The Mercedes-Benz E-class wagon—with lineage stretching back to the W123-series cars of the late 1970s—has always exuded an understated classicism. It’s lower and sleeker than any crossover, yet the E wagon boasts an extra measure of practicality over the sedan, making it the perfect vehicle for dropping the progeny at Brown.
Although wagon sales in the United States are minuscule, these cars sell in the most desirable zip codes, and buyers of the E-class wagon are among the most affluent in the Mercedes-Benz family. In Europe, wagons are a much bigger deal; there, one in three E-class models sold is a wagon, and in the home market of Germany, the wagon accounts for half of all E-class sales.
Mercedes-Benz is edging this model toward crossover territory with the new All Terrain version, but despite the popularity of that genre here (the Outback wagon effectively made Subaru in America), we’re supposedly not going to get the All Terrain in the U.S. market. Instead, the latest E-class wagon, at least at launch, is coming to our market in only one guise: E400 4MATIC. (We are told, unofficially, that the all-conquering E63 model also will return.)
The E400 designation, as opposed to E300, is a tip-off that the wagon forsakes the sedan’s 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder; instead, it gets a 3.0-liter twin-turbocharged V-6. Compared with the naturally aspirated 3.5-liter six in the previous E350 wagon, the new twin-turbo 3.0-liter produces 27 more horsepower and an additional 81 lb-ft of torque. More important, the new totals of 329 horsepower and 354 lb-ft represent 88 more horsepower than the 2.0-liter turbo four in the E300 and 81 lb-ft more torque. With that extra output, you never get the feeling—as you sometimes do in the sedan—that it could use a little more grunt. The V-6 also sounds better, which is a nice bonus, although the wagon generally is a near-silent cruiser (more so if you opt for the Acoustic Comfort package, with its acoustically insulated laminated glass).
The engine is mated to the same nine-speed automatic found in the E300, and although it’s mostly well behaved—and snappy enough to downshift when braking into corners in Sport and Sport+ modes—we did experience a few rough 3-4 upshifts in Sport+ mode. Frankly, though, we don’t imagine most owners will use Sport+ mode often.
Longer and Lower
All-wheel drive is standard here, as it has been in E-class wagons for a while. In what is also becoming M-B tradition, the wagon (like the sedan) can be had in a choice of two versions: Luxury, which gets a chrome mesh grille topped by a hood ornament, and Sport, which has a grille featuring a pair of thick horizontal blades and a center-mounted star.
The Sport version also brings 18-inch wheels, rather than 17s, and a slightly firmer suspension tune. The one we drove was further outfitted with the available air-spring adaptive suspension (an option on either model), and it felt just about perfect. The adaptive suspension allows some body motion, but the wagon’s moves are dignified, never sloppy. The steering is creamy but not overboosted, and we found the E400 easy to place in corners—not too surprising, given that it’s effectively the same size as the sedan.
The latest-generation wagon sees its proportions change slightly, with shorter overhangs front and rear but a 2.6-inch greater stretch between the axles. It’s just over an inch longer than before and 1.3 inches lower. There’s more rear-seat kneeroom and fractionally more legroom and shoulder room, and the rear seat is comfortable for two adults. And yes, the rear-facing third-row seat—kid-size but still cool—returns once again. For thoroughly modern access to that retro third seat, the power rear liftgate now can be opened or closed via a kick motion under the rear bumper.
Aside from the V-6 powertrain, standard 4MATIC all-wheel drive, and wagon-specific furnishings, the E400 otherwise will mimic the standard and optional equipment offerings of the E300 sedan when it goes on sale in early 2017. That means the same sumptuous interior and the same standard 12.3-inch center screen. A second identical-size screen in front of the driver is part of the Premium 3 package (a five-figure option), and it creates a techno-fabulous display that beats even Audi’s new Virtual Cockpit. Getting what you want out of all that technology, though, isn’t easy. With the clickwheel controller, the touchpad above it, and the twin touchpads on the steering-wheel spokes, there are plenty of ways to manipulate the displays, but the multilayered system of menus and submenus is far from intuitive.
