Step in to the all-new 2016 Mercedes-Benz E-Class and you are immediately presented with a quandary. This is the car, the name, the badge you know - the tenth-generation of a well respected but largely conservative model, that now seems to have decided to let it all out and kick tradition well and truly into the history books.
It’s an impressive feat, combining the familiar sights, sounds and (dare I say) smells of the Mercedes-Benz you expect, with a stunning all-digital widescreen cockpit display that elicits more than a few genuine ‘oh wow’ moments.
And the technology-laden E-Class doesn’t stop there. The dashboard is just the start of a range of high-tech safety, assistance and convenience features that promise to cement the new E-Class as a segment leader.
Mercedes itself suggests the 2016 E-Class is a multi-generation step change, a leap forward into the future of car form and function. In fact there is so much new technology that we would have to split this review into chapters to cover everything!
CarAdvice travelled to Lisbon in Portugal to sample the new E-Class in a number of configurations in and around the capital of mainland Europe's westernmost nation.
When it arrives in Australia later this year, we will see five engine variants in the range. The E200 (135kW / 300Nm 2-litre petrol), E220d (new 143kW / 400Nm 2-litre diesel), E300 (180kW / 370Nm 2-litre petrol), E350d (190kW / 620Nm 3-litre diesel) and the E400 4Matic (245kW / 480Nm 3-litre petrol).
The E350e Hybrid (155kW / 350Nm 2-litre petrol combined with 65kW / 440Nm electric), AMG E43 4Matic and AMG E63 S will follow from 2017. Local pricing is not yet confirmed.
The E-Class is the ultimate multi-role sedan. A taxi to some, luxury car to others - the medium-size platform is a perfect example of the ‘Goldilocks’ quotient that shows that ‘somewhere in the middle’ is where things tend to work best.
From the outside, the design approach that makes the E look like a little S or a big C has been further refined. The lines all seem functional and intentional, and the proportions balance well. It is a ‘less is more’ methodology.
Part of the E’s transition from its once conservative chrysalis, sees all Australian-specification cars feature the more sporting Avantgarde or AMG-Line style treatment. Here the three-pointed star features prominently on the grille, with the inclusion of new multibeam adaptive LED headlights (standard on E300 and above) creating a very smart and modern-looking nose.
And sure, you can easily mistake the E-Class for a C- or S-Class – but you never mistake it for any other make. Clever work, Mercedes.
The drag coefficient is down to 0.23 (from 0.26), which makes the E-Class more slippery than a Tesla or Toyota Prius – both cars which are fundamentally designed to maximise aero efficiency. For some cool pub-trivia, the Mercedes achieves this by opening and closing vents in the grilles to improve its ‘hole in the air’ signature.
Science aside, the new E is a smart-looking executive sedan, working well in all the colours we saw it in at launch (the dark ‘Kallaite’ green perhaps the only exception).
As noted earlier, though, the interior is where the E-Class has made a break from the mainstream and where its ‘newness’ is most apparent.
The seats themselves are nicely styled and very comfortable. Our test car featured the adaptive ‘cuddle seats’ that help bolster front-row occupants through corners, as well as the massage, heating and ventilation functions. If that isn’t enough plushness, the 2016 E-Class also offers heated arm-rests and center console padding – if that is your thing.
There is excellent adjustment for all driver heights, and we found the seat could be positioned nice and low for a very comfortable driving position - perfect for this 6’3” writer. This feature does impact on rear passenger toe room, however, and I found my size-12s couldn’t fit under the seat, making rear comfort a bit awkward.
The back seat bench is nicely sculpted, but the legroom isn’t as pronounced as expected, especially considering the car has grown 65mm between the wheels.
There is a neat digital climate control display and 40:20:40 split to access the boot, which is the same as the outgoing model at 540 litres.
Front passenger room and comfort is good and the traditional ‘elastic netting’ map holder on the side of the center console is both a nice touch and another unmistakable trait of the Mercedes experience.
For the driver, though, there are plenty of new things to see and learn, which somehow isn’t as tricky as it sounds.
