Mercedes sedans make a statement. They say, "I'm rich." Then they add, "But I'm also an intelligent buyer who wants a comfortable and safe car, and that's what I'm paying for." Very talkative, these cars. We had the chance to drive a few shiny new E-Classes (two sedans and a wagon) around the hills outside of Austin, Texas, accompanied by one of Mercedes' own E-Class product planners. Of course we couldn't pass up the opportunity to grill a product planner on the future of this recently-revived German carmaker, so we went with car questions in mind.
"When is the SLK going to get a stick?" No comment.
"Is demand going to boost the price of the ML320?" No comment.
"When will they fix the A-Class tipping problem and bring it to America?" No comment.
"Does Mercedes see a market for the V-Class minivan in the States?" No comment.
"Is this thing fast for a Diesel, or what?"
"Now you're talking!" she said. "There has been a significant power increase since - Watch out for that cow!"
Not only is the car fast, but it handles remarkably well. In our makeshift "cow avoidance maneuver," the sturdy sedan negotiated the road with aplomb, bending into just enough body roll to keep the passengers comfortable, yet never losing the grip of the road.
We drove the E-Class cars all over the Texas countryside, and in addition to great fuel economy, we found that the vehicles offer surprisingly powerful performances. Zero to sixty times were not officially tested out of respect for our MBNA driving partner, but we were surprised to find that the diesel-powered car gets up to speed as fast as most gasoline-powered cars; Mercedes claims 8.5 seconds, and we have no reason to argue. The gas powerplants, surprisingly, are not much faster.
Noise and vibration are kept to a minimum, as witnessed by our pleasantly quiet travel over cattle guards: those metal grilles between fences that cows refuse to cross. Our E-Class planner friend, being from New Jersey, had never seen, much less driven over, cattle guards. She was surprised to learn that they help contain livestock. Cows must make do without the help of the E's four-wheel independent suspension and front double-wishbones.
The Mercedes-Benz E-Class is the car that thinks for you. Loaded with safety equipment and plenty of extra gadgets to choose from, the car seems equipped with its own constantly-alert copilot. First, antilock brakes are standard. The brakes also come with Mercedes' new Brake Assist system, which monitors the brake pedal and can detect an emergency situation. In the event of a real emergency, Brake Assist applies full braking force in a split second.
Unfortunately, we were unable to engage Brake Assist, or else the system may be so transparent that it went unnoticed. The hills and winding backroads near Austin are full of surprises, not the least of which turned out to be meandering cattle. Around every bend in the road, we encountered various bovines and sheep going about their usual routine of walking around, chewing their cud - a popular pastime in Texas. We slammed on the brakes at one deceptive dip in the road, and the car stopped with enough dive to scrape bottom. Not the desired effect, but we're sure that had a cow been standing there, a collision would have been avoided.
In addition to Brake Assist, ASR traction control is standard. This system knows if one wheel is spinning faster than the other (slipping), and applies the brakes to that wheel, or reduces power to that wheel by cutting off the electronic throttle. On slippery surfaces, this advanced traction control system significantly reduces lateral motion, keeping the car going in a straight line. Understeer and oversteer are controlled effectively.
Another power-stopping feature is the BabySmart recognition system, now standard. When first we heard of this feature, it sounded like Mercedes had somehow devised a way to make children more intelligent. Alas, BabySmart is simply an airbag cutoff. With the BabySmart child seat in place, the front passenger airbag is automatically deactivated. Unfortunately, we left home without a baby, so the BabySmart system went untested.
Parktronic is yet one more child-safe option that uses Doppler radar to detect small objects to the front and rear of the car. The family dog may also benefit from this device. If an object is detected, the driver is warned by way of light readouts that glow yellow, then red. The warning lights are located to each side of the driver on the dashboard, and the rear radar lights are integrated into the cabin lights above the rear window. They activate at slow speeds for parking, but at any time, the radar can be activated by the push of a button. While this feature is more for show than utility, we found it entertaining to see how close to the garage wall we could park. We got within four inches. Still, at $975 for the system, we'll take our chances and trust our own perception of the car's length.
