Every once in a while, I test-drive a car that behaves so exactly as expected—nothing jarring, no surprises—that I forget to review it. The Mercedes E-Class is one of those cars. Like every other E Mercedes of the last thirty-plus years, the current model promises, and delivers, traditional, conservative luxury-car virtues—comfort, solidity, refinement, and prestige. In short, if you think you might want an E-Class, you probably do.
Though I never got around to reviewing the 2005, 2006, and 2009 E-Classes I sampled, Mercedes’ revisions to the 2010 model provided the impetus to put fingers to keyboard. It’s essentially the same car as before underneath, but its edgier sheetmetal, all-new interior, and mild chassis tweaks merited a second (or, rather, fourth) look.
Under the Hood
E-Class Benzes are named according to their engine displacement. An “E350” badge denotes the base 3.5-liter V6; an “E550” badge boasts the presence of the optional V8. Adjusted for options, E550s command a price premium of roughly $5,000 over their V6 stablemates.
With 268 horsepower and a board-flat torque curve, however, the E350’s performance is swift enough to question the value of the optional V8. At three-quarters throttle, the E350 strides forward purposefully—and given the boot, it fairly lunges. Either way, the only audible accompaniment is a hushed, self-assured V6 burr.
Speed doesn’t guarantee driving fun, however, and in routine driving, the dominant impression is of the E350’s dilatory throttle response. Dip into the pedal, and the E’s reflexes feel slow, especially at parking-lot speeds, where the Mercedes responds to your foot’s input with sleepy, rubber-band elasticity.
At this price point, most buyers don’t worry themselves about fuel economy. Even so, the E350 delivers wholly reasonable mileage, returning 18/26 MPG in EPA tests—about the same as a mid-priced family sedan. For the truly thrifty, there’s also a “Bluetec” diesel E-Class. It’s quiet, it doesn’t smell, and it drives very much like the E350.Changing Gears
The E350’s seven-speed automatic transmission contributes to its reserved, slightly lazy demeanor. At wide-open throttle, the seven-speed fires off rapid, frequent shifts, keeping the V6 right at its torque peak. But in part-throttle driving, the E feels as if it has more gears than it knows what to do with—from a stop, it takes a beat for the car to build momentum, and just as the V6 begins to hit its stride, the ‘box slurs into second and puts it back to bed.
As such, the E350 feels best when driven either very aggressively or very gently. With a feather’s touch on the throttle, the ‘box’s blurry shifts are no problem, and the car wafts regally down the road.
Luxury-sedan buyers who prefer a manual transmission (all three of them) will be disappointed to find that none is available. Don’t expect the standard SportShift “manumatic” gate to take its place, either. While the automatic gearlever’s side-to-side selector feels slick, its gearchanges are slow and sleepy, and provide little sensation of manual control.Twists and Turns
All buyers expect German cars to drive with stable, solid, Autobahn-bred manners. Most also expect them to be sporty. On the former point, the E-Class doesn’t disappoint, but on the latter, it’ll leave you wanting.
Where the E-Class excels is its imperturbable grace of motion. Your palms guide the car serenely, resting on a vibration-free steering-wheel rim, and the car feels heavily settled on the road, cleaving to smooth, relaxed arcs. On the freeway, the E-Class tracks like a locomotive. Bumps, potholes, crosswinds—none distract it from an arrow-straight course.
The trouble comes when you want the E-Class to stimulate, rather than soothe. At town speeds, the E350’s velvety steering is a shade too light, and it lacks precise self-centering action, denying you millimeter accuracy when stringing corners together. The helm grows firmer with speed, but it never matches the telepathic sense of a BMW. On winding roads, the E’s balanced weight distribution shines through—you can feel it digging into corners with all four tires, rather than rolling onto the fronts—but the detached feeling persists.
When you give up trying to get the E-Class to crack a smile, you’ll find that its brakes are supremely swift and strong. You’ll also find the pedal a bit soggy underfoot, like stepping on a damp sponge—another traditional Mercedes trait. Easy Rider?
While sports-sedan seekers may not find the E350 to their liking, shoppers in search of a stern-yet-supple Teutonic ride will adore it. Like most Mercedes, the E-Class’ structural integrity lies somewhere between a bank vault and an iron anvil—it’s unflinchingly stiff, and never transmits so much as a hint of reverberation to the cabin. This car is solid.