The elongated iPad-like dashboard is actually a pair of 12.3-inch high-resolution screens (1920 x 720 pixels each – or somewhere between the size of an iPhone 6 and 6 Plus). It is a more impressive and modern-looking implementation than the twin-screens on the S-Class.
Graphics and information rendered on the screens is pin-sharp and driver preference settings can be saved and even exported to USB so you can apply them to another car if you so desire.
The mapping function of Mercedes' 'Comand' infotainment platform still has a few foibles (traffic updates aren’t accurate, navigation instructions can be slow and sometimes unclear), as does the connection of an iPhone for media playback (although all Australian cars will feature Apple Carplay, which should address this).
It is a big improvement on software seen even in other current Mercedes-Benz models and will only improve as more of the connected capability of the new E-Class is rolled out – but more on that later.
Perhaps a step too far from the more ‘vanilla’ E-Class of past, is the option to fill the car in a selection of 64 shades of neon (well, LED) lighting. This is fun, but can slip very quickly to the ‘Miami Nightclub’ end of the scale, particularly when set at its most intensive output level. We’d suggest a soft white glow, unless you’ve packed the Giorgio Moroder playlists - in which case, go nuts.
Like the C-Class, the centre stack (available in a range of materials including some lovely naked wood) is cleanly arranged, with the aluminium climate control panel sitting above the flush menu buttons and integrated analogue clock. It looks and feels high quality, although I personally find the button layout a bit counter-intuitive.
As a package, it is modern and new, but still very Mercedes.
The ‘Benz familiarity starts when you hold the steering wheel. An existing E-Class owner can jump into the new car and feel instantly at home. Gone though are the cumbersome D-Pad arrow buttons to control menu functions, replaced with a world-first pair of touch pads for your thumbs.
If you have ever used a Blackberry phone, these will feel very similar, and while a bit daunting in description, are hugely easy to learn and use.
Simply put (and remember, this was a left-hand-drive car), the left pad controls the left-screen (in front of the driver) and the right pad controls the right-screen (at the top of the console). You can swipe left and right, up and down, with a central button marking your selection.
It is now much easier to swap from navigation commands to trip computer to audio selection, without needing to take your attention from the road. Interestingly, the E-Class is fitted with a head-up display, but we found the crucial information so clearly represented on the digital dash, that the HUD almost felt redundant.
The volume and telephony buttons are still there too, but with the new interface, there is little need to ever take your hands from the wheel as all functions can be directed from the thumb pads.
A central Comand controller is also present, but we found this more useful for the passenger to act as ‘co-pilot’ for managing navigation, audio, and (naturally) seat massage program selection.
Something worth noting is the layout of the Comand control is identical to that found in our right-drive Australian market cars, but here was much more ergonomically friendly in the position of the buttons for the left-side driver.
The touchpad can conceal the buttons on the opposite side, which in the E-Class was simply the power switch and volume control. For Australian-market cars, this means the Dynamic–mode select, Parking Pilot and suspension settings are hard for the driver to see, which isn’t ideal. Surely it wouldn’t be too hard to swap these around for right-drive regions?
Also a little awkward are the mirror controls on the door, which need you to move your arm back in an uncomfortable manner to reach them. It’s a small thing though, and perhaps a way to better remember to adjust your mirrors before you head out on the road.
Overall cabin vision is good, and while the mirrors can seem quite big, that may have been a mixture of left-side driving and jet lag.
Rather cool however are the ever-operative ultrasonic sensors that overlay a bird's-eye view of your surroundings on the screen whenever you may venture too close to the car in front, or a Portugese tour bus coming the other way.
We spent most of our time driving the E300, the model expected to make up the bulk of Australian saleswhen it replaces the current E250.
The 180kW/370Nm turbocharged 2.0-litre engine (up from 155kW/350Nm) is no firecracker, but the E-Class is also no race car.
Mercedes claim a combined consumption cycle of 6.6L/100km, which we didn’t get anything close to – sitting well over 10L/100km for the majority of our test loops.
