New coupe blends power, styling and technology
Can even an excellent car be too complicated for its own good?
The engineers at Mercedes-Benz know they are approaching that limit with the COMMAND multimedia center installed in its new cars, including the 2010 E350 coupe we recently tested.
The system operates the navigation, entertainment, communication and programming functions. It includes a display screen, control unit and combination joystick-dial mounted on the center console.
The system is so sophisticated it comes with its own 218-page operator's manual. Every time the car starts, the display screen lights up with a warning that says, 'Do not let COMMAND district you from the traffic situation.'
The warning is justified. Switching between functions requires the driver to take their eyes off the road and glance, however quickly, at the screen, which recessed in the center of the dash. And even simple changes, like switching CDs, requires multiple steps.
Fortunately, there is an easy way to minimize the confusion - set the system where you want it before leaving the driveway. If you want to listen to CDs, the player holds up to six. AM, FM, satellite stations and iPod/MP3 connections are also available. And the navigation maps are no more confusing than those offered by any other manufacturer.
The rewards of eliminating the distractions are immediate and immense. Put simply, the E350 is a joy to drive - solid, comfortable, powerful and precise. The doors close with a reassuring thud, the supportive leather seats seem infinitely adjustable, the power train is silky smooth, the steering is quick and direct, the ride is rock solid, and the four-wheel disc brakes inspire confidence.
The 3.5-liter, 24-valve, 268 horsepower V6 that came in our test car deserves special mention. It may be the best V6 available today, bar none. Mated to a smooth-shifting seven-speed automatic transmission, the engine feels perfect at both low and high speeds. In the manual mode, the steering wheel-mounted shift paddles provide spirited driving on twisty roads.
Far more powerful engines are available in the E-Series, including two V8s. Buyers should compare them to the V6, however, before deciding whether they are worth the additional price.
The suspension is also worth noted. Although coupes are generally intended to be sportier than sedans, the road-handling abilities of the E350 are nothing short of amazing. It is firm without being hard, supple without being soft. Pushing it hard through corners is easy - especially consider that the mid-size Mercedes is still a fairly large car. Although two different suspension settings are available - comfort and sport - the differences are not obvious at low speeds, which is a good thing. Even the comfort mode feels sporty in day-to-day drive. The sports mode comes into its own at higher speeds on windy roads.
Mercedes has long been famous for building sophisticated luxury cars, of course. For most of its history, company designers ignored contemporary design trends in favor of formal, squared-off lines. No more, though. All new Mercedes cars and SUVs are now thoroughly up-to-date, sleek and bold bordering on aggressive, and the E-350 is no exception. The huge air dam angles back into a widely-slotted grill. The flanks rise up to squeeze the side windows into slits, while the wrap-around rear end looks more Asian than European.
In contrast, the interior is deceptively simple. The dash is clean and functional. The large analog gauges are easy to read and basic controls like temperature, fan speed and music volume are logically located. The high quality plastic in our test model was tastefully set of with simple walnut wood trim pieces that carried over to the door panels. Unlike the smaller C-Class cars, the E350 had plenty of shoulder room, although the Panorama Sunroof cut into the forward head room.
For a coupe with a sharply reclining roof line, the back seat was more than adequate for two adult on long trips. The feeling of roominess was enhanced by the sunroof that extends well into the back seat area. Access is a little tricky, of course, but helped by the fact that the front seats fold down further than those in many other two-doors.
Mercedes is currently advertising some of the new safety features on the E-Class, including systems that look out for signs of driver drowsiness or automatically stop the car is a front-end crash seems inevitable. Fortunately, we didn't them. The Tire Pressure Monitoring System did accurately warn us that a few of tires were low, however - something that was hard to see, given their low profiles.
Such quality comes at a price, of course. The E-350 starts at $48,050 and options pushed our test model to $54,995. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also estimates fuel economy at just 20 miles per gallon, although that is not out of line for premium mid-size cars.
Facts and figures
• Test Model: 2010 E350.
• Manufacturer: Mercedes-Benz.
• Class: Mid-size.
• Layout: Front engine, rear-wheel-drive and all-wheel-drive.
• Style: Four-passenger coupe.
• Power train: 3.5-liter DOHC V6 (268 hp, 258 lbs-ft); 5.5-liter DOHC V8 (382 hp, 391 ft-lb); 6.2-liter DOHC V8 (507 hp, 465 ft-lbs); 3.0-liter turbodiesel V6 (210 hp, 400 ft-lbs).
• Transmissions: 5-speed automatic; 7-speed automatic.
• EPA estimated city/highway mileage: 17/26 (as tested).
• Price: Beginning at approximately $48,000 (price as tested $54,995).