Mercedes adds Sport to Luxury in
By John Gilbert, special to SNS
ST. HELENA, Calif. (SNS) –
The 2007 Mercedes E-Class is the most
refined midsize sedan produced in its 53 years lifespan, but at first
glance, the styling gap is almost imperceptible between the new
seventh-generation model and the current 2006 E-Class.
That prompts the question: Can there be
a new-generation car if there is no generation gap? Or is that the
automotive equivalent of the rhetorical question: If a tree falls in
the woods and nobody is there to hear it, does it really make a sound?
The sound, or more accurately the lack
of sound, is one of the impressive features of the new E-Class, which
has enough significant improvements to justify Mercedes giving it its
own generation, and also to summon a couple of waves of automotive
journalists to the Napa Valley area, 100 miles north of Sacramento, to
examine and drive it – even while acknowledging that the outside
underwent more of a mid-cycle refresh than a redesign.
It didn’t take more than one step on
the gas to appreciate the tremendous power and the firmer handling of
the new E550, but for style, the existing 2006 E-Class certainly won’t
look out of date next to the 2007.
The new car’s grille is slightly
taller, leans back at a steeper angle, and wears a new small Mercedes
emblem just ahead of the traditional Mercedes star hood ornament.
Below the grille is a pointier front bumper – the easiest way to
differentiate the two. If the bumper comes to a distinct point at its
leading edge, it’s the new car.
Taillight lenses have a smoother lens,
which is interesting, because the current style’s grooves were
designed to force airflow and rainwater to clean off the taillights.
New side mirrors have an air-channeling
design to help blow the side windows clear of rain.
The first E-Class sedan was built in
1953, and it evolved into the company’s "bread and butter" car,
particularly in the last dozen, when it usually outsold the more
compact C-Class and the larger S-Class.
The new E reflects Mercedes’ continued
attempt to divide and conquer with the usual Luxury model to satisfy
the discriminating taste of the car’s traditional minions, and adding
a Sport, which will attempt to swipe some performance/luxury customers
from the likes of the BMW 5-Series, Audi A6, Acura RL or TL, Infiniti
M, Lexus GS450h, or Cadillac STS.
Bernhard Glaser, general manager of
product management, said the two-pronged approach with Sport and
Luxury models worked with the C-Class, and led to the same strategy
with the E-Class. He noted that traditional buyers will find all they
expect, plus some added dynamic function, with the Luxury model, while
the Sport model seeks to lure performance buyers who don’t mind a
firmer suspension in exchange for more precise handling.
In reality, both cars do their best to
close even that gap. The Luxury model rides a bit softer but still
handles very well on its new suspension, while the Sport model –
available on either the E350 V6 models or the E550 V8 models --
handles with a flatter attitude on its firmer air-suspension, without
ever approaching harshness, despite riding 1.5 inches lower and on
18-inch alloys compared to the Luxury’s 17s.
Both models benefit
from the new suspension, with asymmetric control arms enhancing
lateral support, and a new steering system, which is 10-percent
more direct in responding. Inside, the Sport gets white gauges,
and two unique interior packages – black bird’s-eye maple trim
instead of the Luxury model’s rich burled walnut.
The Sport also has specific interior
trim, either black with Sahara beige leather seats, or black with
cognac brown leather. The Sport windows have a bluish tint, to
differentiate from the neutral green of the Luxury.
Remarkably, the Sport model costs no
more than the Luxury. In either form, the base price of the E350 is
$50,550, while the E550 will start at $59,000 when it hits the
showrooms in September.
The new V8 engine is the latest gem
from Mercedes, which had gone to a smooth and efficient three-valve
engine system for its V6 and V8 over the past decade, using two intake
valves and one exhaust on each cylinder, operated by a cost-effective
single overhead camshaft on each bank. Last year Mercedes changed to
four-valve heads with dual overhead cams on the V6, and its increase
in power and fuel-efficiency moved close enough to the V8’s
performance to be a wise alternative.
This year, Mercedes has applied the
four-valve, DOHC concept to the 5.5-liter V8 as well, and it makes a
particularly notable difference in the E550.
The new V8 has 382 horsepower – an
increase of 80 horsepower (26 percent) -- and 391 foot-pounds of
torque – an increase of 52 (15 percent). No less than 100 percent of
that torque is available from 2,800-4,800 RPMs, and 75 percent of the
torque can be summoned at 1,000 RPMs, barely above idle. With the
slick seven-speed Mercedes automatic transmission and its
manual-selection capability, the E550 meets or exceeds every
expectation for power.