Blame the fuel, the air, the traffic, the driver (if you must), but, until we can spend proper time with the car in Australia, we’re a bit dubious of the claim. It wasn’t just the E300 either - a short drive in the E220d promised sub-4.0L/100km consumption and we saw closer to 7L/100km.
All models are fitted with the new nine-speed 9G-Tronic gearbox, which when paired to the turbo-four offers smooth and adequate power delivery. It is more effortless than punchy, but it is easy to manage.
In the default Comfort setting, there is a bit of hesitation off the mark, and kicking down a gear to overtake can exhibit some delay between action and reaction. Switch up to Sport or Sport Plus and this improves, but at the expense of some of the inherent smoothness.
Changing drive modes also adjusts the Air Body Control suspension settings (standard in E300 and above). In Comfort, the ride is a twinge floaty, but ultimately very comfortable. Hit a bigger bump or pothole, though, and there is a definite audible thump. This is due to the twin-chamber air suspension being at its least restricted, allowing the wheel to travel more. The ride isn’t jarry or unsettling, just loud. But, strangely, switching to Sport - which essentially ‘tightens’ the movement of the car - means that bumps and cobbles are less audible, although the ride is slightly firmer.
You can also define an individual setting to get the steering, throttle response and suspension settings to suit your personal tastes.
It’s a small thing, but a definite direction in which cars are heading – with Mercedes firmly on the front foot.
Around the tight Portuguese streets, steering is typically light and easy and with an optimal drive setting (comfort steering, sport suspension, comfort throttle) moving from urban to extra-urban environments is a pleasant and effortless task, and when cruising on the highway, the E300 is in its element.
In fact, I would go as far to say that on a European freeway, the new E-Class is unmatched in its segment for comfort and technical ability. At 120km/h, wind noise seemed limited only to the sunroof – the thinnest part of the car – and cabin noise was well under 60dB.
The host of driver assistance features we are used to in most modern Mercedes cars, now further advanced and refined to enable a full 60-second semi-autonomous cruise-control ability without needing steering input. It works, too: we timed up to 97 seconds before the car started slowing of its own accord due to lack of driver steering input.
A clever feature of this system we won't be seeing in Australia is the adjustment of speed based on signage. With the car set at the 120km/h freeway limit, it slowed to the posted 80 then 60km/h signs as we approached a toll booth, and smoothly accelerated back to 120 once the restriction lifted on the other side.
So why not in Australia? You know how we have those ‘100 Speed Limited’ stickers on trucks which show a standard 100km/h speed sign? Imagine if your E-Class camera read that as you were tootling down a suburban street. Give it time, though.
This, though, leads to some more implications for the technology available in the E-Class.
The cool remote parking feature that allows you to position the E-Class from the outside, using your mobile phone as a control, will not initially be offered in Australia. We’ll have to wait for some of the ‘Car-to-X’ telemetry features that allow your E-Class to communicate traffic conditions and emergency situations to the Mercedes ‘Hive mind’.
Yes the capability is there, we just have to ensure everything meets our local rules, regulations and requirements, such is the step forward in technology. Think of it as when a TV show used to air a new series in the US and we had to wait a whole season to catch up – at the time we felt disadvantaged, but eventually we got there.
You may ask, what about all the passive and active safety systems? Where is the summary of the white-noise static the car blasts through the stereo speakers in the event of a collision so as to minimise the effect on occupants’ inner ear? How do the adaptive LED lights work, when will the swerve function take over…
The thing is, the new E-Class is so chock-full of safety technology, there just isn’t time to cover it all in detail. Rest assured, though: we’ll break it down when we have the car to test locally, as some of the functions that work well with European traffic and driver behaviour may be different on our roads, with our rules.
The new 2016 Mercedes-Benz E-Class made a great first impression and looks to again push the limit of what drivers can expect in terms of safety, technology and luxury in the executive segment.
With five variants and endless technology demonstrations to work through, we didn’t get a huge amount of time to really put the new E-Class to the test. What we saw and experienced, though, did impress and makes us very eager to spend more time with the car locally, from July.
The new E-Class is a leap forward for the executive segment and worth waiting to get a closer look at when it arrives later this year.