Mercedes-Benz hones in on BMW 5 Series with a significantly more potent, yet still-plush E-Class
Injected with Mercedes-first safety technology, replenished under the bonnet, and restyled inside and out, the 2013 Mercedes-Benz E-Class deftly addresses the flaws of its five-year-old forebear.
Gone are the bulging rear guards that Mercedes-Benz said pointed to the 1953 Ponton, but to everyone else just looked awkward. The traditional ‘four-eyed’ look of the E-Class is now encapsulated within a single headlight moulding, although the front end still looks fussy with an awkward (and varied) shut line between the bonnet, headlights and bumper.
At least the cheap cabin plastics that made the base E200 in particular feel like a Stuttgart taxi have been replaced with a stitched-leather dashboard, now standard across the range. Similarly, there’s a new high-resolution screen with internet and ‘apps’ integration. Long criticised as a sparsely equipped base model, Mercedes-Benz promises that as with all variants in the range, pricing of the E200 won’t rise but the standard equipment list will.
This is despite safety technology systems making their debut in the 2013 Mercedes-Benz E-Class range, some of which may be standard on high-end models.
For example, the all-LED headlights have a function that allows driving at night with high beam permanently left on. Tagged Adaptive High-beam Plus, the system recognises oncoming cars and a small sliver of light affecting the traffic is simply ‘blocked out’ to avoid glare. Brilliant.
Auto-braking tech (called Pre-Safe Brake by Benz) now can detect pedestrians for the first time, halting the car automatically at speeds under 54km/h and substantially reducing the severity of an impact with a still object at up to 72km/h.
Thanks to its surround cameras, the 2013 Mercedes-Benz E-Class can also detect an imminent rear impact (called Pre-Safe Plus) and activate the hazard lights, tighten seatbelts and lock the brakes to prevent being ‘shunted’ into a car in front.
Another Merc first, the Active Lane Keeping Assistant not only now detects lane ‘wander’ but brakes the car on one side and adjusts the steering to move the car back into its lane.
An active parking assistant (which auto-parks the car in parallel or 90-degree spaces), cross-traffic alert system (detecting unseen pedestrian and cars from both sides when reversing) and traffic sign detection and display (unfortunately not for Australia) formulate the remaining E-Class tech suite.
In addition to trumping its bigger S-Class sibling with the debut of new technology, Mercedes-Benz has at least made a clear attempt to trump actual E-Class rivals, the BMW 5 Series and Audi A6, specifically in terms of power, torque and economy.
Both the base Mercedes-Benz E200 and second-tier E250 get a 0.2L-larger 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol four cylinder that for the first time equal or eclipse the BMW 5 Series equivalents for torque and economy.
The E200 gets 300Nm of torque, beating the 520i by 30Nm, while matching its 135kW of power. It then smashes that rival’s economy by 0.6L/100km, posting 5.8L/100km combined. The tuned-up E250, meanwhile, matches a 528i with 350Nm, can’t quite equal its power with 155kW versus 180kW, but it slurps no more fuel than the E200 – beating the 528i by 0.7L/100km.
Unfortunately, neither of the base 2.0-litre turbo petrol engines were available to test at the international launch in Barcelona, Spain.
The entry-level turbo-diesel, the Mercedes-Benz E220 CDI, also wasn’t available, but it has been dropped from the Australian line-up, despite the BMW 520d being the best-selling 5 Series variant.
Mercedes-Benz Australia said it wanted to simplify the range, and found that most base E-Class buyers have migrated to the E200.
That leaves the ‘other’ E250, the CDI 2.0-litre turbo-diesel, as the entry point to E-Class ownership at an expected (unchanged) $100,000 – or around $20K more than the 520d and A6 2.0TDI base diesels.
The E250 CDI was also the first E-Class we sampled on the road. With its carry-over 2.1-litre twin-turbo diesel producing 150kW at 5500rpm and 500Nm from 1600-1800rpm, it at least adds a full 120Nm over its cheaper 520d/A6 2.0TDI rivals, is quicker with a 7.5 second 0-100km/h, yet still claims to drink less than either of them – a miserly 4.8L/100km on the combined cycle, a couple of milliletres less.
Although a bit gravelly on light throttle, the E250 CDI smooths out through the rev range to deliver surging, effortless grunt everywhere. A mix of urban crawl, freeway cruising, and twisty-road flogging left its trip computer reading 7.8L/100km (with a 54km/h average speed).
More interesting is the Mercedes-Benz E300 Hybrid, which essentially adds a 19kW/250Nm electric motor to the diesel engine of the E250 CDI. The clever diesel-electric drivetrain combination charges a battery pack when braking or coasting off the accelerator, and on light throttle application rests the diesel engine – even accelerating at speeds of up to 100km/h, and when coasting, beyond.
