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First drive: Mercedes' sporty new E-class

EQ with IQ: Mercedes-Benz says the new E-class is more intelligent than ever, both technologically and emotionally.

The world's most successful executive sedan has just become sexier, sportier, smarter, more comfortable - and cheaper

27 Aug 2002

THE world's best selling executive sedan has just got better. Launched in Australia last week, Mercedes-Benz's seventh generation W211 E-class - like each of its predecessors - brings significant improvements in comfort, safety, technology and design.

But the latest E-class mid-sizer - the product of a 48-month, $2 billion Euro development program and subject of a new "everything we know in one car" advertising slogan - also has the dynamics to go with its sporty new CLK look, as evidenced by a 350km local launch drive loop over Queensland back-roads.

Mercedes hopes the all-new car - a volume selling, brand defining model for Mercedes - can better the strong sales of previous models that, collectively, make E-class the most popular Benz.

Globally, about 10.9 million E-class models have been produced over the past five years, accounting for more than half of total Mercedes-Benz production.

Locally, since the current, W210 model appeared in 1996, Mercedes-Benz Australia has sold 55,000 cars - of which 11,000 were E-class models. According to Mercedes, the outgoing E-class has averaged 1650 sales per annum, with a record in 1998 of 2072 units.

But Benz wants more - about 10 per cent more over the new model's life cycle. And to achieve it, the new E-class becomes the latest model to follow M-BA's low price/high volume strategy, which sees most models undergo a hefty price drop along with a standard equipment increase.

While that may be bad news for current E-class owners - and, though Mercedes officials deny it, for resale values - it has allowed M-BA to set ambitious sales targets for E-class.

The local arm has requested 2500 E-class models for next year, which would easily be a new sales record, while 800 E-class sales are projected for the remainder of 2002. Longer term, Mercedes sees E-class as a 2000 sales per annum prospect: figures that correspond to sales growth of closer to 20 per cent for the model.

To aid the cause, E-class supplies - long a problem for Mercedes in Australia - will be freed up somewhat courtesy of increased production, with 200,000 expected to be built in the first year before E-class production is ramped up to 250,000 in 2003.

Appearing more like a four-door CLK than an overgrown C-class sedan, the stylish new E-class has a 21mm longer wheelbase but is identical in length (4818mm). It is also 23mm wider, 12mm higher and gains at least 10mm in track width at both ends. As such, it gains a tougher wheel-at-each-corner stance, plus an extra 20 litres of boot space and 20mm of rear legroom.

Thanks to an aluminium rear axle, bootlid, bonnet and front quarter panels, weight remains unchanged - despite a raft of new standard equipment including the SL's brake-by-wire technology and roof-mounted solar panels said to reduce cabin temperature by up to 10 degrees.

Torsional rigidity is up 18 per cent, thanks to double the use of high strength steel, while the new car is even slipperier than before and now boasts a standard setting of 0.26Cd.

For the moment, mirroring the W211 line-up that was launched in Europe in March (but still not on sale in the US), the Australian E-class range comprises two V6s in the entry 2.6-litre E240 and 3.2-litre E320, plus the newly designated 5.0-litre V8-powered E500 and the 2.7-litre turbo-diesel E270 CDI.

AMG's range-topping E55K will debut a new 350kW supercharged version of the hot-shop's already muscular 5.5-litre V8 when it arrives here in November, while a new entry level E-class will come on stream by the end of 2003, courtesy of a four-cylinder E-class likely to be a new E200K.

A new E-class estate - currently available in E240 and E320 guise - is also expected here by around September, 2003. But a new 3.7-litre version of the current 3.2-litre V6, due to debut in next year's facelifted S350, will not be part of the E-class line-up until its mid-life update at least three years away.

Mercedes' three-tier specification naming continues, with the Classic line getting increased standard equipment, including adaptive accelerator pedal, two-stage twin front airbags, auto headlights, 16-inch alloy wheels, adjustable front lumbar, automatic climate control, courtesy and rear reading lamps, CD stacker, rain sensing wipers and Sensotronic Brake Control.

All models are also available in the classier Elegance and sporty Avantgarde lines, but only the E240 and E270 can be had in Classic specification.

A comprehensive options list includes Distronic radar-operated cruise control from the S-class, a panoramic electric glass sunroof, four-zone Airmatic Dual Control climate control (standard on E500), Command with DVD navigation (standard on E320 and E500), bi-Xenon headlights, Keyless Go, Linguatronic and what is said to be the world's first intelligent driver's seat.

At $89,900, Mercedes-Benz says the new E240 Classic, which is expected to account for 28 per cent of new E-class volumes, is $420 more expensive than the outgoing version. But it is also said to represent 5.5 per cent, or $4904, better value thanks to the standard addition of climate control, rain sensor, exit and rear reading lamps, alloy wheels, SBC and CD stacker.

The $91,900 E270 CDI Classic, expected to comprise only six per cent of E-class sales, is up $920, but represents 4.8 per cent, or $4404, better value than before due to similar equipment upgrades.

The volume selling (it will comprise 40 per cent of sales) E320 Elegance, at $119,900, actually drops a massive $7890 and represents a further $8757 (6.9 per cent) in extra value. This is due to the fitting of climate control, rain sensor, rear reading lamps, SBC, parameter steering and DVD Command as standard.

Finally, the E500 Elegance costs $151,900, a $6010 increase over the outgoing E430. Taking into account the extra standard equipment including rain sensor, Airmatic DC, SBC, rear reading lamps, larger engine and DVD Command, the E500 is said to represent $5237, or 3.6 per cent, better value. It will comprise 18 per cent of E-class sales, leaving the final eight per cent share to the E55K.

