The most complex car released this year represents an impressive insight into the future of driving.
For: Astounding assistance technology, handsome cabin, excellent drivetrain.
Against: NZ’s SUV-centric tastes suggests all the right stuff is in the wrong bodyshape.
THE more technology the better seems to sell mobile phones and televisions so why not cars too?
If that kind of thinking spins your wheels, then the new E-Class is going to have the same impact as the latest iPhone would in a country where the locals still think shouting is the only form of long-distance communication.
The E has always signalled ‘medium large’ in Benz-speak, but this time it could easily stand for ‘extraordinary.’
The latest generation is truly the Clark Kent of cars, a conservative with ultra-intelligence.
As an exercise in technology and innovation, this model is a 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.
Here’s a family and business-minded vehicle packing the smarts to stop itself, park itself, and, for 20 second periods – though they feel like small lifetimes when it’s doing this – drive itself along the open road. Not only that, it’ll even self-effect a lane change if you ask it to. And that’s just the Drive Pilot functionality ticked off. There’s a heap more smart driving tech within the cabin.
What’s even more mind-blowing is that all this packs into an entry model. The E220d tested here is the diesel starter, packing a 143kW/400Nm 2.0-litre, that nominally prices at $102,900. Though perhaps above the average medium car budget, that’s still cheap-ish for a premium offer, especially once you see what you are getting.
True, the test example carried four options to bump it up to $117,080, but while these – iridium silver paint ($1990), AMG Line and Vision packages (respectively $6300 and $4990) and heated front seats (for $900, why not?) – made it look smarter, the stuff that makes it drive that way is already all standard.
Which raises an unusual question: Buying into more expensive versions not only buys bigger engines and more swank but also more touch screen enabled, voice controlled sophistication. Do you need it? When driven in isolation, this one already seems good enough already.
Maybe, in a year from now, should I have been fortunate enough to try those others, I might look back at that statement and sneer at its naïveté. But, at the moment, I don't think I'm a fool for suggesting it.
No argument, the E-class is very likely the smartest car on the road at the moment. But is it the smartest choice?
Even before getting into this test, it’s clear there are two potential hindrances. First, it is a sedan. The market doesn't warm so much to those anymore. Second, it's a diesel sedan. So, a niche within a niche.
The transference of this tech to a setting more suited to local consumption – that’s basically a sports ute or crossover wagon - will undoubtedly happen, might in the order you might expect. The E’s elevated equivalent, the GLE, might be well down the queue, certainly behind the smaller GLC.
Because? The next-size-down crossover has a new platform and the electronic architecture to cope. Whereas the GLE is on older underpinnings with a more dated wiring infrastructure not up to the task. For GLE to smarten up requires a whole new generation, and that’s still years away.
So, for now, the E-Class sedan (and other incoming body iterations) is where it is at.
Perhaps because it’s gone so hip-tastic on the tech side, a model that has previously always had a whiff of conservatism about it has loosened its tie quite a bit this time around.
There’s still an air of gravitas here, but the styling is quite slick. It’s also very family-oriented insofar that, to look at, this car is not easily distinguished from Merc’s other sedans, with all the same styling cues. Only by getting them all together do you see this is the Mama Bear, between the baby C-Class and big daddy S. But they’re all handsome lookers, so there’s no loss.
LED lighting at both ends comes as standard and those sensational 20-inch (yeah, you read that right) alloy wheels, which would normally seem a bit too big and loud for a car of this style, actually suit. What is a bit too brash, though, is that three-pointed star mounted on the grille, it’s just too super-sized for me. I’d have thought this model would be better off by having an older-style gunsight emblem at the front of the bonnet, but apparently that’s not an E-Class thing.
Interior quality is an area in which all new-gen Mercedes have impressed, and the E-Class doesn't disappoint. Notwithstanding that the ‘leather’ is man-made, it still expresses convincingly as properly expensive executive-level car, with impressive materials on show and build quality to match.
It also becomes the family standard-setter by introducing 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.
Another change from the norm is that it also the first Mercedes’ model with a couple of touchpads on the steering wheel. These control functions within the main instrument display and the more centralised entertainment portion. They’re haptic and respond to the horizontal and vertical swiping movements of your thumbs. 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. Indeed, as technologically sophisticated as the environment so obviously is, it’s not half as technologically frustrating as it might sound.
There’s a lot about the general ambience of even this model that has the look and feel of far more expensive models. That’s great for private buyers but might seem a bit curious for those who know this model is Germany’s favourite taxi. I’m not sure I’d like a bunch of drunken football louts in this car, but it does seem to be prepared to work that trade nonetheless.
Telltales are hard-wearing surfaces, a huge boot and one trick I’ve not seen in any other Benz car: An extra seat adjust function on the driver’s side to reposition the front passenger seat.
Unlike Volvo, Benz has not wholly set its heart on a future dedicated to 2.0-litre fours, but these are certainly more important now, thus the E’s entry engines arrive in that size in petrol and diesel format.
