Can a Mercedes wagon change James Ward's once rock solid brand alliance?
Change, they say, is hard. Making an adjustment to everything you are used to feels, well, wrong. But a change can also be rewarding, after all it is ‘as good as a holiday’. So this week I take a vacation with the Mercedes-Benz E400 Estate.
A recent facelift has seen the E-Class undergo a design evolution with the update style looking much more aggressive. The 4.9m-long estate has the same wheelbase as the E-Class saloon but an extra 30mm overhang at the rear, resulting in a bit of a ‘big bum’ look.
That said, the big Benz is a very good-looking car, but before we continue let’s talk about change for a moment.
Take your mobile phone, for example. You likely live in either an iOS or Android camp. If I were to hand you a phone from the opposite side of the fence to where you sit, you’d probably find yourself confused and inefficient. So much so I hazard to suggest you felt the new phone was simply wrong.
This was the feeling I had after my first day with the Mercedes-Benz E-Class.
For mine, the iPhone versus Android fight on the roads is the age-old rivalry of BMW and Mercedes. I normally drive a BMW. I’m used to the way it works. It does things the way I want. The Mercedes was different – and I wasn’t sure I liked it.
The scroll wheel on the Command system works the opposite way to the BMW iDrive. Every time I would seek to adjust the seats I’d jam my hand into the door pocket looking for the controls – forgetting they were conveniently placed at the top of the doorframe.
The cruise control gestures are different; the radio volume controls are different.
The column-mounted gear shift – yep, different. I once tried to engage gear with my coffee cup – instinctively moving my hand to the center console and even managed to put the Mercedes into reverse while trying to indicate left (having just jumped out of a Holden with the indicator stalk on the right).
But while there were a few elements of the E400 I needed to get used to, there were two stand out features that felt right at home from the get go.
The rear facing seats in the boot are a hallmark of Mercedes wagons since the 1970s. These are an excellent solution to ‘occasional’ seven-seat usage and Miss 5 couldn’t wait to ride everywhere in them. They were also particularly handy for a visit to the Drive-In.
Also worth noting is that delicious 245kW/480Nm 3.0-litre twin-turbo engine. Smooth, powerful and quiet – response was effortless at any speed. There was not as much immediate punch as the BMW 535i Touring I drove earlier in the year, but particularly in sport mode, the big wagon performed like a much smaller car.
The car felt stable and sure-footed on all roads, and was a particular revelation in the wet where even in heavy rain, there was no change to the confidence I had behind the wheel in dry conditions.
Fuel economy for the week was 12.4L/100, which included a mixture of traffic-heavy commuting, highway cruising and the occasional cross-town blast. Not amazing – and 4.8L/100km off its 7.6L/100km claim – but not bad for a big six pulling around a two-tonne box.
My light bulb ‘change’ moment came on Tuesday evening.
I was parking the car in the village and noticed I managed to switch from Drive to Reverse to Drive in a seamless fluid motion with the column-mounted shifter. It had been an instinctive move – I wasn’t even looking at the wheel, just in the mirrors.
Incidentally, the reverse camera is next to useless in the wet, particularly at night. The screen display is more like peering into Kubrick’s lunar monolith than looking at a parking space. I had found a ‘feature’ the Mercedes and BMW seem to share – this was tipping point of change and I was crossing into unfamiliar territory.
While the interior of the E-Class is looking a little bit dated in spots, it is still excellent (that clock, look at the clock!) and the driver tech is the best in the game.
The speed limit setting, radar-guided Distronic cruise control and steering assistant are not far short of amazing. A Mercedes is always a sure bet for safety, but the E400 was really a leap forward from what I was used to. There was never a question in my mind of the capability of the car should something terrible happen, heightened by the knowledge that the E-Class was actively doing everything it could to avoid such a situation.
On Thursday morning I caught myself giving the casual ‘you have a car like mine’ wave to another E-wag. It had happened. I had beaten the system and could see the Matrix. I had become Munich-Stuttgart ambidextrous – and I was happy about it.
Getting back into my X5 after returning the Mercedes was like returning home from a holiday – comfortable and familiar, but perhaps a little wistful of what had been left behind.
And while I’m not signing off this review with quite the same transactional exuberance as Victor “I liked it so much I bought the company” Kiam, for a car that was never even on my radar, one week with the Mercedes was enough to put it right into the thick of the consideration set for my next family car purchase.
The E-Class had impressed me so much; the BMW has a fight on its hands when it comes to changeover time. Something I never expected.
Can a change be good? Absolutely.