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Car reviews - Mercedes-Benz - E-class - E250 CDI Elegance sedan

Our Opinion

We like
Overall design, depth of engineering, steering feel, handling, ride, diesel economy, strong performance, space, safety, value, practicality, space, comfort, ease of use, solidity
Room for improvement
Some fussy design details, some road noise, diesel drone, loss of old E280 CDI’s 7G-tronic seven-speed auto for old five-speed auto

5 Mar 2010

UP until about a decade ago, the E-class was regarded as more than merely a midsized Mercedes sedan.

For people who valued quality, durability and a certain restrained elegance, models such as the dignified W123 (1977) and progressive W124 (1985) were Citizen Kane, an A. Lange & Söhne timepiece or a Steinway piano.

It’s now common knowledge that 20 years ago Mercedes abandoned the ‘engineering at all cost’ principles that fundamentally shaped the brand. Along with prices, down went craftsmanship and quality of subsequent models, hitting rock bottom with the W211 of 2002.

But at least more people were buying Benzes than ever before …

After a backlash Mercedes finally relented in the mid 2000s, promising a return to traditional values.

So welcome the E-class comeback kid, the W212, a car that looks forward as well as backwards – and with four eyes to prove it too.

About that styling – nowhere is the tomorrow and yesterday more evident than in this Mercedes’ styling, assessed here in $96,900 E250 CDI Elegance guise.

In silhouette and stance the big new Benz sedan works, bridging the modern wedge of its S and C-class siblings with the boxy timelessness of the W124 – a car that still looks contemporary today.

Face-on, and straight from behind, the W212 continues to connect with the 1980s masterpiece in its subtle angular forms, obliterating the woozy softness of its two immediate predecessors. So even those four square headlights – a bit Sigue Sigue Sputnik for us if we’re to be honest – somehow gels.

But it seems that Mercedes’ stylists simply did not know when to put the pen down. That rear wheelarch treatment – a throwback to the rounded W120 ‘Ponton’ of 1953 – is a misfire. Arcs mixed with edges? There are nine lines vying for your attention, for Pete’s sake. It’s like Adam Ant applying Audrey Hepburn’s makeup.

Luckily you don’t have to see the scarring from inside.

A strong impression is made simply by opening the hefty doors, which allow for easy entry into an elegant cabin that immediately captures the spirit of bygone Benzes – particularly the larger ones. It’s all about loads and loads of space in there, folks.

The seats – standard leather in our up-spec E250 CDI but pleather-packed in the cheaper E220 diesel that frankly seems a steal at $80,900 – have that firm yet supportive feel. Our $4500 Comfort Pack option includes full electric memory adjustment up front (the steering column too), so finding the perfect driving position shouldn’t be difficult.

Except … our lumbar support switch went on the fritz, resulting in an irritating knee-in-the-lower-back posture and a fly-in-the-quality-ointment claims. One co-driver declared the Mercedes unbearable.

So to the rear seat we go. There’s space for three adults perched abreast out back, in Commodore-sized surroundings with plenty of space to move elbows, shoulders, knees, feet and heads, on furnishings that seem to have been built to a high standard.

Both outboard positions sit you down low and snug, and feature the usual array of armrests, grab handles, cupholders, reading lights, coat hooks (four of them actually), and impressively engineered map pockets.

Other points of interest include digitised climate-control operation (with four outlets all told), windows that fall almost completely out of sight, and a surprisingly comfy rear-centre cushion. In Elegance trim the look is club-leather-couch classy.

The comfy backrests also split fold but – for security’s sake we presume – they can only be released from the outside using levers sited inside the 540-litre boot.

Speaking of which, it is quite a vast space in there, with plenty of load hooks to secure stuff to the floor, a space saver spare below, and even a handy T-handle on which to hang shopping flotsam. Good thinking. The aperture that provides cabin access is also (so to speak) quite big to boot.

It is released via a door-mounted switch that will not work if the ignition isn’t on.

Moving back to the driver’s seat, it is immediately clear that Mercedes has mashed trad with rad, interposing some of the old-school E-class chunkiness (if not quite the solidity) with techie TFT displays. It’s a massive improvement over the W211.

For example, five analogue dials greet the driver, with the centralised speedometer containing a LED round screen for a veritable cornucopia of car-related functions. From what we could ascertain over 10 days these include more trip-related data than a hippy interrogation (odometer, auxiliary digital speed, fuel use and such), as well as navigation, audio, telephony, vehicle assistance, servicing and vehicle settings data. Sounds overwhelming but in the end it was all a simple thumb-push away via round buttons living on the (quite hideous but pleasingly circumferenced) steering wheel’s hub.

Meanwhile, a big screen caps the centre console specifically for the ‘Radio’, ‘Disc’, ‘Navi’, ‘Tel’, and ‘Systems’ interface, while the smart S-class-style ‘piano key’ switches that operate the climate settings are located below.