The suspension is a smidge stiff, too, particularly in roll, so the E350 reacts to surface changes with quick, curt rocking motions. But while it hints at firmness, the suspension carpets over all manner of road scars. Mercedes doesn’t take an isolating approach to luxury, like Cadillac or Lexus; the E350 keeps you in touch with the texture of the road surface, while muting it to a whisper. Speaking of whispers, the hush in the E’s cabin is tomb-like.Inside Story
The Mercedes’ road manners speak to traditional values, and that theme carries into the car’s cabin. In contrast to the avant-garde designs of some rivals—notably the BMW 5-Series—the E-Class (mostly) eschews trendy gestures with a severe, rectilinear dashboard. A surprise, though, is the cabin’s relatively airy ambiance. The E350’s cowl sweeps low, well beneath the driver’s line of sight, and the slope of the dashboard reduces its visual mass. Dressed only with thin ribbons of brightwork, the sense of luxury comes mostly from the surfaces’ matte finishes and rich, impeccably muted hues.
For the most part, the fittings feel as good as they look. Some of the minor controls feel harder and crunchier than you’d expect—the door pulls, the temperature knobs—but overall build quality is excellent. The grained, soft-touch plastics on the dash and door panels feel inches
thick—not millimeters, as in some rivals. Feel your way around the cabin; seams are even, textures are rich, and nothing flexes under your touch.
Behind the wheel, getting comfortable is as easy as the posh atmosphere suggests. The seats are very firm—hard, if you’re used to a Lexus—but they’re beautifully upholstered and supportive. The only faux pas: cupholders that hide underneath the flip-open center armrest. On long drives, you can rest your inboard elbow or
sip a latte, but not both.
As in most cars at this price point, the E-Class’ secondary controls are complex. Many functions are controlled by a fussy rotary knob on the console (the so-called “COMAND System”), but thankfully, the radio and climate control include redundant hard keys. For first-time Mercedes owners, a bigger issue may be the blinkers. The cruise control stalk is at the ten o’clock position on the steering column, where most drivers reach for the turn signal, while the actual turn signal—which moves with big, floppy motions—sprouts from much lower. This takes some getting used to.
For a car this size, rear accommodations are just so-so. The rear seat is as nicely-contoured and supportive as those up front, and there’s sufficient clearance for a six-footer’s knees. But toe space is tight under the front seats’ low-slung metal frames, and the tall driveline “hump” leaves little space for a center occupant. The rear doors’ long trailing edges make for awkward exits in close quarters, too. In truth, you’d be much more comfortable in the back of a Camry or Accord.Fill ‘Er Up
Your luggage, too, will enjoy a bit more room in many family sedans. But among luxury sedans, whose rear-drive packaging eats into cargo space, the E-Class’ trunk is quite spacious. You get a low liftover, a wide opening, and 16.0 cubic feet of volume to play with (versus 14.0 in a BMW 5-Series, or 12.7 in a Lexus GS).
Unfortunately, poking around the trunk also reveals three E-Class features which surely belong in the Luxury Hall of Shame. Two of these are the twin gooseneck hinges which raise the trunklid. Sure, they're nicely trimmed, but these room-robbing anachronisms are sufficiently outdated that you won’t even find them on your airport-rental Pontiac G6. The third is the E-Class’ rear seatback, which may or may not fold depending on whether or not you’ve purchased the option.
If a $10,000 subcompact can offer this feature as standard, why not a $50,000 Mercedes? In Sum
While the E-Class may cost three times as much as a Toyota Corolla, and twice as much as a Camry, it plays a similar role in its segment: it’s the safe choice; the known quantity. Between the prestige of its three-pointed star, its hushed ride, its first-class cabin, and its Brinks-truck solidity, this is the luxury sedan that will please the most people, most of the time.
As such, it’s difficult to imagine, if you’re in the market for such a car, that you’ll go far wrong with the E-Class. But, as with any purchase, it pays to know your own likes and dislikes before you sign the papers. If you’re a driving enthusiast, BMW’s 5-Series offers a depth of involvement that the E-Class can only dream of. Love a bargain? Infiniti’s M approximates the experience for thousands less. Or, if you equate luxury with sensuousness and style, you’ll find Jaguar’s XF far less void of character. The E-Class is the utility infielder of the class, the solid all-rounder that's least likely to offend. For most buyers, that’s a fine thing indeed.
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