Picture this scene. You are in the driving seat of a car on a freeway. You are in the middle of the three lanes. This is all fairly humdrum until you get to add some detail, like the fact that your feet are on the floor and your hands on your lap. Without any input, the car slows down as it approaches a slower vehicle.

You check your mirror and, keeping your feet on the floor and your hands on your lap, you hold the indicator down to announce your intention to change lanes, which the car does for you, automatically changing lanes and accelerating to the speed you originally set. Occasionally the car requests some kind of intervention, perhaps a small input on the steering, to confirm that you are both conscious and concentrating on the road.

That gives away the truth; this is a car you can buy today in 2016, not some scene from the future. The law around autonomous cars is still an uncertain space, and the technology has to keep that in mind. The road in question was sweeping out of Lisbon, and the car was the new Mercedes-Benz E-Class. A new E-Class is always a tech story, and yet I think it’s important, before we get stuck into a maelstrom of acronyms, to consider the car itself.

I’m a big fan of the three-pointed star’s current design direction. It has dropped the harder lines of the previous model, and has followed up the C-Class’s preference for elegance and style. It looks great, with just a dash of flamboyance in a sector of the market known for design austerity and conservatism. To get inside, more of the same philosophy shines through. It’s a more personable space than some competitors.

It is perhaps superfluous to requirements to say that it’s a comfortable car, but it really has done away with the hard-edged design, the wilful precision and spartanism of some German interiors that are, you might argue, more impressive than welcoming. I love all of this because, before it has turned a wheel, it already feels to me that the car, which is to my mind the soul of Mercedes-Benz, the E-Class, is really coming home.

This is a car with some serious ancestors, starting back in 1953 with the “pontoon” W120 and passing though several generations, some more notable than the others, but generally an intimidating back catalogue this new car must match. Can it be as pretty as the fantail W110 or the stately W114? Could it ever hope to be as robust and popular as the W123?

If one was to look at the common thread that runs through this nameplate’s lineage it would be this: the E-Class is the distillation of the idea of comfortable, safe, reliable and prestigious transport.  The new car delivers in spades. The festival of technology collectively huddled under the Intelligent Drive umbrella does a great many things to keep the occupants safe. It monitors blind spots can tell the different between a dog, a bicycle and a pedestrian, it reads traffic signs and nudges you into your lane and will brake for you if you’re busy sending a WhatsApp.

There’s even a protocol for if you fall asleep or, heaven forbid, have a heart attack at the wheel (the car gently slows down, with hazards on, and automatically pulls over onto the shoulder). Autonomous drive lite, which is what this car is, will even re-engage after coming to a full stop in the traffic so long as the wait isn’t more than 30 seconds. Inside they’ve got the balance spot-on. It’s immediately familiar to anybody who’s driven either a C-Class or an S-Class, but has a look all of its own too.

The dominant feature is two large screens, one of which sits behind the steering wheel to deliver the standard information on RPM, speed and the trip computer in various customisable ways. The second screen, in the middle of the car, broadcasts the activity of the Command system, which contains the satnav, entertainment and other systems. This is undoubtedly the most sorted version of Command yet.

In addition to the voice, wheel and touchpad operating mechanisms, there are now two thumb pads on the steering wheel, which operate much like the pad on a Blackberry phone. This is a truly excellent innovation, offering full connectivity to the car’s systems without the need to take a hand off the wheel. Accommodation is excellent. The car’s wheelbase is up 65mm, which means rear legroom is truly capacious and headroom is good too. 

To drive, the new E is better than ever. Even the cars on steel springs (air suspension is a good option if your wallet allows) the ride is genuinely silky. With such a good-looking car it might be tempting to shoe it with some enormous wheels. The chassis will cope with some of the bigger rim sizes but if you overdo it, you threaten to undo one the car’s great tricks – that supple ride and quiet running. None of this is to say that the new E is a pudding. I drove the new E220d, which has an all-new, all-aluminum 2l turbodiesel motor that’s notably light.

This, in addition to the rear-wheel-drive, makes for a surprisingly sprightly drive, with better turn-in than you’d imagine. It’s a perfectly good car to drive briskly. 
That new diesel motor is so much quieter than the slightly clattery 2.1l unit it replaces, and offers a claimed 3.9l/100km along with 143kW and a satisfying 400Nm of waft. Mated with the new nine-speed automatic, which is an infinitely more intelligent unit than the old seven-speed affair, it makes swift if unhurried progress and promises extraordinary efficiency. 

The bulk of sales will no doubt go to the E200, a 135kW car that will fulfill the traditional role of an E-Class. Being a fan of E-Classes of yore, there is a small voice that won’t be quiet telling me that a proper E-Class needs a six-cylinder engine, and you can have that in the form of a super-smooth and quiet E350d, a 3l V6 diesel, which offers 650Nm of effortless muscle and a sub-six-second sprint to 100km/h. 

That, for now, is the extent of the range in SA, but there’ll no doubt be various AMG models (a 43 and a 63 should come in time) and more petrol options. The new E-Class isn’t a cheap car, with the E200, with no boxes ticked, coming in at just over R700 000. For me the pick of the range right now would be the E220d at R760 000, unless you can stretch to R950 000 for the big six-cylinder. 

The new E-Class is further evidence of Mercedes-Benz being firmly back on its game, ploughing its own furrow and defining its own values as a luxury car manufacturer. This car feels like it’s been made with its heritage and historical values in mind. In the world of mid-size luxury sedans, praise doesn’t get much higher. I really liked it.


FACT FILE

Mercedes-Benz E220d
POWER: 143kW
TORQUE: 400Nm
0-100 KM/H: 7.3 sec
TOP SPEED: 240 km/h
FUEL CONS: 3.9l/100 km
CO2: 102 g/km
PRICE: R 759 100


June 2016

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