LAS VEGAS, Nevada - For more than 60 years, Mercedes-Benz has had an E-Class sedan available in the U.S. market. When the first one debuted shortly after the end of World War II, in 1947, it wasn't called E-Class. Yet, Mercedes-Benz considers that sedan the forerunner of the current model. Now, for 2010, the upscale German automaker is issuing a redesigned E-Class sedan, marking the ninth generation of that model. A reworked coupe also goes on sale.
Similar in appearance to its predecessor, the 2010 E-Class sedan exhibits several changes. The pronounced rear fender line, a hallmark of this model from the beginning, is present again. Up front, headlamps now are angular rather than oval. The grille is slightly bigger, sitting above a larger lower air intake. At the rear, wraparound taillamps are connected by a trim strip to provide a wider look.
Specific Sport and Luxury versions will be offered, each available with either a V-6 or V-8 engine. Sport models feature squared-off exhaust tips, plus a massive lower air intake below the grille, which has three spaced-out horizontal bars. "Twist" type rocker panels also help identify Sport models. In most Luxury sedans, the grille contains four bars, above a smaller air intake.
Suspensions have been redesigned, based upon technology first used for the smaller C-Class models. Sport sedans sit an inch lower to the ground. Sedans with V-8 power use an Airmatic suspension rather than the coil springs that go into V-6 models.
Inside, the driver faces a dashboard generously trimmed with hand-polished burl walnut. The gearshift lever has moved from the center console to the steering wheel, now operated electronically rather than manually. Five-level Ambient Lighting - a standard feature - has been borrowed from the big S-Class sedan, aiming to reduce eyestrain when it's dark outside and light inside. Door panels feature stitching. A three-spoke steering wheel with thumb notches is installed in V-8 Sport sedans (and optinal for V-6 Sport models. Other steering wheels have three spokes and a plain rim. A 14-way power seat now is standard, with 4-way lumbar support. Like the S-Class, the new E-Class sedan may be equipped with massaging function.
In E350 sedans, a 3.5-liter V-6 engine develops 268 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque, yielding a fuel-economy estimate of 18 mpg in city and 25 mpg on the highway. Fuel economy drops to 16/23 mpg with the E550 sedan, whose 5.5-liter V-8 generates 382 horsepower and 391 pound-feet. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has not yet published official fuel-economy estimates for the 2010 E-Class.
Sedans are loaded with safety features - some standard, others optional
Attention Assist (standard on all E-class models) serves as a drowsiness monitor. It's not camera-based, but uses a steering-angle sensor. The system considers more than 70 variables, starting with the operator's profile, as established during the first 20 minutes of driving. When Attention Assist detects that the driver might be drowsy, acoustic and visual warnings begin (the latter a coffee cup icon on the instrument panel).
Adaptive Highbeam Assist (an option) automatically gives the best possible illumination on low beams, reaching up to 1000 feet down the road. Night Vision Assist Plus (borrowed from the S-Class) recognizes pedestrians using a pair of infrared beams. Distronic Plus with provides what Bernhard Glaser, general manager of product management, described as functioning like an "invisible rubber band" as it makes adjustments when you're following the car ahead. Mercedes-Benz's Pre-Safe Braking system also is standard, newly enhanced for 2010.
Available Lane Keeping Assist uses a camera above the windshield to analyze dividing lines in the road. Three quick steering-wheel vibrations warn that the driver is drifting to the side. The system can differentiate between solid and broken lines, according to Mercedes-Benz; but on real roads, it didn't issue a warning every time such an indication appeared to be warranted..
Blind Spot Assist monitors the area 10 feet back and 10 feet to the side, warning of nearby vehicles. Also available is Mercedes-Benz's Parktronic system with Parking guidance, to make parallel parking automatic under certain conditions.
Nine airbags are installed in each model, including driver's knee and pelvic air bags. Brake priming and brake drying systems are also installed. When the E-Class comes to a stoplight, a Hold function prevents "creeping" while waiting.
Luxury sedans yield lovely ride, while Sport editions assure confident control
Ride quality, coupled with satisfying control, is where the Luxury edition of the E550 sedan stands out. Occupants can hardly notice bumps on a smooth expressway; and when they're felt, they're dealt with instantly and effectively. Downshifts are amazingly smooth and easy - barely discernible and swift, too. Though the V-8 engine is super-quiet running, it's not ominously silent. The test E550 Luxury sedan had a beautiful beige leather interior, matched by glistening wood.
Less-stellar handling is the price to be paid for that elegant ride. Mainly, Luxury-sedan steering feels somewhat light and slow-responding, thus failing to instill total confidence. For that reason, the Luxury E550 doesn't feel entirely comfortable on curves, or even on some straightaways. On certain pavement surfaces, too, light vibration could be felt in the steering wheel of one test sedan
For truly confident control, the Sport V-8 model is the better choice. Steering feels more in tune with directional changes, and a bit tauter as well. As a result, the Sport model sticks more tenaciously to the road. The steering wheel itself is different from the one in the Luxury sedan, with a flat bottom and helpful thumb notches.
