► Full first drive of the new 2016 E-class
► We test the likely top-selling E220d
► Specs, photos, ratings and more
Mercedes takes another big step towards autonomous driving with the gadget-laden new E-class. But what’s it like for those of us who like to twiddle our own wheels?
So the new Mercedes E-class, aka The CES Roadshow, is finally here. Wow us with some non-driving tech-to-the-top highlights while I throw my redundant driving licence in the bin...
Would you like to start with the smartphone-operated self-park feature, the automatic lane-changing facility, Mensa-grade 84-LED adaptive lights, evasive-steering accident avoidance function or maybe the digital key housed within your phone’s sim?
Sounds very impressive, but does any of that stuff actually work?
We tried the remote parking system, which works well if slightly slowly. And we can see the auto-brake feature, which stops you reversing out into an unseen approaching car, preventing hundreds of prangs. The next-gen Distronic cruise control system will steer by itself for periods of up to 30sec, and follow the car in front at speeds of up to 130mph, which sounds quite alarming. We didn’t try it at those speeds, but can say that it works well on calm, gently contoured dual carriageways.
It’s not completely reliable though, and doesn’t like crosswinds much, which make it lurch from white line to white line like the puck in a game of Pong. And the automatic lane-change feature (outlawed in the UK) seems pointless. If you’re going to the trouble of lifting your hand to flick the indicator to engage it, it’s hardly a ball ache to nudge the wheel while you’re there.
Click here for the new Mercedes E-class's top 9 tech highlights
Okay, enough tech. Who remembers when car reviews used to talk about ride and handling, steering feel and throttle response? What about the actual car bits?
A hybrid model comes later, but for now, the UK range is a simple one: you either buy the four-cylinder E220d (191bhp, 295lb ft) or six-cylinder E350d (255bhp, 457lb ft). Both drive the rear wheels through a nine-speed auto box, and you can mate either motor with sensible SE or sporty AMG Line trim.
The 350’s nicer noise, lazier demeanour and ability to hit 62mph in 5.9sec is appealing, but it’s a stopgap until a brand new straight six arrives. Of more relevance is the E220d, which features an impressively refined brand new 2.0 diesel that’ll find its way into other Mercs come facelift time. Compared to the outgoing four-pot, this one is incredibly hushed, if still no match for a six, and just look at the figures: 150mph, 62mph in 7.3sec, 72mpg and 102g/km. That’s an outrageous blend of performance and economy from a car of this size. Notice that it’s badged 220d too. That leaves room for the 240bhp version (likely to be badged 250d or 280d) Merc is readying.
Merc cannily loaded the test E220s, the cars that will account for the lion’s share of UK sales, with its optional air suspension, and the ride comfort was predictably impressive. A 350d we tried on standard steel coils was slightly less refined, but how much of that is down to the engine’s extra heft and how much the cheaper corner hardware we won’t know until we try a ‘real’ E220d back in the UK.
Body control in the air car’s Comfort mode is softer than a daytime TV interview, so you’ll want to select Sport or Sport Plus via the console thumb wheel for anything remotely vigorous. Do that and the E-class handles tidily, though the emphasis is very much on getting you there, not getting you off. The steering is precise and well weighted but don’t get your hopes up for much more. It’s the strong silent type.
What about the interior? Anything here to make rivals nervous?
Never mind its rivals; this interior wows enough to make Merc’s own S-class hot under its hand-made collar. The C-class interior leads its class for style, but start poking and prodding too closely and you can see where Merc had to cut corners. There are no disappointments with the E-class, except maybe that the optional black pinstriped dash wood looks like it was modelled on a suit Nigel Lawson would have worn to deliver the budget in 1986.
Standard cars get two traditional dials and an iPad-style dashtop multimedia display but we can’t imagine anyone not wanting to fork out an extra few hundred quid for the enormous double display with its fully customisable graphics. Merc is sticking to its belief that touchscreens are the devil’s work so this one works via the console touchpad, or a small virtual scroll wheel thing on the right-hand steering column spoke. It takes a while to master the lightness of touch required, but you get the sense that it’ll become second nature in time.
Interior space is strong. There’s plenty of leg and headroom in all four seats (or five, if you like. The rear bench is flat) and the boot is bigger than every key rival’s bar the Jaguar XF’s. And importantly, noise levels are incredibly low. This is a saloon car that would really rather be a limo and the kit list is correspondingly generous. Even the base SE (£35,935) gets heated seats, navigation, parking sensors and the autonomous parking gizmo.
A Jaguar XF is more entertaining to drive but if it was us staring down the barrel of four years grinding a pair of furrows in the M1 motorway, we’d struggle to look past this impressive new E-class. Gadgets like the self-parking system might be the stuff that grabs the headlines, but what shines through is the overall sense of decorum, the excellent ride, low noise levels and that amazing interior. All that stops this from being a five star car, and by the narrowest of margins, is an XF-like ability to entertain the man behind the wheel. This year’s new 5-series has its work cut out.