Saturday, June 22, 2024

2024 Mercedes-Benz E-Class First Drive Review: Driven to distraction

AGOURA HILLS, Calif – The list of advanced driver assist systems available in the all-new 2024 Mercedes-Benz E-Class is roughly longer than the entire list of every feature in a 190E from 1990. Don’t worry, I’m not going to list them (snooze), but it’s definitely a good thing they’re present to prevent you from drifting into the path of 18-wheelers because the rest of this state-of-the-art Benz seems intent on distracting the hell out of you.

There’s the new “Superscreen,” the slightly less screeny sibling of the EQS “Hyperscreen.” In its Superest form, it boasts multiple layouts for Mercedes’ new 3D instrument panel, a well-sorted landscape-oriented main touchscreen and a passenger-side screen that doubles as dash art when no passenger is present to futz about with it (and possibly barf upon it should they pay too much attention on a winding road, just a warning). There’s 64-color “active” ambient lighting arcing around the dash with multi-color presets that subtly change as you drive along, or a new innovation, pulse with the beat of the music playing. This “Sound Visualization” function also responds to people talking on apodcast, which is amusing. That music can be played through a magnificent Burmester 4D surround sound system, complete with Dolby Atmos. The “4D” bit refers to subwoofers in the front seats (that can massage you, by the way) with bass intensity that can be adjusted on a scale of 1 to 10. If you dislike shaky vision, I’d steer clear of 10, but after five days on level 4, I have a sneaking suspicion every other car’s system will be a bit underwhelming. Oh, and the entire car is a shrine of silence, removing you further from the world around its ADAS-protected confines.

No doubt, some of you reading this are rolling your eyes, thinking Mercedes has lost the plot, and wondering why I’m not talking about the sweet mild-hybrid inline-six that returned 34 mpg on a highway journey despite pumping out 375 horsepower. Or the new rear-axle steering system that improves the big E’s agility around tight corners, or the height-adjustable, adaptive air suspension that does a bang-up job of providing classic Benz waft when you want it and modern Benz precision when you want that. There’s definitely no shortage of things to talk about in regards to how this next-generation E-Class drives.

And yet, when we’re talking about luxury cars these days, it’s quite obvious that the quality of show the car puts on is of paramount importance to the people who buy them. As much as we romanticize grand tours of stunning vistas while enjoying the sensations provided by a great automobile (which the 2024 Mercedes E-Class is, by the way), the reality is gridlock on a Thursday or driving two miles to dinner with the Goldbergs on Saturday. The “show” does matter. The distraction does matter. And yes, the vast safety net matters, too, even if you’re inclined to uncheck a few nanny boxes.

Whether you consider the above features “show” or “distraction,” some have admittedly been seen before, especially in the EQS. However, there are genuine innovations, making this E-Class seem a bit more relevant than the last generation that seemed to adopt more from the S above and C below in terms of features and design. This one is more of its own thing, not unlike past generations. Many of those innovations were mentioned above, but there are more. The new “Routines” function lets you create programs like a “Date Night,” for instance, that plays a certain playlist and changes the interior lighting to pink, or that automatically performs a series of actions if certain conditions are met: “Turn on the heated seats and set ambient lighting to red if the temperature is below 50 degrees.” In the future, Mercedes intends for AI to come up with such routines for you.

Don’t worry, it gets even more HAL 9000. Perhaps the most 2024 innovation of them all is a camera sprouting from the dash, not unlike a Porsche’s SportChrono clock, intended for in-car WebEx meetings or shooting TikToks. You mercifully cannot use it while driving and users must grant the car permission to turn it on. Mercedes says it will not activate without driver knowledge or consent, but that doesn’t mean having a digital eyeball constantly staring back at you isn’t a bit unnerving.