Expect assertive acceleration at any speed (especially from a standstill) with the V-8 engine, which is invariably extra-smooth. Seats keep occupants firmly in place. Front-seat space is ample all around, though headroom could be a tad taller.
Logically enough, engine response is more ordinary with the V-6 engine: strong enough, but lacking the V-8's finesse and ease. Steering actually felt a touch less uncertain than that of the Luxury V-8 sedan. In each model, the central controller knob isn't so easy to use without some study and practice.
E-Class coupes combine luscious looks with nimble, tenacious handling
Although the basic structure and available powertrains are the same as those in the E-Class sedan, the latest-generation coupes seem almost like a different breed of motorcar. E-Class coupes date back to 1968, and the 2010 model is the sixth generation.
Coupes are "even more emotional," said Bernhard Glaser. Every detail from the sedan is "exaggerated... taken up a notch." Most striking of the stylistic details is the absence of B-pillars. Rather than going down part way, too, the rear side windows retract fully.
Glaser points out the "forward lurching, wedge-shape design" of the E-Class coupe, with a sleek "roofline [that] almost floats above the cabin." Up front, only two grille bars flank the center Mercedes-Benz star.
Coupe bodies contain many vee-shaped elements, Glaser advised. The standard panorama sunroof retracts and slides on top of the roof panel. A small spoiler on the front of the sunroof is meant to control buffeting. LED-type daytime running lights contain seven bulbs each.
Inside each coupe, the driver encounters a floor-mounted gearshift lever - as in the prior E-Class generation - rather than the steering-column unit that goes into 2010 sedans. Leather upholstery is standard, and front seats feature sculpted side bolsters. Wrapped in Nappa leather, the three-spoke steering wheel contains thumb grips. Split-folding rear seats are standard. So are seatbelt "presenters," which can make it easier to grasp the belt after entering the vehicle - always a boon on two-door cars.
Nine airbags are standard, along with Mercedes-Benz's Pre-Safe system and Attention Assist. Optional safety features are similar to those offered in the sedans.
Powertrains are essentially identical to sedan engine/transmission combinations. The E350 coupe holds a 3.5-liter V-6 rated at 266 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque, with an EPA fuel-economy estimate of 18 mpg city/26 mpg highway. Standard 17-inch wheels are staggered. Chrome body lines and a body-colored diffuser are standard, along with oval exhaust outlets.
For a sportier experience, the E550 coupe includes a Sport kit, massive air intake up front, twisted rocker panels, 18-inch staggered wheels, rectangular exhaust outlets, and a black diffuser insert. The 5.5-liter V-8 produces 382 hp and 391 pound-feet, and the EPA fuel-economy estimate is 16/23 mpg (city/highway).
Why buy a coupe rather than a sedan? Glaser suggests three reasons:
Styling, which sets the coupe well apart from E-Class sedans.
Performance and handling.
Exclusivity. Considerably fewer two-door models will reach dealerships.
Steering in an E350 coupe is more positive and confident than in any of the sedans. The V-6 coupe maneuvers with nimbleness, too, as demonstrated on mountain roads. Steering may need a trifle more slight correction on straightaways than some cars, but it's quite easy to stay centered on curving roads.
Uphill, the V-6 strains just a bit, requiring a slightly harder push on the gas pedal to maintain sufficient energy. Still, the coupe performed eagerly up to an altitude above 8400 feet. Despite a moderately taut suspension, ride quality is nearly flawless on smooth pavement, and pleasant generally. Oddly, the V-6 coupe seems even quieter than the sedan, with no engine sound (except on acceleration) and fairly modest tire noises. Cocoonlike front seats are bolstered to keep occupants securely in place, but not uncomfortably.
In addition to the expected stronger acceleration, due to V-8 power, the E550 coupe delivers a ride of the same excellence as the E350, on reasonably smooth pavement. Motion can be felt, but only slightly.
Rather than raise prices or keep them steady, Mercedes-Benz is taking the price-cutting route. In the 2009 model year, an E350 sedan stickered for $53,200. The 2010 version will have a Manufacturers Suggested Retail Price of $48,600 (plus $875 destination charge). Shoppers who prefer an E550 sedan will pay $56,300; or with 4Matic, $2,500 more. Coupe prices will be announced later.
E-Class sales begin in June, starting with rear-wheel-drive models. Sedans with 4Matic all-wheel drive come later, in September. Mercedes-Benz anticipates that four-fifths of sales will be Sport models, and that 20 percent of E-Class sedans will have the V-8 engine.
November brings the high-performance E63 AMG sedan. Early in 2010, an E-Class station wagon is scheduled to debut. In March 2010, Mercedes-Benz will add an E350 BlueTEC diesel model, followed by a Cabriolet and an E350 4Matic wagon.
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