The 2009 Mercedes E Class is Jeeves on wheels: an omniscient presence, hovering on the periphery, ready to appear with whatever I desired at precisely the moment I needed it. This scrupulously accurate robotic butler makes its unobtrusive omnipotence felt from the moment you grasp the door handle: the windows drop slightly, relieving the tight seal and helping you to open and close the door. When you reach for your seat belt, the car has already quietly extended a telescopic holder to bring the belt in line with your shoulder. Clip the belt in and turn on the ignition, and the steering wheel — having silently moved out of the way to allow you to enter the car comfortably — drops into place.
Add the keyless entry feature, and the feeling of uncanny prescience grows stronger. If you are carrying the key in your pocket, the mere touch of your hand on the door handle will unlock the vehicle. Starting the engine is a matter of holding one foot on the brake and pressing the starter button once. Will sir be needing anything else?
A good butler will of course make suggestions regarding Sir’s behaviour – a gentle hand at your back perhaps, steering you away from social embarrassment. And so it is with the E Class, which comes with a stunning array of active and passive safety features. All-around parking sensors, a reversing camera, and blind-spot assist give the impression that the E Class is surrounded by an invisible, impervious field, monitoring its surroundings at all times, and presenting alerts if anything gets too close. The blind-spot assist is implemented perfectly: glance in your mirror and you’ll see an orange or red warning light if anything is near your blind spot. If you are so heedless as to indicate before looking, an audible warning will sound and the red warning light will flash in the appropriate mirror. If you don’t indicate, the lane-keeping function will politely vibrate the steering wheel to let you know you are drifting out of your lane. One would need to be a dunderhead of Bertie proportions, capable of ignoring multiple warnings and alerts, to come close to needing the myriad airbags and crash-safety features in the E Class.
Where a more firm guiding hand is required, Mercedes’ Distronic Plus system steps in. Hidden behind the large Mercedes badge on the Coupe – and a less glamorous plastic insert on the Sedan – is a radar element that wouldn’t be out of place on a stealth fighter. This device scans the road ahead at all times. In passive mode, it complements the Pre-Safe® system, lighting up a warning icon on the dash if you approach something too quickly, or if your following distance is too short. In the worst case, if the radar predicts an imminent collision, it arms safety features and assists with emergency braking.
Unlike standard cruise control – which is wonderful for long, open autobahns – Mercedes’ Distronic Plus cruise control is instead most useful in heavy congestion. You activate the cruise control like any other, but a twist adjuster (similar to your intermittent wiper adjustment) allows you to select the distance at which you’d like to follow the car in front. In heavy traffic, this means no more shuffling between accelerator and brake. The Distronic system will speed up and slow down to keep pace with the car in front, even coming to a complete stop where necessary, no doubt saving on fuel, brake pads and shoe leather. It’s uncanny to go from stationary (a light tap of the accelerator gets you going again from a full stop), to a cruising speed of 100km/h (or more), then back to a full stop again without having touched any controls but the steering wheel.
Using Distronic Plus is both miraculous and completely natural. After using it once or twice, you start to wonder why it isn’t standard on all vehicles. In fact, driving my regular car after using Distronic required some concentration: remember to brake! It works in Auckland’s heavy spring rain (and will work in fog), and wasn’t flummoxed by the incredibly narrow motorway lanes around roadworks in Auckland. In one case, with my foot hovering sceptically over the brake pedal, I followed a car around a suburban roundabout, and Distronic kept pace. I presume the radar field is tied to the angle of steering, in the same way the headlights follow the curve of the road as you steer. This is a car that practically drives itself.
Indeed it’s not impossible to imagine a self-driving Mercedes in my lifetime. As with other technical revolutions from Mercedes, Bosch has licensed Distronic Plus and is producing a package available to fit to any vehicle; Wikipedia tells me that some high-end Audis have picked up the technology too.
The build quality is as precise as you would expect from Mercedes. No rattles or squeaks whatsoever. The cosseting interior is as quiet as a stately home, and the electric seats – complete with four separate pneumatic adjustable supports – are as comfortable as your leather buttoned chaise lounge. You could in fact be concerned that one could drift off in this environment, with the car taking control of most of the exciting stuff. Perhaps Mercedes share this concern: they’ve added a system called Attention Assist, which apparently monitors the driver’s behaviour (eye movements and response times), and will warn if one appears to be falling asleep. I say apparently, because I was unable to trick it into waking me up.
Of course the modern Jeeves would not be able to conduct his business without an iPhone tucked in his waistcoat pocket: Bluetooth and iPod connectivity are standard across the E Class range. If you are an iPhone user, you can pair it for phone calls and plug it in for music – both at the same time. All but the “Executive” trim Saloon come with Mercedes’ COMAND multimedia and navigation system. COMAND works fine, but it seems no manufacturer has yet cracked the user interface issue with these systems. Example: scrolling a list of hundreds of artist names or navigation destinations, with no obvious option for paging. One welcome feature is the integrated Gracenote database, giving you titles and track names for just about any CD you insert.
Regarding performance: if the E350 Coupe is a nimble droid, then the E500 is a brutish terminator. The E350’s V6 is smooth and progressive. The V8 in the E500 is closer to a 285 kilowatt sledgehammer in the small of your back. Mercedes claim a 0-100km/h time of 5.2 seconds for the E500. Of course there’s no way for me to prove that, but I can say with traction control off, suspension set to “Sport”, and the manual shifters enabled, 100km/h arrives a lot sooner than it has in any other car I’ve driven. Thankfully you can turn on the standard Mercedes speed-limiter, which lets you have plenty of fun with acceleration but will cap your speed at a pre-selected value.
Reviewing the E Class from the viewpoint of pure technology, it’s hard to fault. Comfort, performance and safety combine to instil an extraordinary degree of confidence in the vehicle. It’s never going to out-drive a Lamborghini (although the E63 AMG might come close), but Sir is a great deal less likely to end up backwards in a hedge. One couldn’t ask for anything more.
Visit Mercedes’ New Zealand website for complete details. Only the Coupe needs the seat belt extender. Everything else I’ve mentioned is standard in the E500 Saloon.