A November Nor'Easter had chewed its way up to New England, delivering a cataclysmic combination of rain and wind as we headed out on a late-night errand. Normally, such a prospect requires a potent blend of Italian roast and Krank20 to stay hyper alert. Instead, behind the helm of the 2010 Mercedes-Benz E350 4Matic, the going was serene and confident. In a word: Wow.
These moments of vehicular astonishment have thinned out in the last two decades. Just look around at the automotive landscape. Even more modest conveyances are kitted out like luxury cars of yore, packing tons of tech and safety features that were once the exclusive purview of the world's well-to-do. Can anything be impressive anymore? As a matter of fact, yes. The E350, as it strafed along the pavement, solid as granite and ready for anything, made us feel like true kaisers of the strasse. Horsepower-addicted auto reviewers have complained that the 3.5-liter V6 needs more spinach. Fine. You want speed, spring for the AMG E63 and shut up. But for the above-average family man, the E350 manages to transcend its asthmatic lungs, soft-spoken tiller and supple feet to foment serious respect, if not outright desire.
Photos by Drew Phillips / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.
The new E-Class styling is crisp and classic, making the outgoing sedan look as dated as a cassette Walkman. Clapping eyes on the first pictures of the 2010 models showed a rear quarter panel distinctly reminiscent of a Chevrolet Impala – an obvious cause for alarm. Thankfully, the design translates more handsomely in person. No, that isn't the same milksop capitulation surrounding the Honda Crosstour. Scout's honor, the E350 is a great looking car. With its larger dimensions, the sedan resolves the styling in a classier way than the C-Class sedan and its two-door platform sibling, the E coupe.
Conservatively styled for traditional tastes, there's more surface work in the new body. Ovoid headlamps are now squared-up (one could almost use Ford's non-word "squircles") and the rear lamps swash across the tail more expressively than before. Mercedes-Benz hasn't gone off the Bangled deep-end with its latest E. No, this new idiom is sharper and more modern, with finely-tailored looks that have a certain amount of speed drawn in. There's motion in them thar lines and the details exude an air of automotive finery. Simply put, the E-Class will age well.
And classic styling is what's going on inside, too. The quintessential Mercedes cabin is a swell place to spend time, with the shape of the dashboard reminiscent of the panel in old W124s. But the interior design isn't as dated as that comparison might suggest, as the new E features a large LCD and spiffy gauges in the panel. Drawing a clear line back to its predecessors and packing the kind of high-tech firepower buyers in this class demand, the new E masterfully balances old and new. Although our tester's black ash trim brought the gloom and ash leather upholstery was already showing signs of being doomed to a life of clean-ishness, the pleating on the seats says "1987 300E" and what's wrong with invoking such a modern legend?
The materials, along with fit and finish, seem appropriately rich. There are touches of S-Class here and a dash of C-Class there, but the Mercedes parts bin is populated with good stock, so it feels familial instead of frugal. Lexus may be most recently identified with such fastidiousness, but the E350 displays an obsession with perfection. Even the headlight switch toggles with precision-machined feel, lending an air of importance to even the simplest task. There's virtually no slop in any of the ancillary controls, reiterating that the E-Class is one impeccably crafted automobile.
Around the interior, the expected high points are realized in good form. The optional Drive Dynamic seats act counter to cornering forces and offer a massage feature for those seeking a more intimate relationship with their chariot. The seats are all-day comfortable, but one of the first things we did was disable the groping functionality (we're fine with keeping this liaison platonic). Going with the standard power seats will keep $650 in your pocket, though the massagers are a boon to alertness on long slogs. If bladder-busting drives are your thing, perhaps the only thing better than groping seats and mechanical rollers would be integrated restrooms.
