Do you hear that? That's the jostling of a Prada bag and a soy latte inside the the last Mercedes CLK as it cruises into what is commonly referred to as "oblivion." It's being replaced by the brand new E-Class Coupe. Or rather, it's not really a replacement; the new car is a reset of expectations from Mercedes' middle coupe, distinguished from its CLK niece with more size, more features and more brawn, and distinct from its E-Class sedan big brother by unique architecture and body panels. Our question was: could it distinguish itself? Follow the jump to find out.
Photos Copyright ©2009 Jonathon Ramsey / Weblogs, Inc.
The E Coupe is roughly an inch-and-a-half longer, two inches wider and three inches lower than the CLK. Compared to the sedan, the Coupe is about seven inches shorter, four inches narrower and three-and-a-half inches lower. Notably, the E350 is close to 400 pounds lighter than its sedan stablemate, and the E550 is 340 pounds down on curb weight versus the V8 sedan. Its bespoke dimensions and body panels indicate that it should not be looked at as simply an E with two doors. When GM of product management Bernhard Glaser was asked if the E Coupe rode on the same platform as the sedan or used the same architecture, he responded twice, "I wouldn't say that." Asked to make some sort of comparison between the two cars, he informed us, "I would say it's a member of the E Class family." As such it gets all of the E-Class safety doodads we mentioned yesterday, along with the same language and general proportions, but wrapped in a stance and attitude all its own.
Even more compelling than the first return of a proper E Coupe since 1995 is the look. Mercedes' design language has the quirk of saying completely different things when applied to different cars. You can tell the S-, E-, and C-Classes are in the same family, but they speak with much more divergent tongues than, for example, the 7, 5, and 3 Series cars from BMW.
And to our eyes the E Coupe's size and shape is a superb fit for the language trademarks. The front fascia features slightly more aggressive twin headlights, and, as with the sedan, presents a much more refined mass when seen in person. But the rear three-quarter view is the best, the more prominent haunches flare out with an aggressive rake, the rear presenting a fitting ascension to cap the rising lines established at the front of the car. The roof-line follows a CL-like rainbow arc. The B-pillar-less design and standard panoramic roof put much more glass up top than metal, letting the greenhouse rest lightly on the body. The shard of a window that keeps the entire arc from being open is there because Mercedes wanted the windows to roll completely down, and that section would have jutted above the frame.
Inside, there's an aesthetic edge we aren't used to seeing in a Mercedes at this price point that isn't labeled "AMG." The seats are sculpted beautifully front and back - in fact, we liked the spine-contoured, scalloped seatbacks just as much as the leather fronts. Black leather interiors come standard with cross stitching. Four simple dials on the inboard sides of the front seats control inflatable bladders in the seat bolster, lower side bolsters, and two lumbar areas (this on top of standard, ten-way electronic adjustment). When the side bolsters were pumped up the seats embraced us in a perfect Posturepedic hug.
Even the back seats are given top-down contour, meaning that - unusual for Mercedes - the rear seat headrests don't retreat back into the rear shelf. It has the same rear headroom as the outgoing CLK, it simply looks much better in the provision. The seats are plenty cozy, and to get that headroom the rear ceiling has two scoops in it where your noggin might reside. Six footers are probably the limit for those who could do long distance comfort back there, which is more than good for a mid-sized coupe. The rear seats' final triumph: they fold flat together or in split configuration, 1/3 to 2/3. The cargo volume with the seats up is already five cubic feet larger than the CLK. With the seats down you can fit your golf bags and cases of Pellegrino and that sculpture you picked up at Sotheby's.
Back up front, the substantial difference from the sedan is the placement of the gear shift lever, which lives atop the center tunnel and splits the cabin back in two, as it should be in a sports coupe.
On the go, there is a great deal more distance between the two flavors of coupe than there is between the sedan variants. The V6 takes its experience cues from the same place as the sedan: it's a solid, efficient performer that does its job without glitter. The six-cylinder is not about the visceral, it's about purpose – you buy it because you like the coupe style, and curving tarmac, exhaust grumbles and phrases like "floor it" just don't speak to you. The 268 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque will get the lighter body to 60 in 6.2 seconds, which is 0.3 seconds faster than the four-door, but that kind of stat is largely meaningless to the V6 buyer.
