By Jonathan Crouch
The Mercedes-Benz E-Class has a reputation for buttoned-down efficiency. It's one continued by this vastly improved eighth generation version which retains a sensible side but dials up the desirability, aiming to offer a smarter, more prestigious approach to Executive class motoring than its closest German rivals. It does so with efficient engines, astonishing technology and comfort that makes you question the need for a larger luxury saloon.
No car epitomises what Mercedes-Benz stands for better than this one - the E-Class. We've known it by that name since 1986 but the history of this model actually dates all the way back to 1953 and the introduction of the original 'W120' series design, widely regarded as the brand's first truly modern motor car. And this model has remained truly modern throughout the eight generations since, pioneering everything from safety passenger cell technology to turbodiesel engines, innovation that continues here in this much improved 'W212' series version, the most comprehensively revised Mercedes-Benz ever.
And it needs to be. Much, after all, has happened in the executive saloon sector since this MK8 model E-Class was first introduced here back in 2009, with all-new versions of both its main competitors, the BMW 5 Series and the Audi A6, as well as stronger opposition from lower volume segment rivals like Jaguar's XF and the Lexus GS. No longer was it enough for the Stuttgart's most important car to be merely big, refined, efficient and classy. Extra technology was needed - and a bit of extra character too, both of which are apparently provided by the vastly improved eighth generation version introduced early in 2013, the car we're going to test here.
You'll recognise it by its more curvaceous nose but beyond the smarter look lie the more important state-of-the-art virtues this E-Class will need if it's to continue to be its maker's most profitable model. As before, its market appeal will be vast, with private buyers the focus of pretty Coupe and Cabriolet versions and the far larger business sector targeted by the saloon and estate variants we're going to talk about here. One of these must be almost all things to all commercial people, as appealing to, say, a taxi operator in ordinary base diesel form as in higher spec it will be to a top executive. It must, in short, be a very thoroughly developed product indeed. Let's put it to the test.
What You Get
Mercedes is usually careful not to meddle too fundamentally with the things that define its most popular products, especially when it comes to aesthetics. Here, it's different. E-Class customers who previously defined this car by its twin headlamp set-up and that prominent Three-Pointed Star atop the traditional upright lamella grille must now get used to quite a different look. The traditional bonnet mascot's gone, replaced by a larger brand badge in the centre of a more prominent front grille flanked by a redesigned pair of curvaceously flowing headlamps. These now operate within a single lens that incorporates flowing light elements intended to maintain the typical four-eyed look that has come to characterise this car.
The swept-back bonnet has also been restyled so that its contours merge elegantly with the smartened front end, while at the side, the shape appears to have been stretched thanks to a sharper creaseline beginning on the rear doors and extending into the tail lights. These have also been smartened, with a two-tone look and LED technology that offers up a distinctive nightime visual signature.
We're talking then, of a package of changes that go a bit further than you'd expect from a mid-term facelift, an approach continued on inside. Slip behind the wheel and smarter materials with meticulous detailing serve to raise the perceived quality and functionality of this car. There's a redesigned centre console too, with extra storage space making up for the fact that the door pockets are as small as ever. As before, you sit quite low and you'd be excused for some initial confusion with all the stalks, paddles and buttons that need to be mastered on the nappa-leather-trimmed multi-function steering wheel, along with the endless menus of the standard COMMAND infotainment system whose 7" colour screen dominates the top of the dash.
But you quickly adjust, not only to these but also to familiar E-Class anomalies like the foot-operated parking brake and the steering column-mounted gearstick. And once you have, you're set to more readily appreciate ergonomic design that's just that bit more special this time around. Perhaps it's the lovely analogue clock positioned between a smarter set of dash-top vents. The tight, precise panel gaps. Or the Artico stitched leather trim on the dashboard and the beltline of the doors.
Moving into the back, the large door aperture aids easy entry and once inside, headroom is good, though there's not quite as much rear legroom as the car's dimensions might suggest. It's quite enough for long distance comfort though, provided you're not stuck in the middle where you've to straddle a prominent propshaft tunnel.
Out back, the 540-litre boot is slightly bigger than you'll find in a BMW 5 Series, an Audi A6 or a Jaguar XF and for not much extra, you can have it with this neat pull-down Easy Pack boot box. Unfortunately, the option to extend the cargo area with a useful 60:40 split-folding rear bench is an expensive extra. Still, if that's something you're likely to be doing on a regular basis, you'd be better off looking at the spacious estate version, which ups luggage capacity to a 695-litre total, extendable to -1950-litres by flattening the back seat. That's significantly more than rival BMW 5 Series Touring and Audi A6 Avant models can offer.
What to Look For
Insist on a full Mercedes dealer service history, especially for the most recent models whose lengthy warranty - effectively for the life of the car - is dependent on proper servicing by an authorised agent. Check that all the accessories work and watch out for cosmetic damage which can be expensive to correct. These are popular family cars, so check for wear and tear in the rear. Also look for the usual signs of wheel kerbing and poorly repaired accident damage. Mercedes experienced problems with the piezo electric injectors on the E250CDI and replacing them within factory tolerances seems to be a problem for many dealerships, resulting in sub-par economy.
