Mercedes-Benz E-Class: It’s thinking

In 1886, Karl Benz piloted his clattering, flatulent Patent-Motorwagen around Mannheim, Germany, amusing passersby and terrifying livestock. It was the beginning of the end for the horse-drawn carriage.

Fast-forward 127 years, and the company that bears his name has produced what is, for all intents and purposes, a horse: a 4,000lb, climate-controlled, vaguely sentient horse with full-grain leather tack and available satellite navigation.

Benz's tiller-steered original car was a fidgety little thing, noisy and breezy and requiring total driver involvement. This latest edition of the E-Class, when equipped with an optional $2,800 Driver Assistance Package, is a partially self-aware mount. Not only will it provide feedback should its driver become distracted and send the car on a trajectory out of its lane, or into another vehicle lurking in the three-quarter blind-spot, but it is also capable of self-steering for short periods of time.

At speed, the system tracks lane markings using a pair of forward-facing stereoscopic cameras that sit mounted high up in the windshield in a housing as bulky as a television cable box. A nose-mounted radar system looks two cars ahead to accurately judge the flow of traffic, and once set, is capable of controlling speed from as quick as 124mph to a dead stop.

Mercedes calls the setup Distronic Plus, and it works admirably apart from the self-steering portion which, not unlike a horse, sometimes has a mind of its own and occasionally ignores lane markings. Far from being a total autopilot, Distronic works best if viewed as strictly a driving assist, a gentle tug on the reins to let the rider know that they may be making an error.

However, as the driving route exchanged scenic, sweeping curves above Portland, Oregon, for city-centre traffic, the special systems aboard the E-Class began to impress. The radar-guided cruise control allowed for just under a three second stop without resetting, and as it “looked” down the road, it was extremely smooth in brake and throttle application. Below 18mph (twice the max speed, incidentally, of the Patent-Motorwagen), the self-steering does not periodically require the driver to place hands on the wheel, as similar systems from other luxury automakers do. For five full miles of the worst sort of tiring, stop-and-go gridlock, this Distronic-equipped E-Class drove itself entirely, ambling along without a single driver input.

Combine this city-friendly respite for the weary traveller with the long-legged four-cylinder diesel that now serves as the base engine option for the E-Class, and you have an impeccable grand tourer.

Luxury trim models have the smooth, supple ride one expects from a Mercedes-Benz, and with 195hp and an immediate 369lb-ft of torque on tap, the E250 Bluetec – which comes available in North America in September – wafts admirably. As a first, 4Matic all-wheel drive is available on any E-Class sedan save the hybrid.

Other engine variants include a 302hp, direct-injection V6 which is smooth but anonymous; the aforementioned hybrid – somewhat irrelevant given the expected excellent fuel economy of the new four-cylinder diesel (it has not yet been certified by the Environmental Protection Agency) – and a twin-turbo 4.6-litre V8 with 402hp. The big engine delivers an astonishing wave of torque in an understated surge that flings the big Mercedes forward like a velvet-clad booster rocket.

Both Sport and Luxury trims are set up for a relaxed driving style, with multilink suspensions and electromechanical steering, yet they manage to avoid a dull driving experience. Credit Mercedes’ proprietary active suspension damping, called Agility Control, which – while tackling a narrow, serpentine ribbon of road – helps reveal a machine that feels smaller than its two-tonne curb weight and length would indicate. Steering effort is light, if a trifle numb on-centre, but most Benz intenders will find it ideally tuned.

More difficult to assimilate into the package are the transmission settings. Sport mode errs on the side of aggressive twitchiness and hypersensitive throttle response. Eco mode, meanwhile, swings too far the other way. A Goldilocks setting does not seem to exist, though 550 models have enough low-end power to overcome any transmission-related recalcitrance.

The other area where the E-Class proves somewhat limp is in the styling department. From the rear, Sport models might be mistaken for any mid-size Lexus, with false-front, rhomboid exhaust surrounds. At the car's nose, the Luxury model's three-pointed hood emblem sits above the classic, imperious Mercedes grille, but the plastic square containing the radar guidance packages is not fully concealed. The Sport line, on the other hand, has an enormous solid Mercedes badge – the size of a hubcap off a 1950s-era Mercedes Ponton, the E-Class’s spiritual ancestor. Combined with aggressive, AMG-aping air-ducting, it is not as reserved as an E-Class ought to be. (That, after all, is why they invented a CLS.)

New single-piece headlights and taillights are swathed in LEDs, but the effect is of trend-aping – Audi all but owns the conversation around LEDs – rather than stately. Both the coupe and cabriolet versions of the E-Class, however, pull off the sporty look more convincingly, but suffer from unsightly pudginess around the rear wheel arches.

Quibbles aside, Mercedes has done a commendable job performing what boils down to a glorified facelift for its mid-size executive line. Next to the hyper-aggressive posturing of machinery cut in the Lexus F-Sport and Audi S-Line moulds, it remains the conservative, genteel option.

Moreover, the addition of S-Class-calibre safety features and a driver assist system that, while not yet an electronic equivalent of a chauffeur, at least greatly reduces the drudgery of day-to-day driving, makes the E-Class a bit of a horse of a different colour in what is a brutally contested – if slightly dull – segment.

Vital Stats: 2014 Mercedes-Benz E-Class

  • Base price: $52,325, inclusive of $925 destination charge
  • As tested: $63,600-$83,800
  • EPA fuel economy: 21mpg city, 30mpg highway (E350 sedan); 17mpg city, 26mpg hwy (E550 4matic sedan); fuel economy for E400 Hybrid and E250 Bluetec TBD
  • Standard equipment: COMAND central display including Bluetooth, rain-sensing intermittent wipers, driver drowsiness monitoring, collision prevention assist, dual-zone climate control
  • Major options: satellite navigation, active blind-spot assist, active lane-keeping, radar-guided cruise control, heated and ventilated seats, front and rear parking assist, air scarf (cabriolet)