First Drive – 2017 E-Class

Axel Catton
Daimler Global Media
Behind the wheel of the all-new E-Class, the much-anticipated technical marvel from Mercedes-Benz

The New E-Class

First Drive

 

Article Axel Catton

Images Daimler Global Media

 

Behind the wheel of this much-anticipated technical marvel from Mercedes-Benz

 

How would you have reacted just 10 years ago if I had told you the 2017 Mercedes-Benz E-Class sedan would be able to drive you on any given motorway without any steering input, feet off the brake and throttle while maintaining a constant safe distance from cars nearby, and staying in the lane – overtaking vehicles if you so desired – coming to a complete stop if necessary to avoid collisions, and at the end of the day parking itself in your garage? Oh, and that it was only offered with a 2-liter 4-cylinder engine. You would have thought I’d gone crazy. But that is exactly what we experienced on a recent lovely spring morning at the Estoril racetrack in Portugal.

 

Once the mainstay of the U.S. model lineup, the E recently has faced significant competition within Mercedes-Benz from an ever-increasing lineup of SUVs, as well as the new C-Class, which has gained a convertible model that will compete with the open E. In addition, CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) regulations have tightened, VW has significantly tarnished the diesel image, and Mercedes-Benz’s emphasis on AMG models has increased dramatically compared with a decade ago.

 

Against this scenario, Mercedes-Benz launched its newest iteration of the E-Class at this year’s Detroit Auto Show. Immediately recognizable as an E-Class, the styling is fresh but not “new.” One U.S. executive in Geneva called it “mild,” which describes the changes quite accurately. The coefficient of drag, though, has been reduced to a class-leading Cd of 0.23. At 193.8 inches in length, the 2017 E is 1.7 inches longer than its predecessor, while the wheelbase has increased by  2.6 inches, which essentially means the proportions and overhangs have remained similar.

 

The extremely elegant-looking seat designs are definitely new, although during our short time in the car they didn’t feel much different from the previous design. The really big news is that buyers can opt for a completely redesigned, fully digital dash. While the standard dash is a conventional layout paired with a large 12.3-inch center screen, the obvious choice would be the all-digital instrument cluster, which gives drivers the ability to switch among various gauge layouts and add customized content to the driver’s screen to include elements like a small navigation map or drive data.

 

In addition to traditional operation through the center wheel and touchpad, system input can be provided by speech recognition or using the touchpads integrated in the steering wheel spokes, an industry first. For the time being, Mercedes-Benz has chosen not to offer gesture or touchscreen operation.

 

The first model out of the gate in North America will be an E300, equipped with a turbocharged 2-liter direct-injection 4-cylinder engine delivering 241 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque. Compared with the previous E350 V-6, power is down by a hefty 61 horsepower, though torque remains at the same level thanks to the single turbocharger. A new 9G-Tronic automatic transmission is now standard and 4Matic all-wheel drive is available.

 

There is no diesel offered, and a hybrid E won’t come to the United States “before the end of the decade,” Mercedes-Benz brass confirmed. The E300 will likely be the only non-AMG product, but help is on the horizon. Mercedes-Benz has already announced the V-6 E43 AMG, which will arrive in the United States and Canada roughly six months after the E300. A hefty V-8 E63 AMG is also in the cards.

 

So let’s get the actual driving experience out of the way before we focus on the much more important autonomous-driving element. Is an inline 4-cylinder enough to propel a proper, close to 2-ton E-Class? Yes and no. Acceleration is somewhere in the mid-6-second range, which is more than adequate. However, the sound level – or shall we say noise – just wasn’t up to our expectations when conducting the first test drives on Portuguese roads. These were Euro versions, so we’ll have to hold our final verdict until we get to drive a U.S. model, but the overall impression in sampling several models is that the four cylinders could have used one more layer of sound dampening.

 

The Euro-spec E400 models (featuring the 3-liter V-6 that will come to the United States in E43 AMG guise) did the job of cosseting occupants significantly better. The 9G-Tronic automatic works very well with the available torque, shifts are smooth and quick – never hesitant – and decisive enough that we weren’t left wishing for a manual. As for steering and suspension, the standard spring setup was adequate, but did little to convince us of the E’s higher aspirations while touring Portugal’s notoriously bad roads. The optional air suspension we sampled in a Euro V-6 diesel model was significantly more comfortable while still very precise, so this setup gets our nod. Steering was nicely weighted and direct.

 

Why were we in Portugal on a racetrack anyway? Simple: Mercedes-Benz is positioning the new E-Class as “the most intelligent business sedan on the road.” So we traveled to the most southern tip of Europe (and in early March, also the warmest) to try out the enormous array of safety, convenience and autonomous-driving features that make Mercedes lay claim to this title.

 

Drive Pilot

 

As the name suggests, this system is the closest you can presently get to enabling you to play games, read your tablet and enjoy a coffee while your car does the driving. The familiar Distronic system – available for some time – uses the new model’s stereo cameras and radar to maintain your desired speed, slow to the speed of the car ahead and – for the first time – follow the car in front at speeds up to 130 mph. This means the driver no longer needs to apply the accelerator or the brake in normal highway traffic.

 

 Pull the cruise control lever twice, and the system will keep your car within its lane and follow the car in front, independantly braking and accelerating as necessary.

 

It did take us a while to adapt to the autonomous steering. The camera detects continuous as well as interrupted lines to keep the car in the center of the lane; it can also follow the car ahead if it doesn’t detect any road markings. This does not go on forever: Drive Pilot will only function for 60 seconds before checking that the driver is still alert. A gentle touch on the steering wheel or simple swipe over its touchpads is all that’s necessary to convey alertness.

