Whiz-Bang Kid

Last fall, I had an opportunity to drive a 1992 Mercedes-Benz 300E, a modern classic about which I, perhaps a bit grandiosely, concluded,

In many ways, the 300E feels a lot like a modern car, and to Mercedes’ credit, a very good, very expensive modern car…. It lacks, however, the conveniences and electronic geegaws of a modern luxury car; its luxury is found in the quality of the materials and assembly and in the utterly intuitive and functional way it performs all the basic functions of driving, assuming that you, the driver, are intelligent enough to look up directions before heading out to points unknown, that you don’t need to talk on a telephone while driving, that you can check your own blind spots, apply your own brakes, and exercise sensible judgement in the operation of a fast, heavy, deadly machine. Perhaps its greatest luxury is the respect with which it greets you; you and the 300E are equal partners in the act of driving.

25 years and four generations on, that 300E has begat the new-for-2017 E300 (incidentally, the lowest numerical designation worn by an E-Class in the U.S. market since the letters and numbers switched places on the badges in 1994), and driving the descendant proved instructive about how the new-car market—and what Mercedes-Benz sees as its place in that market—has changed in that time.

Obviously, the 2017 E-Class will give you directions on the fly, it will warn you if there’s someone in your blind spot (a system I had never used before, and one which, I discovered, is completely pointless if you adjust your mirrors properly—and then use them), and it will apply the brakes for you if it’s not satisfied with your judgement—theoretically, at least; I didn’t try it out.

It will also give you a hot stone massage, spritz a little parfum to negate unpleasant cabin odors, beep very loudly at random intervals while flashing something on the instrument panel much too quickly for you to tell what it is, tell you how much a gallon of premium costs at that gas station coming up, and occasionally decide that you’re not paying enough attention to the road and ostentatiously ask if you want it to find you the nearest rest stop. It will also allegedly park itself, although apparently it will only do so on freshly paved and painted surfaces; I tried it twice, and on neither occasion could the car find the lines demarcating the parking spots. E300s more lavishly equipped than my $61,375 example will even drive themselves, more or less, under certain circumstances.

The old, W124-generation 300E that I drove last year, first introduced in 1986 as Daimler-Benz was celebrating its 100th anniversary, was essentially a single-purpose car, designed and built to provide efficient and comfortable transport for normal-sized humans that they could rely upon for many years, and it achieved that purpose flawlessly. Mercedes-Benz in the 1980s was hardly out of touch or behind the times—the company was well ahead of the curve on aerodynamics, for example—but the world’s oldest automaker restricted itself to this relatively narrow focus pretty much across its entire lineup. Advances in design and technology were obsessively oriented toward better achieving these goals.

It was left to others to experiment with whiz-bang new features—and those others didn’t usually include Mercedes’ primary European competitors in the ’80s, either. Instead, it was the oft-derided American companies, especially General Motors, or Japanese automakers—who had yet to produce an internationally viable, true luxury car at that point—who experimented with things like digital instrument panels, steering-wheel mounted redundant controls, and even early touchscreen infotainment systems—things that did little to improve the build quality, fuel efficiency, or long-term durability of these cars, but which did make them feel up-to-the-minute to consumers in a way that a Mercedes, for all its timelessness, did not.

As rising American prosperity and more favorable trade conditions democratized the market for import-branded luxury cars in the 1990s—the base price of the E-Class only rose $1,150 between 1990 and 2000, from $45,950 to $47,100 (after jumping over $10,000 between the W124’s introduction in 1986 and the dawn of the ’90s), while the average annual income of a college-educated American rose by about $17,000—many of the tech-savvy consumers who bought those early digital-era Pontiacs, Nissans, and Oldsmobiles started trading up, and the extent to which they preferred the new, more tech-laden Japanese luxury brands prompted a sea change among the European old guard, especially Mercedes. The days of obsessive focus were over.

The new E-Class is not the single-purpose car that its ancestors were. It is still, thanks to the engine layout du jour, a 2.0-litre turbocharged inline four, efficient—I saw about 25 miles per gallon in a day of mostly non-freeway, spirited driving—and comfortable, and seems well-built, if a little less substantial. A lot of that loss of substance, though, has to do with computerization and the attendant loss of feel and, most importantly in a German luxobarge, heft in the driver’s primary controls. The richness and quality of the cabin materials and switchgear remains sublime, even when equipped with the famously durable MB-Tex leatherette as in my tester. In addition to these traditional virtues, the E300 now leads its class in superfluous electronic whizbangery.

