Greg N. Brown, Contributor
Thoughts while driving the 2007 Mercedes-Benz E550 sedan through the foothills of the Bavarian Alps: "The perfect car? No such thing is there? It feels wrong that we can find nothing wrong, but the E550 does everything extremely well but perfectly? We're not going to park this thing until we find a flaw, even if it's no more irritating than a pea under a hausfrau-high stack of feather beds."
Thoughts, hours later, in a hotel parking lot: "The perfect car. Impossible? Maybe, but there is one thing we know for sure. We can't feel any poke from any pea anywhere in the E550."
Thoughts, days later, at a computer keyboard: "The new and improved E-Class is as close to perfect as any vehicle we've driven."
Impossible? Our fingers admittedly balked at typing such an extravagant statement, but there it now lies, and there it will remain. If we overlooked any evidence to the contrary during our first drive, blame it on the bewitching fairy-tale beauty of Southern Bavaria.
A model for every taste
The model-rich line of E-Class sedans and station wagons is not only crucial to the financial well-being of the firm's passenger car machine, it is the primary conduit for the spread of Mercedes-Benz's core values to the masses. Over the four years of its production life, the current E-Class has attracted a million buyers worldwide, and in 2005 it accounted for fully one-fifth of all Mercedes-Benz cars sold. Such popularity in an increasingly arduous world market also makes it one of those rare cars that seems to be valued as much by those who purchase it as by the company profiting from its sale.
Worldwide, the E-Class family comprises 16 sedans and 13 wagons, and though just eight of them will reach the U.S., even this limited lineup boasts broad appeal. The E350, available as a sedan or wagon with optional 4Matic all-wheel drive, is powered by the 268-horsepower V6 introduced in the 2006 E-Class. The E550, offered just as a sedan but also with a 4Matic option, is fitted with the 382-hp V8 that debuted in the most recent S-Class.
Top performer is the E63 AMG sedan, which is stuffed with a 507-hp, normally aspirated V8. Appropriately, the heavily endowed E63 AMG lays down its big slab of torque through the rear wheels only. The fourth engine is a very innovative and ultra-clean-burning turbodiesel V6 in the E320 Bluetec sedan. Its 210-hp oil burner features special catalysts that allow it to be certified for sale in all 50 states.
Two-thousand new or revised parts
The brief for 2007's model called for a sportier and safer E-Class with no compromise in cruising comfort or cost (price increases over the 2006 models are expected to be minimal), and the corps of big foreheads and sharp pencils at Mercedes engineering responded with several newly introduced systems, some of which were first developed for the S-Class flagship but are now standard on every U.S.-bound E-Class.
To sharpen the car's dynamics, a Direct Control Package adds a 10-percent-quicker steering ratio and improved front suspension geometry for a more direct response to driver inputs and reduced understeer in hard cornering.
For increased driving safety at night, the Intelligent Light System first offered in the 2003 E-Class has been improved and now offers five different patterns of illumination for more effective reaches into the darkness, plus foglights redesigned to reduce back glare.
Handed down from the S-Class is PreSafe, the crash-protection system that prepares the car and its occupants for an impending collision, first by tensioning the front seatbelts and adjusting the front-passenger seat to the most effective location relative to the deployment of the front and side airbags. It will also close any open windows or the sliding sunroof if a particularly severe collision or rollover is anticipated by the numerous sensors monitoring the car's speed and amount of deviation from its straight and true path. A corollary system to PreSafe is Neck-Pro, a new electronically controlled head restraint system that was added to reduce the possibility of whiplash injury.
Further safety features include adaptive rear brake lights, which were developed to flash intermittently and thus reduce brake reaction time in following traffic, and an Adaptive Brake system that primes the electronically controlled hydraulics if sensors detect a situation that might require heavy braking, and also works to keep the components dry in wet conditions.
Equipment for every driving style
All U.S. rear-drive E-Class vehicles, except for the E63, are equipped with a newly introduced seven-speed automatic with Touchshift. The 4Matic models and the E63 come with a five-speed automatic.
"Sport" models ride on 18-inch, 10-twin-spoke wheels and are distinguished by a new rear bumper with dual exhaust pipes, a lowered suspension, blue-tinted glass, black bird's eye maple wood trim, a white-gauge instrument cluster and matte chrome surrounding the gearshift lever.
"Luxury" models have 17-inch running gear, a different rear bumper, a comfort-tuned suspension, green-tinted glass and Burl Walnut interior trim. Bluetec sedans will ride on 16-inch wheels and high-mileage tires. A conventional steel coil spring suspension is standard on the E320 and E350s, while the wonderful Airmatic DC air suspension is fitted to the E550 and the E63 AMG (in which case it's specially tuned to help handle that car's massive performance).
A winning combination of pace and grace
Try as we might, we failed to upset the E550's dignified equilibrium on autobahn blasts up to 150 mph or during aggressive attacks upon Bavaria's twisting mountain roads. Our tester was fitted with Airmatic DC, and it delivered, in concert with the various electronic stability systems, an astounding combination of grip and ride comfort no matter how deeply we dipped into the 5.5-liter's prodigious supply of power.
We're also pleased to report that the revised steering effectively erased the numb feel that was a major flaw in previous Mercedes racks, and the tauter front suspension helped the big car's nose turn in more adroitly through the corners. The big V8 may not be the most economical powertrain in the E-Class lineup, but if fuel prices are of no concern, it's the ideal engine for the size and heft of the almost 4,000-pound car.
We look forward to an extended stint in this remarkable new car as soon as possible, for no other reason than to discover where that irritating pea is hidden away, if indeed it exists at all in this nearly perfect automobile.
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