Along with buttons on the pleasantly-sized wheel and dash, a lower-console dial (called Comand in Benz-speak) controls all of the above functions with child’s-play clarity once the operator becomes acclimatised. There’s nothing really different here compared with previous Mercs, though, and it may feel a bit stale as a result, but all the functionality – including for the optional Bluetooth – works with professional simplicity.

And it is like a mini S-class in here, from the weight of the big glovebox to the solid divide that acts as a storage compartment, cupholders, front occupant armrest, and Mercedes Comand controller housing … all very international business class travel.

Speaking of Comand, a commanding driving position and welcomingly thin A pillars – aided by parking radar on our car – make parking this sizeable sedan a cinch.

Plus, the voice-operated system is the most intuitive and functional we’ve ever encountered. So is the cruise control, which – like all modern Mercs – includes a speed limiter device to stop you exceeding a pre-set amount. Very slick.

So what’s not perfect about the E-class interior then?

We cannot abide by the foot-operated park brake. There’s too much coarse plastic (stuff you wouldn’t find in a Golf these days – it’s that thick dermal dash top covering that is so 10 years ago), while all that Teutonic efficiency leaves us feeling a bit cold. Then again, this is a Merc so that’s like complaining that Munich isn’t enough like Madrid.

Anyway, on the move there is even less to complain about in the E250 CDI.

The 150kW 2.1-litre four-cylinder ‘250’ CDI is a lusty and smooth unit in the modern diesel sense, providing plenty of step-off acceleration after a moment’s hesitation at start-up, with a steady stream of pull available right up past the 5000rpm mark on the tacho.

Once on the go there is virtually no lag to speak of, allowing the Benz to sneak quickly and confidently into flowing traffic gaps with an immediacy that belies the engine’s relatively small capacity.

Similarly, cruising along the open road, the 500Nm of torque on tap drives this 1735kg sedan forward with what should be sufficient speed for most overtaking conditions. However, patience is an asset when fully laden and trying to fly up a hill, for instance, but otherwise the 250 CDI is a potent little powerplant.

We also managed some pretty impressive fuel consumption figures too, and averaged around 8.7L/100km in our urban run cycles that also involved plenty of inner city squirting between jams.

The five-speed auto gearbox is really an oldie but a goodie, with an uncanny ability to be exactly in the right ratio at the right time. Slot it into Sport via Mercedes’ curious C/S button located nearby and it holds onto the gears too.

And just as with the engine, Daimler’s engineers have found a fine blend of comfort and handling in the E250 CDI’s dynamic makeup, with the steering actually managing to surprise us with its alertness, directness and linearity. The E corners with absolute poise and grace, sitting flat on the road while giving plenty back to the keen driver.

Part of the Mercedes’ impressive curriculum vitae of body control comes from the beautifully balanced braking system that keeps speed in check and brings the car to a short halt in equal measure. Of course the company’s extensive roll-call of electronic driver aids are standing by to make the call you can’t, and these too don’t interrupt or intervene obviously unless they really have to.

We noted that the traction and stability control technologies are especially well harmonised, working in unison to make the E250 CDI exceptionally proficient on gravel, easily dealing with the loose and/or rutted surfaces while still helping to maintain a cracking pace. In contrast, switching these off simply had the sedan fish-tailing wildly.

Just as importantly, the suspension’s pliancy is acutely well judged, even if it is might be thought of as a tad on the firm side for some. The fact is, bumps big and small are smothered with unerring ease.

However, there are two noise intrusion downsides to the Mercedes that might be problematic for some buyers.

The first is occasional road noise intrusion on certain surfaces (mainly on coarse chip highway bitumen). It doesn’t always exist as on most roads the E250 CDI is brilliantly hushed. Perhaps it has to do with the choice of rubber (ours had Goodyear EfficientGrip 245/45R17 tyres on lovely multi-spoke alloys that really suited the E’s elegant profile).

The other involves the constant drone of the diesel engine. It’s not particularly loud or unpleasant, just dull and uninspiring. Mercedes makes noise about this unit being the equivalent of BMW’s and Audi’s V6 diesel units, but it certainly lacks their more purposeful tunes.

Neither issue, nor the fussy styling, take away from what is by and large a spectacular return to form for Mercedes. Simply said, we did not want to return the E250 CDI, so absorbed were we in the big sedan’s sturdy gate, athletic composure, cosseting ride, spacious surrounds and focussed safety. Years of sustained satisfied ownership beckon.

But has the company really killed the quality gremlins? That lumbar support switch fault – albeit tiny really – is a worry.

Furthermore, we’ve already driven the next BMW 5 Series (F10) in Portugal and it is poised to leapfrog the opposition in the same way that E-classes of the 1980s did … but the latest one hasn’t, quite.

Still, in the here and now, for under $100,000, the E250 CDI reigns supreme in its segment.

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