Since the early ‘90s we've seen Mercedes slowly dilute its peerless quality in a drive for increased sales. The 2010 Mercedes E-Class represents a major step back towards the timeless luxury cars of yore.
Full Disclosure: Mercedes wanted me to drive the new E-Class so badly they flew me out to Vegas to drive it. They also fed me shellfish, which gave me the runs.
Think Mercedes and images of the W123 and W124 E-classes probably pop into your head. Big, boxy and somehow superior to other luxury cars from the time, they represented a reluctance to compromise that just doesn't exist at any carmaker any more. Pull up to valet parking at a fancy restaurant in a well-maintained ‘80s E-Class and your car might still get pride of place in the parking lot. Do the same in an E28 5-series and they'll hide it round the back.
In twenty years time you might be able to do the same with this W212. It's squared off edges inside and out don't just conjure memories, but trigger the same "Mercedes" synapses in your brain. That feeling will be reinforced by the high-quality plastics and spare use of wood and aluminum trim, as well as touches like the pleated leather door panels and the longitudinally stitched and perforated seats.
That's not to say that the new E-Class does without contemporary features, in fact it has all the advanced safety tech of the S-Class packed into a more manageable package. The full list of advanced safety features is staggering: Attention Assist, Lane Keeping Assist, Adaptive Highbeam Assist, Parktronic Plus, Blind Spot Assist, Night View Assist PLUS, Distronic PLUS with Pre-Safe Brake, Brake Assist PLUS, Sand Assist floor mats and Agility Assist.
All those features might sound as if they're designed to remove control from the driver, but unlike other automakers, Mercedes has employed them to enhance your range of perception and increase your control of the vehicle.
Take the night vision system. Instead of just fitting the new E-Class with an infrared camera, Mercedes paints the area in front of the vehicle with infrared beams, sort of like invisible headlights. The camera, as a result, picks up a much sharper image out to a further distance. That image is then displayed in crystal clear resolution on the nav screen. A computer is capable of identifying pedestrians, placing a vibrating box around them on the screen. You don't need to stare at the screen to see them; instead it exists in your peripheral vision like an extra rear-view mirror.
The Pre-Safe Brake is also cool. For the first time, it's capable of automatically applying 100% of brake force if the forward-looking radar detects that a crash is imminent, so it won't avoid the impact, but instead acts like an electronic crumple zone, reducing the force of the impact. Because it activates only when you're .6 of a second from collision, it won't affect your ability to take evasive measures, but could instead save your life if your attention lapses.
Highbeam Assist is also impressively useful. Rather than just automatically switching between high and low beams, it instead measures the presence and location of other vehicles, adapting the beam shape and throw to provide maximum illumination at all times without irritating other drivers. Low beam output can be extended from 215 feet all the way out to 1,000 feet, massively boosting the safety of night driving.
All this technology doesn't get in the way of driving, as the new E-Class also banishes memories of the mediocre experience of recent models. While it's still no 5-series, the Mercedes has newly found something called "steering feel," which apparently has something to do with "control," which when combined with "responsive suspension" actually makes it "fun to drive." Who knew? Better yet, switching from "Comfort" to "Sport" in either the E350 V6 or E550 V8 delivers a noticeable improvement in dynamics, firmer body control and sportier shift mapping. You can also shift yourself using the wheel-mounted paddles.
Those two engine choices are your lot until November, when the 518 HP 2010 E63 AMG goes on sale. The V6 makes 268 HP and 258 Lb-Ft of torque, enough to propel the E to 60 MPH in 6.5 seconds. Unfortunately, that kind of performance requires using all of the 6,750 RPM, something most Mercedes drivers are likely reluctant to do. The 382 HP, 391 Lb-Ft V8 does a much better job of providing instantaneous shove, but comes at a $7,700 premium. The V6 returns 18 MPG City, 25 MPG highway, while the V8 delivers 16/23. We'd want to wait for the E350 BlueTEC diesel, arriving next March. It'll have 400 Lb-Ft of torque for instant overtaking, but exceeds the fuel economy of either gas engine: 24 MPG City, 33 highway.
Given all the new features, the improved driving experience and much-improved styling and impression of interior quality, it's surprising that Mercedes is able to bring the 2010 E-Class in cheaper than the 2009 model. The 2010 E350 starts at $48,600, $4,600 cheaper, but adds standard equipment: Attention Assist, Driver Knee airbag, front pelvic airbags, and variable damping Agility Control. Combine that new price tag with all the new features and, more importantly, the newfound Mercedesness and the 2010 E-Class is an impressive package. In fact, combining all of the features of the S-Class with a cheaper price tag and, to our mind, better styling, the E-Class just became the pick of the Mercedes range and our favorite vehicle from that brand since we were riding around in the way back of a W123 wagon.