Jens is one of the few souls on this planet to take a ride in the all-new Mercedes-Benz E-Class, and he finds that it’s positively brimming with new-age technology. Here’s an exclusive glimpse at what to expect from the next generation E.
We’re driving hands-free. The twin-turbocharged V6 is humming under the hood, and it takes just a touch of the column stalk for the steering wheel to move ever so slightly – and for the prototype to cross over into the fast lane. It picks up speed like it’s pulled by a rubber band. Facing the driver is a cockpit with super-wide TFT screens, and futuristic, three-dimensional info-graphics. The chief engineer next to us proclaims boldly: “We’re riding in the most intelligent saloon in the world.”
Autonomous driving meets comfort and performance. We’re tagging along in one of the final prototypes of the new E-Class by Mercedes-Benz. It was flown in for testing in the American Southwest, and we were allowed in for a day in order to sit down with the experts and get a glimpse of the new sedan – which will be fully unveiled at the Detroit auto show in January. Production will ramp up in the first week of January, and before the first cars are delivered to European customers in April, they’ll be reflashed with upgraded software. But not over the air – such a function was discussed, but was ultimately dismissed. Daimler is concerned about the risks of hacking into cars, even if it’s an unlikely menace. For now, software updates are done at the factory and at dealerships.
With the new E-Class, Daimler launches an entirely new electronic architecture – it elevates assistance and telematics systems to another level. The system can do virtually everything that Tesla’s Bosch-enhanced ‘Autopilot’ offers – with a higher level of safety. Daimler’s ‘Drive Pilot’ keeps the E-Class in its lane and at a safe distance from other cars at speeds of up to 210km/h. Up to 130km/h, it doesn’t even need clear lines on the road. It’s disabled on twisty country roads – not because it couldn’t work there, but because the steering effort required to put the car through corners would be so strong that it would render a manual override difficult.
The Drive Pilot in the E-Class requires the driver to periodically stroke a sensor on the left spoke of the steering wheel. But should you fail to do so, the system won’t just throw its proverbial hands up in the air and leave you unattended. It’ll keep you in lane, and bring the car to a safe stop. And there’s more – in sudden evasive manoeuvres, a steering assistant corrects the steering to keep the car stabilised. And the Car-to-X communication that warns drivers of dangers ahead is just the beginning of the brave new world of assisted and autonomous driving.
The new electronics architecture has a second task – it paves the way for a 48-volt system that will enable the integration of mild hybrid modules into the car. Positioned in the transmission, those ‘integrated starter-generators’ can start up the engine unnoticeably, and they can provide a strong power boost. Far cheaper than plug-in-hybrid technologies (and Daimler will have one of those, too), the 48-volt-hybrids represent a relatively cost-effective way to cut consumption, and, thus, emissions.
In Europe, the E-Class launches with a four-cylinder petrol engine, a four-cylinder diesel, and a petrol-powered V6. Down the road, the line-up will be bolstered with entry-level four-bangers, a six-cylinder turbo-diesel, an E450 AMG with a 3.0-litre V6, and the Mercedes-AMG E63 with a 4.0-litre V8 that makes around 600 horsepower. A six-speed manual is standard on low-end versions – every other model comes with a nine-speed automatic. All-wheel drive will be an option as well, and Daimler is planning to bring a plug-in hybrid to market. But a pure electric is not part of the E-Class launch plan.
In California, we drove the E400 with its twin-turbocharged V6 – and the E300, with a twin-turbocharged four. From the passenger seat, even the E300 entry-level powertrain seems agile and responsive, but the E400 clearly takes performance to a higher level.
Daimler managed to cut weight by over 300 kilos, and further improve the aerodynamics – as a result of which, the European entry-level model is expected to reach a drag coefficient of 0.23. A further consequence is the fact that the real-life fuel economy will improve by close to 20%. In both models driven, the suspension tuning is comfortable – as Daimler has aimed to keep the E-Class the most comfortable car in its segment.
But in the twisties, the E-Class doesn’t mind a little play – and it does a good job suppressing body roll. But it is essentially a soothing car. On the highway, the sound of the powertrain virtually disappears. If the silence is too much for you, you’ll appreciate the superb stereo system by Dieter Burmester – with an ultra-sophisticated 3D sound processing function.
Despite the camouflage, the proportions give it away – the E-Class fits right into the newly styled Mercedes line-up, positioned neatly between the C-Class and the S-Class (and perhaps more sophisticated than both). Like on the C-Class, there is a classic grille with an upright star atop the hood, and a sports grille with an SL-like centrally mounted star. We’ll have to see the car without camo to see which look works better.
The interior sets more benchmarks, with massage seats that are a step ahead even of the S-class, and an ultra-modern cockpit. It comes with wide, flat screens that can be configured for a sporty, classic, or ‘progressive’ appearance – we love the latter, which gives you the feeling of piloting a spaceship. And who didn’t always dream of that?