According to the M-BA website, the new E55 will sell at $219,900. Fully loaded with equipment, it leaves just Distronic, Parktronic, Linguatronic, heated rear seats and Keyless Go to the options list.

M-BA currently has an order bank of about 800 customers, meaning the wait for a new E-class could be out as far as January - but it is expected to get even longer following the start of advertising in recent days. It says some 75-80 per cent of new E-class owners will be loyalists who stay with the brand for reliability, safety, styling, resale and comfort.

Some 20-25 per cent of forecast sales, however, are expected to be conquest sales to former customers of other brands, while the age of the average E-class owner is not expected to change much from 52 - still well below the global average of 56.

W211 E-class pricing:

Model New price Price change Extra value
E240 Classic $89,900+$420$4904
E270CDI Classic$91,900+$920$4404
E320 Elegance$119,900-$7890$8757
E500 Elegance$151,900+$6010 $5237


FROM the fresh, comfortable new interior to the sweeping new roofline and faster, more stylised twin headlights that remain true to the design signature pioneered by the current car, it's clear the W211 E-class has the aesthetics to match its all-new status.

Wider in body and track, taller and with shorter overhangs at both ends, the new volume selling Benz is the most stylish, sporting incarnation of the classic E-class shape yet seen, and should appeal to the masses who've made it the world's top selling luxury sedan.

The retention of proper door handles and the addition of the wing mirror-mounted indicators from the S-class and CLK, for example, also maintain the medium Benz's reputation for functionality. There's plenty of differentiation between models too, an array of alloy wheels plus rub strip chroming and various grille treatments all serving to set the four models and specification lines apart.

The interior, too, is attractive and of high quality, while being practical. A CD stacker is perfectly concealed in the dashboard behind a bank of push-button controls, while the new CLK-style instrument panel features a large central speedo flanked by an analogue clock and tacho - each with large italic graduations on a classy white background.

Both the regular automatic climate control system and the optional (standard in E500) four-zone Thermatic system are effective and simple to use, while the mirror and window controls have moved from the centre console to the driver's door. Like CLK, E-class now also gets the handy one-touch indicators introduced on S-class, but we couldn't find a dedicated front cupholder.

And it has the dynamics to match its svelte new shape. A wider footprint, newly developed steering and suspension systems and the stiffer new bodyshell, which thanks to extensive use of aluminium weighs the same as before despite loads more standard equipment, make this the most agile E-class ever.

Befitting a car that "must reflect the full range of Mercedes-Benz abilities", the new four-link front suspension is a further development of the three-link system that debuted on C-class, while the improved multi-link rear-end now employs an aluminium axle and the rack-and-pinion steering has also been overhauled.

The result is steering that's more precise, more responsive and provides better feedback, yet remains well isolated from road shock with only a hint of rack rattle evident at speed over the roughest of tight hairpins.

The new model is not only a far livelier device, but offers even more of the grip, road holding and high speed cornering abilities expected of car such as the E-class. And that's without the impressive (optional) air suspension system, which reduces ride height by 15mm in sport mode or above 140km/h, and constantly adjusts spring and damping rates as you drive - using both pneumatic chambers for good low speed ride quality and just one for high speed handling performance.

Despite the tauter chassis, attention to weight saving and better sorted suspension that affords more poise and less bodyroll, the new E-class is no 5 Series. There's no question the new E is a huge advance in terms of vehicle dynamics, but the overriding feeling is still one of refinement and luxury rather than purpose and precision.

The sharper handling does not come with detriment to traditional Mercedes-Benz attributes, however. Ride quality, for example, remains impeccable, while stability at all speeds is still a standout feature.

Noise suppression is exemplary too. There is the familiar dull roar when European rubber meets coarse-chip Australian roads, particularly on the narrower 225/55-section 16-inch rubber of the 240 and 320, and at low engine speeds the E270CDI seems as raucous as the E240 and E320 V6s do at high revs. If anything, however, the new E's cabin is as well isolated as the standard setting S and C-class sedans.

Of course, the first class ride and stability are aided by the slightly longer wheelbase, which liberates an extra 20 litres of boot space and 20mm more rear legroom. And finally E-class has the practicality of a split-folding rear seat - even if it remains optional equipment.

Like the slightly disconnected feel of the drive by wire throttle, however, we found the new standard Servotronic electronic brakes slightly artificial in feel. Sure, they offer enormous outright stopping power, and the stability and safety benefits wrought by their ability to brake each wheels precisely and individually is impressive, but we found the brakes difficult to modulate under hard braking.

The brakes' seemingly over-exuberant high pressure performance made it easy to over-estimate braking distances and difficult to be smooth, therefore requiring constant correction or modulation during hard braking. One might get used to the slightly delayed feel over time, and there's no problem at normal speeds, but at this stage perhaps the drive-by-wire braking system is better left for low volume cars like the SL.

Performance, even for a vehicle weighing as much as 1725kg in E500 form, is spirited. The entry level E240 needs plenty of revs for good results and, like the 320, can be raucous, but the 240's extra 5kW of peak power is welcome - as is the improved fuel economy for both V6s, even if the 240 consumes more than the 320.

The E500, of course, is the flagship performer of the range so far, delivering bottom end torque that shames even the flexible E270 and going on to deliver a seemingly endless wave of torque accompanied by one of the most glorious V8 engine notes ever heard.

A deceptively rapid vehicle, the E500 is a fitting range topper and provides an impressive foundation for AMG to build upon. And build upon it AMG will, with a supercharged 350kW V8 ready to roll out in the new E55K, which should excite the senses like no other Benz.

It will go up in price, but if the current W211 range is any indication, the extra equipment and far better value makes the new E-class range a very attractive proposition.

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