The latest-generation Mercedes-Benz E-Class models are generally more angular than their predecessors, with sharper creases. Automotive styling is a subjective process, to be sure, but this latest E-Class has been lauded from many corners for its character and pleasing design.
Besides the familiar sedan and wagon, the line-up includes an E-Class Coupe and Cabriolet (or convertible), which replace cars that had been known as the CLK since the mid-1990s. All E-Class models share the same underpinnings, and nearly identical exterior dimensions.
Styling for all E-Class variants is quite similar, too, at least from the windshield forward. Every design cue, panel, lamp and piece of glass was changed for 2010. And although they tend to look bigger than their predecessors, more like Mercedes' premium S-Class, they really aren't. The new E-Class variants share a larger grille, and a new trapezoidal headlamp array with multiple elements and square corners instead of the traditional E-Class oval lamps.
From the windshield back, the new E-Class models differ, of course. The two-door Coupe's roof flows more evenly than the sedans, with a less prominent notch where the rear glass tapers downward. Yet all variants share a set of four lines rising from front to rear in or on the body. Rear lamps are similar on Coupe and sedan, as are the rectangular exhaust tips built into the bumpers, rather than hung below them.
Mercedes designers took great pains managing airflow through, under and around the E-Class, producing a sedan with a drag coefficient of only 0.25, despite its big, brawny appearance. That makes the E-Class the most aerodynamically efficient four-door car in the world, according to Mercedes. The company claims that the Coupe's Cd of just 0.24 is the best overall figure for any series-production car anywhere. Other things equal, a lower coefficient of drag means less interior noise and better fuel mileage.
The E-Class wagon is offered in Sport trim. That means a bolder three-bar grille, more aggressively flared rocker panels and perforated front brake discs with painted calipers, visible through five-spoke 17-inch wheels. The wagon's roof creates a dramatic teardrop shape in profile, with LED taillights that wrap around the rear corners of the car.
The E-Class Cabriolet comes closest in appearance to the Coupe. The lower half of the body of the E550 Cabriolet is designed by AMG, Mercedes' partner in high performance, and its sleek edginess reflects that attitude. The power convertible soft top is one inch thick, and performs like a hard top, so well insulated that it actually dampens sound more effectively than the steel roof on the coupe, according to Mercedes. It lowers and rises in 17 seconds.
The lines of the soft top are not as sleek as the lower half of the car. The rear glass is not expansive, so it could fit in the trunk without taking up too much space. This means more area of fabric around the window, making it look thickish back there, losing some of the beauty of the Coupe. And for all its edges in the sheetmetal toward the front of the car, it has fairly round hips, especially noticeable in the Cabriolet.
Though redesigned for 2010, the E-Class cabin retains enough Mercedes-style interior appointments to make it comfortably familiar to previous E-Class owners.
Seat-shaped seat controls high on the door panels and seat heating/cooling controls at the very bottom of the center stack make it easy to adjust important things quickly. Textures and color schemes are familiar Mercedes, too. With the darker interior colors and standard burl walnut trim, the E-Class can create a slightly somber tone inside. Yet in all cases the cabin exudes a classy, understated elegance.
The dashboard in all E-Class variants is identical. The forward door panels and center console are similar as well, though they're trimmed a bit differently depending on the model and equipment ordered.
Mercedes' familiar three-gauge instrument cluster has been supplanted by a package of five analog gauges, including two pairs that overlap each other. All are exceptionally crisp and easy to read at a glance. Nonetheless, the E-Class dash is dominated by something Mercedes calls its COMAND system, which sits front and center at the top of the center stack.
COMAND is a seven-inch color display screen with standard in-dash, six-disc CD/DVD changer and a Bluetooth interface that allows phones to be operated through the car's audio system, even if they remain in a purse or pocket. Using a point-and-click controller on the center console, this central display can be controlled by either the driver or front passenger to adjust audio and other functions. Most features, including climate controls, can be adjusted with their own separate switches lower in the center stack. The COMAND display also shows the optional navigation screen, the back-up camera image, and the night vision infrared display. It comes with its own 212-page manual.