That E350 V6 now has 268 horsepower and
258 foot-pounds of torque – more than adequate, and the E350’s 0-60
times of 6.5 seconds are not that far off the E550’s 5.4-second
This fall we can look forward to the
same car becoming available as an E320, with a 3.0-liter Bluetec
turbo-diesel, generating 208 horsepower and a startling 388
foot-pounds of torque, with 0-60 times at 6.6 seconds. That patented
Bluetec diesel will thrive on our newly cleaned low-sulfur diesel fuel
being put in place between now and October, and could be a third prong
While we’re at it, we
must also point out a fourth as well, because for the first time,
the in-house AMG performance branch of Mercedes got a chance to
build an engine from a blank sheet, rather than merely modifying a
production engine. The result
is the limited-production E63, extracting 507 horsepower and 465
foot-pounds of torque from 6.3 liters, and
Porsche/Ferrari/Corvette Z-06–like acceleration of 4.3 seconds.
It only took us one stop to marvel at
how quiet the muscular 5.5 V8 runs. I had driven just over an hour
through the scenic, curving roadways in the Northern California
mountain range when we arrived at a restaurant parking lot for a
prescribed rest stop and driver change.
The car has the keyless operation
system, whereby if you have the key in your pocket, the car unlocks
itself as you approach, and you can start it by push-button, on top of
the gearshift lever, which makes me nervous. As I pushed down on the
gearshift’s handgrip button to shut off the engine, I mentioned to my
codriver that it was neat, but it bothered me. On many cars, a very
similar button must be pressed to shift out of park; in this car, that
move kills the engine.
To demonstrate, I pushed the button
down three or four times in a row, at five-second intervals,
alternately starting and shutting down the 5.5-liter V8. As we climbed
out, my codriver asked if the car was still running. "No," I said,
"that’s just the fan, cooling down the engine."
He nodded and said "OK, I just wasn’t
sure." Thermostatic fans run on sometimes, after hard driving, and we
could hear the soft hum as we walked around to the rear of the car,
nodding to three Mercedes officials positioned there.
Inside, we had some coffee and munched
on snacks, and in 15 minutes we were ready to resume our drive
westward, through the redwood-lined mountains to the coast. We stopped
casually to talk to the same three Mercedes folks still standing a few
feet behind our car. Then we climbed inside the E550.
Only then did I notice the, uh, fan
seemed to be still purring along, so I pushed down on the gearshift
knob button. Sure enough, it stopped. The engine had been running the
whole time. It was so quiet-running that both of us drivers, as well
as several Mercedes officials standing just starboard of our
tailpipes, didn’t notice that the engine was running.
Those keyless operation deals, where if
you have the key, you don’t need to use it, either to unlock the doors
or to start the car, concern me for other reasons. I always envision
driving to the airport, jumping out to catch a plane, while turning
the idling car over to my wife or son.
While they’re driving home, I notice
the key is still in my pocket – at 40,000 feet above Denver. I like
the feature of the door automatically unlocking as you approach, but
if you need to have the key to start the car, I think not needing to
put it into the ignition switch is like designing a neat cure for
which there is no known disease. Embarrassing or not, inadvertently
leaving the car running during lunch verifies my concern.
When we were certain
the E550 was running intentionally, we fairly flew up the mountain
roads, around the tightest switchbacks, through the giant
redwoods, and along the fabulous Pacific Coast vista of California
1, which winds up the Pacific coastline all the way past
We switched out of the E550 Sport to
the E350 Sport for the afternoon driving assignments, and we were in
for another surprise.
The power of the E550 V8 was
awe-inspiring, but in spirited driving, if you go hard into a tight
curve and hit the gas, the beast wants to show off its power by
jumping ahead with startling suddenness. Impressive as that power is,
you have to be focused on doing some steering correcting as you fly
around tight curves.
For real-world consumers, doing
real-world driving, the E350 in some ways was more precise, felt more
agile, and seemed to harmonize even better with the quick-steering and
handling balance. , You could hammer it hard through the same tight
curves and it tracks smoothly and predictably.
After a few such curves, I could throw
the E350 Sport into a turn knowing it would track precisely without
steering correction, without concern that a heavy foot might cause the
car to zoom ahead harder than you intended.
From the driver’s seat, the trip
computer registered another key difference. Driving to excess in the
E550 showed an impressive 19.8 miles per gallon, highway and curves,
although it certainly would get better on a normal commute.
The E350 indicated 26 mpg, also when
driven hard, and also with an anticipated improvement in moderate,
everyday driving. That closes the inter-model gap further, and the
Bluetec diesel will narrow it more, even if the AMG model stretches it
Driving through the redwoods of
Northern California, we paused to marvel at the majestic and enormous
old trees. It reminded me that a week earlier, my son, Jeff, and I had
marveled at the size of some huge old Douglas Fir trees in Northern
Washington State. I also was reminded of Jeff’s comment: "
These things are so huge that I have
the feeling if one of them fell over, there would be some noise – even
if nobody was around." Similarly, we must concede that the E-Class
will thrive in a seventh-generation mode, even without much generation
Editor's note: John Gilbert writes weekly auto reviews. He can be
reached at email@example.com.