It can also dance in ways that its predecessors weren’t engineered to. This is the upside of computerization; while puttering in the stop-and-go of San Francisco, I navigated through the COMAND infotainment system to set the steering, transmission, and suspension to their “Comfort” and “Eco” settings, giving the car a relaxed, efficiency-oriented character in those crowded confines. As we motored south down the peninsula into more open territory, I switched to the “Sport” and “Sport+” settings, which subtly but perceptibly woke the car up. The turbo four growled happily under acceleration, which proved more than adequate when the passing lane beckoned. The car’s grip through hairpin and sweeping curves alike, culminating in just a hint of oversteer in this rear-driven example, was confidence inspiring and even fun—a word that doesn’t really apply to the sternly competent driving character of the W124. Also a confidence booster when things get twisty: the adaptive seat bolsters, which hold the driver’s body in place by pushing counter to the gravitational forces generated under cornering, eliminating the feeling of flailing about that can inhibit zesty driving when the seats aren’t up to a car’s capabilities.

Nobody said superfluous whizbangery was all bad. The massage was aces, too.

Mercedes has, of late, received a lot of praise for the style of its cars, both inside and out, and the new E-Class is definitely possessed of more flash than its somber ancestor. The E’s classic rear-wheel drive proportions have stayed remarkably consistent over the years, with only an unfortunate upward hike of the beltline nodding to trends, but the detailing has gotten much swoopier without compromising good taste, sensible packaging, or aerodynamic optimization. The new E300 is handsome, but I suspect I’d like it a lot better if the S- and especially C-Class sedans didn’t look nearly identical.

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The first impression of the interior is one of loveliness, but over time one begins to wonder if humans’ birdlike fascination with shiny things has blinded us just a bit because, boy, is it shiny in there. Selecting one of the matte-finish wood options might help, but there are also large swaths of piano black trim on the console, optimally placed for maximum dust, crumb, and fingerprint accumulation. The ambient lighting emanating from underneath the wood on the doors and dash can be changed to just about any color on the spectrum via the COMAND system—you can even indulge the kiddies by giving the rear doors a different color than the rest of the car, in case their tastes run to lime green and yours to hot pink—but I’m not sure there’s a color out there that doesn’t look at least a little bit gaudy. The speaker grilles for the optional Burmester stereo are works of art, however, and the knurled aluminum toggle switches arrayed above the analog clock are as satisfying to the touch as they are delightful to the eye.

The aforementioned Tex upholstery renders leather completely superfluous, and the front seats are extremely comfortable and supportive. Getting into the rear seat, though, was a jarring experience; while room is perfectly adequate, as my butt plopped down onto the rear seat cushion, I had the distinct sensation of going right through a very thin layer of padding to an unyielding, punishingly flat surface underneath. I didn’t have a chance to ride back there, and given one, I don’t think I’d want to take it.

The COMAND infotainment interface proved relatively easy for me to pick up, but I’m also a regular user of BMW’s similar iDrive system. Frankly, I prefer iDrive’s concentration of redundant buttons around the control knob to the Benz’s row of buttons surrounding the clock, a far enough reach from the main controller and low enough on the center stack that I had been driving and using the system for a couple of hours before I realized that the redundant controls were even there. The speed and resolution of the large color display—actually the smaller of two available screens, the larger of which extends to encompass the gauge cluster as well—was impressive.

The demands of the rapid growth of the luxury car market over the last quarter-century have pushed many automakers toward new definitions of themselves, for better (Cadillac and Jaguar, although it would be nice if sales bore the improvement out) and for worse (*COUGH*BMW*COUGH, COUGH*). Mercedes-Benz is no different; count me as a fan of the E300’s newfound athleticism, and appreciative of those electronic aids that make the drive more engaging (the selectable chassis settings, the adaptive seats, and, uh, the atomizer, I guess), but I don’t have much use for most of the other gimcrackery and remain skeptical of the long-term value of these features as they break or become obsolete. Nevertheless, the extent to which this new E-Class embodies the virtues of its ancestors while also convincingly making a case for itself on new virtues is pretty remarkable.

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