With the new E-Class, Mercedes-Benz is doing its best to get beyond the “middle child” reputation that most cars in this class seem to have. Neither fish nor fowl, mid-sized Euro sedans (e.g. 5-Series, A6 and S-Type) have lacked the sportiness of their smaller brethren, while also giving up the luxury and presence of the parent company’s flagship sedan. In the case of Mercedes-Benz, we thought the last generation E-Class was rather bland and characterless.
So, when we found ourselves liking the new E350 Sport quite a bit, we were pleasantly surprised. It is still a middle of the road kind of car, but this time M-B dialed in some attractions for the driver that greatly helped us make sense of the car. If you want a good daily driver, not a four-door sports car, this one is worth a look.
Let’s start with size. In our post-financial-apocalypse world, the E350 seems more like the appropriate size for a big luxury car than it did before. That’s partially because the decadence of the S-Class and even the decadence of a V-8 seem a bit outré. It’s also because M-B has made the interior of the E-Class enough roomier that you’d be hard pressed to say your rear passengers need more space unless they’re well above average height. The E-Class covers the current 5-Series, the A6, and the Jaguar XF in interior room too. Not by much, but the difference is noticeable. So, middle of the road size now looks “just right” if you really want a four-adult sedan.
Along with this slightly larger interior, Mercedes offers a new Drive Dynamic Multicontour Driver Seat (at least they don’t call it DDMDS). This might seem like a small matter, but honestly seats don’t get enough respect (or hate) for their impact on the driving experience. Fortunately, the multicontour seats really work for this car. Not to get too geeky, but these seats are easy to get into, the side bolsters can be adjusted to gently hug various size torsos, the seat bottom length is comfortably adjustable and the overall firmness is supportive and comfy for long distances. Most seats only nail 2 or 3 of those items. We liked the retro look and the massage feature too (it sounds like a waste, but it helps circulation on road trips to a useful degree). Only the lumbar adjustment could be better shaped (note to M-B: copy the shape from the GLK).
When it comes to over the road performance, we enjoyed the E350 Sport. Handling is balanced, though understeer is the terminal condition and comes about a little more easily than it would on the 5-Series or the XF. Body roll is kept in check nicely, though a 5-Series with active roll stabilization is in another league on this score. Steering feel is acceptable too, though we thought the boost was a little high (too light) and feedback felt on the low side. Initial bite on turn-in could be higher, but the current setup probably suits the fun-to-drive luxury car concept better. Overall, the E350 felt like a willing and communicative partner, whereas some of the competition initially seems sportier but ends up being somewhat wooden and characterless.
The E350 Sport and its’ competitors offer an interesting insight into the different chassis tuning philosophies of the big Euro brands. The E350 has moderately firm springing, but damping is on the low side. Significant roll control is applied. Such a setup yields good handling, a magic carpet primary ride and a decent secondary ride. The car feels controllable, but a little disconnected. And it can get a little out of sorts when pushed really hard. BMWs apply more damping and thus feel more controllable, though maybe not quite as luxurious. The Audi A6 applies even more firmness and damping, but loses some ride quality. Audi’s fundamentally FWD architecture also reduces the sense of control a bit. And, intriguingly, the Jaguar XF goes for M-B style springing but firmer than BMW damping, yet marries this with the least roll control of the group. The Jag seems optimized for pace over bumpy roads (e.g. English B roads). The Mercedes, BMW and Jaguar approaches especially seem to have their role, but this is a case where interested buyers should definitely test the match of the suspension set up to local conditions. Horses for courses, as they say.
The E350’s enjoyable ride/handling balance gets some solid support from the superb combination of 3.5-liter V-6 and 7-speed autobox (which can be manually shifted via nicely shaped steering wheel paddles, but not via the console). The V-6 has enough torque to make the E350 feel responsive in daily driving and the transmission is so close to seamless that you explore the range of the engine more easily than in other cars where pace and smoothness are harder to combine. The BMW turbo six and the Jag 5.0-liter V-8 (and Mercedes 5.5-liter V-8) will trounce the E350 coming off a corner or in a straight line, but for many drivers that difference is academic. These cars won’t be smoother and more controllable in daily use.
Unfortunately, as nice to drive in cruise and carve mode as the E350 engine/transmission combination is, it also reveals a surprising technological wart. This V-6 doesn’t have direct injection, and the result is that the fuel economy on offer is less than ideal. City economy is listed at 18 miles per gallon (26 highway), and we just got to that number in mixed city/highway driving. But while the 15 percent improvement that DI would likely bring might be nice (and would help make the E350 more competitive), this car really wants the V-6 Bluetec diesel that was in the old E-Class and is surely coming to this one. With monster torque and impressive highway mileage, this engine suits the car and makes the E550 V-8 seem irrelevant.
For now, though, the E350 Sport does most of what a Mercedes-Benz in this class should do. It looks well-built and conservatively attractive (don’t judge by the pictures), it drives well in a way that is distinctive, and it is comfortable for driver and passenger alike.
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