ST. HELENA, Calif. - Reworking a company's "bread and butter" model can be treacherous business. Reach too far in styling or gadgetry, and you can alienate current customers. Hold back too much, and you might not grab enough new buyers to make the effort worthwhile.
Even though Mercedes-Benz claims to have introduced 2,000 new parts to its E-Class midsize sedan, as facelifted for 2007, the basic car hasn't changed drastically. In fact, even thoroughly initiated Mercedes-Benz fans may have to look twice to spot some of the appearance differences.
Despite the lack of startling modifications, Mercedes-Benz calls the 2007 E-Class a "new generation" (not "next generation"), which makes it the seventh generation of this model. Its predecessors date as far back as 1953, when the "Ponton" W120 series debuted. The sixth generation brought back round headlamps.
This "new generation" model gets a wider, more sporty-shaped air intake up front. Featuring an integrated star/laurel badge, the new "3-D" grille is 3 centimeters larger. New mirrors, also called more sporty, are collapsible and contain little spoiler edges. Bernhard Glaser, general manager of product development, says the mirrors are "like the wing of an airplane."
At the rear, chrome trim is now almost full-width, which "visually lowers the car a little bit," according to Glaser. A new four-spoke steering wheel has been installed, along with a new gearshift lever that contains the Keyless Go Start-button. Twin cupholders sit beneath a roller deck on the front console.
E-Class models come with a V-6 or V-8 engine, in either Luxury or Sport trim. Luxury sedans display a chrome grille with gray inserts. Sport models get a different grille with black inserts, as well as dual exhaust tips and blue-tinted glass. Inside, the Sport models have black bird's-eye maple wood trim, versus natural-finished wood for the Luxury sedans. Sport models sit more than an inch lower and roll on 18-inch tires, rather than the Luxury sedan's 17-inchers. Steering ratios are said to be 10-percent more direct, to improve agility. E550 models use an Airmatic suspension, while the E350 retains steel springs.
Beneath the E550 hood sits a 5.5-liter V-8 that produces 382 horsepower (80 more than the previous E500 engine), driving a seven-speed automatic transmission. Torque output is now 391 pound-feet, an increase of 52. In the E350 series, power comes from a V-6 engine that develops 268 horsepower.
Two additional models will go on sale later: a diesel and a super-performance sedan. The E320 uses a Bluetec 3.0-liter V-6 diesel engine, in contrast to prior E-Class diesels that used inline six-cylinder engines. The diesel V-6 will produce 208 horsepower and 388 pound-feet of torque. Selective Catalytic Reduction makes it the "cleanest diesel of the world," Glaser said.
Mercedes-Benz also will introduce an E63 AMG sedan as the most powerful E-Class ever. Its 507-horsepower output is achieved without supercharging.
On the safety front, E-Class sedans have Mercedes' Pre-Safe system as standard equipment, along with spring-loaded active front head restraints. Adaptive brake lights and an intelligent headlight system are offered in Europe, but not yet approved for use in U.S. models. New standard equipment for 2007 also includes a sunroof and CD changer.
In terms of steering and handling, there's little to complain about behind the wheel of an E550 Sport sedan, which is mostly stable and secure whether on the Interstate or when rolling through tight mountain curves. Still, an occasional moment of near-floatiness can occur. Accelerating in a curve, too, can produce the sensation of too much power, calling for a bit of restraint.
On the whole, the E350 Sport behaves with greater agility and a lighter overall feel, without losing much in performance. Kinship to the road tends to be more appealing with the smaller engine, making it more enjoyable to drive in tough terrain. You also hear the V-6 engine a bit, in contrast to the virtually-silent V-8. Acceleration is admittedly stronger with the V-8, whether for passing or when starting off; but few E350 owners are likely to feel deprived.
Both Sport models ride comfortably on most surfaces, gliding over tar strips and other imperfections with little fuss. Many trouble spots are barely noticed at all, and others transmit only modest disturbance to occupants. Only on certain pavement surfaces do the Sport model's 18-inch tires get grumbly. Ride quality is just a bit lighter in the Luxury sedan, which also feels a tad less taut during demanding maneuvers.
Headroom and legroom up front are ample, as is elbow space. Although the speedometer is large enough for easy reading, the adjacent tachometer is small and easy to ignore. Positioning the Keyless Go's Start button atop the gearshift lever is a strange and unnecessary choice.
On sale since July 5, the E350 sedan stickers for $50,500. An E350 4Matic (all-wheel-drive) wagon goes for $55,700, while the E550 with its V-8 engine lists for $59,000. Sport and Luxury editions cost exactly the same. When the E320 Bluetec diesel goes on sale in October, the Manufacturers Suggested Retail Price will be $51,550.