From a traditional luxury car standpoint, the new E-Class cabin boasts beautiful materials and a cleaner design than before that creates the sensation of a lower dashboard. The airvents in particular are lovely in appearance and execution, with little direction knobs that pleasingly click at center. You can keep your silly touchscreen-controlled vents, thank you. The Superscreen is shown in the attached pictures, but without that option checked and therefore without the dubiously useful passenger screen, all that piano black screen surround is replaced by one of several beautiful trim choices, including a snazzy wood trim with backlit Mercedes stars. You can also get the full-O-stars grille fully illuminated, too. Seriously, Mercedes-Benz sure loves themselves the wonders of LED lighting. So do 3-year-old boys. Ask me how I know.

In terms of space, the new E-Class’ wheelbase has grown by 0.4 inch, while legroom in both rows increases by roughly the same amount. Mercedes still positions its seats on the low side, meaning tall drivers must push their seat further back (rather than tilting the front up) than in BMWs or other brands, so back seat space depends a bit more than usual on who’s up front. Mercedes says trunk capacity is 19 cubic feet, which is theoretically gigantic for a sedan, but I strongly suspect that figure includes the underfloor storage area. The regular trunk compartment is still quite large for a luxury sedan, capable of swallowing all six bags of my standard luggage test (look for the full test next Monday), but it ain’t 19 cubes.

Despite its ample dimensions, the new E does not drive big. The aforementioned rear-wheel steering, which turns up to 4.5 degrees versus the Disney-ride 10 of the EQS, certainly aids that perception around hairpins and when parking, but it never feels like a big, bruising Benz from behind the wheel. It’s manageable. And although I already mentioned how impressive the Airmatic suspension is at making the E-Class a two-way player when it comes to ride and handling, the steering could use a tweak. This is the rare car where I set everything to Sport, except the steering, which I left in Comfort. There’s too much effort added for Sport, which dilutes the limited feedback you feel from the front wheels. Comfort basically feels more like the light but precise steering I recall so fondly in the W212 E-Class (2010-2016).

There are two models/engines available in the United States, at least for now (casts eyes in the direction of Affalterbach), both of which are tied to standard 4Matic all-wheel drive and a well-sorted nine-speed automatic that could nevertheless use a Sport+ setting to sharpen its downshift responses under braking and delaying upshifts when accelerating. They also share the same 48-volt mild-hybrid system with a motor that contributes 23 hp and 148 pound-feet of torque to the gas burner. The E 350’s is a 2.0-liter turbocharged inline-four good for 255 hp, 295 lb-ft of torque and a 6.1-second 0-60 sprint. It returns an EPA-estimated 24 mpg city, 33 mpg highway and 27 mpg combined. For what it’s worth, the V6-powered E 350 4 Matic from a decade ago got 27 mpg on the highway.

I tested the new E 450, which has a 3.0-liter turbocharged inline-six good for 375 hp, 369 lb-ft and a 4.4-second 0-60 sprint. Its fuel economy falls to 22 mpg city, 31 mpg highway and 25 mpg combined, but I saw 27 mpg in 270 miles of mixed driving, including lots of max-attack canyon roads and that 34-mpg jaunt to and from Santa Barbara on Highway 101. Admittedly, the 3.0-liter does feel a bit slow compared to the all-electric EQE and BMW i5, but by ICE standards, this one’s a peach that accelerates in a smooth, authoritative manner perfectly suited to an E-Class. You can even hear the sweet thrum of the inline-six through all that sound deadening. Given the efficiency I saw, I wouldn’t hesitate to step up to the higher model.

And what’s the damage for doing so? E 450 pricing starts at $69,250, including destination, versus the $63,450 E 350. Apart from the extra cylinders, feature content is identical, including showpieces like the panoramic sunroof, 64-color ambient lighting and two of the three available dash screens. You have to pay extra for the instruments to be 3D and the Burmester sound system to be 4D, plus the TikTok cam, passenger screen, leather seating surfaces and AirMatic suspension. Just to name a few. With all of the above, my E 450 hit the register at $87,920. Is that too expensive? In 2024, I’m less sure of that than what exactly I’m supposed to do with the TikTok camera.

But for that money, the new E-Class will definitely put on one helluva a show for your friends and family. It’ll also deliver a beautifully sorted driving experience – if you’re still into that sort of thing.

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