Enter the E-class, which, in its previous iteration, was a bit stodgy and slow, a cautious chariot characterized by plenty of body roll and early understeer. Not anymore. The Direct Steer system, first employed in the SL, now has more weight and feel, and there's more aggressively spaced gearing and exactly the right amount of damping. The steering requires more effort than the Audi but less than the BMW, and it stays focused even when you wind on plenty of lock. There's no sudden firming during brisk lane changes, no lack of self-centering momentum, no waywardness when traveling in a straight line. The front suspension and the multilink rear axle have been modified, but the basic concept remains. The adaptive dampers were adopted from the C-class. Their comfort-oriented calibration stiffens automatically via a bypass valve triggered by extended wheel travel and load.
The Mercedes turned out to have the best all-around ride and handling. The latest generation of stability control so effectively suppresses understeer and oversteer that without the amber warning light, you wouldn't know the system was active. A stab at the ESP button is all it takes to treat yourself to exactly the same lurid tail-slides as in the BMW. In adverse conditions, directional stability isn't always perfect, but the Merc's ride quality on any surface is clearly a cut above that of its competition - and this is without the optional air suspension.
As the new kid on the block, the Mercedes offers a host of innovations, including a fatigue sensor, several new brake-related functions, an intelligent lighting system, and night vision that can recognize pedestrians. We found the adaptive headlamps to be a real asset. Conversely, the night vision was a major distraction, and the self-inflating ventilated massage seats are difficult to adjust when your bum is obscuring the controls.
The cabin's new look is modern and contemporary, yet it doesn't run the risk of alienating repeat customers. You can now get even more leather and wood, and there's a large secondary in-speedo display complementing the full-color monitor. Comand is more intuitive than ever, and at night there's soft waterfall lighting along the trailing edges of the trim. Nice. As in the S-class, the gear selector has been moved to the column, making room in the console for huge cupholders and for an air-conditioned bin in the center armrest.
In the past, there was a substantial variation between the ergonomic layout of BMW's iDrive, Mercedes-Benz's Comand, and Audi's MMI, but after a series of early glitches, all three systems are now fairly easy to operate. Likewise, the cars each offer similar amounts of head- and legroom. In the front, the BMW is the largest, followed by the Merc and the Audi. In terms of cargo space, it's quite close, ranging from 18.4 cubic feet (BMW) to 19.3 cubic feet (Audi), with the Mercedes in the middle.