First Drive: 2017 Mercedes-Benz E-Class
– Carmel Valley, California
The roads between the Mercedes-Benz research center in Sunnyvale, California, and our hotel in Carmel Valley are choked with traffic and we’re crawling along. Fortunately, I’m doing very little behind the wheel. Distronic Plus adaptive cruise control and Steering Pilot engaged, the 2017 Mercedes-Benz E300 brakes when traffic slows, accelerates when it clears, and even steers to keep me in my lane. The tech lets me keep my hands off the wheel for up to 60 seconds in high-speed freeway driving; below 20 miles per hour, I never need to steer at all. Suddenly traffic jams don’t seem so tiring.
“What we’ve found is that a stress-free driver is actually a better driver,” agrees Bart Herring, Mercedes-Benz USA’s general manager for product development. At the helm of an E-Class, he boldly promises, “you should arrive feeling better than when you left.”
While it’s great to cede some driving control to the car – Mercedes notes its features are assists, not a replacement for human drivers – the 2017 E300 is also supremely satisfying to drive manually. It’s luxurious when you want to treat yourself, sporty when you want to hustle, and pretty from every angle.
It’s luxurious when you want to treat yourself, sporty when you want to hustle, and pretty from every angle.
The W213-generation E-Class manages that great trick we all wish we could achieve: It grows while still losing weight. Total length increases 1.7 inches and the wheelbase gains 2.5 inches. With 40 percent of the new car made from aluminum, the rear-drive E300 is 99 pounds lighter than the equivalent outgoing E350, while the 4Matic all-wheel-drive car is 143 pounds skinnier than its predecessor. The newly enlarged sheetmetal is a little sleeker and more graceful than the boxy outgoing car, with clear visual ties to the C- and S-Class that bookend it in the Mercedes sedan range.
Thanks in part to the bigger outside dimensions, interior room increases in every objective measure. Storage is improved, too, as thinner front door panels, enabled by the use of Mercedes’ “FrontBass” subwoofers that are integrated into the front foot wells, allow the front door pockets to hold twice as much as before; the rear door pockets are now three times more spacious. The cabin is a thing of beauty, with an airy view out front, sumptuous seats, and high-quality materials on every surface. It’s also miraculously silent, dulling road and wind noise to almost unnoticeable levels.
The E300’s base engine is a 2.0-liter turbocharged inline-four we’ve already met in the C-Class and GLC-Class. Spec-sheet nerds will note that’s down 88 hp from the old E350’s 3.5-liter V6, though peak torque of 273 pound-feet is the same for old and new engines. But between the lower torque peak (1,300 rpm in the 2.0T versus 3,500 for the V6), the car’s reduced mass, and two extra transmission speeds, the E300 will outsprint an E350 to 60 mph by 0.3 seconds (6.2 seconds for the rear-driver, 6.3 with 4Matic.) That’s progress. Though there are no EPA efficiency estimates yet, I saw 30 miles per gallon indicated in hundreds of miles of mixed driving.
Despite its athletic standing-start times, the 2.0-liter engine is right at the lower limit of how much power I want in a big sedan like the E-Class.
Despite its athletic standing-start times, the 2.0-liter engine is right at the lower limit of how much power I want in a big sedan like the E-Class. It feels and sounds very refined (the latter aided in part by artificial sound enhancement in the cabin), but catch it off-guard – a sudden overtaking maneuver or charging onto the highway – and you can find yourself waiting a second for power. In the default Comfort driving mode especially, a lazy tip-in sometimes frustrates me when I want to make a brisk departure. On the other hand, driving in Sport or Sport+ modes keeps the transmission just a little too eager, with abrupt shifts from the otherwise silky-smooth nine-speed automatic.
The E-Class chassis, on the other hand, strikes the Goldilocks balance of ride comfort and enthusiastic handling. It’s a gem on everything from choppy concrete highways to undulating two-lanes, with well-judged damping that is both compliant and controlled. Compared to the last E-Class, there’s perhaps a tiny bit more floatiness to this car, especially on rebound over crests or aggressive turns, yet it’s worth it for how ably the suspension filters out road imperfections. Limit-travel, though, is the exception: Hit a big expansion joint at speed, or bang a pothole under braking, and the suspension slams into its bump stops sharply. An adjustable air suspension is a $1,900 option, though I didn’t have chance to drive a car so equipped.
The variable-ratio, electric-assist steering is as devoid of feedback as anything in this class, yet expertly judged weighting makes the E-Class drive small and inspires confidence. And when attacking switchbacks in Sport+ mode, I appreciate that my car is fitted with the optional summer-tire pack that features grippy Dunlop Sport Maxx rubber.