The plus points of starting small are three-fold: The engines themselves are gruntier, the new nine-speed automatic certainly enhance their positive characteristics and the car itself is 70kg lighter than previously.
Still, it’s fair to say that both entry powerplants know their place and that, also, because the E-Class remains a substantial car with a weighty feel, performance-wise you need to think more along the lines of ‘adequate’ than ‘amazing.’
The diesel impresses on two fronts: In generating 100Nm more than the previous entry E oiler, it dishes up impressive torque at very low in the rev range and is far more refined than the 2.1-litre unit that has been a staple until now. This allows it to operate in thrustingly assertive manner, and while it has the muscle to engage the gearbox into some surprisingly snappy shift behaviour, what really hits home is the quiet imperiousness of its operation. Really, it only sounds like an oiler at start-up; from thereon it leaves the rough behind and just gets smoother and smoother. 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 be fools; so obivious is anti-diesel sedan sentiment now that we shun it far more than is sensible. 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.
Accordingly, most buyers will ignore this mill for the 2.0-litre petrol, which isn’t as slick or as schmoozy, or will upspend to the six cylinders.
Autonomous. Dare not utter the word: Representatives from the manufacturer are quick to say the E-Class is not a fully self-driving vehicle.
Yet, of course, they’re equally speedy to claim the car’s optional Intelligent Drive Package brings accident-free driving one step closer to reality. Whichever way you see it, let’s agree that there’s enough self-operational ability associated with this car for it to comfortably author a book on self-motivation.
Before heading into that side of things, it’s probably not a bad thing to start with offering thought about how the car actually steers when you are .. you know … actually steering it.
At this level, it’s more about stability and solidity than sportiness. E-Class suspension tuning historically does not entertain the rakish characteristics expressed by some rivals and nothing has changed. The suspension tune at this level is foremost about serene compliance, so those chasing some semblance of cat-like cornering should not hesitate to select the optional Air Body Control suspension, even though this forgoes some of the ride smoothness.
In natural state, the E220d is a comfortable and capable cruiser. The steering and handling are reassuring and everything feels bolted-down. Like previous E-Class sedans, it feels impressively solid, too.
How about all those guardian angels? None are imperative to the car’s operation but it’s impressive a medium sedan is first with such pioneering equipment, not least those that keep it from pranging. From a safety standpoint, this must be one of the most carefully considered vehicles of all time.
You’ll likely know that the Drive Pilot automated steering, acceleration and braking will, in the right conditions, allow hands-off the wheel driving for up to a minute before human intervention is demanded. In theory, it already has enough systems in place to effect that condition for an unlimited period of time, being 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.
Yet the brand has no intention of allowing that level of operation yet. Even if global regulations allowed this, it has reservations about whether the world is ready. Telsa’s issues have hardly helped.
Even so, the abilities it has now are well ahead of those most cars have. The previous E-Class held its own in the same circumstances for just a third as long. And this self-operation is pretty good so long as the route’s road markings are also decent; it will not only maintain good lane-keeping discipline but is also ace at maintaining precise spacing to the vehicle in front. But it’s not perfect; as in the past, though, when left to its own devices, the Mercedes is still occasionally gets confused and veers. So you have to always be completely ready to resume control.
Conceivably, the braking and avoidance assists are of greater real world benefit than the hands-free mode, because of their greater frequency of employment. The previous car introduced the self-driven emergency braking ability, but didn’t have the smarts to recognise someone walking into its path, as this one does.
The slick part of the evasive system isn’t simply that it acts to enhance any avoidance steering but also assists straightening the car again. Benz says a lot of accidents happen in the aftermath as drivers under or overcompensate steering inputs.
Two reasons I don’t much like the Active Lane-Change Assist, which will in theory move the vehicle into an unoccupied lane on multilane roads once a driver has signaled a turn for at least two seconds. First, it seems like overkill: 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. Secondly, when I tried it out on motorway, it clearly confused the next lane across with another across further that was heading right off the route I wanted to follow. Fortunately a quick grab of the wheel put it back on the correct course, but this effected a sudden jinking that would have seemed alarming to following traffic.
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 couple of buttons; one starting it off on the search for spots and another to show preference for parking nose or tail first, then engaging Park at the conclusion. It’s not for every occasion; angle parks are off-limits, it needs to be run perilously close to the parking bays in order to recognize spots and, even then, enacts after it is a car-length beyond: Potentially giving time for a cheeky sod to nip in.
Again, more trouble than it is potentially worth.
The E-Class is an incredible technological tour de force that backs up its sophistication with an abundance of comfort and quality. It is an astounding achievement providing more for the money than anything else in its category. The limiting factor is that it packages as a sedan, not as a SUV. Once this tech transfers from a model type that barely attracts five percent of sales share to a vehicle style that suits 40 percent of the market, Benz will truly cement an already enviable status as the prestige sector kingpin.