ROAD TEST: Mercedes-Benz All-Terrain is treading its own path
WHAT if you didn't want to follow the SUV crowd? Yet you want to travel the road less travelled while embracing the latest and greatest in automotive luxury.
Mercedes-Benz and its competitors are extremely adept at answering motoring questions before they are asked.
We've seen an onslaught of SUVs of all shapes and sizes, some with coupe styling and even convertibles.
Falling into the shadows has been the family wagon, and while the Europeans have done their best to keep "estates” on the showroom menu, our appetite for sports utility vehicles shows no signs of abating.
The Mercedes-Benz All-Terrain won't sway many from the GLE or GLC siblings, but it makes more sense for the majority of SUV buyers. Not that anyone will listen.
Essentially an E-Class with 29mm of extra ride height, it's the only Mercedes wagon you can buy in this large size.
Starting from $109,900 plus on-roads, it comes with some outstanding kit, but it does mean the All-Terrain is more expensive than the entry-level GLE SUV.
The technology is captivating.
Like the E-Class sedan, there are two colour screens that command attention.
There are a raft of options, with an ability to configure the set-up to individual requirements and preferences. The driver can control both the central screen and the instrument panel via thumb-tip controls on the steering wheel.
Intimidating at first, it doesn't take long to find your way through the various menus and find the information or your favourite settings.
Oh, there are also 64 different interior lighting options.
Befitting the price tag, the All-Terrain comes with outstanding kit, including the black ash and open-pore wood trim across the dash, dual-zone climate control, power tailgate, sat nav and digital radio, along with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay integration.
Capped-price service plans are available, with the All-Terrain costing $2780 for three years with annual servicing intervals, or 25,000km. That's about double the cost of a mainstream brand, but par for the premium course.
With nine airbags, the high-riding wagon also comes with some of the best safety gear on the market.
The radar cruise control, which maintains a safe distance from any vehicles in front, is the best in the business in terms of ease of use. It's operation is smooth, and while the steering assist and active lane-keeping functionality can make the steering feel artificial on occasions, it works brilliantly.
On highways it will steer itself for about 30 seconds before an icon calls for hands back on the wheel. It can even change lanes by itself, simply by indicating.
Air suspension offers a floating feeling where even the worst roads struggle to inhibit the ride.
When stepping off the bitumen you can opt for the "All-Terrain” setting for another 20mm of ground clearance, but the speed is limited to 35kmh.
Don't have visions of navigating gnarly tracks. It only rises to 156mm whereas most serious off-roaders go well above 200mm.
Tackling some rocky dirt tracks, probably the worst most buyers would consider, is not the choice of terrain for the 20-inch Pirelli P-Zero tyres. That's rubber best suited to the bitumen, and the no-cost 19-inch wheels with a larger tyre wall would be the smarter choice for regular off-roading.
Given this is a jacked-up E-Class, luxury levels are outstanding.
Seating can handle five adults, with the high-end leather trim fulfilling the opulent brief.
Another benefit is the 640 litres of boot space, which expands to 1820 when you drop the 40-20-40 split-fold seats. That's brilliant functionality for those who regularly carry various equipment, and we managed to fit two bikes with two seats still deployed.
Looking tougher and more robust than your standard E-Class, it gets a more SUV-like twin-louvre grille, black wheel arches and twin exhausts at the back to complete the macho makeover.
Only one engine is available, a 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo diesel, which is smooth and strong.
Despite only generating 143 kilowatts, the 400 Newton metres of torque really gets it hauling, and it's partnered to a smart nine-speed automatic that seamlessly finds the right cog in varying circumstances.
It also proved thrifty, averaging 6.5 litres for every 100km during our test.
The steering is light without lacking precision and you can select from five different drive modes, including sport and comfort, to better suit your driving intentions at the time.
Audi A6 Allroad Quattro ($112,855 plus on-roads)
This is the primary competition built on the same premise. It's a marginally more expensive but demonstrably more powerful machine, and its V6 turbo diesel (160kW/500Nm) is nearly two seconds faster in the sprint from standstill to 100kmh.
Skoda Superb 206 TSI 4x4 Sportline ($58,490 plus on-roads)
Not really a contender in terms of luxury, but certainly a similar concept and more than capable when the going gets rough.
Compare the All-Terrain to its sedan sibling and it could be difficult to justify the $15,000 premium on the rear-wheel drive E220d. Yet the long equipment list is testament to the sticker price.
Step inside and it justifiably feels top-end. There is no doubting this is a niche product swimming against the SUV tide.
But for those who regularly travel on gravel roads, option the 19-inch alloys and get the space-saver spare, then ride in pure luxury over the dirt and dust.
AT A GLANCE
MERCEDES-BENZ E220D ALL-TERRAIN
PRICE $109,900 plus on-roads
ENGINE 2.0-litre 4-cyl turbodiesel 143kW/400Nm
TRANSMISSION Nine-speed automatic, all-wheel drive
WARRANTY 3 years/unlimited km
SERVICING $2780 over 3 years
SERVICE INTERVAL 12 months/25,000km
SAFETY 5 stars, 9 airbags
ENGINE 2.0-litre 4-cyl turbo diesel, 143kW/400Nm
DIMENSIONS 4947mm (L), 1861mm (W), 1497mm (H), 2939mm (WB)
SPARE None; run-flats, space saver is an option
0-100KM/H 8.0 secs (claimed)