Road Tests

First Drive: 2018 Mercedes-Benz E400 4Matic Coupe

Calm beauty, confusing complexity

What you see with the 2018 Mercedes-Benz E400 4Matic coupe is clear, crystalline, even. It’s elegantly beautiful with a long, smooth fastback roofline. Every detail is made to extremely high standards, and the fit of every part, inside the cabin and on the exterior, is flawless. The seats are handsome and comfortable, its twin-turbo V-6 engine with 329 horsepower and nine-speed automatic gearbox work with panache and precision. So naturally, you expect a typical Mercedes melding of hardware and software, a perfect execution of the driving dynamics. But it’s not quite there.

Instead, numerous driving aids, digital gadgets, and not-quite-finished software conspire to make this very good-looking and extremely well-made car surprisingly disappointing — for a Mercedes, that is. Many other companies would be delighted if they could attain half the qualities the E400 displays. But we expect any product from Stuttgart to be completely ready for regular use without cavil and this one doesn’t measure up. We suspect Mercedes knows that as they chose to present the car on Spanish roads so smooth, perfectly maintained, and free of any surface corruption that it was impossible to judge its ride qualities precisely.

All cars on test by Americans were equipped with Benz’s optional, well-proven 4Matic all-wheel drive system. While both standard steel-spring chassis and cars fitted with the optional Air Body Control pneumatic suspension were on hand, differences between them were all-but-imperceptible on the splendid roads around gloriously sunny Barcelona. Driving in such conditions should have been an unalloyed pleasure, but the imperfect driver’s aid systems tended to temper our end-of-winter good humor.

The Mercedes dynamic select system allows the choice of five settings: Comfort, ECO, Sport, Sport +, and Individual, in which a driver can adjust throttle response, the start/stop function, and the way the steering responds to various dynamic inputs. Steering wheel position, rate of movement, chassis side-loading, and rate of acceleration/deceleration (and perhaps the phase of the moon?) are taken into account by the software, which then integrates the sensor inputs. But not perfectly so at times, as the force feedback at the rim varies enough that the driver often senses unpredictable variability under cornering and other maneuvers.

There are shift paddles for the 9G-Tronic transmission, but the Mercedes-built unit is so perfectly adapted that there really isn’t much point to using them. Just as there isn’t much point in burdening this excellent and very comfortable grand touring car with a wide variety of inappropriate sports-oriented features that are clearly antithetical to its true purpose, which is surely long-distance travel in great comfort.

Bigger in every dimension than its predecessor, the 2018 E-Class coupe is genuinely tailored for four full-size adults. The rear seats are spacious and headroom is adequate for adults up to six feet or so, although passengers with very long legs might not find the rear compartment a place they’d choose to be for a day-long journey. It is probably useful to think of the E400 as an affordable S-Class coupe rather than as a true sports model, a role more likely assigned to AMG derivatives.

2018 Mercedes Benz E400 4MATIC Coupe cabin 01

An example of good idea technology that’s not quite up to Mercedes standards is its Magic Vision Control windshield wipers. The arms are pierced with multiple outlets for washer fluid, flooding the glass with liquid just ahead of the wiping blade on the upsweep and pushing the fluid into the well at the back of the hood on the back stroke, leaving the glass clean and dry. Except when we tried it, there was a patch of droplets in the middle of the windshield. Will they get it right? Of course. In the meantime, it’s just more fancy gadgetry that doesn’t quite work as well as claimed.

Or, as in the case with the front seats, does work as intended, but only after an excruciating fuss with multiple controls requiring both hands. The driver’s left on Mercedes’ brilliantly conceived door-mounted analog model of the seats themselves adjusts height, reach, and backrest angle. But to handle the heaters, adjust the lumbar supports up-and-down and in-and-out, or activate the massage function, the right hand must be on the console-mounted COMAND controller for the infotainment screen. It’s the perfect example of too much of a good thing.

We found it hard to determine whether the optional Drive Pilot is a good thing or not. Its Distronic function allows the car to follow another at a fixed distance, right up to the electronically limited U.S.-market 130 mph top speed. The Steering Pilot function, activated by a double-pull on a column-mounted switch, allows the car to steer itself up to that same speed in ideal conditions (i.e., well-marked lane limits for the sensors to “see”) or up to 81 mph if the marking is unclear or non-existent. There’s an active lane-change assist camera-and-radar-based system that will steer the car into an empty lane by itself after two seconds of turn-signal operation. All this is aimed toward an eventual autonomous operating mode, but it is more than a little disconcerting to have the car make moves that you intended to do yourself. On the road, the car feels good, but it also feels heavier than it actually is, although it’s far from a lightweight. Agility is not part of its repertoire.

2018 Mercedes Benz E400 4MATIC Coupe side profile 01

We found the exterior styling to be very good except for the painted patch of roof that starts behind the C-pillar, sticking out visually like an air brake. We would pay extra to have it painted black like the forward portion of the roof for a more harmonious line. There is a little outward blip at the bottom front of the front wheel opening that was made to align with a similar outward change along the sills. It subliminally suggests that the car is so heavy that the body has squeezed out at the bottom. The almost-invisible break in the rear side glass, required so the forward section behind the door can be lowed into the body side, is slightly awkward, but there’s no practical way around it.

The interior is a mix of very good design and clumsy German kitsch. It is apparent from the press material that the six radial-bladed round AC outlets on the instrument panel are thought to be especially stylish, but they look all too much like kitchen sink drains. They are set into a well-organized panel that can be of many finishes, from wood to metal to carbon fiber (or its simulacrum), but they’re just over the top. Although not quite as much as the starter button surround, which has its blades in a spiral pattern.

Make no mistake. The 2018 Mercedes-Benz E400 coupe is a very, very good car, but until all the gadgetry is fused into a traditional Mercedes aura of faultless superiority, it’s not a great one.

2018 Mercedes-Benz E400 4MATIC Coupe Specifications

ON SALE Summer 2017
PRICE $58,000 (base)
ENGINE 3.0L twin-turbo DOHC 24-valve V-6/329 hp @ 5,250-6,000 rpm, 354 lb-ft @ 3,500-5,250 rpm
TRANSMISSION 9-speed automatic
LAYOUT 2-door, 4-passenger, front-engine, AWD coupe
EPA MILEAGE 20/28 mpg (city/hwy)
L x W x H 190.0 x 73.2 x 56.3 in
WHEELBASE 113.1 in
WEIGHT 4,057 lb
0-60 MPH 5.2 sec
TOP SPEED 130 mph

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