Testdrive The stunning new Mercedes-Benz E-class promises to leapfrog with new tech and fresh design. Rahul Kakarreports

The German luxury car maker started its Indian operations in 1995 with the E-class and this model has always been the bread-and-butter product for the company. When the E-class was first launched, it had absolutely no competition, and Mercedes would take its own sweet time to bring us the latest model. That’s history now. In fact, the new E-class is coming to us sooner than you think.

We expected the launch in January 2010 at the Auto Expo but it will be here this October before Deepavali. Merc plans to initially launch the E350 (which we have exclusively tested), followed by the diesel E320 a few months later. So, how much of an upper hand does Mercedes with its latest, eighth-generation E-class have?

Design and engineering

The latest E-class (W212) is quite a radical departure from the rounded and softer lines of the outgoing E-class. Mercedes-Benz has gone back to the drawing board and delivered a saloon with an upright, angular and overtly three-box shape. In fact, like the S-class, there’s a more edgy look to the car and lots of fussy elements which we feel won’t be to everyone’s taste.

The bulge over the rear wheel arch stretching into the wings is a throwback to the Mercedes models of the 1950s, while the four-headlamp front — a feature of the past two generations of the E-class — has been given a new twist. We think the look is a touch contrived.

The avant-garde model gets LED bulbs set in a boomerang shape. A more upright grille with a pronounced V-shape makes the new E look more assertive. Dimensionally, the new car is longer (by 16mm) and wider (by 32mm) and lower (by 10mm) than the outgoing W211, but the erect and rather formal styling gives the impression that it is substantially larger. Mercedes has achieved a drag coefficient of just 0.26, which is highly creditable.

The engineering is a mix of established and new technology. The body is a blend of steel, aluminium (bonnet, front wings and boot lid) and a composite of glass fibre and plastic (front valance and spare wheel well). This has helped keep weight in check. In fact, the new E-class, despite a beefier power train, weighs only 50kg more than the outgoing E280.

Slam the doors and the acoustic quality of the ‘thud’ makes you believe Mercedes’ claim that this is its toughest E-class yet.

Step inside and the immediate impression is of understated quality. It has precise switchgear and lots of soft-touch plastics, although some materials and textures such as those on the steering boss don’t feel very special.

Build quality is simply exemplary and reminds us of the time when Mercedes cars were engineered like no other.

Interiors

The beige interiors have a shade of brown which is not to our liking; we feel the E-class looks best with black interiors, which is also an option. The interior, however, comes into its own at night. The ‘waterfall’ lighting effect, which splits the dashboard, and the downlighting on the door switchgear (as in the XF) looks fantastic.

The dashboard is upright with angles and straight lines instead of the flowing shape of the previous E-class. Although there is nothing really exciting to draw your attention, all the major controls are well-located and simple to use. Taking pride of place is the high-mounted screen housed in its own binnacle. A single knob lets you scroll through the on-screen menus to operate most functions. This arrangement, which Mercedes calls COMAND, dramatically reduces clutter. However, the stereo and climate control systems get conventional controls and the mass of tiny buttons that surround them can be quite confusing.

Also, important functions such as the Parktronic and trip computer have separate displays and are not integrated into the screen. What is beyond reproach is the quality feel of the buttons and switches.

But the insides are more practical than before, thanks in part to the column-mounted gear shifter which frees up space in the centre console for large cupholders (which the previous E-class never had). There are three power sockets to charge all your gadgets and the door pockets are generous as ever.

The best news is that Mercedes has finally given the E-class fully-powered seats. Gone is the manual fore-aft adjuster and instead you get Merc’s traditional seat pictogram on the door, which means you’re guaranteed to find a good driving position.

The seats take comfort to a new level with a combination of foam, a longer backrest and added length in the cushion. Access to the rear has been improved by raising the roofline and providing a larger door aperture. The backrest angle at the rear is slightly more reclined which adds to the comfort.

However, the taller front seats and the higher window line (taller by 18mm) give rear occupants more of a cocooned feeling. It’s something you notice only when you jump from the old E-class into the new one.

Equipment levels are higher than before. The sound system is beefed up, parking sensors are standard and so are cornering lights. And, of course, safety too is enhanced with more airbags than before and a unique Attention Assist system which detects drowsiness and gives a warning!

Engine and performance

The E-class in the international market has been launched with a wide range of engines, most of which are all new to this model. There’s a new line-up of direct-injection turbo-petrols and a range of smaller diesels which are designed to cut fuel consumption and CO2 levels.

However, the Indian E350 will not be getting any of these engines (Merc engineers are still nervous about Indian fuel quality), and will instead be powered by the 3498cc V6 from the current S-class. Frankly, that’s no bad thing. This 272bhp provides more than enough grunt for the E-class, which is significantly lighter than the S-class (by 145kg).

This four-valve per cylinder, twin-cam unit is a proven engine and delivers the goods in a typically silky smooth and seamless manner. The throttle response is surprisingly sharp (for a Merc) and, unlike the outgoing petrol E280 which gathered pace in a measured way, this car has an urgency that will delight owners.

Mash your right foot into the carpet and the big E lunges forward, acceleration always strong and linear. The responsiveness is great in traffic, and though it’s quite unbecoming to hustle a Merc saloon in point-and-squirt mode, the E-class is game for cabbie-style driving too.

It’s deceptively quick as well and wafts you to 160kph in under 20 seconds before going on to a claimed top speed of an astonishing 250kph.

There are quicker cars but it’s not the speed which is important here but the ease with which the Merc gets to Vmax that is.

The engine is super silent and even at maximum revs, there’s just a murmur from under the bonnet. And, it’s the stress-free nature of the engine that makes it such a lovely cruiser.

From the moment you turn the wheel, you realise that this E-class is on a completely different dynamic plane. First impressions are that it has a new-found agility the previous model lacked and is a much more engaging drive.

At the heart of the new E-class’s brilliant handling is Mercedes’ variable ratio Direct Steer system. It is a brilliant combination of being perfectly weighted (not too heavy and not too light), accurate and blessed with good feel.

A big V6 petrol engine in a 1.7-tonne car isn’t going to be economical. The city figure of 6.3kpl is in line with our expectation. The Merc surprised us on the highway by comfortably breaking into double-digits. The insanely tall seventh gear allows the car to cruise at very low revs, which helped achieve an impressive 11.4kpl.

Priced at approximately Rs. 55 lakh (on-road Mumbai), which is a mere Rs. 3 lakh more than the outgoing E-class, we have a new benchmark in this segment of the luxury market.

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