Monday, October 19, 2009

Review: 2010 Mercedes-Benz E-Class

I’m old enough to remember when Mercedes used the tagline “engineered like no other car in the world,” and no one questioned it. When the 1986 W124 E-Class was introduced, Car & Driver proclaimed it “the best car in the world.” In the quarter-century since, Mercedes’ position in the automotive pecking order has become less certain. Lexus came out of nowhere, and BMW has managed to successfully expand upward from the 3-Series and to become a provider of luxury as well as sport. For 2010 Mercedes has totally redesigned the E-Class. Any chance it’s 1986 all over again?

Back to basics?The styling of the 1986 W124 E-Class was timeless. Noting that the marque’s traditional virtues were no longer bringing in the buyers, Mercedes grafted four oval headlights onto the mid-1990s W210 E-Class to communicate “we’re not stodgy.” That ploy worked for a couple of years, after which many people were wishing the W124 had never been replaced. With the 2003 W211, timeless styling returned, and it hurt. Surrounded by Audiesque grilles and Bangled bodysides, no luxury sedan was easier to lose in a crowd. So, with the 2010 W212 E-Class, Mercedes has again opted for road presence and distinctive styling. Specifically, the new car’s chunkier shape is adorned with a quartet of rectangular headlights and pointless rear fender bulges. The W211 is easily the more beautiful car, but the W212 looks much more like $55,000, even if the design of the hood makes it appear misaligned.

The restyled E-Class interior resembles that of the current C-Class. The shapes are blocky rather than flowing and organic, and might appear overly basic or even cheap were it not for the obvious quality of the materials and subtle detailing. Very German.

Following BMW’s lead, the transmission shifter is an electronic stalk on the steering column, freeing up console real estate for an iDrive-like controller. While a console-mounted shifter no longer makes much functional sense, a car does seem less sporty without one.Nip-tuck, parry-thrust.

The W212 continues Mercedes’ tradition of a relatively high driving position, for better forward visibility than in an Audi or BMW. The front seats continue another Mercedes tradition: they’re much firmer than those in a Volvo or Lexus. While shaped well for support, even the lateral variety, these seats lack the plush feeling many people will expect in a luxury sedan.

The W212 E-Class’s rear seat is an improvement over that in the W211, but continues to lag those in the BMW 5-Series and Infiniti M in terms of comfort and space. The thinking at Mercedes-Benz seems to be that those seeking an adult-worthy rear seat should spring for the S-Class. One thing the rear seat does do (optionally) that those in Asian competitors don’t: fold to expand the trunk.

The great majority of buyers in the United States will opt for the base engine, a 268-horsepower 3.5-liter V6, and for good reason: it’s more than adequate. You can get just as much power in an Accord these days, and some competing sixes offer 300+ horsepower. But the fact of the matter is that most drivers won’t come close to tapping out the E350’s power potential in 99 percent of their driving. This wouldn’t be the case with an old-style four-speed automatic, but when there are seven ratios to select from the engine is always in its powerband. Unlike some earlier iterations of this transmission, the one in the W212 shifts smoothly and with an appropriate frequency.

Mercedes’ pricing can be baffling. In some cases an AMG body kit, sport suspension tuning, and upsized wheels can run over five grand. In other cases—including the 2010 E350—the sport treatment is no extra charge. Sport Package for free? That’s an easy choice.

KuhlThe sport-suspended chassis behaves well, with good balance, admirable composure over rough patches, and minimal lean in hard turns. Through the seat of one’s pants, the car feels tight and precise. Then there’s the steering. In a word, it’s dead. Weighting varies from overly light to artificial. Road feel is absent. The suspension might be excellent, but this steering dashes any chance of a driver connecting with this car.

The E-Class’s ride is neither as firm as in a BMW 5-Series nor as absorbent as in a Lexus GS. It doesn’t feel cushy, but there’s no harshness. Nor are there any of the untoward, indecisive jiggles that occasionally mar the ride of the upstart Hyundai Genesis. The solid, planted feel Mercedes has traditionally been known for is certainly present in this car. As in just about any luxury sedan these days (with the notable exception of the Audi A6), noise levels are low.

The new Mercedes-Benz E-Class looks and feels solid and expensive. But if Mercedes wants to regain its earlier reputation, it needs to offer more than this. Aspects of the styling will appear dated by the time the lease is over. But that’s common in the post-Bangle era. More troubling, the combination of overly firm seats with zombie steering means that the new W212 E-Class excels as neither a luxury sedan nor a sport sedan. Who is this car for? Do even luxury sedan buyers want to feel entirely disconnected from the driving experience? Mercedes has been making cars longer than anyone else has. So why can’t they provide a decent steering system?

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