Meet Project E-AT, our lightly modded Merc E-Class All-TerrainA Mercedes E-Class estate has joined the TG Garage, and we couldn't leave it alone
Welcome to Project E-AT. But it has nothing to do with food. It’s called E-AT because it’s a Mercedes-Benz E-Class All-Terrain (E-AT for short) 350d. And the Project, because I simply cannot leave things well enough alone. It’s a disease, or possibly some sort of mild mental illness, one which many of us suffer from when it comes to cars or bikes.
Anyhow, this started off as a rather lovely citrine brown metallic E350d. A 3.0-litre V6 diesel with 258bhp, 457lb ft and a nippy 6.2sec 0-62mph time. It’ll do 155mph top end, and cost a not-inconsiderable £58,880 new, £61,260 as tested with a couple of mild options. Mind you, it comes in the UK with a raft of standard kit, including all the expensive stuff like comfort and memory packages, panoramic glass, Burmester sound system and LED intelligent lights as well as leather, electric everything (including the towbar), and too much other stuff to neatly list here.
Now, I’m a big fan of the slightly jacked-up big estate. I have what might be described as an eclectic lifestyle, which involves carrying things, sometimes towing things, lots of kit and several children, as well as a need to do strange things in cars. The Merc E-AT provides the all-wheel-drive surety you need pottering down farm tracks/muddy fields, together with the ability to raise the standard ‘Air Body Control’ air suspension by 20mm when you need to.
The same suspension can then drop the car in Sport mode, giving better handling and efficiency on the road, and standard, I was managing high 30s mpg, which is lightly ace for such a big, fast car. Basically it’s a best-compromise situation for me: not the full-on SUV aggression, but with the capability that I need. And a truly enormous boot. Seriously, seats down, an E-Class wagon can swallow gear like you wouldn’t believe.
Still, I wasn’t happy. Thing is, I always planned to go on a little adventure in this car, and needed some extras. My go-tos are usually extra lighting and more appropriate tyres, but seeing as we’re planning to head to the very eastern edge of Estonia on the Russian border very soon, I needed something more… extreme. We’re going to hunt bears. With cameras, obviously. And in the Alutaguse forest in Estonia, they have a lot of them. To get there, we have to navigate forest tracks, out in the boonies. It’s not ‘proper’ off-roading. We’re not rock-crawling or mud-plugging, but we will be far from easy recovery, power points or service station coffee. So, like a decent scout, it pays to be prepared.
First up, big kit. Initially it was off to the Mission Motorsport livery dept to have some stripes applied, in the style of Mercedes’ own “Edition One” cars. Super professional people (thanks Mr. Walker), stuck on a broad top stripe with feathered side stripes, along with subtle ‘Project E-AT’ logos on the bonnet and sills. A good start, but not exactly a practical application.
Next, it was time for some rack action. Now, I like roof racks, because you can keep dirty stuff outside of the car, and generally carry more than you think. Cue Juergen Eberle, E-Class genius and maker of the E-AT 4x4 Squared - the one on portal hubs. I met him last year driving his awesome car, and he was keen to help. A few weeks later and a completely custom - and really rather lovely - roof rack turned up, heavy duty and beautifully made.
Fitted at a Mercedes dealer, it came equipped with some lights. But that wasn’t enough. Having long been slightly obsessed with the AMG racer the ‘Red Sow’ from back in the 1970s, I decided to pay slight homage by fitting four 180mm PIAA LED race spots (£282 a pair, in case you were wondering) on the rack in the same pattern as the bumper-mounted versions on that car. They should illuminate most of the forest. The worklights mounted around the car should cover the last 20 per cent.
Also on the roof are mounted a spare wheel (one of two), a pickaxe and a mattock (on each side in custom carriages, £60 for both) and a pair of jerry cans for fuel (£120 for a pair, plus fitting kits), as well as a towrope and heavy-duty jack. There’s an access ladder (£100), because you can stand on the roof rack, and you need it to get the wheel down without it bouncing away…
There’s also a rather nifty sunshade/aero device on the front, designed and fabricated by friendly engineer Ralph Hosier, which works as a sunshade and kind of works to push air up and over the spots. He’s made it so that the stereo cameras in the windscreen still work, so we still have all the usual suite of anti-crash and monitoring systems that come standard on the car, and I think it looks great. Ralph’s also wired all the kit in through the rear spoiler (the least expensive part to drill a hole though), and done all the talented and finicky stuff that requires attention to detail and ability, neither of which I possess.
The wheels are ‘aero’ items found on a neglected part of the Mercedes options list, probably designed for an E200 taxi-spec. Standard rims on the EAT in the UK are 20s, and I needed a deeper sidewall for interesting terrain, but also needed at least an 18-inch rim to clear the large-ish brakes. A bit of maths to work out which tyres would fit, and six BF Goodrich A/T K02 255/55/R18’s were purchased (£130 each), and after a little light shaving to get them to clear the top of the suspension arm, and we were set.
Inside, we needed somewhere to charge cameras, so the big underfloor storage area in the boot was co-opted for a large motorhome leisure battery on a split-charge system, coupled to power inverters and a small compressor for tyre adjustment duties, as well as a small portable espresso machine. And there’s another jerry can in there that’s not a jerry can. Because it holds gin - about £100 if you want to act like posh smugglers.
Outside, it was off to Dave the Paint to have all the brightwork made bronze, to go with the brown. Which was a great idea, until it became obvious that it was a LOT OF BRONZE, so back it went to have some bits made black, at which point, it looked a bit less mental. The wheels have also been painted black - with a weird mica flip that turns them a bit bronze in strong sunlight - and some other things have been tuned to my requirements. Turns out you can ‘trick’ Mercedes air suspension into doing all sorts of interesting things. Not that I ever would, of course.
There are still some things to finish, and a bit of shakedown to do, but we’re off soon. As far as housekeeping goes, the mpg is down to low 30s - blame the roof-mounted kit - and it rides better than it did stock, though the tyres won’t stick like the road-biased ones on the standard car, and they make a wee bit more noise, too. You need to play with the wheelarch liners to clear, but it’ll go much further than you imagine off road with the suspension cranked up and chunky rubber. Also, the roof rack whistles something rotten. But I haven’t figured out what to do with that yet.
I’ve just booked a bear-tracking guide and arranged the snacks. Let’s hope everything else does what it should. More in a bit.