 

We also tested a what-happens-if-driver-falls-asleep-at-the-wheel scenario. A steering-wheel icon will display in the center screen, followed by an emergency sound. If no input is made, hazard flashers switch on and the car is safely slowed to a standstill. A very reassuring feature.

 

As part of the Drive Pilot function package, the system keeps the car from veering into another lane by applying brakes on a single wheel. This brake-application method was selected by engineers in preference to a more conventional steering-input system because research has shown that unexpected movement of the steering wheel in emergency situations can lead to counter-steering efforts by the driver.

 

We were introduced to Active Lane Changing Assist, a feature that only needs the driver to apply the indicator: The system will check traffic front and rear of the lane into which the car is merging and will then execute the maneuver if it’s safe. Necessary? Maybe not.

 

Safe? Surely. A step into the fully autonomous direction, this system is perhaps not needed as much right now where the driver continues to have major input into proceedings, but will become more important in the age of fully autonomous driving.

 

New Active Brake Assist

 

Active Brake Assist with Cross Traffic Function: The name is definitely a mouthful, but it is surely worthy of the enunciation. On the closed Estoril racetrack, Mercedes engineers set up a test course whereby a “car” (read: drivable tent) was crossing the track at right angles just as we were careening along at 70 mph; we were “inattentive” (that is, did not react). At the last possible moment, our car automatically hit the brakes so hard that we realized what we’ve been doing wrong all these years. The force of the braking was stronger than anything I’ve ever managed on my own with conventional brakes; seat belts were also pulled tight. The overall experience was very dramatic, but enormously effective. Our test car came to a standstill just an inch or so in front of the obstacle.

 

Impressive.

 

Next run, same setup: Now an obstacle started crossing our path one second earlier, meaning it was in our path but making its way out of it. Our car was constantly monitoring: a) our speed; b) the speed of the obstacle; c) the direction of the obstacle; and d) the speed with which the distance gap was closing. This time, the crossing car cleared our path just inches before we swept past, but our car didn’t react or even change its speed.

 

Evasive Steering Assist

 

What if we had reacted as a normal and attentive driver and swerve? On the third round, we spotted the obstacle and took evasive action. This is when – in conventional cars – many accidents occur: after the obstacle has been avoided. In general, over-enthusiastic steering input, overreaction and wrong steering angles lead to an out-of-control car. Here, the car’s sensors and actuators applied the correct input to steer away from the crossing car and then return to its original path, an abrupt and rather dramatic but safe and accurate maneuver. Again, most impressive here was to see what a real evasive maneuver was supposed to look like, compared with what I, for all my life, believed was the best way to do it.

 

But the day wasn’t just all about testing in artificial emergency situations. We also got to enjoy ourselves on the track with the E400 4Matic and experience the high-speed composure of Stuttgart’s finest. From the optional drive modes, we chose Sport+, the most advanced and radical of the settings. Gearbox shifts occur later, downshifts earlier, and gas-pedal reaction is nearly instantaneous. We were encouraged to push the vehicle to its limits, but it simply wasn’t possible to get the car unhinged. At very high speeds, the car always delivered complete, early feedback so a good driver could maintain control. But what about the unexpected?

 

To experience unanticipated issues even beyond the unforeseen in day-to-day driving, we were told to take our speed up to at least 110 mph at the end of the front straight (my top speed always exceeded 125 mph) and then steer into the tight right-hander. That’s when the safety systems quickly calculated the distance to the corner, our speed, our (non-existent) braking and the direction of the corner. The car actuated the brakes on individual wheels and tightened the seat belts to avoid overshooting the road into the run-off zones. Very impressive, very intuitive, not scary, and something for which we would have been extremely grateful for in real life.

 

Back at the stables, we were asked to put our test car “away” into an extremely tight garage. We disembarked, engaged the app and “told” the car to park itself, which it did with no fuss whatsover. Splendid.

 

So, do we now want to be driven by our cars, be passengers behind the wheel, stop being actively involved in our progress on the road? I don’t think so. The systems presented to us remain in the background until a situation arises where you either feel inclined to use them – such as to reduce driver fatigue during long stints of bumper-to-bumper traffic – or when an emergency requires action necessary to prevent harm or expensive damage. These are great steps into the automotive future and very encouraging ones.

 

And as they say, “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”

 

Designo Selenite Grey Magno E400 4Matic put through its paces at the Estoril racetrack.

2017 E-Class (U.S. Specifications)

TYPE: Four-door, five-passenger sedan

 

E300 ENGINE: 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder 

HORSEPOWER: 241  TORQUE: 273 lb-ft

 

E43 AMG ENGINE: 3.0-liter biturbo V-6 cylinder 

HORSEPOWER: 396 @ 6,100 rpm

TORQUE: 384 lb-ft @ 2,500-5,000 rpm

ZERO-60 mph: 4.5 sec  TOP SPEED: 155 mph

 

TRANSMISSION: 9G-Tronic 9-speed automatic   

 

EXTERIOR DIMENSIONS:

WHEELBASE: 115.7 in   LENGTH: 193.8 in  WIDTH: 73.0 in  HEIGHT: 57.9 in

 

Images

 

 

Designo Diamond White E350e flashes through a Lisbon marina. Dash has elegant details.

E300 – here seen in Designo Hyacinth Red Metallic – will be the first model offered in the United States.

Kallaite Green E220d negotiates Lisbon traffic.

Redesigned digital dash.

Expressive LED headlights. E300 is equipped with 241-horsepower turbocharged 2-liter direct-injection 4-cylinder engine.

Customizable, all-digital instrument cluster.

 

Redesigned seats, sophisticated trim options and panoramic sunroof create a new level of interior refinement.

E300 at rest in old Lisbon.

New interior offers accent lighting choices.

 

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