It isn’t as inspiring as a BMW ActiveHybrid 5, which mates a petrol turbo six-cylinder to an electric motor, but the decision to utilise a diesel engine in the E-Class makes far more sense. Not only is the E300 Hybrid expected to be around $10K less expensive than the 5 Series, it’s also way more frugal in the real world.
Although we couldn’t achieve the 4.1L/100km claim, the trip computer read 6.8L/100km in similar conditions to the E250 CDI driven before it – even the average speed was 1km/h faster. The E300 Hybrid is, unfortunately, no quicker than the E250 CDI due to the extra weight of the battery pack and electric motor.
While the E250 CDI and E300 Hybrid are probably all the engine(s) anyone ever needs, they’re not the E-Class engine to actually want.
That honour goes to the all-new 3.0-litre twin-turbocharged V6 petrol engine, which replaces the 3.5-litre non-turbo V6 in our market. The E350 badge therefore gives way to this new E400, while the V8-engined E500 has also been dropped because the new twin-turbo V6 is just so good.
After barely holding a candle to BMW’s sublime turbocharged six-cylinders for decades (read: forever) a Mercedes-Benz V6 can now step into the limelight. The statistics read 245kW at 5500rpm, 480Nm from 1500-4000rpm, 0-100km/h in 5.3 seconds and 7.5L/100km combined. On paper, the E400 bests the 535i in every way – by 20kW, 80Nm, 0.7 seconds and 0.1L/100km, respectively. The supercharged V6 in the Audi A6 3.0TFSI, meanwhile, moves beneath a lampshade.
Intoxicating and inspiring, the new twin-turbo V6 feels lush in its response, is super smooth everywhere, and adopts a great snarly sound pushing towards its 7000rpm cut-out.
The seven-speed automatic, more obvious here than with the four cylinders, can’t quite keep pace with the brilliant engine. Or the BMW eight-speeder.
The gear count isn’t the problem, but in Sport mode the Mercedes gearbox isn’t as crisp as its should be, and it doesn’t rev-match on downshifts in manual mode – that is, tap the left paddleshifter to go back gears before a corner and the whole car lurches or refuses the request. In the 535i, the throttle automatically blips to smooth out the gear change.
Trip computer consumption read 11.5L/100km after our drive, again in what turned out to be similar conditions and with a similar average speed. Only environmental or hip-pocket enthusiasts wouldn’t choose the twin-turbo V6. Alernatatively, some may just not be able to afford it. Mercedes is hinting at $135-140K pricetag for the E400, the $20K premium over a 535i near-identical to the aforementioned E250 CDI-versus-520d comparison. The E400 will also cost marginally more than the 3.0-litre turbo-diesel E350 CDI which carries over unchanged.
In this mid-life E-Class overhaul, engineers worked on the engines more than the suspension, and for good reason.
Whether equipped with standard steel springs, as in our E250 CDI and E300 Hybrid test cars, or Airmatic air-coil springs on our E400 tester, every E-Class continues to offer the same brilliant blend of ride comfort and quietness on all surfaces.
Even wearing aggressive 35-aspect 18-inch tyres, the standard cars were impressive. But the Airmatic-equipped E400 simply has to be one of the most comfortable cars in the world, with a lovely compliance on even the nastiest roads yet still teamed with wonderfully controlled body movements. Here, the subtle nuances of its Comfort and Sport modes make a BMW’s adaptive-damping equivalent appear a wildly-differing, amateur suspension substitute.
Although fuel saving electro-mechanical power steering replaces the previous hydraulic power steering in this E-Class, the consistency, feel and feedback for which modern Mercedes-Benz models are renowned isn’t missing.
Nor is the variable-ratio steering gear, so the steering is quicker to move from one side to the other whether parking (where it is effortless) or driving hard through corners (making it feel agile). Yet when crusing on the highway, the steering is more relaxed, so slight movements on centre don’t result in swapping three lanes…
The steering in the E-Class – like the ride quality – continues to be a masterstroke that trounces all rivals. We don’t have to recite which those are at this point.
In pure handling terms, the E-Class is mostly neutrally balanced, keen and fun, but its front end is nowhere near as pointy as that of a 5 Series, and fast changes of direction are met with more lurching from side to side than that rival or the A6.
But, then, for steering feel and ride comfort, the E-Class trounces those rivals, so there’s a trade-off to be had, and the balance of abilities in the Mercedes-Benz is arguably the best one.
The E-Class is simply a ‘sporting’ sedan, not a sports sedan.
It is unclear how much of the new safety technology Mercedes-Benz Australia will make standard on the new E-Class, or how much each option will cost.
Armed with a freshened range of engines and a classier cabin, however, and with the promise of more equipment for similar prices, the Mercedes-Benz E-Class looks set to secure class leadership against those rivals that we probably don’t need to mention one last time…