On sale since 2009, with some enhancements already done in early 2011, the eighth-generation W/S 212 Mercedes-Benz E-class has once again been put under the knife to stay in step with the automaker's never-ending desire to be the world's Number One purveyor of premium. Whereas the smaller C-class is the best-seller worldwide for Mercedes-Benz, the E-class pulls in oceans of dough per sale, also at immense volumes.
Beyond a reworking of the overall engine strategy in this second midlife massage, a majority of the E-class' exterior panels have been redesigned. Additionally, many of the assistance systems to be offered on the next S-class are being introduced to the E-class segment for the first time. Occasionally, these sorts of comprehensive refreshes nearly create a new generation of the car, and this freshened E-class comes damned close to that.
While Mercedes-Benz wants to talk a lot about the new engine lineup and the S-class-style convenience and safety systems, we were struck immediately by the redesign. Frankly, to our eyes, these past few years of the Mercedes family look could have used a little more finesse and less knife-slice coldness. That general feel of chilled sharpness on the E-class is set to be history in short order. Even the chiseled "haunch" line is gone from the rear bodyside – the sort of sheetmetal change you almost never see on a mid-cycle update.
We spoke with E-class design director Hans-Dieter Futschik about the pleasing new styling. He was quick to inform us that this redesign may be the most expensive mid-generation work the company has ever done. Not only is the entire front of the car redrawn from the windshield forward, but the exterior panels on the front doors are as well, and the rear doors are completely new. And while the tail end of things looks similar, it's only the trunk lid that survives intact from the current model. But then the taillight elements are totally different, too, so the rear end looks like a new car as well.
This may have been the most expensive mid-generation redesign the company has ever done.
This is pretty amazing since the next all-new E-class is set to start deliveries in 2015. It'd be totally understandable if Mercedes had decided to just add a chrome strip to the rocker panels on this 212 generation, or something easy like that. The dilemma was, however, that by the time the next E-class came onto all world markets, the new S-class, a new C-class, as well as the new CLA-class developed from the just launched A-class, would have been on sale already donning the new Mercedes design language. The risk was losing E-class sales while people in various regions of the world waited for the new model, and this would be awful since the E-class is a sacred cash flow-producing cow for Dr. Benz.
So, according to Herr Futschik, this is why this largely changed E-class aesthetic almost comes as a surprise to us. Internally, this job suddenly became a huge priority, too, and it had its launch dates moved up. On the whole, we appreciate this more sensual and softer look for the E-class, right down to the LED bar elements in the taillights as also seen on the latest GLK-class. If there were anything to pick on, it would be the so-called "eyebrow" LED pattern in the headlights, which look to us as though they're trying a little too hard to express themselves. Mercedes says that they used the eyebrows of famous charismatic people as inspiration... like George Clooney. Yes, really. The also so-called "A Wing" in anodized chrome running the width of the front skirt and intakes will be included on all Sport trim E-classes in the US, accounting for a reported 80 percent of purchases.
By fall of 2015, the E550 shall be no more.
Of all the engines present at this European drive event in Spain that we were invited to attend, we latched onto the new gasoline-powered E400, which will be available in the United States in autumn of 2014 with either rear-wheel drive or 4Matic all-wheel traction. The plan with both the E400 trim and its new 3.0-liter bi-turbo V6 that currently produces 329 horsepower and 354 pound-feet of torque (actual US power and torque ratings are yet to be determined) is to use them to replace the 402-hp 4.6-liter biturbo V8 and the current E550 as the range toppers among non-AMG trims. There will be one year of overlap where the E550 will soldier on with the new exterior look after the market introduction of the E400, but by the fall of 2015 with the launch of the next generation E-class, the E550 shall be no more. This is in direct response to the trend that shows Americans gradually abandoning V8s for ever more powerful and efficient V6 models. The move is also intended to let E63 AMG 5.5-liter V8 buyers feel all the more exclusive about their purchase.
Seeing as the chassis ride and dynamics have been left essentially untouched for this model upgrade, the rear air suspension dampers and multi-link structure at all four corners perform in familiar ways through the Agility Control technology and Drive Select button on the console. Toggling between Controlled Efficiency (C), Sport (S) and Manual (M) on our AMG Optic-dressed E400 Sport chassis, the way the the 7G-Tronic automatic transmission interacted with this new bi-turbo V6 seemed entirely familiar to us.
The conservative estimate for the E400 sedan is 5.2 seconds to 60 mph.
