If the cabin of this new E-Class looks familiar, it's because it builds on a successful Mercedes-Benz formula. There's a wealth of luxurious materials at your fingertips; leathers and trims from the S-Class trickle down to Mercedes' midsize E, and work in perfect harmony with beautifully sculpted surfaces. If I told you the pictures above show a new S-Class Coupe, you'd (probably) believe me.
That's exactly how I felt during an intimate preview of the new E-Class' interior at one of Mercedes' research and development buildings in Sindelfingen, Germany. After hearing Merc's suits talk about the mission of the new E-Class, my iPhone was confiscated, and I was ushered behind a dark curtain where I met a lightly camouflaged car. Sitting inside, my first impression was the same as when I first met the current S-Class a couple of years ago: wow. Much like how the new C-Class is often referred to as a "baby S-Class," the same can be said of the new E, with even more validity. Here's why.
Everything On The Big Screen
The first thing you notice is the flat, dual-screen display that makes up the instrument panel and central infotainment headunit. This large piece of tech is a "Mercedes interior signature," according to lead designer Hartmut Sinkwitz. All versions of the E-Class have this setup, but in two different levels of execution. Base models get traditional fixed speedometer and tachometer gauges, with a seven-inch color display between them and an 8.4-inch color display off to the right for the COMAND system. Uplevel cars, like the ones you see here, get two 12.3-inch screens, with a huge range of customization options, and a revised main menu interface for COMAND.
With that premium system, three different skins can be selected for the gauge cluster. The standard configuration – Classic – is exactly what you expect from a new Mercedes, with a clean, two-gauge design and different driver-selectable information screens in the middle. But new for the E-Class are two other views, branded as Sport and Progressive. Sport still uses the two-gauge setup, but uses different fonts and colors. Most notably, the Sport display uses yellow text on a gray background, and if I'm honest, this doesn't fit with the luxurious theme of the E-Class' interior. It looks a little Lexus RC F to my eyes – more video game flashy than legitimately "sporty."
Progressive, on the other hand, puts on large dial in the middle of the screen. The upper outline houses the tachometer, and there's a huge digital speedo right in the center. On either side of the dial are information screens that the driver can switch through, with relevant trip, fuel economy, audio, and navigation data. I like this gauge layout the best – it gives you the information you need front and center (no E-Class driver needs a full tachometer) with a higher number of secondary displays.
The E-Class is the first Mercedes to get dual thumb controls on the steering wheel – basically two smaller versions of the touchpad in the center console. The left side controls functionality in the gauge cluster, and the right manages everything in the main infotainment screen. Basically, unless you're using the big touchpad for writing in navigation directions or online searches, you needn't move your hands from the steering wheel to use pretty much every function of the E-Class' displays.
This system is super intuitive – move your thumbs in any direction to slide between controls, and use the return/home buttons next to the touchpads to toggle back to main menus. It only took a couple of minutes to master the thumbpads, and Mercedes even allows you to change the input reaction speeds for these pads, with slow, medium, and fast levels. It's super trick; look for this to work its way into the rest of Mercedes' lineup posthaste.
Best Seats In The Business
Mercedes brought a trio of freestanding E-Class thrones for me to try out. Never mind the fact that I want one as my office chair, all three offer incredible support and comfort. What's interesting to note about the front seats is the design – the stitching pattern is unlike anything I've seen before. Mercedes designers molded these chairs after the human physique, using a dress form design for the flowing lines that wrap from the shoulders down to where the cushions meet. Even the way the seatbacks wrap up around behind the headrests is an important attention to detail. From the driver and passenger perspective, you genuinely feel coddled in the throne, and from the back seat of the E-Class, the seats look and feel exceptional. Speaking of the back, it's cozy – taller passengers might feel cramped after longer stays.
The generic leather seats look and feel nice, with even better Designo quilted patters available for an extra cost. Even the heavily bolstered AMG-badged seats are lovely, with tons of support for every part of the body. If the E-Class rides as well as I expect it to, I can see cozying up in these chairs and enjoying incredibly long drives without any fatigue. And of course, heating, cooling, and massage functions are built in as options.
Mercedes showed me three different interior themes for the leather and accompanying trim. Varying shades of beiges, browns, and blacks are available, and the specific image you see at the top of this post with the saddle brown, flowing line wood, and modern beige color combination is what Mercedes calls the "most expressive and beautiful combination." In person, it looks lush, and feels just as great.
Trim pieces range from open-pore wood to piano black to a brand-new woven metal finish that's exclusive to the E-Class (for now). It's a more interesting take on what you'd assume is faux carbon fiber, and it's my favorite of the bunch. Glossy wood still has its place in the automotive industry, but in the E-Class, Mercedes is proving that more natural looking surfaces provide a more upscale appearance.
A few other things of note: The start button gets a new design, with a pulsing backlit appearance when you enter the car. Overall control layout is familiar to anyone who's been in an S- or C-Class. Storage is ample in the doors and center console, but I kind of hate the giant flap that covers the cupholders, and sticks up when open. The steering wheel feels good, but seems a bit too large in diameter for my tastes – I much prefer the smaller helm of the C-Class, or the more beautifully sculpted unit in the S-Class. Finally, the optional, 23-speaker, 1,450-watt Burmester stereo system is incredible – with 3D surround and different processing levels, music never sounded so good.
Raising The Bar
By making the E-Class a far more premium space, Mercedes-Benz is continuing to carve out its place in the luxury segment as the company that does cabins better than anyone else. This also allows Mercedes to charge a slightly higher premium for its cars than in previous years, simply because the comfort and quality within is truly a step above the rest.
We already know the E-Class will be a technical tour-de-force when it launches in 2016. And since we pretty much already know what it'll look like, all that's left to learn is what's under the hood, and how gracefully the whole package moves down the road. Look for the E-Class to make its full debut at the Detroit Auto Show in January.