Mercedes-Benz has updated the mainstay E-Class lineup of midsize luxury cars for the 2014 model year, the latest in a barrage of products from the German automaker. Like the others, this one is also designed to keep rival BMW at bay in the global sales race. I recently had an opportunity to sample one of the nearly 15 new variants of the E-Class, the E350 4Matic wagon, at a drive event in Ann Arbor, Mich. With the E-Class representing 20% of Mercedes-Benz's sales in the U.S., this is an important car for the brand, so it has to be right.
Thankfully the company already had a strong contender to begin with. For 2014, the changes to the E-Class are subtle but thorough. A new front and rear design is smoother and more integrated, and the rear doors and quarter panels no longer feature the bulbous fender of the previous model. The overall look is still recognizably Mercedes-Benz, but sleeker and leaner. Two distinct front-end looks are available for the sedan and wagon: Sport puts the three-pointed Mercedes-Benz star in the grille, and Luxury mounts it more traditionally to the front of the hood. In addition to the sedan and wagon, the E-Class is also available as a coupe and convertible; they're slated to reach dealerships at the end of this month.
Powertrains largely carryover from the 2013 model year, with the addition of a new E250 Bluetec diesel model in rear- or all-wheel drive. The models on hand for testing were all E350s, featuring the 302-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 engine and all-wheel drive (standard on all wagon models). The direct-injection engine channels power through a standard seven-speed automatic transmission.
From startup to full throttle, the operative word here is "smooth." Everything the E-Class does is smooth, from the way it glides over the pavement to the hushed experience of a highway cruise. Steering and transmission aggressiveness can be adjusted between Economy and Sport mode by a switch on the center console. The differences aren't terribly noticeable, however, and mostly just a more eager shift pattern that holds a lower gear longer for spirited cornering and driving.
The steering feel is more damped than one might expect from a German luxury car, but the E350 is more of a grand tourer than a sport sedan, and the experience is understandably cushier. The E350 is easy to drive quickly, or is just as happy trundling along in limousine duty, coddling passengers in attractive wood and leather comfort.
The interior received a refresh along with the exterior sheetmetal, resulting in a more luxurious cockpit. Shapes and forms are still similar, but material quality has improved, with more metal trim adding some visual flair to what was previously a somewhat dull environment. The comfortable, big seats offer significant adjustability for all shapes and sizes.
Outward visibility is also good, with big windows all around, even in the wagon. That wagon also offers seven-passenger seating, with a folding rear-facing bench suitable for small humans; it stores in the cargo floor when not needed.
Mercedes-Benz's multimedia system operates via a selector knob on the console in front of the armrest, and it seems to be easier to operate the more I'm exposed to it. It's still not the clearest system among luxury brands (that title belongs to Audi's Multi Media Interface, in my opinion) and requires too much attention to operate while driving, but it works well enough.
Mechanically and cosmetically, the new E-Class isn't all that different from the old one, just slightly better in most ways. Where the company focused much of its attention, however, is in the car's electronics, with a host of new safety systems that will eventually trickle into the rest of the lineup. Mercedes-Benz is starting to take advantage of something called sensor fusion, making use of a vehicle's various electronic sensors like radar and ultrasonic for an increasing number of new and interesting capabilities. The systems can do everything from brake the car to avoid pedestrian impact to steer the car through a gradual bend. See more on the technical specs of the E-Class' latest technology here.
Of course, none of this technology comes cheap. Even without the fancy Driver Assistance Package, the wagon I tested rang in at $69,060 including a $925 destination fee. The starting price for the wagon is $59,525, plus my tester included options such as a panoramic sunroof ($1,090), a premium package with navigation and an excellent sound system ($3,370) and full LED headlamps ($1,500). This makes the E-Class pricier than competitors like the BMW 5 Series, Audi A6 and the upcoming Cadillac CTS. For a luxury car with this level of quality and seamless operation, plenty of well-to-do buyers are likely to have no problem with the price.