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Car reviews - Mercedes-Benz - E-class - sedan range

Our Opinion

We like
Comfort, refinement, promised quality advances, driving experience in E350 and E500 models, practicality, safety, high economy and low emissions of coming diesels and CGI petrol versions, brand reputation and likely resale value
Room for improvement
Not the design masterpiece of Bruno Sacco-era Benzes, expensive options, poor reputation of previous two models compared with 1980s-era predecessors, silly foot-operated park brake

21 Jul 2009

MERCEDES-BENZ is not the car company it once was, and no model highlighted the brand’s dismal decline more vividly than the previous-generation E-class.

Persistent electrical gremlins helped to lead to some reliability issues, compounding a distinct dearth of quality in a car that struggled to stand out against meticulously designed Audis, great-driving BMWs and beautifully made Lexuses.

And that was a dozen years ago when the ‘round eyed’ W210 E-class struggled to make a convincing stand against its fast-improving competition.

Yet its 1986 to 1995 W124 predecessor, crafted during the ‘Engineered Like No Other Car’ era of no-expense research and development, set an unprecedented standard in that regard, and is still described as one of the best models of all time.

Since then, the W211 from 2002 until now, admittedly an excellent drive, floundered even further into the mire dug out by its W210 predecessor by actually letting many owners down consistently, gaining a poor quality reputation. Quality! Mercedes-Benz’s forefathers would be spinning in their graves.

The 2005 facelifted wrought changes that went some way to address these issues, but the damage has been done and the E-class is no longer a byword for bank-vault dependability and longevity.

Just another expensive luxury car, the W211 may just as well have worn a General Motors badge.

Enter the new E-class, a clean-sheet redesign and re-engineering project that tries to recapture some of the stuff that made models before the 1990s malaise so special, while forging forward with new innovations and ideas.

This car, the W212, walks a tricky tightrope between the past, present, and the future, and nowhere is this more prevalent than in the E-class’ design inside and out.

The exterior is a messy mix of the current (C-class and S-class), recent past (W210 nose – but with square headlights), and ancient history (1950s W120 ‘Ponton’ with that blistered wheel arch), but with a modern surfacing that does – somehow – gel after a while … in certain colours and light.

But it appears solid and well made, and glides through the air like no production sedan has ever before. Most of all, the W212 looks like a Mercedes-Benz.

The interior, too, harks to the past, mainly in the half-hexagonal instrument binnacle that recalls that last great Mercedes sedan dash – the W124’s. Except that now there’s a matching hood for the satellite navigation/multi-media screen, a C-class-style upper console, and S-class influences in the lower console, front centre armrests and column-sited auto gearbox lever (in six-cylinder petrol models only, evidently).

Some coarse-surface lower-dash plastics and anachronistic foot-operated park brake (why – is this a joke?) aside, it’s a job well done too, as there are no squeaks, no eyesores, no rattles and nothing brittle to behold.

Getting in and out is easy thanks to a huge aperture and high-enough roof, even though the latest E-class has lost some height.

But it’s gained length and width, so the cabin feels cavernous, and the contour seats – with their pneumatic lumbar and multi-adjustable sides – are absolutely superb.

Driver wants for nothing in terms of reach or contact with the dash, and everything is ultra clear and easy to operate. Mercedes has just set the standard in this class – finally. It’s not especially pretty inside, but everything is tailored to make you feel great.

The same goes for the back seat, with its sufficient leg and headroom and acres of shoulder space. The backrest folds too, to reveal a 540-litre boot of bountiful cargo possibilities.

Speaking of bountiful, we drove two quite powerful petrol versions of the W212 – the V6-engined E350 and E500 V8.

Both provide almost identical performance characteristics in everyday driving situations – a compliment to both engines since the V6 obviously feels as gusty as an eight while the V8 has the driving smoothness of a silky six.

And both, too, have Mercedes’ brilliant 7G-Tronic seven-speed automatic gearbox that goes a long way to making this car feel as balanced, sweet and responsive as it does.

Yet we lean towards the 200kW/350Nm E350 because while it doesn’t have the bellow or brutish mid-range acceleration of the 285kW/530Nm 5.5-litre V8, the light-footed V6 feels lighter as well as more lithe up front, for a more enjoyable car to punt around corners.

Direct Steer is the variable-ratio rack and pinion set-up that Mercedes fits to the latest E-class, and it has a direct, yet measured and relaxed feel to the way it transmits inputs to the front wheels – and all the more so with the lighter V6.

Backed up by the taut yet pliable coil sprung multi-link suspension system, and the large footprint afforded by the 18-inch tyres, the E350 feels fast, surefooted and composed through fast and tight turns and wide arced corners alike. By contrast, the Airmatic air-suspended E500 smothers the bumps a little better but lacks the cohesive feel of the E350.

If we were to rank the way the E-class drives against the BMW 5 Series, Audi A6 and Lexus GS, it would match the Bavarian marque for tactility and response but without the hefty feel at the helm, run rings around the A6 for feedback and fun, and edge out the Japanese car for feel and response. Wow!

Our half-day in the latest E-class left us wanting more – more time behind the wheel, away from the lovely Victorian country roads that so suit the Benz’s manifold talents, and on to the hard urban landscape where most of these cars will live.

The brief drive also made us wish we could sample the extremely promising, and well priced, four-cylinder petrol and twin turbo-diesel versions that are on their way. These cars should blitz the opposition for value alone. We can hardly wait.

And we can reveal that Mercedes-Benz now easily dominates its class thanks to the big strides in perceived quality, as well as safety, driveability, comfort and functionality that the W212 boasts.

Obviously only time can tell whether this car achieves the quality, longevity and reliability of classics like the W123 and W124 models.

But it looks promising despite the awkward styling, drives just great in big petrol engine guises, and packages just beautifully.

They don’t make the E-class like they used to … and for that we should all be grateful.

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