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