Good Sport

By Hannah Wallace July 31, 2005

Every once in awhile, something comes along that compels you to look. So it was that my eyes, now blasé from 15 years of looking at new test cars in my driveway weekly, popped wide open at the sight of a 2005 Mercedes-Benz E55 AMG Sport Wagon. This is a Mercedes-Benz?

Yes, indeed.

It was hunkered so close to the ground that it barely cleared pine needles dropped from an overnight storm. Beneath the rear bumper jutted four exhaust pipe exits, done in chrome, of course. The windows were darkly tinted. On the roof was a luggage rack straight from a Chevy Chase Vacation movie.

For the uninformed, station wagons are back. The family transports of the '50s have re-emerged, often purchased by those whose parents bought wagons during that heyday era. (Actually, wagons never went away; one-third of all Volvos sold are station wagon models.)

The most popular wagon to customize today is one of the ugliest vehicles ever put into production: the Chevrolet Caprice. When I reviewed the car at its introduction, I wrote that it resembled "Mike Tyson in a tutu." But the Caprice wagon, along with its kissing cousin, the Buick Roadmaster, had promise. The things were among the last of the land-whale wagons produced by Detroit automakers.

Young people waited a decade after those two became extinct and then they snapped up the V8-powered wagons that grandmas once drove to Winn-Dixie. They lowered them, put new wheels on them, painted them black. They created mean machines, ghetto cruisers and gangstamobiles.

That's what the Mercedes E55 Sport Wagon reminded me of. It's mean-looking. Purposeful. It sure doesn't look, however, as if its purpose in life is to transport the Cleavers to church, the Bundys to a PTA meeting or the Griswolds to WallyWorld.

One look at the specifications confirmed that this is not your average family station wagon. This is a racecar that just happens to have a station wagon body dropped over its race-ready undercarriage. If the Griswalds want to travel 155 mph all day in this, they can. But it's hard to imagine that, isn't it?

It's easier to imagine this being bought by a rich businessperson who appreciates style, performance, handling, safety and panache. That's the kind of person who will pay $90,505 for this sport wagon. And that person, who surely has an appreciation for the finer things in life (like craftsmanship), won't be disappointed.

Under the hood of the E55 Sport Wagon is a hand-worked, supercharged V8 engine that pumps out an astounding 469 horsepower and 516 pounds-feet of torque. It's all controlled by a five-speed automatic transmission that can be shifted by racing-style paddles located on the steering wheel.

Each engine used in these special AMG vehicles is created by a single craftsman at Mercedes-AMG in Affalterbach, Germany. His nameplate is attached to the engine and the engine is bench-tested to assure output is as stated.

Power goes to 18-inch rear alloy wheels sporting high-performance tires. Serious rubber.

It is safe to say that no station wagon this side of a drag strip can keep up with an E55 AMG wagon. Indeed, few cars can.

The E55 AMG wagon dashes zero to 60 in 4.5 seconds. How fast is that? Quicker than a new Corvette. It accelerates smoothly but with such G-force that the sunroof cover invariably slides back and must be slid forward by hand once a driver slows.

If all it did were go fast, it'd be dangerous. Be assured, it also stops fast. There are huge brakes on this wagon, dragging it from 60 to zero in 120 feet. That's a very short stopping distance for any vehicle, incredible for a station wagon weighing 4,400 pounds.

For those who understand quarter-mile drag race times, the E55 wagon scoots that distance in 13 seconds at 112 mph.

It provides supercar performance without the supercar beating usually given those inside such a powerful vehicle. That's the frosting on this cake: The E55 AMG wagon is downright docile around town. Our tester had an optional third row of seats ($995) where the kids can feel the whip of a roller coaster as Super Soccer Mom drives the gang home from practice.

Around town, the wagon rides slightly more stiffly than vehicles without high performance credentials. But no one would ever call this ride "rough." And the interior is so elegant and posh, with leather surfaces and black birds-eye maple wood trim that it compares with the top luxury cars.

The seats on the tester were "dynamic," meaning the supports on each side of the driver's chest inflated and deflated as corners were turned. The dynamic seats, designed to hold the driver more firmly in place under hard cornering, were part of a $3,390 option package that includes a navigation system, a six-disc CD changer and air-conditioned seat surfaces.

Safety features are state-of-the-art, including head curtains and a rollover sensor.

It only lacked two modern features: adaptive cruise control and a rear-view camera for the navigation screen.

Piffle, you say.

I agree. This is a vehicle to covet. But don't dash down to your local dealer expecting to find one on the showroom floor. Don't even look on the Mercedes-Benz Web site. The E55 AMG Sport Wagon is special-order only.

It can be had only from the German factory, shipped to your driveway special delivery after being made to your specifications. Handmade. Unlike anything in the world. Makes you want one, doesn't it? Me too, after testing it and watching it disappear from the driveway after a week.

It barely cleared the pine needles.

Robert C. Bowden produces The Car Place, a Forbes Best of the Web selection, and can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]

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