What is it?
The newest iteration of one of what is arguably the most successful franchises in executive car history, the fifth-generation Mercedes E-Class. It is lighter, faster and more economical than the car it replaces, but it’s also packed with technology including various autonomous options that allow it to practically drive itself under certain circumstances.
The stand-out power unit at launch will be a new four-cylinder diesel engine, one that – in defiance of apparent logic – combines 191bhp with an official fuel economy figure of 72.4mpg and CO2 emissions of just 102g/km, presuming you’re prepared to make do with the smallest 17-inch wheels.
The new E-Class has grown compared to the previous model, with a 43mm increase in overall length to 4923mm and a 65mm wheelbase stretch (to 2939mm) improving space in the cabin. Despite that, the extensive use of high and ultra-high strength steel in the structure has reduced mass with the 220 d being around 100kg lighter than the previous W212 version, thanks in large part to its new all-alloy ‘OM654’ four-cylinder diesel engine. All versions will have a nine-speed automatic gearbox as standard, and although only rear-drive is available in the UK at first, we will be getting the option of four-wheel driven 4-Matic versions.
Standard equipment in Blighty includes parking sensors with a reversing camera and self-parking function, navigation and all-around LED lighting. The E 220 d goes on sale in May, with the SE saloon costing £35,935 and the sportier AMG Line £38,430. The six-cylinder E 350d and hybrid E 350e (which uses a four-cylinder petrol engine) will follow later in the year, along with a full set of other variants.
What's it like?
Both reassuringly familiar and deeply impressive, with the E-Class’s position in the middle of Merc’s saloon hierarchy reflected in the way it combines most of the luxury of the S-Class with the agility of the C-Class.
Refinement levels are extremely good, the 220 d being noticeably quieter than its predecessor at any speed. The new engine is rarely more than a background hum, only raising its voice when worked hard. The length of the higher transmission ratios – and the engine’s ability to pull them – make for very calm high speed cruising, with the engine turning over at under 2000rpm in ninth gear at 80mph. The car’s slippery shape has a drag co-efficient of just 0.23, and wind noise is largely absent at anything below the sort of pace normally reserved for an empty Autobahn.
It is truly remarkable that a four-cylinder diesel E-Class can now deliver both hybrid rivalling CO2 figures and a near 150mph top speed. Merc’s claim of a 7.3-second 0-62mph time is believable, but not the sort of treatment the car is built for.
Only a full on carpet-flattening throttle application persuades the gearbox to hold onto gears beyond 3500rpm; the system’s preference is to shift early and often, the nine-speed transmission shuffling its ratios deftly when you want to make faster progress. Mercedes has also abandoned the ‘Comfort’ and ‘Sport’ modes for the gearbox, these are now part of the overall dynamic settings, controlled by a roller switch on the centre console.
UK-bound E 220 ds will have the lowered comfort suspension as standard, with a 15mm drop compared to cars in other markets, and steel springs and passive dampers. Above this is Dynamic Body Control, which adds switchable dampers, and then full ABC air suspension which will be a £1495 option, and which was fitted to the car we drove, delivering excellent ride quality.
Dynamic excitement is more muted. Chassis responses are good and grip levels are high, the E 220 d resists understeer well but with little sense of adjustability in the chassis. The steering is direct and yields proportional responses, with nice weighting although almost no actual feel behind it. Considering its size the E 220 d is impressive accurate and agile-feeling, especially when turning between a sequence of corners, and easy to keep on a chosen line. It’s no fireball, even with the chassis turned to its more aggressive Sport mode, but a good basis for the more dynamically focused models that will follow.
Not that driving is always necessary. Mercedes is keen to push the battery of dynamic aids the E-Class can be optioned with, these including Drive Pilot which – as its name suggests – allows the car to pretty much turn chauffeur itself. It combines adaptive cruise control with active steering and can, on bigger roads, keep the E-Class rolling in its chosen lane at a chosen speed of up to 130mph, the steering wheel motoring itself right and left as it keeps the car on course.
As with Tesla’s similar system it’s even possible to change lane on motorways by simply indicating in the direction you want to go, the car moving over once its battery of sensors give the all-clear. To keep the system active you need to make some kind of input every 30 seconds, to prove you’re paying some kind of attention. Fail to do so and the car will, ultimately, stop itself and activate its hazard lights. The system worked well on the Portuguese motorway, but it can’t deal with more than very gentle curves on smaller roads.
The cabin deserves particular praise, feeling like a fractionally downsized version of that in the S-Class. It’s beautifully finished and – with the benefit of an options workout – packed with kit. Space is good for both front and rear seat occupants – on past form this E will ultimately make up the majority of Germany’s taxi fleet – and it is a supremely comfortable place to spend time. The steering wheel incorporates two small touch-sensitive panels which to supplement the rotary controller in the centre of the car, and which make it slightly easier to navigate between pages on the central and dashboard displays.
Should I buy one?
The new E-Class manages to be better than its predecessor it practically every regard, with the possible exception of its grille-heavy front-end styling. As such, if you’ve ever felt attracted to a mid-sized Merc then the E 220 d should, as the company’s marketing department puts it, exercise a powerful fascination.
Especially so in a segment where two of its main rivals – the Audi A6 and BMW 5-Series – are just starting to feel a bit long in the tooth in a few places. The E-Class is short on excitement but big on practically everything else, with class-leading comfort and CO2 numbers making it equally compelling to both private buyers and fleet users.
Mercedes-Benz E-Class E 220 d
Location Portugal; On sale May 2016; Price (from) £35,935; Engine 4 cyls, 1950cc, diesel; Power 192bhp at 3800rpm; Torque 295lb ft at 1600-2800rpm; Gearbox 9-spd automatic; Kerb weight 1680kg; Top speed 149mph; 0-62mph 7.3sec; Economy 72.4mpg; CO2 rating & BIK tax band 102g/km (17-inch wheels)/ 22%