Mercedes' new E-Class estate follows the pattern set by the saloon model launched earlier this year; solid technical advances combined with a reassuring nod to the traditional Mercedes values many thought had been lost as the company chased sales outside its established markets.

The mix of tradition and progress is a different one in the case of the estate – although not in the sense that the estate is either more traditional or more progressive than the saloon. Rather, there is a whole area of the Mercedes tradition connected with estate cars that the company's engineers and designers have had to digest and reinterpret in order to produce this new model.

The first thing to say about Mercedes' tradition of making estate cars is that it's nothing like as old as you might imagine. Although there had previously been officially sanctioned hearse, ambulance and estate conversions, the first in-house Mercedes estate, the "T" version of the W123 model, was only introduced in 1977. Volvo and Peugeot, to name but two, had been making big estates for decades by the time the Germans joined in. And the most obviously traditional element of the new E-Class's styling – a pronounced crease over the rear wheel-arch recalling that found on the Mercedes "Ponton" from the Fifties – isn't really a part of the Mercedes estate tradition, as the Ponton was only ever available as a saloon.

But one traditional feature on the new car is estate-specific, and borders on the anachronistic; an optional third row of seats that by my reckoning makes this the only estate car on the market that can still carry seven, as long as the sixth and seventh occupants aren't too tall or too heavy. Other manufacturers have long since dropped this arrangement and instead direct customers who want to carry large numbers of passengers towards their people-carriers and SUVs.

Advantage Mercedes, I say, because SUVs and people-carriers still can't match the driving dynamics of a good saloon or estate. The traditional advice never to buy a Mercedes with a four-cylinder petrol engine or a manual transmission can now be safely ignored. Even the entry-level E200 CGI with its 1.8-litre turbo-charged engine provides enough go for this big estate and Mercedes' latest six-speeder is much sweeter than the company's older manual boxes. But if you're still sceptical, you'll find that the larger engines and automatics are better than they've ever been, too.

Mercedes E 200 cgi estate

Price on sale early 2010

Top speed 140 mph 0-62mph 8.7 seconds

Consumption 36.7 mpg

CO2 emissions 179g/km

Best for keen drivers with big families

Also worth considering? BMW 5-Series estate, Audi A6 estate, Volvo V70 estate

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