“Just follow me yah, and we have some fun”, crackled the Mercedes-Benz driving instructor over the radio.
I couldn’t take him all too seriously though, as he looked (and sounded) like the German nuclear consortium representative on The Simpsons, and I was easing out on to the circuit in a somewhat regular-looking sedan and not some AMG-branded explosive device.
This was to be a pacey but casual encounter with the 2017 Mercedes-Benz E400 4MATIC, the first all-wheel drive E-Class to make its way to Australia, and the current peak of ‘your Dad’s Merc’ range before venturing into AMG territory.
Powered by a 245kW / 480Nm twin-turbocharged 3.0-litre V6, the E400 offers some pretty solid numbers for a sensible car. It’s 50kW and 40Nm off the recently announced E43 AMG (295kW/520Nm), with which it shares the basic underpinnings, and is expected to support the E300 to make up the lion’s share of local sales.
We exited the pit-return road onto the Autodromo Circuito Estoril in Portugal, and the simple game of follow-the-leader began in earnest.
The hare in this instance, our friendly instructor in his CLS 63 AMG, started chatting over the radio, introducing us to the four-kilometre circuit that saw Senna take his first ever Formula One win in 1985.
Sitting a good 20 meters off the back of the CLS, the E400 (in Comfort mode) felt relaxed but responsive; a faint whistle emanating from the twin-turbochargers as we headed through the tight, left-right complex at the back of the grandstands.
“OK”, said Hans (not his real name, but it helps tell the story) “switch into Sport mode and try to keep up”. The CLS pulled away, I changed modes, and buried the throttle.
One thing became very clear very quickly. This isn’t your Dad’s Mercedes-Benz.
Exiting turn four, and the E400 picked up speed rapidly. The subtle whistle now swapped for a sweet, trumpeting purr. “Flat through here” said the radio, and the E-Class complied, the active seats giving my kidneys a hint of the g-force load through the corner as the grey saloon started to make up ground on the CLS.
Turn six, the Parabolica Interior, is a very tight left hander that opens up onto a short straight. Wiggling slightly under heavy braking, the all-wheel drive E-Class turned in without much protest, dealing with the direction change like a much smaller car.
Feeding the power on again to head out of the corner and there was a slight hint of oversteer before the grip levels were managed and the E400 again chased after the more powerful CLS.
The 4MATIC system in the W213 E-Class runs at a 45:55 front-to-rear torque split bias. It is coupled to the all-wheel traction control program called 4ETS which can adjust braking to those wheels with less grip, allowing more stable and predictable handling in poor conditions, or when chasing cheery German driving instructors around a racetrack.
The V6 sounds joyous at high revs, offering a smooth tuba-like note with subtle but definite popping when you back off the throttle. It's the same motor used in the 2016 SL400 roadster, so very worthy for a sensible sedan.
Catching the CLS again now as we head into Orelha at turn-seven, and the E-Class lets me know I am not giving our AMG friend enough space. As I close in on the tail of the ’63, he brakes and the E400 instantly tightens my seatbelt. There is no imminent collision, there is still a lot of room, but the pre-safe active safety system is always ready.
I back off to create a larger gap as we round the sweeping right and into the short and very tight hairpin switchback at turn nine and ten.
Again, the E400 hides its size and feels more nimble than expected. You don’t get any heroic oversteer angles or tyre slip on the short uphill exchange though, in fact through this more extreme corner, as the car shifts its 1700-plus kilogram bulk (we won't get the exact figure until next month), you can feel the 4ETS limiting power delivery to maintain the gentlemanly composure you expect from an E-Class.
Back on the throttle quickly, then off as we clip the inside ripple strip, and on again to set up for the long, final Parabolica Ayrton Senna and entry to the front straight.
At just under one-kilometre in length, you can almost imagine the frenzied Portuguese crowds cheering on their two and four-wheeled heroes as you pass the grandstands and pit buildings.
The throttle is flat to the carpet now, the heads-up display showing speed climbing toward the 200km/h mark, then hard on the brakes into the downhill righthander and back again for another lap.
Things felt smoother the second time around, the E400 now impressing rather than surprising at its speed and composure when driven like no owner ever will.
It may not be a fixture on the Formula One calendar any more, but the Estoril circuit is a delight to drive and while not really representative of any Australian driving behaviour, an excellent way to understand the performance ability that lies beneath the conservative sedan.
“That was good, yah”, says the radio as we cool down and pull into the pit lane. Yah, it was.
While the wild AMG E63 is still a while away, the performance of the 2017 E400 4MATIC bodes well for the new AMG E43 which will be available in Australia early next year.
And in the meantime, it seems that your Dad’s Mercedes just got a whole lot more fun!
Click on the Photos tab for more images by James Ward.