► Mercedes tries the Allroad/Cross Country recipe
► A tall E-class estate in plastic petticoats
► Want a V6 diesel E estate? Currently, this is the only one
If a year is a long time in politics, one can't help wondering what 18 years constitutes in the automotive industry... Because that's how long it has taken for Mercedes-Benz to finally flap this E-Class All-Terrain gauntlet in the face of the Audi A6 Allroad; the latter itself unchallenged in the tall-estate-in-plastic-petticoats stakes until Volvo more recently recognised the SUV-challenging potential of the genre with its V90 Cross Country.
Mercedes' having chosen to accept – and yet to complete – the mission improbable of producing a range of no less than 37 different SUV models, the company might justifiably argue that it's been a tad too busy to pay overmuch heed to the fact that premium competition in this classy little niche remains remarkably thin on the ground.
So why, suddenly, now?
Why indeed? Well, the news that this All-Terrain variant only boasts a meagre five percent difference in parts from its standard all-wheel drive E-Class estate sibling immediately makes it eminently more feasible as a project with which to keep Mercedes' engineers busy in their spare time.
With the standard E-Class estate only available in the UK mated to a 2.0 litre, 192bhp turbodiesel, the All-Terrain represents salvation for those who wish to enjoy V6 diesel power and all-wheel drive installed in a slightly taller shooting brake.
Actually, the All-Terrain will go on sale in the UK next summer with that choice of engine alone, at an estimated cost of £50-55,000. It will be offered in just one high-specification trim level -somewhat akin to an AMG Line model- with nine-speed automatic transmission, adjustable air suspension and 4MATIC permanent four-wheel drive fitted as standard.
Just 5% parts difference from a standard E-Class all-wheel drive estate?
Yup. And a deal of that five percent appears to have been lavished on the off-road appliqué which hallmarks the All-Terrain's outward boundah credentials. A ride height increased by 29mm (some of which may be attributed to larger wheels and tyres, and some to revised suspension) is accompanied by redesigned front and rear bumpers, the faintest whiff of plastic petticoats and standard fit 19" alloys.
The front is most visibly changed, with a chunkier twin louvre-style upper grille treatment and a less visually satisfactory, somewhat haphazard-looking lower grille surround above a faux underguard panel. On board, all is high-end E-Class, which equates to superb build quality allied to a few potentially dodgy trim finishes; pinstripe piano black, anyone?
Good to drive a V6 Mercedes again, I'll warrant..?
Absolutely. The All-Terrain's 3.0 litre V6 turbodiesel generates 254bhp and a handsome 457lb ft of torque. This is distributed to all four wheels via a nine-speed automatic transmission, the differential -mounted adjacent to the gearbox rather than expensively integrated- distributing power between front and rear axles with a 31:69 split. Interestingly, the front-to-rear split on LHD specimens in 45:55, suggesting further boxes marked 'savings' were ticked during the conversion to right-hand drive.
Mercedes' engineers tell us that the ratio of torque split between front and rear axles is only adjustable to the tune of some 8%. Not that – during both on- and off-road driving – we noticed.
On road, the car marries a quiet cabin and a largely exceptional ride (air suspension can never seem to quash a certain nuggetiness) with light, accurate and over-inert steering and a fair quota of well-controlled body roll.
At the time we drove it, the All-Terrain had yet to be homologated, so no performance figures were available, but we reckon 0-62mph is seen of in something under seven seconds. The powertrain juggles between the wealth of gear ratios with the expected seamless fluidity, but you'll need to engage Sport mode in the Drive Select system to realise the pace promised by the engine output figures. At which point proceedings become a tad more raucous and less refined.
High-speed cruising is the All-Terrain's true metier, then, and its capacity to deliver unflustered pace suggests it'll dismiss entire continents with effortless insouciance.
So, how does it fare off road?
Off road, the selectable All-Terrain driving programme automatically raises ride height by 20mm. The highest suspension setting gives a total ground clearance of 156mm, which proves enough for the car to acquit itself with considerable aplomb on rocky forest tracks that would, at best, seriously tenderise the underside of conventional cars.
Its allocated ground clearance and approach, departure and breakover angles somewhat shackle its abilities as a genuine off-road adventurer, but on rutted tracks, snow and wet gymkhana grass, it's no more likely to let you down than any all-wheel drive SUV.
Comfortable, classy and – when it comes to semi-autonomous driving – a little too clever for its own good, the E-Class All-Terrain makes a very respectable fist indeed of disguising how little it actually differs at heart from the standard estate.