Mercedes E-Class: Smart drive in every sense

The latest Mercedes E-Class is a sharp-looking, strongly-equipped technological tour de force. Rivals would do well to worry.


IF safety sells then any Mercedes salesperson keen to achieve bonus-securing success with the new E-Class should be prepared to replicate the video with this story.

An arsenal of semi-autonomous driving and active safety technology positions this new large sedan in an unsurpassed position; it’s very much the first of its kind, not just within its category but even within Benz-dom.

But, as we all know, talking about how ‘smart’ a machine is one thing. Experiencing is always a better kind of believing. With this car, making actions speak louder than words will ask for a certain degree of above-and-beyond commitment. I mean, who you really want to purposely drive at another vehicle, let alone a person, to prove a point?

Assuming that retailers won’t exactly encourage wannabe buyers to test the Mensa-grade incident-avoiding gadgets by putting themselves and the car into actual on-the-street danger, then the only way will surely be for them to do as Benz did in the film.

That means setting up a scenario in a safe zone with appropriate swerve-worthy props that could take the hit if the pedestrian avoidance (in which the car should either stop or, if there’s no time, swerve away) and an anti-collision (full-on braking) doesn’t work as advertised.

A first drive experience of the entry 2.0-litre four-cylinder E200 petrol and E220d diesel the other day was at least able to provide demonstration of other elements of the Drive Assist suite.

Want to change lanes or park without the onerous task of turning the wheel? I know that’ll undertake either for you at the push of a control.

Need some help keeping the car steady when a gale is pushing it toward the centre or side line? It wasn’t blowy enough on our day to discover the full effectiveness of crosswind assist, which uses the stability control to counter “heavy and sudden crosswinds that would normally require high levels of driver intervention”, but I got the gist.

However, insofar as the prang-avoidance stuff goes? Well, that was all ticked off at a previous brand event I didn’t get to. They sent me the video footage seen here but … well, that’s not really the same thing, is it? But it’ll have to do. Benz left its props from that event at home and politely made it clear they’d prefer we didn’t go out looking for real-world trouble to validate their claims. So we just had to shrug it off. Would a customer be so accommodating? 

One thing I do know: Not to expect this car to do everything for itself. While it has the most advanced assists in any of its current production vehicles, in regard to self-steer action the E-Class stops short of being autonomous.

Agreed, making it so would probably be a relatively small step. But even though it is the first Benz with the 360-degree radar and (forward-facing) camera-guided sensor array required to be a base point for hands-off operation, the brand has purposely left it on the cusp of self-driving totality for several simple reasons.

First, regardless of what Tesla has been allowing in this area, it holds that road rules around the globe generally not allow for this kind of thing yet. Secondly, Benz doesn’t believe the world can cope with that kind of thing yet.

So for now, the scope of the Drive Pilot automated steering, acceleration and braking systems is limited to certain circumstances – it has to judge proximity from numerous references, such as line markings and road signs, so is best on motorways, more limited on streets and borderline beneficial on poorly marked country roads. Even when those stars all align, it’ll run hands-free no more than a minute. Better than the old car – which stopped the clock at 20 seconds – but hardly Knight Rider and not necessarily to be trusted to get you home from the pub.

Conceivably, those braking and avoidance assists are still of greater real world benefit, because of their greater frequency of employment. The previous car had ability to boost braking power during an emergency and apply brakes automatically, if necessary, but now the software can pick up the potential of someone walking into its path. Or even some other living thing – it has 10,000 stored images as reference, which include some of animal including kangaroos. What it won’t do, though, is skid up at the ‘sight’ of, say, a plastic bag blowing across its nose. The setup also looks out for vehicles coming into its path and alerts accordingly.

The slick part of the evasive system isn’t simply that it compensates for the lack of steering input a driver typically uses when a pedestrian steps out in front of them but that it also assists straightening the car again. This is because Benz engineers have learned a lot of accidents happen in the aftermath as drivers under or overcompensate steering inputs. I’m sure both work exactly as advertised; Benz does not tend to go off half-cocked on this sort of stuff, but it would have been fun to find out first-hand.

It wasn’t a day without tech play. A highway stint allowed dabbling with the Drive and Steering Pilot adaptive cruise and self-steer setup similar to – but not exactly the same as - Tesla’s now-controversial Auto Pilot system, insofar that Benz’s has less latitude (and is perhaps able to tell the difference between blue sky and a turning semitruck). Ignore Steering Pilot’s requirement to touch haptic sensors in the steering wheel within 60 second segments and the car will start to slow and stop, as it is programmed to assume the driver is incapacitated.

I failed to effect the Active Lane-Change Assist, which will move the vehicle into an unoccupied lane on multilane roads once a driver has signaled a turn for at least two seconds, but wonder if it’s all that necessary anyway.

On the one hand, it’s pretty impressive that Benz have developed telectronics to not only ‘check’ the adjacent lane, but also the roadscape ahead and behind to ensure it won’t block traffic as it lane shuffles.  Yet, I figure that if you’re going to the trouble of lifting your hand to flick the indicator to engage this, it’s hardly a major to also nudge the wheel while you’re there.

Also tried out was the self-parking facility, again something the old car had, but now more automated, to the point where you simply need to push a button to allow it to scan for spots the tell it whether you prefer to park nose or tail first.

Unlike the old system, it can now self-select between forward and reverse gears as it fusses for the perfect line and also auto-stops at conclusion of its movement, though you still need to put the car into Park (oh, the inconvenience). It still works at a measured pace, though, still doesn’t recognize angle parking and seems to be a bit short-sighted insofar that it asks for the car to be quite close to the parking bays. Also, it curiously seems to highlight a spare space only after it is several seconds’ and a car-length beyond: Potentially that’s enough time for a cheeky sod to nip in behind and it.