The E400’s Drive Pilot semi-autonomous driving system (also included with Premium 3) is equally impressive and easier to use. The active cruise control with steering assist allows for up to 60 seconds of hands-free driving before a beep prompts the driver to put a hand on the wheel. If you ignore that warning, the cruise control will switch off, and the car will decelerate. So you can’t ride in back and take videos of the E-class cruising with an empty driver’s seat—Mercedes isn’t interested in those stunts—but the automated steering is smooth, and the car will even change lanes to execute a pass if you give it the go-ahead via the turn signal.
The cars we drove in Europe had a new tech feature: the ability to use one’s smartphone as the car key. Although this sounds neat—you’ll never forget your car keys!—it’s somewhat less cool in practice. Whereas cars equipped with passive entry can detect a key in your pocket or purse and lock or unlock at the touch of the door handle, the smartphone key can’t be detected in your pocket. So you need to hold the phone up against the door handle—in exactly the right way—so the sensor can read it, and do the same again to lock the door. And the key has to be sitting in the charge tray in order to start the car. This smartphone car key isn’t coming to the U.S. imminently but might be offered in the future. We say there’s no need to rush on that one.
One of the Few, the Very Few
No car these days wants to appear behind the times, technologically—and there’s no danger of that here—but modern tech is not what’s going to sell the E400. Although there are smaller wagons in the U.S. market—the Audi A4 Allroad, the BMW 3-series, the Volkswagen Golf SportWagen, and the Volvo V60—for those who feel that a luxury sport wagon complements their lifestyles, the E400 stands alone, at least until the arrival of the Volvo V90. Looked at within the E-class pantheon, the E400 offers added versatility and, to our eyes, a sleeker look than the standard E300 sedan, and its twin-turbo six provides welcome additional grunt and a superior soundtrack to the turbocharged four-cylinder that powers the E300. At the same time, its mellower suspension tune and more natural steering make it a more relaxed tourer than the Mercedes-AMG E43 sedan, also powered by a twin-turbo V-6. Sadly, none of this is likely to materially alter the sales equation for the E-class wagon in the United States, but those few who do seek one out will be getting the sweetest machine in the current E-class lineup.
When, as seems inevitable, somebody creates a computer algorithm capable of writing a convincing online review of a car, we suspect its first use will be to craft a story about a performance Audi. Because any digital analysis of past reviews will confirm that they do tend to follow a very predictable script.
We haven’t reached such a level of automation quite yet (for which we are truly thankful), but the new Audi TT RS roadster seems to check pretty much every box on the list. Like almost all of its S- and RS-badged predecessors, the new car is incredibly quick and reassuringly adept at finding more than enough traction to match its potency—and without much in the way of driver-flattering involvement that typically draws enthusiasts to sports cars.
The new roadster shares all of its principal mechanical componentry with its coupe sibling that we reported on earlier. That means a new, lighter five-cylinder turbocharged engine with an aluminum block in place of the cast-iron-crankcase powerplant of the last car (and which lives on for now in both the RS Q3 and the RS3 hatchback; neither of those is sold in the States, although we are promised the upcoming RS3 sedan). The new unit is claimed to be 57 pounds lighter than the old engine, with the significance of that weight savings amplified by the engine’s location ahead of the front-axle line. Output has risen to 400 horsepower, and Audi claims a 3.9-second zero-to-62-mph time, just two-tenths slower than the coupe.
The expensive reworking of the five-pot is proof of the leverage that Audi still has within the Volkswagen universe, with company insiders admitting that it would have been possible to extract similar performance from the existing EA888 2.0-liter four-cylinder. (Indeed Volkswagen itself was working on just such an engine, although we’ve recently reported that the program was canceled.) Audi has been building turbo fives since the original Quattro launched in 1980, and enough people are still buying them to allow the company to maintain this welcome exception to VW’s policy of shared componentry. Long may it continue.
