ANN ARBOR, MI – Stuck in the middle of the best-selling C-Class, forthcoming CLA-Class and redesigned, range-topping S-Class is the Mercedes-Benz E-Class, beautiful sedans and coupes that easily can be overlooked.

Mercedes has taken care to retain E-Class loyalists by refreshing its lineup this year, which includes base and sport models of sedans and wagons. Already in showrooms, the auto maker recently invited journalists to test its ’14 E350 sport wagon, an intimidating hauler that proves to be just as agile as it is luxurious.

The premium station wagon is something of a rarity among car buyers but still a desirable option, as Cadillac steps to the plate with its CTS wagons, Audi with its slightly smaller Allroad and BMW with its 5-Series Gran Turismo, which is more of a liftback. BMW buyers in the U.S. who want a more conventional wagon need to go down a segment, to the 3-Series.

Here in this hip college town, it’s a smorgasbord of car offerings, but budget-friendly wagons and cross/utility vehicles such as the Subaru Forester reign supreme.

Sport-oriented Mercedes models now are known by a large 3-point star in the center of the grille, while other models bear a small hood ornament. The latter group includes the E350 wagon, which also features new, angled headlights with light-emitting diodes lending it a slick, sinister look.

Mercedes doesn’t exactly pour the luxury on thick here; see the upcoming S-Class for that. But neither is there skimping on premium features: Seats that can be heated or cooled; dual climate controls; rear- and front-parking assist; and the auto maker’s highly regarded lane-keeping assist, which senses lane markers and prevents drivers from swaying into neighboring paths.

The interior for ’14 is brightened with brushed-metal accents that aren’t visually overpowering, but a significant departure from the darker interior for ’13. Softer touch points and straighter lines make for a stylish and more organized center stack.

A small, but striking change: An elegant analog clock now resides atop the center stack where a button for hazard lights was located in the ’13 model.

And yes, the E350 wagon can accommodate seven occupants, if two of them are children in rear-facing seats in the back.

From downtown Ann Arbor through rural Livingston and Washtenaw counties, the roads are straightforward, but there are opportunities to test the limits of this sport package.

Though the E350 wagon weighs in at a hefty 3,979 lbs. (1,805 kg), all that mass is well balanced. Considering the weight, firm seating and overall ride and handling, it’s easy to forget you’re in a station wagon instead of a larger cross/utility vehicle. That’s not a bad thing, but it could lure away the customer who might consider a GLK ute.

Smooth shifting by the 7-speed automatic helps push this wagon uphill without overworking the 302-hp 3.5L V-6, but cruising on flat surfaces can be more of a challenge at full speed. Passing a slow driver, for example, takes a bit of work on the throttle. The engine never sounds overtaxed; it’s just a tad sluggish.

Where the sport element of this package shines is in the suspension and handling. The E350 takes curves like a champ, with tight steering and little body roll.

When pushed, the exhaust note is appropriately grunty, but it’s a far cry from that of the uber-sporty AMG models. In general, the E350 wagon is quiet and comfortable, as most customers will want it.

In addition to a regular mode, drivers can switch between Eco and Sport. Eco saves gas by restricting throttle response and other functions to keep the engine from burning too much fuel.

In some vehicles, Eco mode can take the fun out of driving by restricting downward movement of the accelerator pedal. It’s different, and much less noticeable, in the E350. Except for the bright green letters in the instrument cluster, you wouldn’t know Eco mode is engaged.

Sport mode, however, is disappointing. You’d expect a kick in the pants when hitting the gas, but it never comes. In fact, there’s little noticeable difference between Sport and Eco modes.

Despite some shortcomings, the E350 delivers on one promise: fuel efficiency. Mileage ratings are 19/26 mpg (12.4-9.0 L/100 km) city/highway, and during this 2-hour drive, observed fuel economy peaks at 24 mpg (9.8 L/100 km). More than acceptable for a vehicle this size.

A Harman/Kardon sound system pours out crisp tones, but voice controls are tricky to pin down. One can imagine a parent growing frustrated trying to change the station while attending to kids in the back.

Now in showrooms, the E350 wagon is a head-turner. While the sedan follows traditional Mercedes styling, there’s something about the wagon that catches more eyes along our route. Perhaps it’s the prominent rocker panels or the gaping air intakes below each angular headlamp.

In addition to the intimidating stance, there are 17-in. alloy wheels like those you’d see on an aftermarket-modified model and near-fastback styling in the back. The arched beltlines give this wagon more character than straight-edged family cruisers of the past, and inobtrusive roof racks are functional without screaming, “Hey, we’re going to Wally World!”

Pricing begins at $58,600, which puts it way above the league of a base-priced CTS wagon ($39,205). As tested with all the bells and whistles, pricing tops out at $69,320, which falls directly into luxury SUV territory.

Mercedes doesn’t sell many E350 wagons; the German auto maker says it delivered only 1,712 units last year. But it’s still a solid entry in the fast-but-family-friendly market that’s growing as the U.S. economy rebounds and buyers become more discerning.

For future iterations, Mercedes may want to consider putting more oomph under the hood.

afoley@wardsauto.com

 

'14 Mercedes-Benz E350 4Matic Wagon
Vehicle type Four-door, 7-passenger, all-wheel-drive wagon
Engine 3.5L DOHC direct-injection V-6; aluminum block/heads
Power (SAE net) 302 hp @ 6,500 rpm
Torque 273 lb.-ft. (370 Nm) @ 3,500-5,250 rpm
Bore x stroke (mm) 92.9 x 86.1
Compression ratio 12.0:1
Transmission 7-speed automatic
Wheelbase 113.2 ins. (288 cm)
Overall length 192.7 ins. (490 cm)
Overall width 73.0 ins. (185 cm)
Overall height 58.9 ins. (150 cm)
Curb weight 3,979 lbs. (1,805 kg)
Base price $58,600
Fuel economy 19/26 mpg (12.4-9.0 L/100 km)
Competition Cadillac CTS Sport Wagon, Audi Allroad, BMW 5-Series Gran Turismo
Pros Cons
Unassuming eco mode So-so sport mode
Stylish kid hauler Complicated voice controls
Agile suspension Hesitant at higher speeds