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There are certain situations on the road that, at first, don’t sound like they’re fitting for a particular type of car. Especially when it’s something made by a luxury automaker that, at first glance, doesn’t seem like it makes anything that’s up to the task. Taking a new Mercedes-Benz wagon off-roading is one of these scenarios. 

Whether due to skepticism about its capability, or just fear of damaging it, this historically suburban runabout-slash-retiree cruiser just seems like an odd choice to rip around in some dirt—except when there’s a shiny chrome badge on its hatch that reads All-Terrain.

The 2021 Mercedes Benz E 450 4Matic All-Terrain flips this script, at least the eye of most American consumers, I bet. It’s far from the purpose-built, portal-axled cousin the G-Wagen that’s often misused as a Beverly Hills tractor. That thing can actually off-road pretty well, not that anyone ever actually uses it that way.

Christopher Fowler

But thanks to the long-boy E-Class’s high-rising air suspension, all-wheel drive, and clever off-road driving modes, this big wagon can actually tackle the rough stuff rather capably. Recently, I had the pleasure of finding this out for myself by taking an E-Class wagon not just off-road, but through the hazardous, almost alien landscape of Southern California’s Salton Sea. The looks of befuddlement I got from passers-by affirms my point that, at first, this beast’s level of capability just doesn’t seem possible. But it is, and my excursion proved that the All-Terrain badge lives up to that promise just as well as the Mercedes tri-star logo does for comfort and power. 

If you want the power to surprise the hell out of people in extreme plush comfort and bleeding-edge modern technology, it will cost you. This Mercedes E 450 4Matic All-Terrain starts at $67,600, then after many options and a $1,050 Destination and Delivery fee tops out at $88,260.

On-Road: It’s All Comfort and Convenience

Christopher Fowler

The Mercedes E 450 All-Terrain is first and foremost an E-Class, so there’s no shortage of luxury amenities under this Selenite Gray Magno tester’s skin. What seems like hectares of soft-touch brown Nappa leather adorn its quiet, generously dimensioned, and well-insulated interior. Then, to round off rough tarmac’s corners, a fully independent air suspension system with adaptive dampers fills out its wheel arches. Finally, its smooth-as-butter turbocharged 3.0-liter inline-six has more than enough steam to maintain a comfortable pace on the highway.

During the first half of my week with the E 450, I threw my back out and was in fear of not being able to give it enough of a thorough critique. Luckily my back’s fickle muscles calmed down after a few days of stretches, ibuprofen, some more stretches, and even more ibuprofen, and I was able to thoroughly enjoy everything “E-Class” about it. That cushy ride made the experience a lot more palatable than, say, one of BMW’s jarring M cars. 

Southern California’s stretch of I-10 between the city limits of Los Angeles to the Coachella Valley was the perfect place to experience the chill vibes. The big Benz is a quiet, serene place to tick off the miles. Thanks to its 4-way adjustable front seats with seemingly endlessly customizable massage settings, plus heating that can be pinpointed to any particular zone of this 6’3″ adult’s lower back, I swear the Benz acted as a mobile chiropractor to help heal the remainder of my ailment. Additionally, any impending rough pavement was ironed out without issue with its driving mode set to Comfort.

Mercedes Benz

How it gets up to and maintains pace on the highway is also quintessential German luxe. The E 450 features Mercedes’ turbocharged inline-six with EQ-Boost mild hybrid assistance. The latter bit is a neat drivebelt-less system, where instead of bands of rubber coursing their way around the front of the engine, there’s a starter-generator and 48-volt lithium-ion battery that supplies power to the water pump and AC compressor. This cuts down weight under the hood and supplements power to the drivetrain under acceleration.

This system’s operation is smooth and more efficient than other brands’ non-hybrid engines, and the powertrain boost is very noticeable. Putting out as much as 383 horsepower and a massive 553 pound-feet of torque when both engine and electric motor are summoned, the 4,530-pound E 450 will hit the 60 mph mark in just five seconds. 

This big Benz rolls along with freight-train-level torque. It jumps up to speed at a rate similar to far more focused performance fare (such as the G80 BMW M3) and holds it so effortlessly. Also deceptively: the interior is so well insulated and isolating that 95 mph feels like 60 mph in anything else. This is great for places like Germany’s autobahn, but it’s unhealthy for your driving record here in the States.

