Visiting a Mercedes-Benz showroom is a bewildering experience. With 17 models to choose from, should you go for a sporty coupe crossover or a sleek shooting brake estate? That’s before you even consider the 50-plus possible engine derivatives. Or the countless extra-cost options. Pity the poor salesman tasked with making sense of it all.
But while automotive fashions come and go, there remains one constant at the heart of Mercedes’ ever-expanding range. The E-Class saloon has been the benchmark mid-size luxury car since 1953. Now, 13m sales and 10 generations later, there is a new one. For fans of the three-pointed star, that’s still a pretty big deal.
Before you ask – no, I haven’t used the wrong photos. The latest E-Class does look exactly like a stretched C-Class. Or, if you’re a glass-half-full sort of person, a two-thirds-scale version of the flagship S-Class. This “Russian doll” approach to styling is also used by most of Mercedes’ rivals, but I can’t help feeling a little disappointed. Especially given how much new technology is shoehorned beneath the skin.
The E-Class is described as the ‘next step towards autonomous driving’. In other words, it’s a car that could happily drive itself, if legislation would allow it. The optional Drive Pilot (£1,695) follows the road and keeps a set distance from the car in front, accelerating and braking automatically while using sat nav and road sign recognition to keep within speed limits. Active steering changes lanes if you indicate and the coast is clear, even helping you swerve around any pesky pedestrians that cross your path.
I rather like the idea of lying back and thumbing through City A.M. while the car whisks me to work. But, until that day arrives, driving the E-Class is hardly a chore. Its steering is light, ride comfort is good (albeit slightly firmer than expected) and the nine-speed automatic gearbox shuffles ratios almost imperceptibly. It’s remarkably quiet, too – thanks, in part, to being the most aerodynamic Mercedes production car ever.
Until the tyre-smokin’ AMG E 63 arrives, there are three engines: 194hp E 220d diesel, 258hp E 350d diesel and 286hp E 350e plug-in hybrid. The E 220d (with a smooth new 2.0-litre engine) costs from £35,935 and will account for the majority of sales. It offers brisk performance (0-62mph in 7.3sec) with class-leading fuel economy of 72.4mpg. Few buyers will want for more.
Stepping up to the 3.0-litre E 350d, you immediately notice the deeper soundtrack and larger helping of mid-range torque. It’s markedly quicker (0-62mph in 5.9sec), but still doesn’t feel overtly sporty. I’d find it hard to justify a hefty £9,000 premium over the smaller engine.
With a predicted price of around £50,000, the hybrid E 350d will be more expensive still. It’s even quieter than the diesels, and the transition between petrol and electric power is utterly seamless. However, you won’t get anywhere near the official 134.5mpg unless you fully charge the batteries before every journey. If you can’t plug in at both ends of your commute, it won’t make financial sense.
The launch slogan for the new E-Class was “Efficiency. Safety. Comfort”and in those three areas, the new car is a slam dunk. It isn’t a sports saloon like the Jaguar XF, but it was never intended to be. This is a car to soothe the senses, not stimulate them. And while prices are slightly higher than rivals, quality is hard to fault. Like its illustrious predecessors (Daimler-Chrysler era cars excepted), the E-Class is built like the Brandenburg Gate.
All that history would weigh heavy on the shoulders of any new car. But the new E-Class carries its burden with quiet confidence. By playing to its traditional strengths, it remains the executive saloon against which all others are judged.