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First Drive: 2014 Mercedes-Benz E-class

Mercedes may be neck-and-neck with BMW for luxury sales dominance in America, but that's not enough. Daimler profits have fallen short of targets, which may explain why the E-class - the company's Brot-und-butter, high-margin model worldwide - has received such a thorough facelift for 2014.

American V-8 fans should also draw a red "X" through fall 2014, because that's when the 2015 E400 sedan and wagon arrive, bearing a 333-horsepower bi-turbo V-6. That downsized 3.0-liter V-6 model will replace today's 402-hp, 4.6-liter E550, leaving V-8 power to the E63 AMG brutes.

Aside from that way-early drive of the E400, Mercedes slipped us into the four-cylinder 2014 E250 Bluetec diesel - sorry, wagonistas, it's sedan-only for the U.S. - that arrives in August. Displacement drops by roughly 50 percent to 2.1 liters versus the current 3.0-liter diesel six. But the new turbo-diesel is a fuel-sipping smoothie, with 195 horses and 369 lb-ft of torque. At a steady highway pace through the swelling hills of Catalonia, we managed 44 mpg, a remarkable gain over today's E350 Bluetec.

Another economic upside: Mercedes confirmed that the rear-wheel-drive E250 Bluetec will become the most affordable E-class of all, undercutting the current E350 Bluetec's $53,105 base price. The E250 will offer optional 4Matic AWD.

With all the downsizing and diesel-izing going on, it was easy to overlook America's first choice, the E350. Sedan and wagon versions go on sale in May, carrying over their 302-horse, direct-injection gasoline V-6. The 2014 E550 will also arrive in May. The current E400 Hybrid V-6-plus-electric model carries over the departing body style and interior until next year.

Sedan, wagon, coupe or cabriolet, the E-class's reworked body impressed everyone from journalists to janitors at Detroit's auto show in January. With additions where it counts - a sinuous, air-slurping front end - and the tasteful subtraction of the clumsy pontoon rear fender, Mercedes' oft-criticized sedan styling language is suddenly speaking sexy.

For the first time, the E-class offers a choice of front ends, and it's clear which one extroverts will prefer. The Sport version, or Avantgarde in Euro markets, slaps a Flava Flav-sized Mercedes star on a two-louver grille and has a bright, faux-aluminum fascia lip. Sport models add a sharp three-point steering wheel, a mildly firmer suspension, and 18-inch AMG wheels and bodywork, all standard. The square E-Class buyer of yore - referring to both the cars and the owners - would barely recognize the dramatic expression at play.

Luxury versions (E250 and E350 only) get the traditional vertical hood ornament, demure radiator grille, and a four-point steering wheel. For all models, a swept-back hood is capped with bold dual-element headlamps; full-LED lighting is optional. At the rear, a broad, refashioned bumper joins two-tone, LED fiber-optic tail lamps. The refashioned exterior works just as well on the E350 4Matic wagon. American wagon fans must choose the E350's V-6, unless they're crazy enough for the E63 AMG version.

The enriched cabin gets a restyled dashboard and gauges, a handsome analog clock, aluminum-look switches, and striking wood or metal trim. There's a heightened sense of fit-and-finish; corners and joints are executed with a precision nearly befitting an S-class. Several of our test cars featured thick ribbons of ebony wood lapped with fine grain or white perforated-leather seats with blue piping, the latter recalling a Range Rover.

Mercedes also expanded its optional safety systems, under the catchall of "Intelligent Drive." A new stereo camera delivers three-dimensional views 50 meters beyond the car and 500 meters in total. That allows a Volvo-esque pedestrian detection system that can brake autonomously at up to 45 mph and can entirely avoid hitting those on foot at up to 31 mph. Active lane keeping applies the brakes to center the car if you veer toward oncoming traffic, using camera and radar to track approaching cars. Activate Distronic cruise control, and this Benz will steer itself through highway bends, guided by both lane markings and the car ahead - yet it will sense and warn a driver who's tempted to let go of the wheel. Junction Assist boosts brake pressure or stops the car automatically when vehicles or pedestrians cross the path.

Like Nissan's system, the E-class's cameras project a 360-degree, bird's-eye view on its central screen, and Mercedes mimics Ford with an optional hands-free access feature that lets you open the trunk by waving a foot below the bumper.

All models get the electric Direct Steer system that varies both assist and steering ratio. Airmatic suspension is optional for E550s, and rear air springs are standard in the E350 wagon. An automatic stop/start Eco mode is standard across the line.

Because it's not the sportiest-sprung car in its midsize segment, the E-class's comprehensive excellence is often downplayed. As ever, the E-class leans toward comfort, and literally so when driven in anger. But with its impervious feel, the Benz is also tremendously assured and reassuring on any road, in any conditions.

With the carryover V-6 a known quantity, we honed in on the intriguing high-low matchup between the bi-turbo six and the underdog diesel. Mercedes figures a 7.9-second squirt from 0 to 62 mph for the E250 diesel, but the car had no trouble passing dawdlers and its four cylinders were impressively muted.

With 354 pound-feet of torque on tap at just 1600 rpm, next year's twin-turbo six is quick - perhaps the mid 5-second range from 0 to 60 mph -- and makes expensive noises, but the E400 is still less forceful than today's V-8 E550.

That V-6, of course, will advance the mission of Mercedes (and that of all its rivals) to boost fuel economy and trim carbon-dioxide emissions. Shed a quick tear for the V-8. But that all-around V-6 is likely the smarter app for the E-class, whose lavish mid-cycle re-do affirms it as one of the world's best all-around luxury sedans.

Base Price: $52,000/$59,000(E350 sedan/E350 4Matic wagon, est.)

2.1-liter DOHC 16-valve turbo-diesel I-4 (E240 Bluetec)
3.5-liter DOHC 24-valve V-6 (E350)
3.0-liter biturbo DOHC 24-valve V-6 (E400)
4.6-liter DOHC 32-valve V-8 (E550)

195 hp, 369 lb-ft (E250 Bluetec)
302 hp, 273 lb-ft (E350)
333 hp, 369 lb-ft (E400)
402 hp, 443 lb-ft (E550)

Transmission: 7-speed automatic

Drive: Rear- or all-wheel

Fuel economy:
20/30 mpg (E350 sedan, est. )
19/27 mpg (E350 4Matic wagon, est. )
16/26 mpg (E550, est.)

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