In keeping with its reputation as the most advanced motorcar in the world, Mercedes-Benz’s S-Class luxury saloon has long been at the forefront of automotive technology. Since its introduction more than 40 years ago, each of the model’s six generations have bristled with radical innovations in design, engine and transmission, chassis, safety and comfort – indeed, it was often said that to envisage the passenger car of tomorrow, you
only had to look at the S-Class of today.
But with the average production cycle of any Mercedes car being around eight years, and technology now advancing at a meteoric pace – particularly in the fields of electronics and artificial intelligence – the company can hardly wait until the arrival of the next S-Class (the seventh-gen is due around 2020 at the very earliest), or even the current model’s mid-cycle revamp, to launch its latest raft of improvements. Hence the noise surrounding the new E-Class executive saloon, which was unveiled at January’s New York motor show as a “masterpiece of intelligence”.
Although it’s one step down from the flagship S, the 2016 E packs such an array of safety and driver-assistance systems that I wonder whether anything quite so archaic as a human is needed to sit behind its steering wheel. For while the new E doesn’t represent my first step into the world of auto-piloted motoring, I’ve never driven a car that offers such a comprehensive degree of autonomous control.
Perversely, the latest E-class appears so conventional it’s easy to mistake it for the outgoing car, as well as the S- and C-Classes that sandwich it in the Mercedes lineup. Not that it isn’t handsome – it’s slightly longer than its predecessor and, thanks to the shorter overhangs and raked C-pillars, visibly sleeker too. And the subdued and elegant styling does provide a sense of continuity that’s almost certainly what buyers in this conservative segment are looking for.
Beneath the skin and within the cabin, however, the 2016 E-Class represents a quantum leap, not only when compared with the fourthgeneration car that it replaces, but also against the competition. Built from a mix of ultra-high-strength and high-strength steels, which are used for the super-rigid central passenger cell, as well as aluminium, the bodyshell is around 70kg lighter than a similar conventional structure, and thus contributes to meaningful improvements in fuel economy.
The range of engines at launch includes a brand-new, aluminium 2-litre diesel that combines refinement with strong performance and exceptional fuel consumption, while a 2-litre petrol/ plug-in hybrid – badged E 350 e – should be on the way within months. Still under development (and though the Mercedes people were equivocal when I broached the subject, I’m led to believe it’s pretty much a certainty) is a new line of straight sixes; in the interim, the 3-litre V6 of the all wheel- drive E 400 4Matic that currently tops the range is a perfectly decent stopgap.
All motors are mated to Merc’s 9G-Tronic transmission, a nine-speed, multi-clutch box that’s exceptionally fast and smooth, yet can drop multiple ratios in a single shift when rapid acceleration is required. Suspension, too, is equally state-of-the-art, with an optional multi chamber air arrangement that will surely be specified by most customers. Equally de rigueur are the available multi-beam LED headlights, which illuminate the road ahead like a pair of Kliegs, yet automatically adjust so as not to blind oncoming drivers.
The big noise about the new E-Class, however, concerns the smart technology, which in certain conditions can control the car almost completely – and the E 400 that’s initially assigned to me is loaded with the full menu of options. Once on the move, all I have to do is lightly touch the steering wheel, and a suite of cameras, sensors and software pretty much does the rest.
At speeds up to 210km/h on multi-lane highways the car will stay in lane, remain at a safe distance from the vehicle in front and obey speed limits – the latter within a given margin set by the driver (and as that’s me I’m factoring in an extra 10 percent). If it’s safe to do so, it will overtake whenever I engage the indicator for more than two seconds, and if I take my hands off the wheel for around 30 seconds the system will deduce either that I’m texting the missus or have fallen fast asleep, thus triggering an emergency procedure that gently lights flashing. At journey’s end I can even step out of the E-Class and remotely manoeuvre it into a roadside parking space, a driveway or a garage, using an app-equipped iPhone.
Although it’s not foolproof – tight bends and twisty roads, for example, seem to require human intervention – it’s certainly admirable and in many cases spookily dependable. But I wouldn’t call it especially fun (in fact, approaching a slower moving vehicle from behind while waiting for the emergency braking to activate is so nerve-wracking I’d rather just do it myself) and I do worry about what all this means for our driving skills.
Fortunately, by turning off the advanced assistance systems and playing with the Dynamic Select switch there’s plenty of old-school enjoyment to be derived from the new E-Class. With the selector set to Sport+, the hardest of the four settings, the Air Body Control lowers and firms the suspension, the change-up points on the nine-speed box are retarded, the steering assumes a weightier heft – and several high-speed laps of Portugal’s Estoril circuit prove that this a seriously sorted chassis, with beautiful balance and composure, and bags of grip that together promise genuine involvement.
Performance from the 400’s twin-turbo, 3-litre V6, which delivers 329bhp and 480Nm, is impressive too, with 0-100km/h in less than 5.5 seconds and a governed maximum speed of 250. But even the 2-litre, four-cylinder petrol unit of the E300, which provides 242bhp and 370Nm, and is likely to be the preferred choice in Asian markets, punches way above its size and is so refined you’ll be convinced it’s a six.
I fleetingly mentioned the cabin, which deserves far more than that as it sets elevated new standards for the segment, and confirms Mercedes’ commanding expertise in interior design and build. The extra-cost widescreen display – it comprises two large TFT screens, takes up around 70 percent of the fascia and is sure to be optioned by almost every customer – is especially spectacular, as are the unbelievably comfortable and beautifully upholstered front seats (I’m not quite so sure about the 64-colour ambient lighting, which enables you to illuminate the interior like a ’70s disco, though it’s certainly a talking point). Thanks to the car’s slippery silhouette, wind noise is virtually nonexistent at motorway cruising speeds – the better to enjoy the optional, 23-speaker Burmester surround-sound system – and given the wafting air-sprung ride when the drive mode is set to Comfort, you won’t find a more inviting space this side of an S-Class.
From which you will have gathered that the new Mercedes-Benz E-class is a remarkable machine indeed, one that should tick most boxes for many buyers. Whether your dream car is one that eliminates the stress of motoring by very nearly driving itself, or your idea of automotive heaven is effortless refinement and luxury, it’s frankly hard to think of a petrol powered car in this class that does these better. And if you seek a more visceral engagement with your wheels, this hugely capable chassis offers a fair helping of that too.
Of course, there’ll be those who want more, and within just a few months there’ll be an E-Class to satisfy their even more demanding wish list. The first of a pair of versions to wear the initials of Mercedes’ high-performance AMG offshoot, the E 43 4Matic that was previewed just weeks ago in New York and launches in late summer offers almost 400bhp and 520 Newtons – and there’ll be coupes and soft tops to follow. As for the bonkers E 63, which arrives early next year and promises 5-seriesdestroying performance and handling, how much more could one sensibly demand?