The product portfolio at Mercedes-Benz has proliferated rapidly in the last few years. New models from the C-Class Coupe to the savage SLR have kept the brand abreast of the niche-market trend. Still, there is no other model that so inherently defines Mercedes than the E-Class. Buttering the Benz bread for decades, the E makes up approximately 25% of their annual sales. Sedan or wagon, V6 or V8, rear- or all-wheel-drive, the E-Class is the world’s pre-eminent luxury car. We just got to spend a week behind the wheel of the popular 2006 E350 4MATIC iteration.
The E350 replaced the E320 last year, when Mercedes began building the new 3.5-liter V6 powerplant that resides under the hood of not only this line, but several other Benz models as well. This new engine comes just in time, as mid-size sedans from more plebian automakers are gaining power in leaps and bounds. At 268 horsepower, it’s 20% more powerful than its predecessor, and boasts 258 lb.-ft. of torque as well. Propelling the E’s 3,700 pounds to 60 m.p.h. in just six and a half seconds, it’s certainly an improvement. Moreover, the new motor maintains the legendary Mercedes smoothness, while fuel economy remains unchanged at 19/27 m.p.g. city/highway.
E350 and E500 models both also benefit from the seven-speed automatic transmission that caused Lexus engineers to adopt a jealous greenish hue when it debuted in the S-Class. All-wheel-drive 4MATIC models, however, carry over the previous-generation’s five-speed automatic, itself a smooth and reliable performer.
Driving an E-Class is an experience that has yet to be replicated by lesser marques. Utterly silent and buttery-smooth, the E glides over imperfections in the road like no other automobile. Solidity, another Mercedes character trait, gives anyone behind the leather-wrapped wheel of an E-Class the feeling of piloting a mobile bank vault; it’s as if the outside world were being broadcast through the windscreen on closed-circuit TV. Our 4MATIC tester further exhibited exceptional stabilityóitís seemingly impossible to perturb this car. As you acclimate to the atmosphere, you find yourself experiencing a feeling of calm and self-satisfaction that is truly rare in the motoring world.
This is not to say that the E cannot be driven quickly. Rapid acceleration is assured, especially given the new powerplant’s prowess. Cornering is no concern, either, as the 4MATIC system, independent suspension, and 245/45-17 tires conspire to grant this sedan generous grip. Steering is speed-sensitive and braking electronically assisted; both systems function effortlessly and accurately. Ultimately, the E-Class is capable of enormously expeditious locomotion. If anything, it does lack tactile involvement; Mercedes has engineered out the connection between car and driver. Powerful and proficient as it is, it’s no sports car. Being at the helm of such a machine is not an unrewarding experience; there is simply a tradeoff between sporty road feel and isolated comfort.
For those who desire a more visceral experience, an AMG version of the E-class is offered. For 2007, the supercharged V8 of the E55 is retired in favor of a naturally aspirated 6.2-liter with 514 hp. Stiffer suspension pieces, wider wheels, and so on bring the E63 AMG into league with supercars like BMW’s M5.
More pedestrian by comparison, perhaps, the E350 is still by no means prosaic. The interior, for example, is near perfection. Mercedes does the little things right; the seat controls are within easy reach on the doors, one-touch control is provided for all windows, the steering wheel both tilts and telescopes, and every hinge is silkily damped. The requisite leather and wood are of course present, all of a sumptuous quality and excellently styled. Small touches like the power-operated panel in the console, which motors open at the touch of a chrome button to reveal a storage space or the six-disc CD changer, delight the aesthetic senses. The stereo itself, a 12-speaker harmon/kardon LOGIC7 system in our tester, provides concert-hall sound quality. A power-operated rear sunshade accompanies the expected motorized seating, windows, locks, mirrors and so on, while the optional HID xenon headlights, which shift left-to-right depending upon speed and steering angle, illuminate the night as well as any auto.
Comfort-enhancing features are predictably profuse. Seating is spacious and enveloping, while optional air bladders in the front chairs can massage the lumbar area and provide active bolstering support in lateral movement. Convenience, too, is no afterthought; features such as the optional Smart Key that allow entering and starting the vehicle without removing the key from your pocket or purse make operating the E-Class remarkably effortless.
Safety is of paramount concern in a vehicle like the E-Class as well, especially one that moves with such authority. The multi-stage front airbags are designed to deploy in degrees dependent upon the severity of impact, as measured by sensors in the bumper. Side and curtain airbags are standard as well, as are seatbelt pre-tensioners and force limiters, a rollover sensor, and stability control. If one does suffer a serious collision, Mercedes’ Tele-Aid system will provide emergency assistance. And of course, the 4MATIC all-wheel-drive system in our tester adds a distinct measure of all-weather control.
For 2007, some 2000 parts on the E-Class are either refined or entirely new. In both sedan and wagon variants, the overall styling is not notably divergent, but a more pronounced V-shaped front end, LED parking lights, and side skirts do differentiate the newer models. NECK-PRO active headrests and the PRE-SAFE system of active airbags and seats increase safety by anticipating possible accidents and preparing restraint systems beforehand. A new steering wheel graces the interior, with thumbwheel controls. Also new this year is a more straightforward control unit for the dual climate system; the previous part was not problematic but still perhaps the weakest piece inside. Changes have also been made to the rates and ratios of the active steering and braking systems, as well as the suspension tuning, with an eye towards responsiveness. This DIRECT CONTROL package should address some complaints about lack of feel.
Luxury never comes cheap, especially luxury of this level. There is added value in the prestige factor of Mercedes-Benz ownership, as well. All things considered, the stated price on our 2006 E350 4MATIC of $56,965 is not at all excessive. The E-Class brings much to the table. What’s more, the character of a Mercedes cannot been duplicated, or thus far has not, at any rate. Viewed in that light, the E-Class is a remarkable value indeed.