Safest bet in its class - Mercedes E250
In an increasingly irascible attempt to assess honest mechanical engineering rather than sly, over-solicitous electronics, I switched on Mercedes' spanking new E-Class and then spent a good five minutes behind the wheel frantically trying to switch everything but the engine off again.
Speed Limit Assist? No thank you. Lane Keeping Assist? Not right now. Blind Spot Assist? My neck works fine, thanks. Attention Assist? Lunch wasn't nearly large enough to merit a snooze. Distronic Plus? I'll manage, thanks all the same. Adaptive Highbeam Assist? Night View Assist Plus? Not at three in the afternoon, pal… Victim of a nanny state, the Chinese journalist who'd recently vacated this E 250 CDI was clearly more than happy to be the victim of a nanny car to boot. Even the driver's seat massage system had been over-activated to writhe under its oriental occupant like a bean-bag full of gently miffed pythons…
Time was, the E-Class didn't need a Unique Selling Point.The cooking model - consistently coutured in the hearing-aid beige of the German taxi fleet - sold simply because it shared nuclear holocaust survival honours with the cockroach; a basic yet substantial saloon carved from a single block of granite, invariably equipped with a power plant not quite vigorous enough to propel it down the road with anything approaching genuine vim.
But then it all went somewhat pear shaped. Niggling quality problems saw reliability take a nose dive to such an extent that, even in the E-Class heartland, purchase price became an issue and Toyota began bulk-buying beige paint.
The new E-Class seeks to redress this unfortunate hiccup in an otherwise illustrious career by re-establishing its durability credentials, lowering prices, maintaining a handsome range of occasionally feeble engines and offering not one, but two USPs.
The first, given the dollops of hot fidgety fuss and bothersome itch associated with preparing the car for a first journey is, self evidently and on an almost unprecedented scale, safety. The second is something called 'BlueEFFICIENCY'. Conjuring images of trendy paraffin or, perhaps, a lacklustre marketing department's efforts to improve the image of those malodorous little cubes that lurk in the bowl of an unloved urinal, BlueEFFICIENCY is, in fact, the new green in Stuttgart.
Available on all four and six cylinder engines in the new model range, BlueEFFICIENCY comprises a smattering of energy-efficient measures designed to lower fuel consumption by some 3mpg and reduce emissions to more tax-friendly levels. These include new tyres with up to 17% less rolling resistance; energy saving alternators, fuel pumps, air-conditioning and power steering pumps; fuel consumption and gear shift indicators; and an eco stop/start system which, despite a 95% E-Class bias in favour of automatic transmissions, will only be available on manual versions of the E 200 CGI when it reaches our shores in 2010.
This unfortunate oversight aside, however, the efficacy of BlueEFFICIENCY cannot be ignored. Priced from £28,863 to £47,010, the E-Class range comes with a choice of three new diesel engines, a new V6 petrol unit and the E500's familiar, decidedly un blue, 382bhp V8, with three more power plants planned before the end of 2009. 168bhp E 220CDI and 201bhp E 250CDI turbo diesel models share the same four cylinder, 2143cc block, and, mated to five-speed automatic transmissions, both generateCO2 emissions of just 159g/km, the latter also returning 47.1mpg in the combined cycle. And that, for a big car weighing in at 1660kg, is pretty remarkable.
Less remarkable is the styling transformation of the next generation E-Class; hardly surprising in the context of its ultra-conservative customer core. 12mm longer, 32mm wider, 18mm lower and with a wheelbase 20mm longer than its predecessor, the new car is handsome enough, though unlikely to blow any ocular frocks up.
The front constitutes an appropriately careful evolution of the familiar, four headlamp layout, with the addition of ice hockey stick-shaped running lights located, strangely, where you'd expect to find fog lamps rather than serving as bling headlamp eye-liner in the manner of many rivals. In profile, a vestigial rear wheel arch blister paying homage to Mercedes' 1953 'Ponton' is the only possible cause for disquiet, whilst the rump is entirely predictable. Those in need of a 'sportier' image, then, should see the mutton-dressed-as-a banana CLS for details.
