First Drive: 2010 Mercedes Benz E550 Sedan

March 9, 2009
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An all-new E-class goes on sale this summer.
The E-class may no longer be the biggest-selling Mercedes in the USA, but this model, which traces its lineage back to the Pontoon sedans of the 1950s, remains the heart of the brand's now greatly expanded lineup. This year sees the rollout of an all-new model (the W212 chassis, for students of the three-pointed star), with the six-cylinder E350 and V-8 E550 in early July. The E-class range fills out with a new coupe (in the same two variants), which replaces the CLK and appears a couple of weeks ahead of the sedans; the AMG-tuned E63, which will debut at the New York auto show in April before heading to dealers in November; the all-wheel-drive 4Matic variants, which will appear in September; the new E320 Bluetec, a 50-state diesel that arrives early next year; and the last member of the family to arrive, the E350 wagon, which will be unveiled at the Frankfurt auto show this fall and which will begin plying the streets of America's best suburbs sometime in 2010.
No direct-injection V-6 for America. Blame our gasoline.
In the United States, the 2010 E350 sedan uses the same 3.5-liter V-6 as the 2009 car, with 268 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque, but the rest of the world gets a new 3.5-liter engine with direct injection and 288 hp. Unfortunately, that engine is not able to use our low-quality gasoline. For our first drive of the new E, we instead sampled the V-8 model, which also uses a carryover engine, a 5.5-liter SOHC unit that makes 382 hp and 391 lb-ft of torque in U.S. tune. Both the E350 and the E550 are paired exclusively to the same seven-speed automatic transmission that serves in today's E.
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Brown is the new black in automotive exteriors.
Design-wise, the E-class follows a bit in the footsteps of last year's new C-class, with more straight lines and creases than we've seen on a Benz in a long time. The 2010 model is the third generation of the E-class to use a four-headlight front end, and it, too, has been squared off considerably. Despite the increased squareness, the car achieves a very impressive drag coefficient of .25 Cd. Inside, there's a mix of elements from both the S-class (the row of climate control buttons, the horizontal trim strip and dash vents) and the C-class (the Comand controller, the center console). While the Sport trim level has a horizontal stitching pattern on the seats, the Luxury version uses vertical pleats that are supposed to recall Mercedes interiors from the 1960s and '70s; they do, particularly in the tan-and-black interior, but an even bigger flashback to the Me Decade is the brown exterior color that Mercedes is highlighting - the weird part is that it actually looks good. Maybe it's because we haven't seen brown cars in so long, or maybe it just suits recessionary times.
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Technology makes for safety.
There's nothing backward looking, however, in the list of standard and optional technological features that Mercedes has stuffed into the new E-class. The previous E-class went down the high-tech road and wasn't particularly well served. Its electronic braking system proved troublesome (it was later scrapped); its air suspension's firmer settings made for a brittle ride; and the radio/navigation interface could be frustrating. The new car uses a lot more advanced technology, but it's better-integrated and far more polished.
Much of the technology is dedicated to the cause of active safety. Brake Assist Plus, which appeared first in the 2007 S-class, now comes to the E. It uses the forward-looking radar sensor of the active cruise control (the optional Distronic Plus), although the cruise control does not need to be engaged for it to work. If it sees that the car is closing in on an object ahead too fast, it first flashes a red triangle warning light, then beeps at you, then at 1.6 seconds before a projected impact, it will start to slow the car with up to 40 percent brake power. All these abilities are already available on higher-end Benz models (and some Lexus and Volvo models as well). What's new here is that at 0.6 second before impact - the point at which the driver has run out of time to avoid the object and a crash become inevitable - the car will apply full braking power, slowing the car and reducing the severity of the crash. A philosophical question might be: Why wait until a crash is unavoidable to apply full braking power? Why not do it earlier and perhaps avoid the collision? In answer, Mercedes engineers say they want to give the driver every opportunity to avoid the crash him- or herself - by swerving around the car ahead, for example - before the system slams on the brakes. This full-braking capability makes its debut on the 2010 E-class but will come to the S-class with that model's refresh this fall. The only unfortunate thing is that this braking technology is optional, bundled with active cruise control.
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Adaptive headlamps light up the night.
Two other new driver aids are designed to help with night driving: adaptive headlamps and night vision. Both are optional; we found the first more useful than the second. The former uses a forward-looking light sensor behind the rearview mirror, but unlike the autronic eye automatic high-beam dimming feature in some late-1950s and 1960s American cars, it doesn't just switch between high- and low-beam. In the E-class, the high and low beams are in a single xenon fixture, which has a shutterlike device that continuously adjusts the cut-off. The unit is also able to move side-to-side to follow steering inputs. In practice, it continuously varies in steps between low and high beam and also adjusts the width and direction of the light pattern. It's pretty good at reacting both to the cars ahead and to oncoming traffic, but it's sometimes fooled by brightly reflective signs. On a dark, winding road with intermittent traffic, the system is pretty busy, which might drive some people nuts; and a driver who is paying attention could react faster to oncoming traffic, but overall the system is worthwhile because the beam pattern is so variable - you always get the maximum amount of light on the road. We were less enthralled with the night vision system, the latest version of a technology that first appeared on the current S-class (and which some other manufacturers offer as well). The enhanced pedestrian recognition works well - this would be great to have for driving through a busy subdivision on Halloween night - but, like all night vision systems, you really don't look at it much because you're looking out the windshield. Also, because it plays in the nav screen, you lose the navigation's map function.
