May 29, 2007

Photo Gallery: 2007 Mercedes-Benz E280 4Matic

Specifications: 2007 Mercedes-Benz E280 4Matic

The Guide: 2007 Mercedes-Benz E280 4Matic

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As an automobile reviewer, my job is to drive and evaluate cars in the most objective way possible. But try as I might, I can’t help but form opinions about some cars even before the keys are handed to me. This new E280 4Matic from Mercedes-Benz is a case in point. Here, Mercedes has taken its mid-sized sedan – not a small car by any standard – added its slick all-wheel drive system and then saddled it with a smaller engine than last year’s base E-Class.

Mercedes is known for calibrating their cars’ throttle response for a smooth, sedate ride (read: lazy), making them feel more sluggish than they really are. So I had some legitimate concerns that this one really would be gutless, a word nobody who just dropped $70K on their new status symbol wants to hear. But it turns out my fears were unfounded and this is one car that defies its engine size and power ratings to be a well-rounded, if a bit stuffy, luxury sedan.

I won’t say that this is a sprightly car. It, like all other Benzes, requires some poking and prodding with a heavy right foot to get it going. Steering response is direct but slow, again to keep passengers at ease, and the high-effort steering wheel filters out road imperfections to the point of isolation. These aren’t flaws or faults with the car, but rather how things are done in Stuttgart: Class. Elegance. Sophistication. This is how it’s done.

While E-Class styling is very progressive for the conservative German brand, there are no chances taken. That job is left to BMW. Rather, efforts are made to ensure that the car is instantly recognizable, and that no matter which position the car holds in the Mercedes corporate family, the same level of sophistication is present.

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Interior furnishings are more of the same, and our black-on-black tester drove this point home. Breaking up the monotony is the tastefully restrained use of genuine burled walnut trim. The use of wood on the cup holder cover is a little much, however, and it’s not a great place ergonomically to put your refreshments, since it takes away from elbow room.

I used to look forward to driving new Benzes because of their innovative cup holder mechanisms, usually involving the press of a chrome button with the beverage receptacle automatically flipping out in one nicely damped motion. Clearly, Mercedes engineers had too much time on their hands back then.

But we’re not here to see how well this car can accommodate a Big Gulp. What matters is that this Benz is a supremely comfortable place in which to spend time, whether you’re the driver or one of the passengers. It’s a cocoon that coddles its occupants and doesn’t care much for carving corners. It’s so isolated, in fact, you could paint the car white and give me a hat with a big brim: I started driving like somebody 35 years my senior.

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When I speak of isolation, we can’t forget that we’re in the 21st century here. This isn’t a floating boat like the Cadillac DeVille barges of yore. There’s still the excellent control of body motions and responsive braking capabilities you’d expect of a Benz, and of a modern luxury sedan in general.

It wasn’t until I tried to have fun with the car that I discovered it can be a willing partner when pushed. The 2.8-litre V6 generates 228 hp and 221 lb-ft of torque: hardly news-making numbers. However, the engine revs smoothly and quietly towards redline and brings with it a rush of power that belies its modest size, pushing this 1769 kg (3,900 lb.) all-wheel-drive sedan around with surprising ease. On the dry pavement that prevailed during my test drive, the all-wheel drive system worked invisibly. Thanks to the rear-biased power distribution of the 4Matic system, the E behaved just like its two-wheel-drive counterparts while accelerating and cornering. Under normal conditions, 60 percent of the engine’s power is sent rearward, but that can vary according to traction conditions.

True to Benz form, the five-speed slushbox is slushy indeed and upshifts are made at the earliest opportunity. There’s a manual shift mode on this transmission, but it prefers to be left alone. There’s no point in pretending this is a sports sedan.

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But here’s my question: why should it be an effort to have fun with the car? And to drive that point home I jumped out of the E-Class and into a 2007 Infiniti G35, a car with almost 70 more horses under the hood and an uncommon connection with the road so direct that the driver always knows exactly what’s going on at the tires’ contact patches.

Certainly, these two cars are in different classes, with the Benz costing $25,000 more than the Infiniti. But the point is that if you want a car that feels energetic, you’ll probably want to look elsewhere. This Benz is for the folks who want to be driven by the car, not the other way around.

No Benz review is complete without an objection to the turn signal stalk location. Whenever I drive these cars I usually hit the cruise control the first few times I look for the turn signals, because the signal stalk is located too far down on the left side of the wheel. That, and the fact that it’s combined with the wiper controls in a most counterintuitive way; and there’s nothing on the right side of the wheel, which just happens to be a great place for a wiper stalk.

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This E-Class turns out to be a decent value proposition, if what you’re looking for is compatible with these classic Benz traits. They’re all there, and a starting price of $65,500 makes this new all-wheel drive E280 the value leader of the class. And of course, Mercedes’ legendary reputation for safety means that every E-Class is equipped with “Pro-Safe” with features ranging from those that help avoid accidents (like stability control), to those that prepare the car for an impending impact (like the automatic sunroof closure), to those that minimize occupant injuries (like curtain airbags and head restraints that minimize whiplash).

My cup of tea? No. But Mercedes isn’t looking for thirty-something driving enthusiasts to put in an E-Class. If you want to be coddled as you make your way down the road, few can do it better.

Pricing 2007 Mercedes-Benz E280 4Matic

Base price: $65,500

Options: $4,675 (premium package and bi-xenon headlights)

Freight: $1,795

A/C tax: $100

Price as tested: $72,070


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