However, in a move of not inconsiderable cunning, clearly conjured out of revenge for the hijacking of its long-standing status as primary purveyor of hackney carriages to Germany's cabbing classes, Mercedes has imbued the E-Class with an astonishingly low drag coefficient of just 0.25, instantly relegating Toyota's new Prius hybrid to no more than joint first place in the world's-most-aerodynamically-efficient car stakes. And the impending gleam of an E-Class coupe boasting Cd 0.24 should salt the wounds nicely.
On board, customer-conscious caution is equally evident; the emphasis clearly on instant familiarity, comfort and quality rather than flamboyance. Again, this is largely successful, though you'll need to dissuade the massage system from throbbing like a freshly hammered thumb and dial out all the lumbar adjustment to find true driver's seat comfort. Perceived quality is somewhat let down by electric seat adjustment of near-trebuchet violence and inaccuracy, clumsy trim detailing around the steering column recess and one particular dull 'wood' finish that appears to have been squeezed out of a tube and then smoothed into place with a cake-icing spatula.
Destined to replace the current E 220 CDI as the UK best-seller, the £30,413 E 250 CDI quietly demonstrates new-found degrees of dynamic competence without ever deigning to actually entertain. Via Mercedes' admirably smooth but ageing five-speed automatic transmission, a threatened 0-62mph time of 7.4 seconds feels somewhat optimistic despite 369lb.ft of available torque, and the turbo diesel becomes surprisingly vocal when worked hard.Why, one wonders, no seven-speed box for a potential best-seller? However, a brief drive of the lesser, 168bhp model confirms a marked performance improvement over the 220 CDI which, in time-honoured E-Class fashion, still couldn't pull a new-age traveller off your sister.
Even buffeted by gale force Spanish launch venue winds, the car remains super tanker stable at cruising speeds. Variable ratio steering does precisely what it says on the tin, but isn't exactly garrulous when it comes to the communication of information.The ride, abetted by a new, mechanical adaptive damping system, is appropriately cosseting but not entirely bullet proof; a tendency to bounce somewhat enthusiastically over rapidly undulating surfaces suggests an occasional loss of damper control, and ultimately it may prove to be seats rather than suspension which spare occupants the worst British roads have to offer.
Time spent behind the wheel of the E 350 CGI confirms that Mercedes' glorious new 288bhp, 3.5 litre, direct-injection V6 feels a quieter, quicker, far classier bedfellow for the new bodyshell.Via an entirely oleaginous, seven-speed automatic box with steering wheel-mounted paddle override, the E Class may be hustled along with surprising poise at some pace, the big car clearly relishing the provision of proper petrol power. To paraphrase a South African off-road specialist I once encountered in Namibia; 'Quort imbressif'.
All of which brings us back to the ecstasy of button stabbing required for a brief trawl through the more interesting of those myriad safety systems.
A windscreen-head mounted camera governs Lane Keeping Assist, Night View Assist Plus and Speed Limit Assist, the latter system not coming to the UK because it can't read our speed limit signs. Shunning the buttock trembling seat antics adopted by Citroen, the lane keeping system knocks three times on the steering wheel -eliciting precisely the feeling of running over cat's eyes- if you drift over a white line without indicating, thus, ironically, promoting bad motorway driving practice by penalising you for not indicating when you pull back in after overtaking.
Night View Assist Plus we've already sampled in the S-Class.Here, an improved system highlights pedestrians with markings akin to those of a camera viewfinder. It works, but the screen is mounted so far out of the driver's line of sight I can't help feeling that efforts to identify him may occasionally cause the object of attention to adopt involuntary bonnet mascot status in the mean time.
Adaptive Highbeam Assist works superbly, automatically adjusting the main beam throw to the presence of other vehicles, whether coming or going. And Attention Assist boasts the measuring of over 70 parameters - but largely steering input - to determine that a driver is becoming drowsy, then suggesting a stop with an aural 'bong' and a steaming cup of coffee symbolised in the speedometer…Starbucks sponsorship cannot be far off.
Back in the days before a Mercedes was built to a budget it would have been easier to comprehend such lavish expenditure on electronic trickery. Today, with the traditional E-Class staples of comfort, build quality, durability and reliability of far greater concern to its core customer base, only time will tell if so much money has been wisely spent.