The RS roadster’s obvious gain over the coupe is that—with its roof down—it allows its occupants to better appreciate the soundtrack of its oddball engine. It really does produce a noise reminiscent of the competition Quattros that dominated the early years of the infamous Group B rally regulations, and it can rip through the ratios of the standard seven-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox with similar alacrity. It’s a much different beast than is the existing TTS, far louder and angrier and with an enthusiasm for operating at the extreme top of its rev range that the lesser car just doesn’t possess. It pulls hard all the way to the 7200-rpm fuel cutoff, with the Virtual Cockpit instrument display changing color in the more aggressive dynamic modes to warn of the rev limiter approaching.
The roadster’s structural reinforcement brings a predictable weight penalty. Audi figures it is 199 pounds heavier than the coupe, but the lack of a fixed roof doesn’t bring any other significant compromise to the driving experience. With the fabric roof in place, it feels nearly as quiet and refined as the hardtop, and even with it stowed there’s only the slightest hint of flex in the car’s structure when it’s asked to tackle a bumpy road at speed. It feels similarly sticky, with the all-wheel-drive system (the familiar Haldex-developed hardware, now produced by BorgWarner) routing torque to the rear axle and finding huge grip even in damp conditions on the Spanish roads where we drove the car.
Not that there’s any real encouragement to venture beyond the limits of adhesion. The RS’s weight distribution and torque dispersal are definitely front-biased, and although it understeers less than did the last-generation RS, adding throttle at the limit just pushes the nose wider. While it’s possible in the Porsche 718 Boxster to adjust your vector by adding power to induce more rear slip angle, the only way to bring the RS back onto its intended track is to ease off the accelerator and make the car tuck in. The roadster possibly could be faster than the Boxster around a track, but it is a far less engaging car to drive on the edge.
The RS roadster also lacks the coupe’s ability to play the practicality trump card. Like all other softtop TTs, it does without the coupe’s small (but viable for children) rear seats, and it also has less trunk space: eight cubic feet is short of what the Boxster can accommodate in its frunk and trunk by two cubes.
The other problem is what’s likely to be a familiar one to U.S. buyers in search of niche performance models. At the moment we’re told that the numbers just don’t add up and there are no plans to bring the RS roadster here, although Audi also says there’s no reason the roadster couldn’t be sold in the U.S. if demand somehow materialized.
The 2016 Kia Soul EV is a flip phone in a smartphone age: Its comparatively limited functionality is justified only by its relatively low asking price. Function, of course, is relative. In the utility sense, Kia’s electric hatchback is an electron-powered pack mule. But as a form of mobility, the Soul EV still has a functional deficit. Its 27-kWh battery pack is good for an EPA-rated driving range of just 93 miles, two miles better than the average we saw during our testing.
That said, 93 miles on a single charge is enough for most Americans, considering that the average commuter here drives less than 30 miles each day, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. However, in a market that’s soon to welcome the $37,495 Chevrolet Bolt and its EPA-rated 238-mile range, the $36,800 Soul EV+ is only months away from being woefully outclassed. (Note that those prices do not factor in any possible federal, state, or municipal tax incentives.)
Unlike some of those other so-called “compliance cars,” the Kia Soul EV doesn’t feel as if it has been converted to run on electricity merely for the sake of leaping through a regulatory hoop. Where some competitors, such as the Ford Focus Electric, sport giant space-eating humps in the cargo bay to accommodate a battery pack, the Soul EV’s cargo area loses no utility compared with its gasoline-powered counterpart. As such, the Soul EV can happily swallow as much as 50 cubic feet of cargo with its 60/40-split rear bench folded down and 19 cubic feet with all seats in place. Like all Souls, the Soul EV also has storage space below its cargo floor.Even without the prospect of the Bolt, though, the Soul EV is an irrelevant electric-car option for most Americans. That’s because Kia limits sales of the model to just 10 U.S. states: California, Connecticut, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Texas, and Washington. Odd as this may seem, such a sales strategy is nothing new in the world of electric vehicles, and a number of manufacturers take a similar approach. This is usually done to comply with individual state standards regarding the distribution of zero-emission vehicles (ZEVs).
