Daimler’s passenger cars division – which consists of the Mercedes-Benz and Smart brands – has vowed to recover the distance from its German rivals, BMW and Audi. What does that have to do with an E Class test drive you’ll see later on.
First off, the recent history has placed Mercedes-Benz, the traditional leader of the worldwide luxury segment on the runner up position – first dropping into second place behind BMW and then third, in 2011, behind Audi. The all out sales war between the three brands has triggered an interesting situation: in their quest for record deliveries they all introduced lower-priced models that eat into the earnings pie. And that makes executives – and most of all investors – very unhappy.
So, models like the E Class large sedan or the S Class flagship (taking just MB’s case now) have to cater for a dual role. Earn enough customers to offset the decaying margins from the lower end models and also keep up the luxury panache. When you have models like the CLA that sits below the $30,000 threshold in the US, you really need the higher-end models to make a statement.
Design, Interior and Gadgets
The E Class has gone through a recent mid-life redesign. We could actually leave that lone sentence in this section, because it sums up very well the E Class exterior. It’s essentially the same limousine that we were treated back in 2009 – Mercedes-Benz just did some update work. Fortunately, they did it in the right places. We have a completely new front fascia, which shuns the unorthodox (that’s a change from the first version, when I said “ugly”) design of the headlights and brings a sculpted and very sporty front bumper. I also have a mention on the new headlights, which were later carried to the new C Class, as they are very welcomed departure from the SL introduced design. They look bold, technologically intricate and add to a certain new allure of the E Class range. The lateral side looks almost the same – which is not a bad thing and the rather bland stop lights have been turned into LED works of art.
Finally reaching the driver’s seat – although chances are many of the car’s owners will spend more time in the back seat – I was surprised to finally sit in a Mercedes-Benz that offers a lowered position. The front “buckets” are also very comfortable and offer good lateral grip – a feature that usually doesn’t mix with such types of vehicles. The interior hasn’t changed as much as the exterior did after the refresh. We have essentially the same Command center and the same climate controls – only that some buttons were rearranged and the overall build quality has definitely improved. Also, the classic watch housed between the central vents looks ready to be picked up and placed at the owner’s wrist – an accessible and great luxury touch.
What has really changed is the instrument panel, Mercedes opting for a three “rings” setup that is more practical and improves ergonomic efficiency. Speaking of which, the E Class still greets us with the usual Mercedes oddities: the column-mounted shifter is there because all the other levers are located to the left of the steering wheel, the parking brake is activated with the left foot and your seat’s electric controls (in certain versions) are on the door.
Actually, all these are a part of the Mercedes-Benz experience, and the driver gets accustomed to them in no time. What we didn’t get used to was looking at the long, sleek hood and not seeing in the middle the three-star logo piece – which in Europe was “killed” off by safety regulations.
One other mention is that owing to the model’s introduction five years ago, the Command system and other features could have been more intuitive – we found the color display a bit too small for the technological age of 5.5+ inch smartphones, for example. Or the fact that when in navigation mode, the easiest (but not very intuitive) mode to change the radio station was to scroll through the trip menu found on the display located in the instrument cluster – that prompts some button pushing on the steering.
On the other hand, controlling the modes of the automatic transmission was delightful – you quickly forgot about the column-mounted lever and used the paddles behind the steering or fiddled with the Eco/Sport modes. Also, one feature that should be on every buyer’s list is the 360-degrees panoramic camera system – I found myself looking for the tightest parking spots just to play with it.
Moving in the back, the interior is well designed for just two passengers – you’ll have a hard time convincing anyone to sit in the middle through a lengthy journey. Other than that, as an executive prone car, the E offers plenty of leg and head room, coupled with a huge trunk that allows you to store as many suitcases you would possibly need.
Engine, Transmission and Handling
The E Class we tested was equipped with a European region favorite – a diesel powertrain, coupled with a 7-speed automatic transmission that delivered the engine’s power to all four wheels. The 250 CDI version uses a 2.2 liters inline four engine that delivers 204 hp/3800 rpm and 500 Nm between 1600 and1800 rpm. The engine is essentially the same that can be found since the E 200 CDI version, but with a different power level. That said, the fact that it’s not a nobler V6 setup has an impact on the comfort level. There are no vibrations, but the sound from the engine is very much present inside the cabin – a surprise considering that usually Mercedes delivers eerie silent cars. While this is certainly lowering the luxury feel of the car, the “growl” of the engine is not actually very close to the usual diesel noise, and is more akin to mechanic, powerful machinery.
With a dry weight that tips the scale at 1845 kg, the E Class is not the sprint athlete – it reaches 100 km/h in a timely manner, in 7,9 seconds and has a top speed of 238 km/h. When hammering the throttle for the (sometimes) necessary kick-down, the fact that the automatic transmission is laggy adds to the general feel that the car is often underpowered. So, in making passes and sprinting from city to highway speeds a level of caution is needed – the car will deliver, but slightly “fashionably” late. The situation is more present when using the Eco setting of the transmission, which adds to the lag – but is still visible in the Sport mode, where things should be more “active”. Both settings ultimately favor comfort and fuel economy, so your best pick for an alert driving situation is the manual mode.
Thanks to the 4Matic all-wheel drive the car is very stable and neutral in corners, but once more the mass of the vehicle will kick in and temper the eager driver. The Mercedes-Benz in its traditional iterations has always been commended for the comfort it delivers, and the E 250 CDI doesn’t sway from the feel. The steering wheel is easy to use, especially in parking situations, the cabin noise is at a minimum (when the engine is at low revs) and the suspension setup enables the car to roll over any pothole. The drivetrain is not meant to please the drivers that love steep mountain turns, instead catering for the general wellbeing of the utterly important passengers usually riding in the back seat.
Of course, in the hands of an experienced driver and without any other passengers in the car the car will reveal it has very high limits, as long as you consider that the laws of physics will certainly take their toll if you disregard the weight and comfort-oriented suspension. The 4 Matic system takes everything a notch or two – especially if the road surface is wet or covered in snow – actually, besides adding to the handling capability, the all-wheel drive also acts as a great safety feature.
With automatic transmission, amass that approaches the two tonne threshold and an all-wheel drive system you would expect the E 250 to be a gas-guzzler. Well, factoring all that, it’s certainly not – even though the 5,5 L/100 km average consumption will most likely be forever out of reach. The model delivers outstanding fuel economy in real world situations, thanks to the Start/Stop system and the long, seven-speed gearbox and because, well – Germans know how to get the most out of complex technology.
We like the exterior design, especially the new front and back lights and we love the parking prowess that comes with the 360 degrees camera system. The comfort is great and interior space is as expected, both front and back.
We were treated to less than stellar engine noise deflection, while the engine felt at times underpowered – a feeling augmented by the rather slow seven-speed automatic transmission.