Naughty but nice: Jeremy Clark­son inn the Lexus GS F.

It’s not per­fect but Drive Pi­lot puts the lat­est Mercedes E in a class of its own

The Weekend Australian - Life - - FOOD & WINE - PHILIP KING Mo­tor­ing editor

Philip King test drives Mercedes’ new hi-tech E-Class.

One of the tough­est prob­lems for car­mak­ers is keep­ing up with the phone­ses — those smart devices that can make shiny wheels look dull within months. A new car takes years to de­velop. By the time it’s ready, phones have moved on. Will your phone mesh seam­lessly with your new car when you get in? Pos­si­bly. Will the car con­trol screen be as swish and easy to use as the phone? No way.

This prob­lem is high­lighted by the in­dus­try’s habit of wait­ing to show­case tech­nol­ogy in flag­ship mod­els. Dur­ing its life cy­cle, the new gad­gets trickle down through the rest of the range. Then, when the flag­ship is due for over­haul, the cy­cle starts again.

But the days when in­dus­try watch­ers wait with bated breath to see what the lat­est Mercedes S-Class or BMW 7 Se­ries will de­liver are gone. The game is mov­ing too quickly. Now, car­mak­ers race to mar­ket with what­ever they’ve got.

Which is why, just a cou­ple of years af­ter the lat­est S-Class gave us a bunch of fresh tricks, in­clud­ing a glimpse of au­ton­o­mous driv­ing — “look, no hands!” for a few sec­onds — with the new E-Class it’s cur­tain-up on a tech ex­trav­a­ganza.

The E sits a rung below S in the range lad­der, but steps be­yond it in al­most ev­ery way. Mercedes de­scribes it as “our car of to­day’s fu­ture” and it’s ex­hibit A in its claim to be the leader in self-driv­ing and more.

To that end, there was an un­usu­ally long mo­tor­way stretch in the drive pro­gram in Por­tu­gal, im­me­di­ately af­ter the car’s Euro­pean de­but at the Geneva mo­tor show. It was a per­fect stage for the E-Class head­line act: an ex­tended abil­ity to steer it­self.

Turn­ing on Drive Pi­lot re­quires noth­ing more than a dou­ble tug on the cruise con­trol lever. Purely in terms of time, you can now take your hands off the wheel for a minute or more be­fore the sys­tem in­sists you re­take com­mand. If you ig­nore mul­ti­ple vis­ual and au­di­ble alerts, the car will grad­u­ally slow to a halt with haz­ard lights on.

But of course there’s more. The E can ne­go­ti­ate tighter arcs than the S, fol­low other cars at up to 210km/h and even steer when lane mark­ings are un­clear by “tak­ing ac­count of sur­round­ing ve­hi­cles and par­al­lel struc­tures”. That works up to 130km/h. It can also read speed signs (not in Aus­tralia, though) and ad­just ac­cord­ingly.

In stop-start traf­fic, it will shuf­fle along with ev­ery­one else, com­ing to a com­plete halt and then re­sum­ing if the pause is 30 sec­onds or less. If it’s more, a gen­tle nudge of the throt­tle will set the sys­tem in mo­tion again. It can be a lit­tle abrupt, and it takes time to gain con­fi­dence that it will re­li­ably stop. But it does.

Most im­pres­sive, though, is an abil­ity to change lanes. Hold the in­di­ca­tor stalk down for two sec­onds and — as­sum­ing it’s safe to do so — the car eases right or left, ad­just­ing its speed to traf­fic in the new lane.

Where the S-Class of­fered a morsel of self-driv­ing, the E-Class brings a canape.

It also serves to high­light some­thing of­ten over­looked in the Jet­sons vi­sion of fu­ture cars: even when the sys­tem is switched on, the driver can­not switch off. The E-Class sys­tem, and any like it, has lim­i­ta­tions and you need to be aware of what they are. There was a dra­matic ex­am­ple of this at one point. A lane change re­quest dur­ing a long right-han­der needed quick in­ter­ven­tion by the driver as the car moved out of the middle lane but headed to­wards the cen­tral bar­rier. The stereo cam­eras and mul­ti­ple radars around the car were con­fused by an over­head gantry and blind to con­crete, it turns out. Who knew?