Off-Road: It’s All Surprise and Smiles (And Still Comfort and Convenience)

Christopher Fowler

My reason for venturing out to the Coachella Valley, near Palm Springs and deep into the Colorado Desert, was to simply go explore and have some fun around the Salton Sea.

Prehistorically, the Salton Sea was the northern tip of the Gulf of California, which eventually got cut-off from its oceanic source and turned into a dry lakebed. Around 100 years ago, it was filled in with water redirected from the Colorado River to nourish agricultural activity in the area. Over the course of its existence, it has gone from a massive shallow lake that was once a recreational desert paradise to a tank of toxic agricultural runoff. Despite this, it’s still one of the most beautiful places in Southern California. Some towns around it might be rundown, and sure, its entire shoreline is lined with a sludgy ooze of mud, shells, salt, and fish carcasses, but because of all this it makes a great spot for a day’s phototrip.

This particular weekend wasn’t just any old visit to our local off-highway vehicle park, like Hungry Valley. No, this time we’d be faced with different kinds of hazards, and places that people generally wouldn’t think to off-road an $88,000 Mercedes. This wasn’t any old phototrip, this was a photo… expedition.

My friend/pro-photographer extraordinaire Christopher Fowler and I were ecstatic. It had been a minute since we’d visited the Sea, and were curious to explore a new area on the western shore that we hadn’t schlepped around before. Sure enough, the path we took required four-wheel drive and a decent amount of clearance. So we set the mighty Benz to its Offroad+ mode, and it easily dealt with everything we threw at it. The air suspension raised ground clearance up to 5.7 inches and we were off to the races.

Christopher Fowler

Getting to a spot that looked to be a campground, or maybe it was a small resort, that dated back to at least the 1960s required powering over some tall, tricky bits of deep sand. These weren’t exactly dunes, but the sands of time (pun intended) definitely built them up to a fairly menacing size. “When in doubt, power out” was the name of the game, and thankfully we never got stuck rolling up and over them.

After that we were wise to maintain a slow-yet-steady pace on a long, palm tree-lined trail, as the Salton Sea is a genuinely hazardous place to traverse. Old, jagged piping sticking up from the ground, hunks of foundation buried in the sand ready to rip a tire’s sidewall, broken glass, broken TVs, broken anything, really. The area around it, particularly within the limits of the towns that pepper its shores, are filled with all kinds of trash and debris of the past. And empty bullet casings, lots of those. All of this makes for great ruin photography, but you have to be very careful not to drive over any of it.

Christopher Fowler

While the E 450 is a large wagon with an overall width of 71.7 inches and a 194.8 overall length, visibility out of it is quite good. This meant that determining our track size, where each tire exactly was at all times, and what kind of clearance we needed was easy to gauge. 

Still, one of the most paramount off-roading driving skills, pre-walking and scouting the path, was quite necessary as we weren’t exactly rolling on chunky, hardcore off-road all-terrain tires. These were mildly suitable 245/45/19 all-seasons at best, and surely their ply or sidewall wouldn’t hold up to the most minor of hazards.

We wanted to snap photos of the All-Terrain near the shore of the Sea as well, but that meant treading through some legitimately deep and sticky Salton Sea ooze. However, this turned out to be not much of a problem as the Benz’s extensive underbody paneling, decent clearance when fully aired up, and all-wheel drive made short work of it.

Christopher Fowler

I say ooze because it wasn’t just sand. The Sea’s shoreline is made up of sand, salt, mud, fish bones, miniature shells, and more mud. Though, I’m thinking the coarse, petrified biological material actually helped maintain traction, kind of like using kitty litter to free a car from a snowbank. Call it using Mother Nature’s traction board. Getting out to take photos of the E 450 in the petrified slurry was an alarming sight at first, as it appeared to sit pretty darn deep down in it. But once I got back behind the wheel and put my right foot down, it effortlessly clawed its way out. 

That 5.7 inches of aired-up ground clearance doesn’t sound like much, and it isn’t, but as long as you aren’t trying to scale gnarly climbs or crawl over big rocks, it’s plenty for sand and gravel trails.

We made our way down the shoreline on a well-traveled 4X4 path where hobbyist off-roaders gave our luxurious Mercedes wagon puzzling looks from their Jeeps and lifted trucks. This was one of the best parts of the day. One older gentleman in a heavily modified JK Jeep stopped to chat as he couldn’t believe what our silver executive express had accomplished before his eyes. He stuck around and kept an eye on us as we climbed up a gravelly, steepish hill to get back onto some paved tarmac. Thankfully, the Benz had no issues and didn’t need any of his assistance.

