The verdict: It will cost you a pretty penny, but the revised 2021 E-Class continues to be the standard by which other mid-size luxury cars are judged — few brands make a finer automobile than this.
Versus the competition: It’s a cutthroat segment, but the E-Class is the benchmark in it, with the most luxurious interior in the mid-size luxury class, highly competitive powertrains and better technology than most.
Mercedes-Benz’s mid-size luxury car is the E-Class. Globally, it’s one of the company’s most popular models, available in a number of different body styles — from the sedans you see here to a wagon, a coupe, a convertible, a high-performance model and even a new lifted off-road wagon in the vein of a Audi Allroad, Subaru Outback or Volvo V90 Cross Country. For 2021, the E-Class gets a few updates to keep it in line with the rest of the brand’s showroom. We took a refreshed E450 4Matic sedan and high-performance E63 S for a spin to see what the updates for the ‘21 model year have done to keep the E-Class fresh.
Understated Good Looks
From a styling standpoint, you’d be forgiven if you have trouble spotting the 2021 model over the 2020. The differences are subtle, and mostly limited to the front and rear styling. The front gets new headlights, a new grille, new bumper and new hood, all meant to link the E-Class with the company’s SUV styling. This is the same look we can see on the GLA, GLC, GLE and GLS SUVs, and now it’s appearing on the company’s cars as well. There are some new wheel patterns, including on my test E450 that wore the lovely black 19-inch optional rollers Mercedes slapped an AMG badge on so it can charge more money. Out back, there are new taillights with new LED patterns, but overall the styling changes to the car aren’t huge. That’s OK; there’s nothing ostentatious or offensive in the design, and while it’s not exactly all that distinctive, it is clean, safe and respectable, which is generally what the buyers of the E-Class tend to be looking for in a luxury sedan.
Still the Luxury Benchmark
The changes to the inside are similarly subtle, and generally revolve around new equipment and technology instead of styling. First off, the twin 12.3-inch digital screens are now standard on all E-Class models, providing a reconfigurable instrument cluster behind the wheel and a touch panel control display to the right of that. It’s running the latest MBUX multimedia system, featuring an expanded list of voice controls, gesture controls and an optional augmented reality feature for the standard navigation system that throws digital arrows up over a real-time video display of what’s in front of you.
The biggest interior changes come in two areas: the steering wheel and its relation to some new features for the semi-autonomous driving systems. First, the wheel: This new three-spoke model has expanded capacitive-touch-sensitive areas on the spokes to control various functions of the gauge cluster, cruise control and multimedia system. I have to say I wasn’t a big fan of the last-generation wheel because it was much too easy to brush against the sensitive controllers and change a display, or switch tracks, or adjust volume … and this new wheel is no better. In fact, it may be worse, as there are now more areas of the steering wheel you simply cannot touch unless you intend to change something. Mercedes-Benz is forcing you to maintain absolutely proper hand-position on the rim of the steering wheel — no steering via the spokes and no resting your hand there, either. Gotta keep it at 10 and 2, folks.
The changes to the semi-autonomous driving systems now rely more on you having your hands on the rim of the wheel. Previously, when you activated Mercedes-Benz’s active steering and lane-keeping systems that steer the vehicle at highway speeds, you weren’t able to take your hands off the wheel for any great length of time before the car would yell at you to make some minor steering adjustment to prove you were still actively engaged in the driving experience. This differs from systems like Tesla’s Autopilot or Cadillac’s Super Cruise that allow for hands-free driving, but Mercedes wasn’t quite ready to allow you to do that yet. For 2021, you no longer have to make periodic steering inputs to prove that you’re awake and paying attention, but you do have to keep your hands on the wheel. A sensor in the steering wheel rim detects if you’re touching it or not; that’s apparently now enough for the active steering systems to allow them to keep steering on the highway.
The rest of the interior is pretty much the same opulent, high-end luxury cabin we’ve enjoyed on the E-Class for years now. The leather trim looks, smells and feels rich; the switches all move with a mechanical precision; and there isn’t an overwhelming push toward touch-sensitive panels (aside from the frustrating steering wheel controls). But perhaps the most astonishing aspect of this E450’s cabin is the quietness: My test car had an optional Acoustic Comfort Package, which ups the amount of sound insulation in the body and changes out the glass for acoustically absorbent types, and the results are amazing. Cruising along back roads at 50 mph, the loudest thing you hear are the optional ventilated seat fans. There’s almost no wind noise at all, very little powertrain noise and only the faintest of bumps and rumbles from the tires. This isolation contributes greatly to the overall luxury experience of the E-Class and is worth every penny of the $1,100 that Mercedes-Benz charges for this package.
Choose Your Path: Smooth and Quiet …
You’d think that this isolation would make the E-Class boring to drive, but that’s not the case. It’s a paragon of automotive refinement and perhaps one of the best examples of the stereotypical German luxury sedan on the road today. The base car is actually the rear-wheel-drive E350, powered by a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine making 255 horsepower. My test car, however, was a step up from that: the mid-level E450 4Matic. It’s powered by a super smooth turbocharged 3.0-liter inline-six-cylinder engine making a formidable 362 hp and 369 pounds-feet of torque. The engine is augmented by a mild-hybrid system that Mercedes-Benz calls EQ Boost, essentially a hefty starter-generator that runs on the E-Class’ 48-volt electrical system, and can add as much as 21 hp and 184 pounds-feet of torque in sudden on-demand bursts. That means that this E450 sedan is both smooth and quick when it needs to be, with Mercedes-Benz quoting a 0-60-mph time of less than five seconds. The 4Matic all-wheel-drive system helps keep traction at its maximum, and shifting duty is handled by the flawless nine-speed automatic transmission. My test car featured the optional Air Body Control air suspension system, which allows for more adjustability in the various drive modes that the car offers.
