Easy street

THE W213 E-CLASS CAN VIRTUALLY DRIVE ITSELF, BUT DOES THAT LIMIT ITS DRIVER APPEAL?

WORDS ALEX INWOOD

This new E-Class is even more clever than the flagship S-Class, so itís kind of a big deal

íVE been dead for quite a while now. Pretend-dead, that is. Iím hurtling along a Portuguese freeway at 120km/h and two minutes ago, the bearded German sitting alongside told me to do the most peculiar thing.

ďNow is time for some theatre,Ē he smiled through his whiskers, which are so long they tickle the top of his name badge. It reads Constantin. ďI ask you to have a heart attack.Ē

He doesnít seem to care that Iím meant to be driving.

Or that our sparkling new W213 E-Class is approaching a right-hand bend at 33 metres per second. So in an act of blind trust, I throw my hands in the air, writhe in mock pain for a few theatrical seconds, then slump in my seat, Ďdeadí.

I briefly wonder if the spittle in the corner of my mouth is a step too far, or if Constantin will even notice it, when the steering wheel moves. It steers us into and through the corner. No fuss, no loss of speed. We donít even stray from our lane.

The same thing happens at the next curve, this time a left. It takes 30 seconds for the car to notice Iím not in control. It flashes a visual warning on the dash, telling me to take the wheel. I donít.

Another bend, another 30 seconds, and the car begins to bong, rhythmically. Bong. Bong. Take. The. Wheel.

Again, I ignore it. Then we gradually start to slow. At 60km/h the hazard lights come on and the car begins to come to a complete stop.

ďSee!Ē laughs Constantin. ďItís brilliant, no?Ē

Welcome to the all-new Mercedes-Benz E-Class, a car so infested with technology and binary code that this review could just as easily fill the pages of PC Monthly.

In fact, this 10th-generation E-Class is so clever that it even outmuscles Mercís traditional technology flagship, the significantly more expensive S-Class.

Kind of a big deal, then.

The system I experience with Constantin is the latest version of Mercís Drive Pilot, which moves the German brand a step closer to full autonomy. With all the sensors and gizmos switched on, the E-Class can now follow another car at speeds up to 210km/h, change lanes autonomously and even drive itself on roads without clear lane markings at speeds up to 130km/h.

It works, too. On the highway, the E-Class steers itself through gradual bends with precision, maintains and changes its speed without fuss, and will even slow for,

and drive through, a narrow toll booth all of its own accord. All I have to do is touch the steering wheel every minute or so.

It would be wrong to think this means the E-Class is verging on fully autonomous, though. Itís not. Shadows and overhead signs can cause the occasional hiccup and the Drive Pilotís automatic steering strays from its lane on tighter corners. So instead of just turning on the systems, taking your hands off the wheel and relaxing, you have to constantly monitor the car in case it slips up. That said, on open highways itís bloody impressive.

The auto lane change Ė operated by indicating for more than two seconds at speeds above 80km/h Ė soon becomes second nature, too. Benz implies this system is superior to the one used by Tesla, which lacks the extra rear-facing camera fitted to the E-Class that checks your blind spot.

And Benz has vastly improved the Drive Pilotís restart function, which will now stop and restart the car automatically in heavy stop-start traffic, even if youíve been stationary for as long as 30 seconds. The old system required the driver to intervene after just three seconds.

Even better news is that, despite some initial uncertainty about legality and compliancy, all of this semi-autonomous technology will be standard on every E-Class when deliveries start in June. There is some tech we wonít be getting in Australia, but the company has confirmed most of the headline systems are coming our way.

The engineers werenít blinded by their pursuit of electronic wizardry; the new E-Class drives like a Mercedes should

And donít fret that Mercedes-Benz was blinded by its pursuit of electronic wizardry and forgot about good old-fashioned mechanical engineering. The E-Class drives like a car of this calibre should.

Built on the same Modular Rear Architecture as the S-Class and C-Class, the E-Class is 43mm longer and 3mm lower than the car it replaces, and rides on a wheelbase that has grown by 65mm. Track widths have increased front and rear while weight is down, by about 50kg. And that sleek new body, which looks eerily similar to both the C-Class and S-Class, delivers an impressive 0.23 coefficient of drag.

A suite of petrol and diesel engines will be offered here, all paired with a nine-speed automatic, with the E200, E220d and E350d available from launch in July.

The E200ís 135kW/300Nm turbo-petrol four and the E350ís 190kW/620Nm turbo-diesel V6 are both carryover engines, but the E220dís 2.0-litre unit is all-new. Part of a fresh OM625 diesel family, this 143kW/400Nm unit boasts an aluminium cylinder head and crankcase. Itís quiet on start-up, spins eagerly and delivers a nice blend of performance and efficiency, with a 3.9L/100km combined fuel-consumption number.

