Price: £40,895 (range starts from £34,315)
Tested: 250 CDI SPORTEngine capacity: 2.1-litre twin turbodiesel
Power output (PS @ rpm): 204 @ 3,800
Top speed (mph): 144
0-62 mph (seconds): 7.8
Fuel economy (mpg): 52.3
CO2 emissions (g/km): 144
How far do you have to drive to know whether a car is any good? Ten miles? Or maybe it's 100. Well, I drove well over 1,800 miles in the new Mercedes E-Class Estate last week, starting with a frantic 3am dash to catch a ferry from Dover to Calais for a week's camping, and I knew I loved it before I got to the end of my road. The 1,799 other miles through France, down to Bordeaux and back up from Limousin and the Somme, just worked to confirm my early impressions.
From the off it just felt right, like a much-loved pair of trainers or a trusty cagoule. Perhaps because the E-Class is the car that epitomises the Mercedes brand in most people's minds, just as the 911 does for Porsche and the 500 does for Fiat. It's fairly conventional but still innovative when it needs to be, stylish but not overly radical, comfortable but not bling, fast but not punishingly so, and frugal but not underpowered.
I'm generalising, of course, but it's owned by chaps called Piers (or maybe Andrew) who live in well-heeled Suffolk, work in insurance, travel to London once a week, possibly own a small boat for the weekend and have a second home in France, but not Spain and certainly not Florida. They buy a new (or more likely nearly new) E-Class Estate every four or five years from the same local dealer, but don't go mad with the options list or opt for a massive engine and wouldn't dream of unleashing its full power on the A12 or really testing its Harman Kardon surround-sound system (one of the best I've heard, by the way) on Lavenham High Street.
For chaps such as Piers it's the sort of car they can take on holiday across Europe or take their daughter off to university in the North in, but still get out feeling rested with a smug sense of satisfaction at the other end. In short, it's the perfect cruising car, with impeccable touring manners and a ride that feels designed to eat up miles whether you're in town or on the motorway.
I'm no Piers and used the E-Class as a home from home – it was far more comfortable than my tiny tent – but I can easily see how attractive its blend of class and comfort is and why it has dominated the executive-car market for years (and brought bumper profits to the German firm). There's also the fact that it's a proper estate (no shrinking Volvo or overly curved, but not really very big, Audi here) with a vast 695-litre boot and some very practical touches.
For example, the handy electric tailgate isn't a pricey optional extra – it's standard on all models. There are also two levers at the rear of the bay that allow you to drop the rear seats for 1,950 litres of space without having to walk around and open the rear doors and battle with the seats. This is a mini-revelation when packing up camp during an unseasonal French rainstorm.
The ultimate praise, though, is that I gave "my" E-Class a name last week. Claudine (I was in France, after all) did me proud and despite some iffy moments where her satnav let me down on the Paris Périphérique, I understand completely why, like a snug sweater, Piers comes back to you year after year.