In case of rain, don't worry about searching for the windshield wiper controls. Equipped with the optional rain sensor, the single wiper blade operates automatically, according to the intensity of the downpour. We were blessed with blue skies deep in the heart of Texas, so the only time we used the wiper was to remove a splattered bug from the front glass. Being Colorado residents and unaccustomed to insects, we learned right away that such use of the wiper is a bad idea. It only serves to smear the bug grease even further. Too bad Mercedes doesn't have a system for detecting and removing insects.
Finally, we must mention the advancement of the ignition key. Mercedes has developed an infrared key fob that acts in place of the old-fashioned metal contraption used for the last thousand years on various mechanical locks. Dubbed SmartKey, the snub-nosed device sends a unique signal to the car, unlocking the steering column and starting the engine. And after each use, the key reprograms itself with a different code, just in case somebody figures out how to clone the little computer inside. It works like any other ignition system, only SmartKey is more expensively developed. And people wonder why carjacking is becoming more popular these days. Thieves can't take the car unless they have the key.
Lest we give the impression that the E-Class vehicles are simply a showcase for gadgetry, let's take the opportunity to talk about the impressive new diesel engine. "Impressive" and "diesel" are not used traditionally in the same sentence, but this engine is much improved, and it does impress. Thanks to a turbocharger and an intercooler, horsepower and torque are up significantly over last year's ratings. The Turbodiesel gets 174 horsepower and 244 foot-pounds of torque, improving immensely on the 134 horsepower and 155 foot-pounds of a year ago.
The E320 sedan and wagon, as the name implies, are both powered by a new 3.2-liter V6 gas-powered engine that provides 221 horsepower at 5600 rpm and 232 foot-pounds of torque at 3000 rpm. The new V-type engine provides more power than the old inline six, but that's expected more than the huge improvement displayed by the diesel.
Diesel engines are still around for one important reason: great fuel economy. Even with its performance improvements, the E300 Turbodiesel posts a 26-34 mpg range. With a 21.1-gallon fuel tank capacity, the Turbodiesel engine makes cross-country gas stops much less frequent. Imagine driving 700 miles between pit stops. Or driving from Manhattan to Los Angeles, gassing up just three times. Our bet is that passengers will need refueling long before the car. For the gasoline engines, we found ourselves getting a respectable 24 mpg - not stellar, but not exactly wasteful.
Interior ergonomics are typical Mercedes: fine except for the illegible hieroglyphics that decorate most of the controls. To reset the tripmeter, for example, you must choose between buttons labeled "R", "0", "+" and "h". We appreciate the door-mounted seat adjustments, and the E-Class cars come with such niceties as dual climate zones, telescoping steering column, wood trim and a rocking stereo system complete with eight speakers.
The interior color on our test cars was a pumpkin shade of orange (only the E300 came in a deep blue). The leather is buttery smooth, but the seats prove uncomfortable after long distances. In this regard, Mercedes could learn a thing or two from Volvo, whose seats hug the driver in perfect comfort.
The E320 wagon seats seven, thanks to the nifty use of rear-facing jump seats in the back. Behind the seats, the floor is hollowed out for added legroom. That extra space can also swallow up the jump seats when they're not in use, making for almost 83 cubic feet of luggage space. And with the optional luggage rack that came with our test car, the Mercedes wagon promises to be an excellent cross-country people hauler. Rear-facing passengers will also appreciate cupholders that transform from little boxes.
Mercedes builds a four-door E-Class for everything. The E-Class series of cars is versatile, and can handle the demands of most families. They're speedy, comfortable, can carry up to seven people, and they're solid as a rock. These cars represent an excellent argument against buying the more trendy, but less efficient, sport-utes. If we were to buy a Mercedes-Benz E-Class, we'd strongly consider the Turbodiesel sedan. Audi and Volvo offer less expensive wagons, but there's no prestige sedan that competes with Mercedes in this price range. The savings in improved fuel economy with a diesel engine might even pay for the car in a few years. And in the great state of Texas, it's reassuring to know that a 700-mile range will probably get you to the next town.