(approx. based on E250 model) Allow around £90 for a set of front brake pads and £75 for the rear and about £375 (excluding catalyst) for a factory exhaust system. A full clutch replacement would cost around £295, a radiator is about £245 whilst a starter motor can be up to £250. A new alternator would be in the region of £500.
On the Road
Some full-sized Executive saloons claim to be sporty: BMW's 5 Series, Jaguar's XF. Others, like this one, simply don't feel the need to try that hard - unless an AMG V8 happens to beat beneath the bonnet. It doesn't here. Like almost all E-Class buyers, I've chosen a diesel - but rather a nice one, the top 252bhp V6 E350 BlueTEC. Assuming you've not had the minor lottery win that would open up ownership of the top 5.5-litre E63 AMG turbocharged petrol flagship, the car I've got here represents the sole high performance option in the range, 620Nm of torque hurling you to 62mph in 6.6s en route to an artificially limited 155mph maximum.
But would you really want to go that fast in an E-Class? Well, should the need arise, surprisingly these days, you just might. Dynamically you see, this car is much improved over the original version of the same design we first saw back in 2009. For a start, all models get an improved 'Direct Control' suspension set-up with selective damping with is further firmed up on AMG Sport models like this one. So the rear wheel drive chassis actually feels unexpectedly responsive when you pitch the car into a tight corner, especially if, as here, your car is fitted with the optional AirMATIC air suspension set-up with Adaptive Damping and you've switched off the magic carpet 'Comfort' mode in favour of 'Sport'.
So you need to spend some extra money if you really want a dynamic drive. But then, to be fair, that's also the case with this car's two closest rivals, BMW's 5 Series and Audi's A6. Traditionally, the advantage with both of these cars was that you actually felt something back from their steering systems through the corners - in contrast to the vague old rack provided on the original version of this car. Mercedes though, has caught up a bit with this revised version, fitting a 'Direct Steering' system that more accurately varies the level of assistance to the speed you're travelling at.
It's still not especially rewarding but it is an improvement. If you're fortunate enough to drive a top E63 AMG V8 model though, with its electro-mechanical speed-sensitive AMG steering, you can see just how much better it could be. The same applies to the gearbox. The 7G-Tronic Plus seven-speed transmission all mainstream E-Class models use is smooth but not especially responsive unless you use the steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters. Switch to an E63 and its AMG Speedshift MCT seven-speed sports automatic set-up and you'll see how much better a Mercedes auto 'box can be.
Talking of the E63, that model's bi-turbo V8 comes with either 557 or 585bhp but it only comes with two wheel drive: the desirable 4x4 E63 variant unfortunately can't be engineered in right hand drive form. This top V8 AMG version sits at the top of a slimmed-down petrol-powered E-Class range that's now based around a 2.0-litre turbocharged engine rather than the previous 1.8 - and rather a clever one too, with direct injection and twin scroll turbocharging. This efficient BlueDIRECT unit comes in two different states of tune, with even the base E200 offering 184bhp, good for 62mph in 7.9s on the way to 145mph. Beyond that, the pokier E250 has 211bhp and improves these figures to 7.4s and 151mph: not bad for a car able to return nearly 50mpg in normal use.
That might make you think twice about choosing one of the 2.1-litre diesels that almost all UK E-Class buyers tend to want - but probably not for very long. There's 30% more pulling power on offer from the two four cylinder CDI units, with the 400Nm available from the 170bhp E220CDI, enough to get it to 62mph in 8.7s on the way to 141mph. With 204bhp on tap, the pokier E250 CDI improves those figures to 7.5s and 150mph. Exactly the same turn of speed in fact as you'll get from probably the most interesting variant in this revised E-Class line-up, the diesel/electric E300 BlueTEC Hybrid.
This shares the E250 CDI's same 204bhp diesel engine but adds a 27bhp electric motor to it so that manoeuvring, parking and setting off a modest throttle loads for up to two-thirds of a mile are all conducted exclusively using power from the 19 kW lithium-ion battery. The diesel engine also switches itself off when coasting at speeds of up to 100mph. Truly future-proofed executive motoring.
Think of Mercedes and you might think of luxury limousines, glamorous roadsters, championship-winning racing cars or unbreakable commercial vehicles. In fact though, this car, the E-Class, is actually the rock on which the brand is built - and has been for over six decades.
It hasn't always been the most inspiring choice in its sector, but legions of loyal owners have never minded that. Other Directorship-level models, they reason, might be slightly plusher or a little better to drive but none has the sense of occasion that this one brings with it. You'll have worked hard to be in a position to enjoy a car like this and you need to feel rewarded when at last, you take possession of the keys. Here you will be: it's as simple as that.
And in a more efficient, smarter and more dynamic way at the wheel of this vastly improved eight generation version. It's a car now able to make a much stronger case for itself, not just amongst the typical heartland of Mercedes customers but also with younger buyers and those who would once have turned to a BMW for driving excellence and an Audi for design focus. What's more, it's managed this without diluting the very DNA that makes a Mercedes what it is. All of which means that if you've always wanted one, you've now more reasons than ever to wish upon a Star.