Those drive modes do make a difference when combined with the air suspension. In the softest comfort mode, the E450 glides over surface imperfections without disturbing occupants but still maintains decent body roll control on curvy roads. Flip it into Sport or Sport Plus modes and the ride firms up, the steering gets heavier, and the throttle becomes much more responsive. It’s as if the E450 has two distinct personalities: a relaxed grand touring sedan that’s happy to coddle its passengers as it eats up mile after highway mile, and an entertaining European sports sedan with plenty of immediate, on-demand torque, beautifully balanced steering and a communicative chassis. But make no mistake, the E450 is definitely skewed toward the luxury end of the class, with its emphasis more on being comfortable for its occupants than being some kind of aggressive sports sedan.
… or Big and Boisterous
Now, if you want an E-Class that’s meant to be a driver’s car, you’ll likely instead want this: the new Mercedes-AMG E63 S. It’s the hot performance version of the E-Class, swapping out the already powerful and responsive six-cylinder for a twin-turbocharged 4.0-liter V-8 engine pumping out a massive 603 hp and 627 pounds-feet of torque. It’s mated to a nine-speed Speedshift automatic transmission with electronic clutch replacing a traditional torque converter, and it sends power to all four wheels via Mercedes’ 4Matic AWD system. The suspension is a sport-tuned version of the Air Body Control system, and AMG included all kinds of other parts to help the E63 go fast, such as a performance exhaust system, special AMG drive modes, an electronic rear limited-slip differential and even dynamic motor mounts to help the car’s weight balance and distribution in hard-driving situations.
The result is an absolute beast, the Mr. Hyde to the lesser E450’s Dr. Jekyll — a four-door muscle car that rumbles and roars like a barroom brawler, but that can dance like a prizefighting boxer. Mercedes-Benz estimates that the E63 S can rocket from 0-60 mph in just 3.3 seconds on its way to an electronically limited top speed of 186 mph, and it only takes a few stabs at the accelerator to realize this isn’t meritless boasting. The E63’s ride is firmer than the E450, and of course the whole car is significantly louder (despite having an optional acoustic glass comfort package), from the exhaust note to the tire noise, but that’s just expected when you turn the craziness dial up to 11 as AMG has done here.
Driving through the suburbs at lower cruising speeds, the specially tuned nine-speed Speedshift AMG transmission isn’t the smoothest operator. But when roads get curvy, it’s an absolute riot. The steering requires some effort but rewards you with precision and excellent feedback. The optional carbon-ceramic brakes feel strong enough to pull the color out of your irises if you stomp on them hard enough, and they’ll do it all day long with no fade at all — and most amazingly, with no low-speed, cold-brake squeal like other carbon-ceramic systems. I never had the opportunity to explore the E63’s new Drift Mode, as such things are best left to racetracks, but the fact that the car actually has such an electronic function speaks to its mission of being a hooligan in a matte-gray suit.
… Ah yes, that matte paint. It’s one of the Designo Magno paint options for the E63, and it’s not really something I enjoy. To me, it looks as if Mercedes-Benz primered a perfectly lovely E63 and then forgot to apply the actual paint. It’s also something of a maintenance hog because you can’t wax it, but you also have to be careful washing it. No automated brush car washes (touchless only), no polishes, and don’t even rub it too hard with a towel lest you create a shiny spot. It’s not the only visual difference between the E63 and lesser E-Class models: The bodywork is different, featuring a new front end with all-LED headlights and a new grille and lower bumper that look a lot more aggressive than the E450. The E63 also has a wider body with flared wheel arches to cover the bigger wheels and tires, plus a revised rear end for 2021. This one comes with the optional Night Package, which brings high-gloss black trim like the front splitter, mirror housings, fender inserts, window frame trim and more.
Things are equally amped up inside with the big news again being the new steering wheel — but a different one than the E450 has. In the E63 S, it has twin horizontal spokes but the same revised capacitive-touch-sensitive controls that mean you can only really hold the wheel by the rim when driving. The AMG wheel also has two rotary button controllers to change all sorts of settings from drive mode to exhaust function to ESP deactivation. They’re convenient, as they don’t require you to go hunting through various menus to change some settings or quickly activate or deactivate various systems, and I have to admit they also look pretty cool at the bottom of the steering wheel. The rest of the interior is just as nice as any other E-Class, but it comes with even more luxurious appointments, such as standard Nappa leather covering aggressively bolstered sport seats and optional carbon-fiber trim.
Exceptional Products Don’t Come Cheap
None of this technological excellence comes cheap, of course. The E-Class is not the price leader in its segment, but that’s true of most Mercedes-Benz models. The base price for the least expensive E350 in the sedan lineup starts at $55,300 (all prices include destination). My E450 4Matic sedan was a step up from that and starts at $63,050, but all manner of option packages and electronic goodies saw that price climb on my tester to an eye-popping $81,950. There’s an E53 sedan if you want some of the go-fast goodies that AMG offers ($74,950 to start), but the big daddy E63 S test car I enjoyed starts at a whopping $108,550 before all the options were added. After those options were tallied up, the total manufacturer’s asking price for my E63 S test car was a lofty $136,290. Ouch.
So of all the words that describe the revised ‘21 E-Class — luxurious, refined, stylish, comfortable, fast, state-of-the-art — I guess the word “bargain” doesn’t really apply. But as anyone who’s truly an aficionado of luxury goods will tell you, sometimes you have to shell out some serious coin to get something truly special. And while you’ll pay a lot for an E-Class, any E-Class, it’s not an exaggeration to say that very few automakers on the planet make a finer automobile than this. It truly is an exceptional vehicle.
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