The most exclusive Mercedes you can buy

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on November 19, 2018.

The AMG carbon ceramic composite braking system is optional.

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We are driving in a Golden Age of powerful, luxurious station wagons.

Consider the Porsche Panamera, the Audi A4 Allroad, the BMW 3 Series Wagon, and the Jaguar XF Sportbrake: All are as athletic as any sports sedan — quicker and more nimble than most of them, come to think of it — and are as spacious and practical as your favourite luxury sport utility vehicle (SUV), without being as ubiquitous. The category even comes off a little boring, which makes these new and improved wagons suited for stable-minded, virtuous family persons who would never be swayed by anything so vain as good looks.

Even among this top-shelf group, there is a hierarchy to the list. After testing the 2019 Mercedes-Benz AMG E63 S Wagon in heavy rain earlier this month, I found its combination of power, speed, and suspension to be in a class of its own. At US$106,950 (RM448,120) for the 2018 model year (2019 pricing arrives shortly), it is US$40,000 more expensive than the brand’s non-AMG wagon, the E 450.

But the hardest part may be actually getting your hands on one. Only two of the 2018 version are left at US dealers today, and the 2019 model will not hit showrooms until later this year. At the moment, this just might be the most exclusive Mercedes-Benz on the US market.

 

Rarefied air

This exclusivity is by design. Owning one inducts its driver into a small club of “if you know, you know” fellow power wagon enthusiasts. In all of its marketing materials, Mercedes repeats how exclusive the series is, noting that every generation of AMG E-Class wagons have always been special-order models in the US, never exceeding a few hundred annual sales.

Last month, Mercedes sold 27,537 vehicles worldwide, 1,000 of which were AMG models including things like the GT-R and the G63 SUV. Only a fraction of those were wagons, a model that attracts one of the brand’s highest median household incomes — 23% of its US customers are in either New York City or Boston; another 22% are in California. (Mercedes declined to share the sales figures for AMG Wagon vehicles.)

If you can get one, expect to be thrilled. By my calculations, and barring the Alpina B5 Biturbo Touring, which is not sold in the US, this is the quickest production station wagon you can buy.

It has a hand-built 4.0-litre V-8 turbo engine that can do zero to 60 mph (96 kph) in 3.4 seconds and hit 180 mph at top speed. It has a max output of 603 horsepower and 627 pound-feet of torque — nearly double the horsepower and torque of the E 450.

And it has an engine roar that is decidedly not family-friendly.

It is also one of only 22 AMG models out of 40 variants that come with standard all-wheel drive. This is no small thing, since the drive system includes a nine-speed transmission and a “Drift” (!) mode that switches to pure rear-wheel drive.

When I drove it, I alternated among five AMG driving modes: “Comfort” mode provides a softer response on the steering wheel and on the brakes, while the “Sport” and “Sport+” modes — the ones I used most frequently — are more aggressive on the throttle with tighter suspension and firmer braking. There is also a “Race” programme should you ever take your station wagon on a closed-race circuit.

Driving in heavy rain called for paying the closest attention to each of these, and as time passed I found myself switching between multiple modes and the AMG E63 S bore down on the wet road with no hesitation or faltering. The adaptive brakes bit hard when I pressed them. The sturdy, balanced body and a sport-tuned suspension with adaptive “air body control” made swerving far more easy than you would expect from a 4,670-pound (2,118.3 kg) car.

Once I got out of heavy traffic, I also used the “M” button to switch directly to manual mode, which allows you to shift through those nine gears via steering-wheel-mounted paddles. Individual suspension and steering settings can be selected as well, to exhilarating effect.

 

Inside the beast

The only consideration that brought me back to earth — reminded me I was in a wagon, not a sports coupe — was parking. At 197 inches (5m), it is longer than the options from Audi and Jaguar, and an inch shorter than the Panamera. I would rather park an SUV, parallel or otherwise, than one of these things.

But all that length is what provides the ample space inside. And the moment I stepped inside, I felt the full effect of how special Mercedes AMG is — the department gives the same creature-comfort treatment to the station wagon that it gives to the AMG GT.

The front cabin has enough headroom and legroom to house a basketball team’s starting five; the 40:20:40 rear-split seatback allows enough room in the back to throw down a sleeping bag and camp. (It already comes standard with a second set of tires, tools, and a jack.) The rear seats come with an adapter that allows passengers to mount coat hangers, iPads, and small folding tables onto the back of the front seats. Heated seats, rear automatic sunshades, and a power-lift gate all come standard.

You may like the air cabin fragrance system, though its manufactured effervescence makes me slightly nauseous. I do not know what your family was like growing up, but it likely beats whatever other odd smells you may want to mask in a family car, like sweat or blood or tears.

The ambient lighting is a cool feature — you can programme it to reflect your mood to varying brightness and hues — and the nappa leather seats, with customisable trim, give the interior a handsome edge. All these are included in the overall price, making the car feel high-end, special, and worth the money.

The only real gripe I have with the AMG E63 S Wagon is how it looks. Along with such odd-lookers as the Ferrari GTC4Lusso and Porsche Panamera, its blocky body and hatchback rear have the faint whiff of a hearse. It is as long as a large SUV or pickup truck, and to me, it looks like a long brick, especially when painted in darker colours like black or forest green.

But when you drive it, you love it. And love blinds you to such shallow quibbles about external appearance, maybe even changes your mind about what you thought you liked to begin with. Start making friends with your neighbourhood Mercedes dealer now. — Bloomberg