If you decide to break free of the tone of the car and really cane it, the Agility Control suspension with adaptive shock absorbers will keep you between the solid lines even when things get tight. Get up to speed and the seven-speed adaptive transmission will quickly figure out that you're trying to order some fun off the menu and will hold gears accordingly. But on this car it can be just as useful – and it adds a little more engagement with the driving experience – to do the shifting yourself instead of waiting for the tranny to finish reading your psych chart.
Nevertheless, even though Mercedes says this isn't the two-door version of the sedan, the E Coupe actually is a two-door version of the sedan: it will do everything you need it to do with pleasant efficiency.
The E550 Coupe, however, is where you'll find the action. If it were a neighborhood, it would be the genteel enclave on the hill next to the Tenderloin district – you can sneak out, head down the hill and get dirty whenever that side calls, knowing you always have a cosseting, leather-filled abode to return to when it's time to be respectable again. The 5.5-liter V8 with 382 hp and 391 lb-ft of torque is only marginally faster to 60 than the sedan – two-tenths of a second.
But this is really about the exhaust note – as with the interior, we're not used to these sorts of aural treats from a Mercedes unadorned with an AMG-badge. The E550 Coupe sounds terrific, and the note and vibration resonate into the cabin terrifically. For some reason that means you can feel the one-inch lower ride height versus the standard six-cylinder coupe. Blip the throttle, and the exhaust raises its hand, responding "Present, sir!"
The E550 Coupe comes with the Dynamic Handling suspension (the AirMatic isn't an option on the lighter, sports-centered car) that brings electronically-adjustable shock absorbers, revised throttle response, and 18-inch wheels. Add the Sport package and that gets the Jamba Juice boost of 18-inch AMG alloys, 235/40 rubber up front, 255/35 doing duty astern, and an AMG steering wheel.
What you've really got in the E550 Coupe is a curve-approved GT. On the wide-open adventureland that is Nevada, put all the windows down and open the sunroof then play with the gas pedal and the stereo volume, adjusting either depending on which one is making better sounds at the time. On cross-country interstate duty, set the cruise control to 130 mph (we didn't do this... but we know folks who did) and, if you're not paying attention, you'll either be in Nova Scotia before you remember to be fatigued, or you'll be saying things like "Was I really going that fast, officer? Please, put those handcuffs away..."
We would firm up the steering some, but it's well calibrated to serve both its daily-commuting customers and its sporting intentions. Leave the electrono-nanny fully on and she hovers over your shoulder, so much so that a smattering of sand in the road will have the little yellow triangle flashing at you. Put the car in its Sport (as opposed to Comfort) setting and it drops a gear. Then, you can turn the ESC off – not completely, but into a sort of sport mode (it will show up wearing a cape in an emergency, though) and get some tail-out action... especially if you drive back over those sand patches again.
The shifting is, of course, Mercedes smooth, and we commend the rev-blip that keeps one from noticing downshifts. We dropped from 7th down to 3rd at highway speeds and if we hadn't been looking at the readout or tach, we'd have had little notion of what gear we were in. And when the Sport button is pushed, even at 90 mph the car would drop into 6th. We were never able to find out how fast you have to be going to get the car to hold 7th in sport. But it's fast. And it's fun.
However, we must take a moment to mention the one travesty of this car: while Mercedes admitted that they can never say never, the company currently has no plans to produce an E63 AMG. Shocking. If the CLK could get its own flamethrower version, but the E coupe gets left out of the tuning room, then Justice is not only dead, she has been drawn and quartered and her head placed on a pike outside the walls of Mercedes HQ. Yes, we feel that seriously about it.
Aside from that... all is well in the world of the E-Class Coupe. While the E350 Coupe gets a "Yes, that will be fine, thank you," it's for the E550 Coupe that we say, "That one. In silver."
The 2010 car goes on sale in June, with the E350 posting a list price of $48,050 plus $875 destination, which is a $50 drop over the price of the 2009 CLK350.
Photos Copyright ©2009 Jonathon Ramsey / Weblogs, Inc.