2011 Mercedes Put Author At "E's"
By Jim Bray
Mercedes-Benz' E Class vehicles offer some compelling choices for drivers looking for a car that's state-of-the-art innovative, comfortable and classy.
I got to spend about a week in each of the E 350 4Matic sedan and the E 550 Cabriolet – proving once again what a great job I have – and, while both E class cars look, act and feel very different from each other, I came away liking both of them more than I thought I would.
Not that I didn't think they'd be great cars. After all, Mercedes-Benz needs no excuses. The company has a storied history of making some of the finest vehicles on the road. My only angst was that I thought the styling a tad boxy, following the lead of the C Class away from grace and toward a more angular look, whereas I thought the last generation of the E was the best looking in the line's history.
The styling definitely grows on you, though; it may not be as graceful as the previous generation, but it's also sportier and that, in my never humble opinion, is usually a good thing.
For 2011, the E er, sports, a bunch of new stuff below the skin, including a plethora of electronic nannies, er, driving aids, that very nearly let you fall asleep at the wheel and let the car act as your wake up call.
Well, it's actually designed to prevent you from falling asleep, not to wake you up afterward. It's a new safety feature called "ATTENTION ASSIST", that supposedly keeps an electronic eye on you and notices if you start to get drowsy. Mercedes-Benz says it monitors and observes the driver’s steering behavior continuously, across 70 different parameters.
I had it turned on but I guess I passed Virtual Mother's test because I never experienced its "audible and visible warning - - in the form of an espresso cup icon in the instrument cluster." The cup was there on the display, but it just sat there menacingly.
Maybe if it massaged your buttocks, shook you reasonably firmly or slapped you with a cold, dead fish – and emitted a fresh espresso cup smell – it would wake you up, but unless that audible alarm is really AUDIBLE, I'm not sure.
Anyway, The E Class is a very comfortable car, in either of the configurations I tried. The sedan is definitely created for comfort – not that the E 550 Cabrio was like riding in a buckboard – while the drop top is much more playful. Not that driving the sedan would put you to sleep, either (and if it did, well, there's ATTENTION ASSIST!).
With 268 horsepower, the 3.5 liter V6 engine of my test E 350 sedan moves the car well, but the E 550's 382 hp V8 is wonderful – and it sounds really great! And of course when you put the spurs to it, it moves the car ahead with more alacrity than the six.
My sample sedan also came with 4Matic all wheel drive, which could come in handy when the roads succumb to the inevitable nastiness from Person Nature. The Cabrio – and all "non-4Matic E's" – is rear wheel drive.
The sedan is still a very nice car to drive, and my copy had a really nice sunroof with a panoramic glass section so back seat passengers can rubberneck upward. The rear panel doesn't open, but it does give the rear of the cabin a nice and open, airy feel.
The sedan is also far more flexible, of course, with a real trunk, and a nice big one compared with the Cabrio's compromised cargo compartment. Hey, you want a fold down roof or not? And speaking of folding the roof down, I'm of rather ordinary height and it hit my pate and made me crunch down when it retracted while I was in the back seat.
On the upside, it made me feel tall!
Ah, but on the other hand, the Cabrio is a real blast for the people in the front seat, though wouldn't you know it – it was cold during my week with the Cabrio and not even the fancy and very welcome neck heaters below the headrests made it tolerable – though they sure helped!
The convertible also features AirCap, a wind breaker-like thing that extends farther up from the top of the windshield frame than usual wind breakers do, and which works to keep the turbulence off the passengers. In my brief sessions with the roof retracted it seemed to work well, though the best scenario for the pair of passengers perched in the back seat is to have all the side windows up as well.
There's also a windbreaker between and behind the rear seats that you can raise or lower via a button on the dash. Up, it blocks your view backward somewhat, but it seems to help keep things a bit calmer in the cabin.
My Cabrio sample also had an attractive set of AMG wheels that enhanced its overall athletic appearance. Mercedes-Benz says its soft top (which isolates you nicely from the outside world when it's extended) can go up or down in 20 seconds, and at speeds of up to 25 miles per hour.
I'll test that the day Mercedes-Benz gives me one to keep, but it's nice to know that you can supposedly start the roof's little dance at a red light and not hold up traffic if the light turns green during that seemingly endless 20 seconds – which Murphy's Law dictates will surely happen.
There interior of both cars is laid out well, though the cruise control stalk is on the left of the steering column at about 10 o'clock, nearly where the signal lights are on most other cars. The signal light control is farther down, at about eight o'clock, the result being that I found myself wanting to signal a turn but hitting the cruise control stalk by mistake. You'd probably get use to this really quickly if you owned the car, though, so it's hardly a deal breaker.
Both cars' instrumentation is attractive, with classy-looking analog dials and a good digital display inside the speedometer. There's a small tachometer and a big and attractive analog clock as well, though I wonder why they wouldn't put the clock on the center console so everyone can admire it.
The LCD panel atop the center stack, coupled with the COMAND cursor thingy on the console, is easy to figure out and the radio, which had SIRIUS Satellite radio activated, displays like an old fashioned analog radio, which is kind of cool.
The seats are very comfortable; my test Cabrio's held me in better and had more power adjustments, in keeping with the car's more sporty demeanor. The sedan's rear seat is your typical (though very nice, of course) "holds three people if you have to " bench, but the Cabrio is strictly a two plus two, with nice buckets that hold you in nearly as well as the front ones do.
The E 550 Cabrio has a conventional gear selector – on the console and with a manual mode – but the sedan has this weird electronic thingy protruding from the steering column, like a truncated version of "three on the tree" shifters of days gone by. It works fine, though.
Mercedes-Benz chose nice materials for the interior. There was perhaps a tad too much black in my test car's interior, though you can change that, but it's still a classy cabin with plenty of high tech stuff (including Bluetooth) that's, fortunately, easy to figure out. A shelf in the glove compartment is a great place to store your iPod, and the music player is controllable from the audio system – and its redundant controls on the steering wheel, which is exactly the way it should be.
Naturally, the E's also offer all the usual safety equipment you expect these days, with enough belts and bags to choke a horse, maybe two horses.
There really isn't a lot to criticize about the E Class, at least as far as I've driven them. I was really torn as to which one I preferred but, perhaps not surprisingly, have to give the nod to the E 550 soft top. While I'm more disposed to sedans in general, and the E 350 4Matic is a wonderful example of the species, the V8 engine and overall more playful attitude of the E 550 Cabriolet tilted the scales in its direction.
The perfect compromise E – and then some, I imagine – would be an AMG E sedan, which has been enhanced by Mercedes-Benz' performance people and is apparently a real screamer. They haven't sent one of them out here yet for me to test, though, and I'll keep pouting until they do.
The E 350 4Matic sedan starts at about $52,000 U.S. /$63,000 Canadian. The E 550 Cabriolet starts at about $56,000 U.S./$77,500 Canadian.
Copyright 2010 Jim Bray
Jim Bray is a member of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada. His columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.
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