Over some very nice driver's roads with varying surface quality outside Barcelona, we toyed around with all of the Drive Select settings, also switching things to full Eco mode by poking the center dash button with its wee green light. Versus the much-loved 3.5-liter naturally aspirated V6 in the E350, power may be up just 27 horses in the twin-turbo E400, but torque swells higher by 81 pound-feet and is readily available in toto from a glaringly lower 1,600 rpm through to 4,000 rpm. This explains the big difference in the estimated time it takes to pounce up to 60 miles per hour: whereas the company states 6.5 seconds for the existing E350 sedan, it says the conservative estimate for the E400 sedan with rear-wheel drive or 4Matic is 5.2 seconds – just 0.3 of a second slower than the E550 4Matic sedan. Depending on what Mercedes does with the new engine's power and torque by the time it ships across the Atlantic at the end of 2014, these performance numbers could be right at those of the E550, while consuming on average 16-percent less fuel than the bi-turbo V8, for an estimated 19 miles per gallon city and 30 mpg highway.
We also felt the quicker responses from the E400 engine. All the while, however, the E400 comports itself more quietly than the already-smooth E350 trim. In these important ways, we are big fans of the new high-output V6. With this rear-wheel-drive setup and sport chassis, the feel from the AMG sport steering wheel of our tester has come a long way versus earlier, more numbing versions of the heavily assisted steering rack. Exiting corners with a hotter foot was very satisfying. We only wish that we could hear a little more of a sport exhaust in its fancy cockpit. Base pricing for this E400 rear-wheel-drive sedan should come in at under $60,000 in the US.
The E400 comports itself more quietly than the already-smooth E350.
While the existing seven-speed 7G-Tronic multi-plate transmission is fine in everyday circumstances, when the chips are down and we need to move quickly between braking and throttling, the 7G as programmed can lag in its response times. To repeat, in everyday driving, or in the most frugal Eco setup, the 7G is perfectly swell to live with. If moved into either Sport or Manual, though, the frustration that arises from sometimes casual throttle responses and frequently disallowed downshifts just grows. Something's got to give at Mercedes-Benz to have this otherwise sound transmission bring more sparkle to the party when it's called for.
The list of "Intelligent Drive" assistance systems (or over-assistance, depending on who you ask) now available as options is positively S-class like. They include Distronic Plus cruise control with steering assist, Brake Assist system with Junction Assist for hidden pedestrians and cars in low visibility situations, Pre-Safe autonomous braking at up to 31 mph, Pre-Safe Plus for reducing the chances of injury from a collision from the rear, more acute Active Lane Keeping Assist, Adaptive High Beam Assist Plus that allow high beams to stay on while not dazzling oncoming traffic, Active Parking Assist now with perpendicular parking [watch the Short Cut video above for that one], more capable Traffic Sign Assist including lane markings, and a 360-degree camera system showing how you're doing via onboard screen.
The Active Parking Assist now allows perpendicular parking.
Included as standard now is a stereo multi-purpose camera where the mono unit used to be at the rearview mirror. This makes the safety and assistance systems far more effective, allowing these more advanced versions to be offered on the E-class in the first place. Working with whatever level of Pre-Safe you have aboard, as well as with standard basic Distronic Plus, the stereo camera renders a far longer and wider swathe of precise vision to keep you and your beloveds safe and sound. Also tossed in on all E-class models is the radar-based Collision Prevention Assist, which keeps you from rear-ending the guy in front of you if you're busy peeling an apple while texting.
The US rollout for the diverse engine trims with the newly packaged E-class is like a long wave that never quite crashes on the shore. Our best understanding is that the first trims to get this new E-class design around May are the ones using existing powerplants, namely the E350 sedan and its 4Matic sedan and wagon trims, plus the E550 4Matic and E400 Hybrid Sport sedans. (The E400 hybrid uses the current 3.5-liter V6, not to be confused with the future E400 bi-turbo V6 gas unit tested here.) In July, the new-generation E250 BlueTEC sedan arrives with rear-wheel drive or 4Matic. Then when August hits, the updated 550-hp E63 AMG sedan and wagon arrive, the sedan as either rear-wheel-drive or a new 4Matic, the wagon exclusively as a 4Matic model. All of this is to be followed in fall of 2014 by the intro of this E400 sedan with either rear- or all-wheel drive. Got all that?
And all US E-class cars will come standard with a sunroof. As for the exact new powertrain strategy for the updated E-Class coupe and convertible models (the looks of which change only really change in the nose), stay tuned.
Mercedes-Benz promises us that this is the final major update for the E-class family until we see the Vision showcar of the next E-class during the latter part of 2014. We're enthused by this current set of alterations, however; it bodes well for the Mercedes family look soon to roll out by the hundreds of thousands during 2013.