Arriving in late 2016 will be a new E300 model, powered by a 180kW/370Nm 2.0-litre turbo-petrol four (also destined for the C-Class), and a temporary rangetopper, the 245kW/480Nm E400 4Matic.

This will be the first Aussie E-Class to be offered with all-wheel drive, and to prove its credentials, Mercedes-Benz decided our first taste of the E400 should be on Portugalís famous Estoril race circuit.

Even in its firmest setting, the E400ís emphasis is on luxury and refinement

Itís a punishing track, with long straights, tricky high- and low-speed corners, and heavy braking zones, but the E400 applies itself well. The steering is direct, the chassis nicely balanced and thereís plenty of grip, which gives you the confidence to get on the throttle early. The twin-turbo V6 petrol is strong and emits a nice gurgle on over-run.

One noticeable negative is a rustle of wind noise at the top of the windscreen, which intrudes into an otherwise hushed cabin. Itís an annoyance that plagues every E-Class we drive, especially when cruising on the freeway, and Mercedes is aware of the problem. ďOh yes, thatís because of the sunroof,Ē says an engineer.

ďThe cabin is so quiet now that you hear sounds you wouldnít have before.Ē

Entry-level W213 E-Class variants feature a steel coil suspension set-up with variable damping as standard, but every variant from E300 up rides on self-levelling ĎAir Body Controlí suspension with multi-chamber air springs and four distinct modes: Comfort, Eco, Sport and Sport+. Yet even in its firmest and most aggressive setting, thereís no escaping the E400ís heavy emphasis on luxury and refinement over razor-sharp dynamics.

What the E400 does do, though, is provide a tasty starting point for the upcoming AMG E43 and the even more bonkers E63, which will be fitted with AMGís 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8, tuned to produce around 420kW.

Where the E-Class really excels is with its interior.

The family resemblance to the flagship S-Class is again obvious, but thereís a sweeping beauty to its broad dashboard, the piece de resistance being an enormous twin-screen digital display, dubbed Command Digital Instrument Panel, which will be fitted standard to all Australian E-Class variants.

This display consists of two incredibly thin 12.3-inch high-definition screens that are fully configurable, with drivers able to choose between three designs: Classic, Sport and Progressive. Itís a breeze to use, thanks to two mini-touchscreens mounted on the steering-wheel spokes. You operate them by swiping your fingers horizontally or vertically, with the left touchpad operating the left screen and the right operating the right screen. If that sounds complicated, itís not. The system is wonderfully intuitive.

Rear passengers arenít forgotten, either, with a roomy rear bench (knee room is up 6mm) and deeply sculpted seats. Thereís a lack of toe room if the front seats are set low, and the 530-litre boot is marginally smaller than before, but these are minor complaints.

Then thereís the price. Mercedes has worked hard to increase the spec of Australian models, and will offer the twin-screen display and Drive Pilot system as standard, but says this will result in small increases.

All things considered, it seems a fair trade. This latest E-Class is not only an improvement in style, space and comfort, but sets a new tech benchmark, both for its class and for Mercedes-Benz as a brand.

Your move, S-Class.

Technology parade

Pilot parked

Leading the equipment non-arrivals for Australia, at least initially, is Remote Parking Pilot, which lets you park your E-Class from outside the car using a smartphone. Itís a catch-up system Ė BMW and Tesla both offer similar technology Ė but it works brilliantly for parallel, fronton and reverse-in manoeuvres.

Also not coming is a new ĎCarto- Xí communication system that allows the E-Class to talk with other cars and infrastructure to warn drivers of potential hazards such as broken down cars or even black ice, displayed on the sat-nav map.

The good news is that, while they wonít be offered from launch, both systems will be available when M-B Oz rolls out its wider ĎMercedes meí connectivity service in 2017. nfrastructure wn d ffered ls

Light íem up

Every E-Class from the E300 up scores new high-end ĎMultibeam LEDí headlights.

The system boasts 84 individually controlled LEDs with 256 levels of adjustment and a range projection of 430 metres. It also selectively dims sections of the lights so as not to dazzle oncoming cars while ensuring maximum vision for the driver. Benz claims its headlights are even more complex than Audiís superb Matrix LED system, as they can be adjusted for both low and high beams.

Plug it in

If efficiency is at the top of your Ďmust haveí list, Benz has confirmed a hybrid version of the E-Class will arrive in 2017. Dubbed E350e, it combines a 2.0-litre turbo-petrol four-cylinder with a bootmounted 6.2kWh battery and boasts a claimed pure electric range of 30km. In real-world driving situations, though, engineers say this drops to a more realistic 15km. Fuel consumption is rated at 2.1L/100km yet itís no slouch, with 155kW/350Nm available and a 0-100km/h claim of 6.2sec. It also provides haptic feedback through the throttle pedal to promote more economical driving.

When you feel a resistance point you know the maximum electric performance is being delivered; push through the resistance and the combustion engine will fire to provide greater propulsion. 00km ble des eel delivere e lsion m o d;