The rest of the technology in the E350 is surprisingly benign. COMAND isn't the epic agita-fest we expected, though the system needs fewer sub-menu steps and can be an outright distraction when delving deep into the structure. It's a good thing the Distronic Plus radar-based speed control is so amazingly good. Intervention is finely modulated, and the car even slowed itself to a momentary stop and accelerated again through a traffic circle with more aplomb than your average driver. The $3,950 Premium 1 package adds features many buyers will want, including hard-drive navigation, voice control, satellite radio, a rear view camera, heated seats and a dandy-good Harman Kardon Logic 7 audio system, while the $2,900 Driver Aid package installs the Distronic system, along with blind spot and lane monitoring. The sheer distraction of trying to use an iPod with the audio system means your eyes will be off the road for long stretches, so it's almost a necessity that the E can mostly drive itself. And while COMAND has lots of functionality built in, it's more clunky than iDrive or MMI, and stands a chance at flummoxing drivers just looking for directions to Bar Americain.
Thankfully, most of the functions have dedicated controls on the center stack. Switches for the ventilation system seem particularly well-considered and Mercedes employs little flippers that make setting temperature, fan speed and mode easy, with a clear bar graph displaying your settings. A column shifter for the seven-speed automatic transmission isn't exactly a sporting touch, but there are steering-wheel mounted shift buttons if you want to pose. Visibility out of the cabin was reminiscent of the low-cowl days of yesteryear, coupled with an airy atmosphere thanks to the glass roof. The biggest ergonomic gaffe is just Mercedes being Mercedes. To wit, the position of the cruise control stalk is exactly where the uninitiated driver expects to find the turn signals. You'll eventually adapt, but there's a period of unintentionally changing lanes without signaling, and not for lack of trying.
Though the E you see in the photos is a rear-drive example, our tester was equipped with Mercedes' all-wheel drive 4Matic system. Without trying the car in ultra-low traction situations (it was a downpour, not a blizzard), the AWD hardware didn't come into serious play as we formed our impressions of the driving experience. The ride proved just short of amazing, with a massively rigid bodyshell allowing the suspension to be topped up with whipped cream without shuddering and flopping about. Despite the plush ride, the E350 isn't all marshmallow – it's just more cushioned than a BMW 5 Series. And while there's a good amount of bodyroll, the E still feels reassuring as it heels over and takes a set. As you'd expect, this is not the sedan for hooliganism, though it won't make a total fool of itself if you force it to play along.
The helm is much sharper than Benzes of yore and even offers some feedback. Watching the tri-star hood ornament rotate through a turn like a gunsight makes up for having to correct mid-corner – something we experienced on more than one occasion. And for a 90-degree V6, the 268-horsepower 3.5-liter is impressively serene. Silent at idle, the engine is smooth and makes the most of its modest pride of horses when wound hard. It even snarls when caned, but it's nothing to set your heart aflutter. The buttery-smooth seven-speed automatic is best left to its own devices, so just ignore the silly, useless paddles and let the trans slides through its ratios without so much as a head bob. Despite having a cogtacular ratio spread, there's only so much power deficit the gearing can counter for, and the E350 is comparatively down on snort. Fuel economy also suffers a bit from the whipping you'll do to keep up.
The E350's stock in trade is being the seriously solid benchmark that we've come to expect. The extra-strong structure feels unbreakable, and there's a seemingly endless well of tricks to keep vibrations and harshness from entering the cabin. The brakes, too, proved unflappable – no surprise considering the myriad of electronics employed to keep the rotors dry and primed for action. Yet despite all the active and passive safety features (nine airbags, active headlamps and the Pre-Safe system which rolls up the windows, closes the sunroof, adjusts the seats and pre-tensions the belts if it senses an impending crash), the E350 doesn't drive like an autonomous space capsule – even when it suggests you stop for coffee when it detects drowsiness.
In the new E's most recent TV spots, Mercedes touts the decades of experience and innovation it brought to bear on the all-new E-Class. Strangely, this is one of those rare instances when marketing speaks truth. While the excellence does cost (the E350 starts at $49,000 and our tester rang in at around $60k), you won't feel ripped off, even if you opt for the V6. If past E-Class Benzes have lost the marque's storied status, the E350 is finally the vehicle to win it back, come hell, highwater or Nor'Easter.
Photos by Drew Phillips / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.