at Audi and Volvo, is plough a new niche by creating an off-road estate car on stilts. Volvo and Audi have in their respective Cross Country and Allroad models, to great success.
The recipe runs as follows: take one of your large estate cars, add a bit of ride height, give it air suspension so that it can be jacked up even higher, add a four-wheel drive system, drop in a powerful engine, attach a set of big wheels, and clad all of the lower body in grey plastic so you don't wreck the bodywork when off-road.
Not an SUV, but essentially as capable
The non All-Terrain, regular E-Class is a stellar product. We rate it in both saloon and estate car form – and this new All-Terrain takes the estate, does the add-ride-height-big-engine-and-cladding thing to create an Audi A6 Allroad and Volvo V90 Cross Country rival.
It's really very good, and – unless you're obsessed by how high up you're sitting, need to move seven people or really need to tow more than two tonnes regularly – will make you question just how much you want a premium SUV.
On the road, the E-Class All-Terrain is pretty imperious. It rides beautifully on its air suspension, is quiet, the 3.0 litre V6 diesel is fast and economical, and it has dynamic qualities that a full-on SUV can only dream of. It's 29mm higher than a regular E-Class estate, but you can add another 20mm to that in the off-roading mode. And it'll tow a 2100kg braked trailer.
Doing the business off-road
In a demonstration of just how seriously Mercedes takes the need for the All-Terrain to cover the off-road base, the company laid on a tough challenge during the UK launch schedule, which involved us piloting the E-Class around the old Land Rover Experience off-road course at a Yorkshire country house, and towing a one-and-a-half tonne horse box while we were at it.
Because the E-Class All-Terrain doesn't ride super-high off the ground, there are limits to its capabilities. It won't wade to 750mm. And it'll ground itself in super-deep mud ruts. But on 20-inch wheels, wearing on-road-biased tyres, the way it tackled the old Land Rover course that had seen more than its fair share of winter rain and snow (it was basically a bog) was impressive.
More impressive still was that towing the 1500kg horse box up a muddy hill, off one-in-three gradient, you can bring the All-Terrain to a complete stop. It will hold itself on the brakes and then you can just gradually apply the accelerator and it'll set off up the muddy track again with zero fuss. No wheel spin, no scrabble, just a gradual rise in revs, the three-pointed star pointing itself to the sky, dragging dobbin behind it.
Part of the trick is that in All-Terrain mode – which you select through the drive mode selector (or Dynamic Select in Mercedes-speak) – the car gives you an extra 20mm of ground clearance and recalibrates the steering and traction systems. Shame that in order to keep the car in this off-road mode you have to keep the speed below 19mph.
All the usual refinements
While the big Merc has numerous tricks up its sleeve to help you out when you're off-roading, or attaching a trailer (the retractable tow-hitch is standard, and the reversing camera system comes with a guide to help you line said trailer up in order to attach it), its core strength is in letting you do all this while also enjoying all of the benefits that the regular E-Class has to offer.
Interestingly, rather than offering the usual raft of engines and oodles of options choices, Mercedes believes this car is a premium play and so offers it in just one spec. It seems likely the E-Class All-Terrain will appeal to well-healed country folk, who use the car to do things like (you guessed it) towing a horse box. And they want all the toys, and all the power.
You can therefore get the 350d 3.0 V6 diesel engine as the only option, and it runs through a 9-speed automatic gearbox. The more surprising move for a Mercedes, however, is that the standard specification includes the so-called Premium Plus and Comand Online packages, big wheels and loads more that review vehicles tend to have had added to them, but we think few customers usually select. Because who spends £15K on options?
Everything as standard
What all this means in the case of the E-Class All-Terrain is that for the £58,880 asking price you get 20-inch alloys, a full leather interior, LED headlamps, a panoramic roof, keyless entry and start, heated and electrically adjustable memory seats, the top-spec Burmester stereo system, a 9-speed automatic gearbox, a suite of cameras, and Mercedes' most advanced media/infotainment system shown off through a pair of 12.3-inch TFT displays.
So high is the spec that our test car had only two options fitted – silver metallic paint and the driving assistance package (£1695), which includes blind-spot assist, a semi-autonomous steering and radar-based variable cruise control system, lane-keep assist and other driver technology systems designed to keep you on the straight and narrow. It'll even jump in and brake or evasively apply steering lock for you if it thinks you're about to crash.
Life on-board is pretty sweet
As you might expect, there's a lot to like about the All-Terrain. You can waft along, in almost unparalleled refinement. There's more space in the boot than in any rival (640 litres, seats up). Apple CarPlay and Android Auto ship as standard, which you don't get in all rivals. The 60mph benchmark is reached in a whisker over six seconds. In our hands it still returned nearly 40mpg.
Only a slightly odd lurching sensation from the rear end (if you really press on round the corners) upsets things. No, the steering doesn't communicate like a BMW 5-Series Touring might, but trying taking one of those across a muddy field.
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Comand – which is Mercedes' name for its infotainment and media system – is generally OK once you get used to it. It looks bright and crisp via the big displays, but there's an awful lot going on and a myriad of ways to change things.
If you've been keeping an eye on Mercedes' in-car tech, note that this isn't the new MBUX system unveiled for the forthcoming A-Class with its touchscreens. Instead you still use the rotary controller and trackpad on the centre console as the main point of interface. Which is no bad thing. You can have the instrument cluster setup three different ways, all of which stick to an old fashioned render of a dial in some format and (again) slightly overload you with information.
What you might not like is the slightly off-set driving position and the gear-shifter, which is one of many stalks on the steering column, meaning you occasionally hit the wrong thing and activate cruise control instead of indicating. This does free up space for good cupholders and oddment storage in the centre console though.
Whether you'll be interested in an E-Class All-Terrain will most likely depend on your feelings about SUVs. And whether you like the idea of an off-road-idised estate car. We're fairly sure that many people won't but – cards on the table time – we do.
We understand why people buy SUVs and crossovers. There's something imperious about a Range Rover, something jack-of-all-trades about a Volvo XC90. But they're lumbering, heavy, dynamically compromised and, let's face it, most of the time you're lugging round an awful lot of hardware and space you actually don't need – which makes the vehicle less economical, slower, roll more in corners, and more of a menace to other road users.
That's not us saying don't buy an SUV. But if you've not got loads of kids and don't need to ford rivers regularly, we do think an E-Class All-Terrain is a better compromise and a better all-rounder for those seeking a premium, spacious vehicle that is refined and composed on-road and has impressive capabilities off-road, too.
It's a niche for sure, but given Audi and Volvo have been playing in this space for well over a decade, we're sure Mercedes will succeed. Certainly, with this product setup like it is, it goes straight to the top of this (admittedly rather small) class.
Alternatives to consider
Land Rover Discovery
The best 7-seater money can buy was our verdict on the new Land Rover Discovery. The Disco will take you places the Merc can't and carry you and six friends in more comfort. However, it can't match the tech or on-road refinement of the Merc.
Read the full article: Land Rover Discovery review
Volvo V90 (Cross Country)
The V90 Estate – which comes in an All-Terrain rivalling, Cross-Country format – is one of our favourite estate cars. It's a little more modern-edged than the Mercedes, but it lacks the sophisticated drive train, V6 engine and, to some eyes, the right badge. It is cheaper, though.
Read the full article: Volvo V90 review