The E-Class sedan front seats are quite comfortable and supportive, but the sportier seats found in the Coupe and Cabriolet might be on the firm side for long stints at the wheel. There's plenty of adjustment in the seats and steering wheel to accommodate nearly any sized driver. The Sport steering wheel is lovely, wrapped in stitched leather, with buttons to control audio and phone and driver information. The center spokes showed off a graceful and delicate design, with indents for your thumbs, a perfect fit. Much thought went into this steering wheel.
Mercedes' familiar stalk-mounted cruise-control switch remains, and it still looks too much like, and is too easily mistaken for, the turn-signal lever. The new gear selector is a lot like a turn signal, too, on the right side of the steering column. E-Class cars ordered in Sport trim have nicely shaped paddles behind the steering-wheel spokes for manual gear selection.
All E-Class variants come standard with new active safety features. The big-ticket item is Attention Assist, which constantly monitors up to 70 driving parameters to determine whether the driver is getting drowsy behind the wheel. If it decides a driver is at risk of dozing, Attention Assist uses both visual and auditory warnings to tell the driver to pull over, get some rest, or get a cup of coffee.
The Distronic Plus cruise control option is offered with both blind-spot warning and lane-departure warning systems built in. An intelligent self-adjusting headlamp system uses cameras to detect both oncoming cars and the traffic ahead, and raises and lowers the headlamp beams accordingly. The idea is to put the most light on the road most of the time, without disturbing other drivers. The new Intelligent Nightview option throws infrared light in front of the car and then uses high-resolution video cameras to spot the higher temperatures coming from otherwise invisible pedestrians and animals.
The middle seat in back of the E-Class sedan is reasonably comfortable for a small-to-medium-sized adult on a short trip. The outboard rear seats in the four-seat E-Class Coupe and Cabriolet are actually a bit more inviting than those in the sedan, even though they're more difficult to climb into in the absence of rear doors. The Coupe and Cabriolet's rear seats offer marginal legroom, and they're more sportier than those in the sedan.
Neither interior nor cargo space in the new-generation E-Class have changed significantly; they are about the same as the previous model's, and the car can be ordered with split folding rear seats for additional cargo flexibility.
Trunk capacity at 15.9 cubic feet remains at the top of the class, matching the Audi A6, and surpassing the BMW 5 Series (14.0), Acura TL (13.1 cubic feet), and Lexus GS (12.7). The E-Class Coupe has as much trunk volume as the sedan.
The E350 wagon expands cargo capacity even further, and its standard all-wheel drive and self-leveling rear air suspension allow a substantial towing capacity of some 2,500 pounds. The wagon features a power-fold mechanism that lowers the split rear seatbacks with buttons near the tailgate, as well as an automatic tailgate that can memorize a desired opening height. The wagons come standard with a folding third seat in the cargo area.
The E-Class Cabriolet has good trunk space for a convertible. Even with the top down, there's room for two bags of golf clubs. That's almost the whole point of the soft top. Trunk space and less weight is the reason for the soft top, rather than hard top like all the others are doing. A soft top also allows more room for the rear seats. If it can do what a hard top can do, it's a winner.
The soft top for the E550 Cabriolet introduces a big blind spot made by the roofline where it drops down to the rear quarter panels. Visibility out the backlight in the rearview mirror is also tight, because of the small rear glass and the screen to block the wind into the cabin when the top is down; it doesn't lower all the way. The structure of the top is so sturdy, and its motor so strong, that the top can be raised with the car traveling 25 mph, for when the rain comes fast and you can't pull over.
The Cabriolet's AIRCAP is especially inventive. It has 20 patents and 211 parts, and has been tested in the wind tunnel at 150 mph with the wind full of bugs. We got our E550 Cabriolet out on a high-speed two-lane, open and remote like a Nevada road, and opened her up on a hot day. The AIRCAP, along with the rear screen, works to screen out buffeting. Its mesh allows some air to pass, thus reducing cabin pressure and with it wind noise.