The mid-level sedan that Mercedes-Benz has taken to calling the E-Class was for decades the world's taxicab, racking up millions of kilometers trolling fares from Berlin to Beirut, an all-but-indestructible symbol of Stuttgart's (often literally) bulletproof engineering prowess. However, since the refresh of the 21st century W211 models, the E-Class has morphed away from Mercedes stolid taxi into more of a bells-and-whistles range-topping luxury model, an S-Class limo for the owner/driver. I recently sampled the new W213 generation 300E E-Class sedans in Northern California and found the new model fills its role admirably.
The headlines about this car, the 10th generation since the 1950's Ponton, are all about the technology. The laundry list of microchips, sensors, and software adds up to this long but not exhaustive options list: Drive Pilot Distronic semi-autonomous driving with Steering Pilot, Speed Limit Pilot, Active Lane Change Assist, and Active Emergency Stop with Cross-Traffic Function guided by multiple radars and stereo cameras, the amazing nearly 1-meter-wide sweep of the optional full glass dash with head-up display, or the ground-breaking steering-wheel touch-pad swipe-control interface that may finally make the gee-whiz dashboard usable without having to fish for the console. However, equal amounts of Mercedes-Benz's mighty engineering talent have been directed at the new car's powertrain and chassis, areas of more interest to european car readers.
At launch, the E-Class sedan will be available in both 4-Matic all-wheel-drive and traditional rear-wheel-drive formats. Both launch versions drop Mercedes' ubiquitous six-cylinder in favor of a turbocharged inline turbo four-cylinder. We were fortunate that the route chosen by Mercedes flaks to showcase the excellent Distronic system began with a short freeway entry ramp onto U.S. 101 near the San Francisco International Airport that necessitated a heavy right foot.
The car's brisk acceleration onto the freeway is accompanied by an acoustic soundtrack that harkens back to the old inline-sixes of the glorious W124 E-Class from the 1980s. Thanks to outstanding attention to the engine's NVH, along with a little audio magic, the diminutive 2.0L I-4 powering this traditionally six-cylinder cruiser might have initially seemed incongruous. The more than adequate 241 hp and 273 lb-ft of torque available from 1,200-1,400 rpm, delivers a satisfyingly gritty soundtrack. With that said, customers will not be disappointed by the outstanding refinement of this new engine as installed in the E-Class.
Those seeking more performance will need to wait for the 396hp and 384-lb-ft V-6 to be introduced later in the AMG-badged E43, but the 300E's 6.2-second 0-60 time is more than adequate in this market segment. Part of what makes the 300E drivetrain so appealing is the 9G-tronic transmission. Not a dual-clutch design, the 9G-tronic takes advantage of a huge step forward in machining technology, using a mere fraction of the lubricant necessary in the process, to create very precise transmission components in a conventional automatic transmission. When combined with Mercedes-Benz's truly excellent software, the 9G-tronic transmission seamlessly keeps the smaller turbo engine in the right powerband for immediate response. The software also does a wonderful job mimicking a dual-clutch box when in Sport-Plus mode, and we were able to provoke engagement of the Pre-Safe seatbelt tensioners during some spirited cornering in one of the twistier sections later in the route.
A word on the standard Dynamic Select function, available even without the optional Air Body Control: It was a favorite feature on the E300. The new Touch Control buttons on the steering wheel are a wonderful innovation from the Mercedes-Benz Tech Center in Silicon Valley, allowing smartphone-style sweeping and clicking on two thumb pads for control of the next-generation high-definition displays, but changing Dynamic modes from Eco to Luxury to Sport to Sport-Plus is something a driver shouldn't have to pause for in order to find the right menu. Mercedes-Benz engineers have given us a real gift here. On the center console at thigh level is an old-fashioned toggle switch, like the ones that opened the power windows on Grandma's Chrysler Newport. Simply lightly pushing or pulling the switch takes you through the various modes quickly and intuitively. Each mode is distinct in steering feel, throttle response, and suspension compliance. Bravo, Mercedes-Benz!
We got to try Drive Pilot Distronic semi-autonomous driving with Steering Pilot, Speed Limit Pilot, and Active Lane Change Assist (fortunately we never activated Active Emergency Stop with Cross-Traffic Function), and the system works as advertised. However, there is a social aspect to using Drive Pilot we experienced that was later confirmed as a source of frustration by Mercedes-Benz engineers—the system is designed to maintain a safe distance between the following E-Class and the vehicle ahead. At least on Northern California's 280 freeway, other drivers took this as an invitation to jump in line, causing the Benz to brake evasively to regain a safe following distance. Given our overcrowded roadways, this is going to be a continual source of frustration for Drive Pilot Distronic users!
Another issue is pricing. Mercedes-Benz is touting the sub-$52K base price of the new E-Class; however, the bells and whistles only come with $12K-plus worth of the Premium 3 Package to access the superb wide-screen instrument cluster and all of the Drive Pilot functions. We had the opportunity to sample a base car without these options, and the dash looked cheap with two chintzy, chromed bezels on an expanse of flat plastic where the high-definition configurable instrument cluster should reside. As good as the E300 drives, it just doesn't feel special without the Premium 3 Package. It's really a $70K car; but even at that price, it's a superb alternative to the S-Class for the enthusiastic owner/driver.