Another nifty feature for egressing is an auto-brake which stops you reversing out into an unseen approaching car, but it’s a pity we don’t have Remote Parking Pilot, which allows the vehicle to be moved in and out of garages and parking spaces remotely using a smartphone app. It’s legal here – BMW has it – but the issue is that Australia’s regulatory environment is less free-thinking and, as our neighbour is the senior partner in our line-up sharing deal, they call the shots.

None of these guardian angels are imperative to the car’s operation – you can leave everything inactive and it’ll drive just fine – and maybe some will barely be bothered with, yet it is impressive the medium sedan is first with such pioneering equipment (beating even the flagship S-class sedan that generally gets first dibs), and that it has become standard fare to every E-Class here. Usual practice is to either restrict the ‘glam’ gear to the high-end models or, at least, make it optional.

It’s a gilt-edged lining for the $99,900 E200 and the $102,900 E220d, that are identical in look and appearance and deliver all the usual luxury conveniences and, notwithstanding that the ‘leather’ is man-made Artico, nonetheless express convincingly as properly expensive executive-level cars, with handsome exterior lines and cabins that are commodious, comfortable and still set the ergonomic standard.

The E also introduces a wholly computer-generated instrument display that presents dials and a swathe of operational data across 12.3-inch high-definition screens that adjoin behind a single sheet of glass. The effect is arresting and a huge step forward in logic and intuitiveness, not least because a lot of functions within the main instrument display and the more centralised entertainment portion can be controlled from just the steering wheel, using haptic thumb controllers. It’s a big change from buttons and knobs and older drivers might need guidance from their Playstation-raised grandchildren, but it doesn’t take long to grasp the basics.

Beyond all this wizardry, it’s still a car and the dynamic and operational aspects of that side of the operation are far more orthodox: Four tyres still touch the ground, fossil fuels still fire an internal combustion engine and it still has orthodox suspension, offering a quiet and compliant ride.

For all the promise, and regardless that four-cylinder engines are more dominant in the family than ever, Benz doesn’t anticipate either of the first-wave cars being the ultimate buyer choices; it’s thought that the up to $45,000-dearer E400 still en route will be the sales leader.

While Volvo has set its heart on a future wholly dedicated to 2.0-litre fours it is obvious why Benz recognizes need to continue with larger capacity, more powerful weapons. The E’s entry engines are hardly weak, and the new nine-speed automatic certainly enhance their positive characteristics, but they know their place. On top of this, while the E Class is 70kg lighter than previously, it is still a substantial car with a weighty feel. At this level, then, the ‘A’ scores are more for ‘adequate’ than ‘amazing.’

 Of the cars here now, the 143kW/400Nm E220d was the more impressive in respect to its operation: The obvious diesel torque advantage allows it to operate in more thrustingly assertive manner, and it even has the muscle to engage the gearbox into some surprisingly snappy shift behaviour, but what really hits home is the quiet imperiousness of its operation.

Brand assertion that this would be a lot less agricultural and guttural than the old car’s 2.2-litre four is not an example of PR puffery; the new engine only sounds like an oiler at start-up; from thereon it leaves the rough behind and just gets smoother and smoother. Cruising speeds refinement is whisper quiet brilliant. Add in the promise of an optimal economy of 4.1 litres per 100km and you’d be a fool not to consider it.

Nonetheless, we will shun it far more than is sensible, simply because diesel road cars always struggle with our Road User Charge regime. Assuredly, though, the OM654 engine’s day will come when it transfers to Mercedes’ sports utilities: It will do wonders in the GLC, for one.

Instead, then, any base level interest will fall to the 135kW/300Nm petrol, which by also being turbocharged is also surprisingly torquey and relatively smart in its throttle response. Yet even though it has spirit and acceleration, is not slow, it is also rather uneventful. You get the feeling that the E-Class is less relaxed fit with this engine than, say, a C-Class would be. It has fire, but is not a firecracker.

It also isn’t as schmoozy as the diesel, with some four-cylinder boominess showing through at certain rev levels. Flooring the throttle creates more work for the transmission, too; whereas the E220d might drop one or two cogs on kickdown, the petrol seems keen to drop from seventh, eighth, or ninth gear all the way to third, before hurrying to get back to what feels like fourth or fifth. It doesn’t do it loudly or uncouthly, but you are aware all the same.

E-Class suspension tuning historically does not entertain the sporty characteristics expressed by some rivals and nothing has changed. The suspension tune at standard level is foremost about compliance, so those chasing some semblance of cat-like cornering should not hesitate to select the optional Air Body Control suspension.

The sports settings certainly allow the car to shove itself more aggressively through bends, though there’s still some body roll nonetheless. That’s to be expected: Benz has already made clear that the yet-to-land AMG models – first a six-cylinder E43 followed, assuredly, by a V8 E63 – will be the ultimate macho models.

The air set-up as it now offers has firmness though it also can be softened off. A brief taster suggested the ‘comfort’ mode is potentially composed over the country roads around our launch venue than the standard car’s conventional set-up, though at the same token that solution is hardly poor. It is a smooth and quiet-riding car on steel springs, just not quite as serene.

As an exercise in technology and innovation, this E-Class is a patent tour-de-force; no other brand in its category is on the same page and some are now quite patently not even in the same era.

Throw in the other strengths of good styling, a strong specification and a more spacious sedan body – with the extended wheelbase bringing noticeably improved rear leg room - and you can understand why Benz, even in a climate where most new vehicle buyers have eyes only for SUVs, has every confidence that this car will do so much to further cement its dominance within the premium ranks.