Wake up! Or stop driving.
On the subject of night driving, one of its greatest dangers is fatigue, and the E-class includes as standard the first-ever drowsy driver recognition and alert system. The system, which is active at speeds between 50 and 112 mph, monitors driver inputs. An alert driver makes more, smaller inputs, while a drowsy driver sort of zones out mentally for brief periods and therefore makes fewer inputs, but they're larger and more abrupt. Before judging the change in driver activity, the system spends the first 20 minutes establishing a baseline of the driver's style. The change in steering patterns is the most important indicator of drowsiness, but the software actually uses more than 70 profile elements - including the length of the drive and the time of day - in order to decide when to give the drowsy driver warning: a coffee cup symbol and "time for a break?" in the info display.
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Two other warning systems new to the E-class are already widely seen elsewhere: lane departure warning and blind spot assist. The former vibrates the steering wheel when the car drifts over the line without using the turn signals. It's less obnoxious than most lane departure systems - there's no beeping, nor does the system brake a wheel to pull the car back into line. Furthermore, it's smart enough not to give the warning if the car is accelerating or braking (it assumes you're merging onto or exiting a freeway). And if you've got enough steering dialed in, it won't nag you for cutting the inside of a corner. Still, we find such systems to be of little value, except perhaps for the truly clueless and the cell-phone addicted. The 2010 E-class also gets a blind spot warning system, with a warning light in the side mirrors, which can be somewhat more useful. For the times when it's not, it, like all the E-class driver assistance systems, can be switched off.
We were happy to see improvements in the car's carryover technologies as well. The E adopts from the C-class the Comand turn-and-push multifunction controller (for navigation, audio, et cetera), and the system's logic is, for the most part, easy to follow. The aforementioned Distronic active cruise control will automatically slow the car all the way to a stop, making it more useful in lower-speed, high-traffic driving.
The sportiest E-class ever.
The Airmatic adjustable suspension, which is standard on the E550, now has only two settings, comfort and sport. Frankly, we don't miss the previous model's hardcore ultra-firm option. We didn't find much of a difference between the two settings - in either comfort or sport, the new E-class has a firm, well-controlled ride. Nonetheless, bad pavement - what little we could find on our drive in and around Madrid - was well masked. The steering again uses electrohydraulic assist, but is significantly retuned. Whereas the previous car was somewhat relaxed in its responses to the helm, the new E is far more alert to even small steering inputs. A slightly increased effort level, which is also more consistent than before, keeps the steering from seeming nervous. And the fat steering wheel rim is great to grip. The chassis tuning is very well done overall.
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The new E-class has switched to the currently en vogue electronic PRND stalk shifter, freeing up console space for two huge cupholders. Upshifts and downshifts are accomplished via buttons on the back of the steering wheel spokes. The seven-speed automatic also has a sport/comfort button (separate from that for the Airmatic suspension), which changes transmission shift points but not throttle responsiveness. The V-8 is exactly the same engine as in the outgoing car, but subjectively at least, the response to a suddenly floored gas pedal feels less explosive than before (even though the factory claims a 5.3-second 0-to-62-mph time). EPA fuel economy numbers are not yet available, but given the carryover engine and transmission, they aren't likely to change dramatically from the 15/23 mpg rating of the 2009 E550.
At the E-class introduction, Mercedes played up the car's long heritage. And while the styling gives some nod to the past, the car's dynamics have changed. The relaxed, slightly floaty motions and responses that have characterized the E-class for years are gone. This new Mercedes is a sharper, sportier machine, much closer to a current Audi or BMW than to previous E-class cars. That, together with the unrivalled array of active safety equipment, should help the E-class expand beyond its traditional owner base and attract new buyers who might previously have written off the E-class as a ride for an aging burgermeister.
2010 Mercedes-Benz E550
Base price: $64,000 (estimated)
Powertrain: 5.5-liter SOHC 32-valve V-8
Horsepower: 382 hp @ 6000 rpm
Torque: 391 lb-ft @ 2800-4800 rpm
Drive: Rear-wheel
L x W x H: 191.7 x 73.0 x 57.0 in
Wheelbase: 113.1 in
Cargo capacity: 19.1 cu ft
Curb weight: 4034 lbs
EPA fuel economy: N/A


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