The cabin is a thing of beauty, with an airy view out front, sumptuous seats, and high-quality materials on every surface.
Though there’s nothing wrong with the standard analog instruments and secen-inch color trip computer, I’d order my E-Class with the optional 12.3-inch fully digital instrument cluster. I love the clear visuals and the ability to arrange different gauges in myriad ways, although it’s not quite as dramatic as the satellite map views you get from Audi’s similar Virtual Cockpit. There are three different views for the primary instruments, plus separate sections for showing navigation, trip computer, media, or other information at a glance. In case that’s not enough info, there’s also an available head-up display.
The software for the 12.3-inch COMAND infotainment screen has been slightly revised from what you’ll find in other Mercedes models; most contextual menus are now at the right of the display so you no longer have to hunt “up” or “down” to change functions. The steering wheel also adopts new thumb controls; the right set manipulates the center display and the left is for configuring the instrument cluster.
It took me some time to acclimate to “sliding” my thumb over the small touchpad but it allows drivers to control almost every car function without taking their hands off the wheel. Get used to it, because “you can fully expect you’ll see this on future models going forward,” Herring says. By the way, there are now four discrete ways you can use the COMAND system: rotary knob, touchpad, steering-wheel buttons, and voice controls.
The E-Class chassis strikes the Goldilocks balance of ride comfort and enthusiastic handling.
COMAND also now has Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity, though both of those systems work best with touchscreens. Scrolling through menus with the rotary controller is far less intuitive than just tapping on the display in other Android Auto-equipped cars. Mercedes’ built-in nav system is really pretty good, so using Android Auto is a perk but not a necessity.
Thanks to new radar sensors and cameras that can see farther (up to 1,600 feet ahead of the car and 262 feet behind it) and in 360 degrees, the E-Class takes even greater steps to protect occupants. It’ll snug the driver and passenger toward the center of the car if it detects an imminent side-impact crash, and helps steer around an obstacle if it senses the driver trying to swerve to avoid a crash. If you’re driving with the cruise control enabled and don’t interact with the car for too long, perhaps because you fell asleep or had a medical issue, the E-Class will automatically brake to a stop and turn on the emergency flashers. I’m happy to report we didn’t need to test any of these.
Perhaps the coolest – but maybe least useful – feature is Active Lane Change Assist. With the adaptive cruise control enabled, simply signal left or right for two seconds, take your hands off the wheel, and the E-Class will execute a flawless but rather slow lane change. Don’t worry, says Herring, “the car always checks blind spots, surroundings, and also for a trailing vehicle.” But, again, since the car doesn’t actually drive itself completely autonomously, this is a party trick.
It’s glamorous from the outside, plush on the inside, easy to drive, and packed with segment-leading technology.
Other tech upgrades abound. The full-LED taillights automatically vary their brightness so as not to dazzle trailing motorists. A “Car-to-X” communication system will let E-Classes send warning notices to one another (e.g. windshield wiper use or stability control activation over icy roads) via the cloud. The park-assist function can enter both parallel and perpendicular spaces, and can pull out of them without any driver interaction. Mercedes also hopes to launch a remote-park feature, controlled by smartphone, though is still waiting on regulatory approval (BMW has a similar feature on the 7 Series luxury sedan but had to petition NHTSA for permission to use it in the U.S.).
You pay extra for most of these features, of course. Base prices ($53,075 for rear-wheel drive and $55,575 for 4Matic) are about $1,000 cheaper than the outgoing E350, and you get more standard equipment. But the Premium 3 package on my test car, which adds most of the cool active-safety options, will set you back another $10,250. Figure most buyers will spend at least $60,000 (although 50 percent of Mercedes customers lease rather than own)
On the way to the airport I drove a more modestly equipped E300 and missed features like Distronic, keyless access, and the fancy LCD instrument cluster. It’s a shame not to have a tech-focused car dripping in every available gadget. Yet even without its whiz-bang toys, the E-Class is a superb luxury sedan. It’s glamorous from the outside, plush on the inside, easy to drive, and packed with segment-leading technology. I emerged from every drive relaxed and with a smile on my face. There’s no question it’s the midsize luxury sedan I’d buy with my own money.
|2017 MERCEDES-BENZ E300 4MATIC|
|ENGINE||Turbocharged 2.0L I4|
|OUTPUT||241 Horsepower / 273 Pound-Feet|
|0-60 MPH||6.3 Seconds|
|TOP SPEED||130 MPH|
|CARGO VOLUME||13.1 Cubic Feet|
Photos: Michael Shaffer / Mercedes-Benz