Outside, there are few differences between the EV and the standard Soul. Keen eyes will notice distinct headlights and taillights, a different set of 16-inch wheels, and an available two-tone exterior paint scheme. A revised front end incorporates a larger “tiger nose” grille that folds out of the way to expose two charge ports—one for AC charging, the other for DC fast charging. The former port can fully charge a Soul EV in less than five hours on a 240-volt circuit but could take as long as 24 hours on a 120-volt outlet. Meanwhile, a 50-kW DC connection can charge a Soul EV’s depleted battery to 80 percent in less than 35 minutes.
For the most part, the cabin mirrors that of the regular Soul, a vehicle we like a lot. Quality switchgear abounds, and our high-end EV+ test car included luxuries such as heated and cooled leather front seats, a touchscreen navigation system, and a keyless-entry system with push-button start. Differences between the EV and standard Soul interiors include a digitized gauge cluster (it shows electric-vehicle-specific information such as remaining battery charge and power usage), white interior trim, an electric parking brake, center cupholders with a sliding cover, and driver-selectable modes for regenerative braking via the gearshift lever and a center-console-mounted Active Eco button. Four regenerative-braking settings are available, with the most intense setting essentially rendering the brake pedal all but redundant.Electrifying the Soul doesn’t come without consequences, though; the floor-mounted battery pack consumes a good chunk of the car’s rear footwell. With more than three inches of rear legroom lost, the Soul EV’s rear seats are less long-haul friendly than those in the standard car. On the plus side, the rear bench remains comfortable, while the Soul EV’s limited range means the likelihood of settling into the rear seat for especially long periods is slim to none. Fortunately, front-seat space is uncompromised.
Ultimately, less reliance on the Soul EV’s friction brakes may be for the best, as the electric hatchback required 186 feet of tarmac to come to a halt from 70 mph—19 feet longer than the last gasoline-powered Soul we tested. Thank our test car’s low-rolling-resistance Nexen N’blue EV tires as well as its 3427-pound curb weight—342 pounds greater than its fuel-sipping sibling.
Those added pounds don’t help straight-line acceleration, either. With a modest 109 horsepower on tap, the front-motor, front-wheel-drive Soul EV sauntered from zero to 60 mph in 9.7 seconds, crossing the quarter-mile in 17.4 seconds at 79 mph. Quick, the Soul EV is not. Still, it fares better than some electrics: A Nissan Leaf we recently tested required 10.4 seconds to hit 60 mph and took 17.9 seconds to go through the quarter-mile at 77 mph.
In spite of the Soul EV’s relaxed acceleration, the electric hatchback proved to be a fine companion on city streets. The electric motor’s generous 210 lb-ft of torque made it easy to snake through traffic and pull away from stops. Further adding to the Soul EV’s low-speed likability is the car’s surprisingly tossable nature and composed ride quality. It packs that added battery weight low and toward the rear, offsetting the effects of the high roof and the nose-heavy bias found in the standard model. Seriously, we could wish all Souls handled this well.
For 2016, Kia introduced the new, low-cost, California-only Soul EV-e. This model forgoes features such as a navigation system and a rearview camera to bring the Soul EV’s cost of entry down to $32,800—$2000 below that of the EV trim that serves as the entry-level model in the other nine states. On the other end of the spectrum, the top-of-the-line Soul EV+ adds a new Sun & Fun package to its options list. As found on our test car, the $1100 package includes LED interior lights, a massive panoramic sunroof, and lights around the audio system’s speakers. Floor mats added another $125 to our example’s bottom line, bringing its as-tested price to $38,025, or $530 more than a base Chevrolet Bolt.
Sure, a loaded Kia Soul EV+ includes luxuries that the base Chevrolet Bolt simply won’t offer, and, as mentioned, both vehicles are eligible for federal and state tax credits that can bring the actual cost of entry down significantly. Nevertheless, opting for the feature-laden Soul EV+ over the similarly priced Bolt and its 145 miles of additional driving range is like choosing to go with a flip phone simply because it comes preloaded with the game “Snake.”