Not as sharp as before, but sales are unlikely to suffer as a result
After decades lagging behind BMW and Audi, Mercedes-Benz is well on the way to realising the dream of helmsman Dieter Zetsche by becoming the largest premium car manufacturer in the world by the century’s end. Last year it sold 1.87 million cars, a rise of more than 13 per cent, overtaking Audi in the process for the first time in five years. And while it didn’t quite catch BMW, which sold 1.9 million cars, the Bavarian brand grew at just 5.6 per cent. As a result analysts are now predicting Zetsche’s prayers may even be answered as early as this year, ending an entire decade of sales superiority for its rival.
Largely the reason is in front of you: the S-class might be the big money maker for Mercedes, but volume sales belong to the smaller E-class. This one is completely new from end to end and will compete against a middle-aged Audi A6 and positively ancient BMW 5-series. It is the most technically sophisticated mass-produced car with which I have yet been acquainted.
Take the new headlights as just one small but indicative example: each unit comprises 84 light emitting diodes, with 255 levels of intensity per diode. Multiply them together and then by two and you have, at least in theory, almost 43,000 different ways the car can light the road. You can leave the car on full beam and it will not only shade that little patch in your vision occupied by the car in front, it’ll shade another to accommodate the car coming towards you, while keeping the narrow corridor of space between them fully illuminated. And if it’s raining they will dim the lower LEDs to reduce the chance of drivers being dazzled by light reflected off the wet road surface. And that’s just at the front.
Inside, the technology is equally befuddling and requires more space than I have here to explain. Again illustrating by example, if you indicate on the motorway with cruise control engaged, the car will look around and, if safe, pull out and overtake the vehicle ahead, requiring you only to indicate again to resume your original trajectory. You do not have to steer at all.
Yet at its heart, the E-class is also very traditional. Its looks are unadventurous to the point of being a trifle derivative, while I’d warrant its ride quality loses little or nothing to its older S-class sister. Mercedes has also finally retired its noisy old 2.1-litre diesel and replaced it with a 2-litre motor rivalled by Audi’s alone for refinement and by no other competitor for its blend of power and fuel efficiency.
Just a little has been lost. The old E-class was always a delight to drive, whatever the engine, but this one has sacrificed a smidge of driver involvement to achieve ride quality you’d need a Rolls-Royce to beat. A sensible decision? Sadly, but undoubtedly: an E220 CDI is not the E-class to stir your soul. The AMG version with a rumoured 580bhp is approaching and I hope to bring you impressions of it before the year is out. Until now Mercedes will be content that, at least until BMW replaces the 5-series next year, it has the class at its feet.
Engine 2.0 litres, 4 cylinders, turbodiesel
Power [email protected] rpm
Torque 295lb [email protected] rpm
Transmission nine-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive
Power to Weight 114bhp per tonne
Top speed 149mph