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.