The Mercedes-Benz E-Class has been in continuous production since 1947, growing to over 12 million total cars built over 62 years, making it the longest-running, most-produced luxury car in the world. Some might even call it the Mercedes-Benz of the postwar era. This is the car that popularized fuel injection, seat belts, disc brakes, air bags, ABS, and electronic stability control, among many other technologies over the years, and the 2010 model continues that long tradition of innovation.

And when we talk about innovation, it's amazing what engineers are spending their time on these days. Take, for example, the new "drowsy detector":

One new innovation on the car is so interesting that you just might want to give it your full attention. Mercedes calls it its "Attention Assist" system, which monitors up to 70 driving parameters to determine whether you're getting drowsy behind the wheel. If the car magically detects that you're nodding off, it will use both a visual and auditory warning to, well, wake you up. Consider it like a watchful passenger, careful to give you a nudge if you appear like you're dreaming, not driving. Short of making a cup of coffee in the car itself, it's one of the most interesting innovations we've ever seen in a car.

Four doors, and two

The E-class has been a long-running sedan icon, but in June Mercedes will introduce the two-door coupe version of the E-Class, a body style that has been absent from the lineup since 1996, having been supplanted by the smaller CLK hardtop coupe. In early July, the sedan version we tested will come to the U.S. market, in both Sport and Luxury configurations with slightly different looks and standard equipment lists.

The gasoline-powered sedans, in E 350 V-6 and E 550 V-8 versions, will be followed by the "4Matic" all-wheel drive versions, in September and the high-performance E 63 AMG V-8 sedan no later than November. Expect a diesel version in early 2010.

Taken altogether, it will be the largest E-Class family that Mercedes-Benz has ever done in the U.S. market.

Driving the E-Class

The chassis underneath the 2010 E-Class is all new, and some 30 percent stiffer than the outgoing model's, which leads to better handling and quieter behavior.

Driving the new E-Class is more complicated than ever before, however, because of the inclusion of so many new electronic systems, a tactic that has got the company in big trouble before with the E-Class.

For example, let's take a quick tour of the sorts of things you'll find hankering for your attention when you're driving the E-Class:

• The blind-sport warning system lights up a triangle in the rearview mirrors.
• The lane-departure warning system vibrates the steering wheel when you cross the lane marker without putting on your turn signal.
• The speed-limit-warning flashes in the speedometer every time it reads a new speed limit sign by the side of the road (European-spec cars will offer this; American-spec cars won't).
• The night-vision system is so much crisper and clearer than any other system on the market, it's like watching a black-and-white movie on the big screen in the center of the instrument panel, so much so that it can be distracting.

So, yes, all of this can be a bit much. Sometimes when you get in a car and want to drive, all you want to do is drive.

All that said, though, on a wide-open two-lane road during the daytime, the new E-Class is more comfortable, more solid, quieter, and more agile-feeling than any previous E-Class (we've driven every version since 1975). And we can appreciate that the luxury buyer in today's market wants a load of gadgetry and high technology.

Whether the 268-horsepower V-6 or the 382-horsepower V-8, the engines are smooth, quiet, and instantly responsive, coming onto their camshafts with a muted growl and quickly finding the perfect gear for the job at hand from the seven available choices. Or, you can choose the gear you want using the steering-wheel-mounted paddles, and the transmission will stay in that gear right up to the engine's redline.

The braking power of the E-Class, and the sophistication of the braking system, are nothing short of awesome (by the system, we mean ABS, TCS, ESP, Brake Assist for panic stops, and the Distronic radar-controlled cruise control with built-in automatic braking). While the E-Class falls somewhere between a luxury family sedan and a European-style executive express, the brakes are built like those on a sports car, powerful, repeatable, and versatile. The newly upgraded seats are plush, comfortable and supportive enough for thousand-mile days, and everything that needs to be adjusted can be adjusted in a trice with the door-mounted seat controls and dash-mounted seat heating and cooling controls.

Exterior

Compared to the outgoing model, every panel on the new E-Class has been changed, with a larger grille, a new headlamp array with multiple elements and square corners instead of oval lamps, a new profile with a set of four rising lines from front to rear in or on the body, new hood and decklid, new rear lamps and rectangular exhaust tips built into the bumpers. It's not as clean and monolithic as its predecessors, but it is new and different, with a sold nod to the larger S-Class. Mercedes-Benz says the new E-Class is the most aerodynamically efficient sedan in the world, with a drag coefficient of only 0.25 for the sedan and 0.24 for the coupe, a four-percent improvement over the previous model, even though it looks bigger and brawnier.

Interior

Inside the E-Class is where all the new action is. In addition to new and improved seats, a new dashboard and instrument panel layout with a higher, deeply hooded display screen like the one on the GLK SUV, there are several important new driving safety features that will be standard equipment on U.S. versions of the E-Class, including the aforementioned "drowsy detector."

The "Distronic Plus" cruise control option will now be offered with both blind-spot warning and lane-departure warning systems built in. A new option for the E-Class is an intelligent automatic self-adjusting headlamp system that uses cameras to detect both oncoming traffic and traffic ahead and raises and lowers the headlamp beam accordingly, to put the most light on the road at all times without disturbing other drivers.

Another new interior option is Intelligent Nightview, a system that throws infrared light in front of the car and uses high-resolution video cameras to spot and highlight pedestrians and animals that may cause driving hazards. All E-Class models will come with 11 standard air bags.

Conclusions

Although Mercedes-Benz won't be announcing prices on the new E-Class until summer, the current competitive situation dictates that they price only for the cost of additional standard equipment and not a penny more, which means that the starting price for the V-6 should be about $54,000 and the starting price for the V-8 version should be about $63,000.

Is that too much money for a luxury car in the face of the $32,000 Hyundai Genesis? A Mercedes-Benz spokesman, when asked this very question, answered: "Value is a holistic issue. It all depends on what it is you value. If it's about price, that's one aspect. Price is a shallow metric. It's about the ownership experience, the driving dynamic, the heritage. It's about performance and safety. A Mercedes-Benz owner is looking for a longer-term, durable relationship with his car. It's not a firework that goes off and says 'Look how chic I am.' It's a slow-burning candle. It has an aura and an essence that lasts for years."

If that fits your definition of what you're looking for in a luxury sedan, you need to take a look at the E-Class.

Research Luxury Cars at AOL Autos

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