Top Gear Drives the New Mercedes-Benz E-Class
Verdict: An awesomely, almost intimidatingly complete car – the first when it comes to a hi-tech mainstream future.
by Thomas Philips | 09 March 2016
Mercedes reckons the new E is the Future. Possibly even the FUTURE. Looks rather like an upscaled C-class to us. Or a downsized S-class.
It’s all of the above. Merc’s design vice president Gorden Wagener bristles slightly if you suggest Mercedes is re-embracing the ‘Russian doll’ idea for its volume saloon line. “What’s the problem with that?” he says. “We wanted the C-, E, and S-class to sit at the heart of it all, with 40-odd other models around them. I think the new E-class is as elegant as the CLS. It’s certainly the most luxurious E-class Mercedes has ever created.”
We’ll see about that. But it’s definitively the first one that can deliver the full autonomous ‘sod-the-driver’ shebang.
Yep. Over to Daimler’s Chairman and Big Kahuna, Dr Dieter Zetsche for more on that. “We have been pursuing the vision of accident-free driving for some time, and we are now making big, big steps towards the realisation of that,” he tells TG.com. “When it comes to autonomous cars, we have to be the first, we cannot be a fast follower.”
What? What about Stuttgart’s taxi drivers?
The new E is the car they’ve been waiting for, no doubt, but it’s also the Mercedes that might put them out of a job. High on an epic list of new technologies is Drive Pilot, which uses a stereo camera, radar sensors and a modestly-sized box of tricks secreted in the rear wing to drive the car autonomously, accelerating, braking, changing lane and even coming to a complete halt without any input from the driver. The new E-class also extends Merc’s ‘car-to-X communication’ smartphone and Cloud-based infrastructure, relaying info or warnings from further up the road. Amazing and slightly terrifying if you’ve ever read any William Gibson novels or watched pretty much any sci-fi film.
Great. Maybe Merc should have called it the T-1000. What if you still like the idea of actually driving? Are we petrolheads doomed?
Don’t be so melodramatic. After all, aeroplanes have been landing themselves for years. Besides, the answer’s academic, because the only thing restricting autonomous driving right now is the necessary international legal infrastructure. So we’d better get used to the idea.
We get the picture. But does it work?
Not entirely. As impressive as the tech is in theory, it remains imperfect in practice: I found myself second-guessing it repeatedly on the test route around Lisbon, unable and unprepared to trust it. If you take your hands off the wheel, a warning chime will sound, and if you keep them off the wheel longer than 60 seconds the car will assume you’re a moron or have passed out, and glide carefully to a complete stop. It’s fiendishly clever, but really – what’s the point of an automated car that still needs your hands on the wheel? It should be all or nothing. And although our skies are extremely busy, that’s nothing compared to a busy provincial high street on a wet Wednesday night – it’s only when you try to cede control to a machine that you realise just how many variables you deal with as a driver, and how much improvisation goes on. So we reverted to the fusty, 20th century, analogue mode: we took control ourselves. Now pass me my quill, would you?
Forsooth. So is the E-class good to drive, or what?
Ironically, the Drive Pilot and the myriad other ‘–Assist’ packages – Evasive Steering Assist, Pre-Safe Impulse Side, and Remote Parking, to name but three from a list that’s as long as the Beijing phone directory – are a distraction from what is a supremely well-engineered car. Like the C-class, the new E-class seems to have rediscovered the concept of genuine comfort, which is vastly more important in a car like this than being able to corner it on its door-handles. Even the E220d – the likely big sales hitter in the UK – rolls along with exquisite refinement.
This model uses a new engine, right?
Yes. The 220 has an all-new 2.0-litre with an aluminium block and steel pistons, reversing the usual pattern to deliver much lower friction and improved thermodynamic efficiency. Untreated emissions are dealt with via improved exhaust gas recirculation, and Mercedes has worked hard to minimise NOx. The upshot is a combined economy figure of 72.4mpg, 102 CO2s and a future-proofed engine that should absorb the evolving challenge of ‘real driving emissions’, ie: it won’t need to cheat to do the numbers.
No end to diesel here, then…
Anyone anticipating wholesale rejection of diesel in the wake of the VW scandal won’t get any joy from Mercedes: Zetsche says take-up rates on diesels are exactly the same as before, and an engine as good as this is only going to keep it in play. On a night drive into Lisbon, the 220 proves whisper quiet at motorway speeds, and doesn’t grumble too much if you do lean on it to summon all 295 torques. The 9G-tronic auto wafts through the ratios so smoothly it makes the smoothest-talking bar steward sound like Ronnie Barker’s stammering shopkeeper in Open All Hours.
Other engines are available, one presumes.
The 350 d that arrives later this year is gruntier, but we preferred the plug-in hybrid 350 e, whose 2.0-litre four-pot petrol and electric motor combine to produce 285bhp. The E e can do around 20 miles in pure EV mode, a haptic response on the throttle pedal advising you that maximum electric oomph is being deployed, while a double pulse prompts you to make better use of the regenerative braking mode. Set a sat-nav destination and the car will optimise its energy blend according to the route. Forget autonomous driving: this is artificial intelligence. Spooky.
Any other versions tickle your fancy?
We also tried the not-for-UK E400 4Matic fitted with Dynamic Body Control around a damp Estoril circuit, and it managed not to feel remotely barge-like (which bodes well for the AMG version). The suspension is multi-link front and rear, with steel springs as standard and the option of active damping. Whatever the configuration, this is a majestically comfortable and unimpeachably safe car; the body mixes high tensile steel and aluminium for improved stiffness and enhanced occupant protection, with reduced weight. And even the airbags have airbags…
It’s magnificent, assuming you dig a fair bit into the options list and keep the taste polizei on standby. Gordon Wagener reckons the interior design is a three-generation jump forward from the outgoing car, and he might be right. The wood and leather are gorgeous, almost Bentley-esque in terms of richness. This peerless interior quality is matched by yet more obsessively hi-tech: there’s wireless charging for your phone, which can also double as the key thanks to Near Field Communication. The view ahead is dominated by two (optional) 12.3in flat screen displays; the main TFT instrument cluster fully configurable, while the central infotainment screen can be twiddled to display sat nav or audio, or both, in dazzling resolution. The steering wheel now incorporates a pair of thumb-sized touch-pads on either spar, whose response time can be tweaked. The E-class’s cabin represents a truly amazing confluence of technology and style, and will have rivals down the road in Bavaria and Ingolstadt scratching their heads, and plunge the Coventry-based lot into existential despair.
How much is it?
Prices start at £35,935 for the E220 d SE, rising to £47,425 for the E350 d in AMG line trim. As ever, the options list groans with pricey possibility. So choose wisely. “Making the best cars is our core business. But the car doesn’t end with the hardware. Now it’s about widening the scope,” Dr Zetsche concludes. The new E-class does so with impressively realised, widescreen ambition.
1950cc, four-cylinder, 194bhp, rwd, 295lb ft, 0-62mph 7.3 secs, 149mph top speed, 72.3mpg, 102g/km CO2
An awesomely, almost intimidatingly complete car. Not the last word in driving fun, but the first when it comes to a hi-tech mainstream future.