If it’s pos­si­ble to be sur­prised by its draw­backs, it’s also likely you’ll re­main in awe that it works at all. The au­ton­o­mous idea is ex­tended into park­ing as well. The E-Class will self-park front or rearto-kerb, stop­ping and chang­ing di­rec­tion as re­quired. It’s even pos­si­ble to get out of the car and park it us­ing a smart­phone app and noth­ing more than a twirl of your fin­ger. So, if your garage is nar­row or sim­ply full of junk, there’s an end to squeez­ing out through a hal­fopen door; get out and use the app. It will exit the spot in sim­i­lar fash­ion.

Of course in a cou­ple of years the next S-Class will raise the tech bar again, but Mercedes now has an an­swer to the smart­phone dilemma.

It says the E-Class has in­te­grated all the nec­es­sary hard­ware — cam­eras and radar — for auto driv­ing and it will soon be able to down­load up­grades that keep it up to date.

Also built in is so-called car-to-X com­mu­ni­ca­tion, which al­lows the ex­change of in­for­ma­tion about traf­fic and road con­di­tions with other ve­hi­cles.

It’s much more dif­fi­cult to fu­ture-proof de­sign. The softer ex­te­rior lines evolve Mercedes de­sign lan­guage

and align it with the brand’s sedan fam­ily. So much so, the E will be dif­fi­cult to tell apart from the larger S and smaller C.

There will be no such is­sues in the cabin. As a state­ment of mod­ern lux­ury, E goes for broke with a huge tablet-style ex­panse of glass that dom­i­nates the dash and houses two large screens.

In front of the driver are vir­tual di­als, avail­able in three dif­fer­ent styles and con­fig­urable for con­tent to a greater de­gree than any­thing else on the mar­ket. The cen­tral screen shows sim­i­lar ad­vances in con­trol menus. With its crisp, an­i­mated graph­ics and easy logic, it’s a big leap for­ward over the fussy and con­fus­ing sys­tem in cur­rent Mercs.

Nav­i­gat­ing around the menus is eas­ier too, thanks to two touch-sen­si­tive but­tons set in the spokes of the steer­ing wheel. Th­ese mimic the feel of a smart­phone screen.

The in­te­rior am­bi­ence rises in line with the tech: there are wide ex­panses of lovely trim, strik­ingly sculpted seats, well-ex­e­cuted metal high­lights and a con­sis­tency to the way ev­ery­thing moves and func­tions.

Some caveats im­me­di­ately came to mind — the Apil­lars are too wide and ob­struct vi­sion through cor­ners, there is less room in the rear than you might ex­pect. How­ever, the highly specced test cars showed off the E at its best and it was im­pos­si­ble to re­main unim­pressed.

Quiet and com­fort­able were clearly the pri­or­i­ties al­though the dy­namic range of the E can be ex­tended with air sus­pen­sion and the E400 V6 petrol comes with all-wheel drive — a first for Aus­tralia.

The E400 will be the per­for­mance choice un­til AMG vari­ants — in­clud­ing a tur­bocharged V6 in an E43 for the first time — join later. En­gine vari­ants will even­tu­ally in­clude a 3.0-litre turbo-diesel V6 in the E350d and a petrol-elec­tric hy­brid in the E350e, com­bin­ing a tur­bocharged four-cylin­der and 65kW elec­tric mo­tor.

How­ever, the petrol and diesel four-cylin­ders will form the core of the range. A 2.0-litre tur­bocharged four-cylin­der petrol comes with 135kW in the E200 or 180kW in the E300. The low-power unit car­ries over while the E300 brings more power and torque than in the pre­vi­ous E250, and com­bines a muted sound­track with ad­e­quate power for what is a larger car than be­fore.

New for this tenth gen­er­a­tion E-Class though is the first in a fam­ily of diesel en­gines that are the re­sult of a €2.6 bil­lion ($3.8bn) in­vest­ment. With the same torque but more power than the su­per­seded 2.1-litre diesel unit, its main claim is a sub­stan­tial re­duc­tion in fuel con­sump­tion to just 3.9 litres per 100km.

Ac­knowl­edg­ing the Volk­swa­gen scan­dal, Mercedes used its in­tro­duc­tion to re­assert its faith in the fuel: “At Mercedes, we be­lieve in diesels and en­gi­neer­ing.”

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