Further Exploration on Loose Surfaces

Christopher Fowler

This area of Southern California is an off-road enthusiasts’ dream. Not only is the Salton Sea fun to explore, but there are many square miles of gorgeous OHV-welcoming state parks to the West on the edge of San Diego County. In one particular spot, not actually in one of these parks but still far from civilization, we happened upon a dry lakebed and determined it’d be the perfect opportunity to see how the E 450 All-Terrain boogies with traction and stability control turned off.

Christopher Fowler

Joy of joys, the long Benz allowed me to have just enough oversteer to make for fun photos as its torquey turbo six sang its baritone, well-muffled E-Class song to the heavens. Sport mode livened up throttle response, and also set the air suspension down to a sportier stance. Luckily, there were no divots or large bumps to watch out for, just loose, fine dirt. Though, it was legitimately hard to will towards a slide, even with all electronic nannies turned off and ham-fisted, jerky inputs while rolling at speed. This is good news for those who want to avoid such rascality and safely traverse through less-than-ideal traction scenarios. Though, not exactly strong marks for hooliganry. 

Though, that’s OK: it still happily raged and proved that it’s got fun and personality in spades when you play with its modes and look beyond its first impression as a staid E-Class.

Verdict: A Fun All-Rounder

Christopher Fowler

After a day chock-full of off-road fun, we made our way back to Los Angeles via several gorgeous San Diego County roads that snaked through lush valleys bathed in the warm afternoon sun. Some of these had legitimately fun stretches, too, which were prime time for the E 450’s Sport mode. This lowers the air suspension, tightens up the adaptive dampers, and sharpens up the throttle. Despite its very pedestrian tires and portly 4,530-pound curb weight, it was a gas to hustle through seemingly endless successions of smoothly paved twisties. The following day I did an extra-fun group cruise through Angeles National Forest where the E 450’s handling chops shined through even brighter.

The Mercedes E 450 4Matic All-Terrain is such an excellent wagon. It’s spacious, incredibly luxurious, surprisingly capable on and off-road, and looks so good to boot. It’s a very pretty and photogenic car, and would make a truly stupendous do-everything luxury chassis for anyone who doesn’t want to sit up high in an SUV, digs the old-school appeal of the wagon, but wants just as much interior space and niceties and competing high-sitting fare. It’s expensive, but a drop in the bucket for its intended market segment. Especially considering its fully loaded price isn’t far off from where a new BMW M3 starts.

Plus, it’s immensely cool that Mercedes is still dedicated to the wagon as an ongoing body style, at least until 2030. Between the E 450, its more aggressive sibling, and its direct competitor the Audi Allroad, I hope wagons around for as long as possible.

Christopher Fowler

As far as choosing this mighty E Class wagon over say, any number of similarly appointed SUVs (especially those that permeate Mercedes’ lineup) there are some solid benefits to sitting closer to terra firma. While athletic SUVs with adaptive dampers and wild engines are fun, they still can’t compete with physics. The E 450 isn’t nearly as beastly as its AMG E 63 sibling, but it’s still very good in the corners, thanks in part to having a normal passenger car center of gravity. It will do there what no SUV can dream of. 

Then, there’s ingress and egress: it’s refreshing to just slide in and plop down in the E 450’s seats, rather than having to climb up into an SUV. The E Class still offers a nice panoramic, commanding view ahead and is incredibly roomy. My tester was also equipped with two rear-facing fold-out seats in the hatch, too, kind of like what wagons were so well known for back in the day. They can’t accommodate a grown man (I tried, it was painful), but small children would love it.

And one of the E 450’s trump cards is that, well, it’s just classy. It’s a sleek, elegant-looking roundabout that tells passersby that its driver is a connoisseur. They want luxury and opulence, but they want it in something different. An E 450 driver doesn’t buy Versace off the rack at Macy’s, they get measured up at Neiman Marcus. Then, they pair that suit with some well-worn desert boots. Because if they find themselves in the right off-the-beaten-path scenario, they’ll want to pop out and get a photo of their beautiful, opulent wagon covered in a fine layer of dirt and mud. What more could you ask for?

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