March 31, 2008
Toronto, Ontario – Surfing: that’s what it feels like when you toe into the gas pedal in this diesel Mercedes.
Surfing, because there’s that same sense of initial resistance; then a tidal wave of power that pushes you forward and actually lifts you up, accelerating you with an ever-swelling force that never seems to diminish. You glance down at the tach, wondering when it’s going to let up, realizing you’re not even at 2,000 rpm yet. This is serious, earth-shaking power, the sort that, once you’re rolling, gobbles up entire columns of cars in one passing manoeuvre; the sort that makes long highway drives absolutely effortless. It has the power to corrupt; it’s hard not to feel superior, wafting around on the wave of torque, dispatching lesser cars with a mere twitch of your toe.
This engine is some piece of work. Except when it’s cold and idling, you barely get any trace of diesel clatter and there is no telltale black smoke coming out of the back of the car either. It revs keenly up to 4,000 rpm, where the power starts tailing off and even feels strong from a standing start. Indeed, with a 0-100 km/h time of 6.8 seconds, it’s barely slower than an E350 and simply blows away the gas car once you’re rolling. The slick-shifting seven-speed automatic transmission makes an important contribution to the performance, of course; it keeps the engine boiling in its happy powerband and is prompt to downshift if you need extra go. Indeed, the only real shortcoming from the whole package seems to be a little extra jerkiness at low speeds in lower gears; the diesel’s strong engine braking effect in on-off throttle transitions takes some adjustment for someone used to how a gas engine responds.
And that’s about all the adjustment you’ll need to drive and enjoy this diesel Benz. You can get in, twist the key, shift into drive and go without waiting for glow plugs to warm up. You can hustle it around corners like you would any other Mercedes, reveling in how much grip it can generate and how stable it feels in quick transitions. You can waft along serenely for hours on end thanks to fatigue-free seats, a great driving position and an excellent Harman/Kardon entertainment system. When you do finally need to stop for fuel – I got almost 1,000 km from the first tank, averaging an amazing 7.2 L/100 km – there’s a sticker on the dash to remind you to use ultra-low-sulphur fuel in case you forget. At regular service intervals, your dealer will also have to top up a tank in the trunk which supplies the engine’s urea injection system – the bit that makes the exhaust gas so clean.
Having undergone a major mid-life facelift in 2006 (ah, wouldn’t it be nice if we all got one of those for free), the E320 Bluetec is much the same as any other E-class Benz: same slick-looking body with newly-aggressive pointy nose and jeweled fog lamps; same enlarged side-view mirrors, mandated by new European safety standards; same strong stance, smooth paint, super-tight panel gaps; same inside, too: a curving dashboard with easy-to-use controls and a clearly-designed instrument cluster but without the latest version of Mercedes’ COMAND control system. While the E’s display screen and key pad are easy enough to use, they’re more complicated than the system now fitted to C and S-class models, slower to react to your inputs and with a screen that goes from dim in the day to near-illegible at night. The E’s system did, however, get along with my BlackBerry, while the new C-class did not.
I’d forgotten, until driving this car, how big and comfortable the E-class is. While the new C is bigger than ever, especially in the back, the E still feels like a limousine in comparison. It’s not just about the space, which is impressive, especially in the back; it’s also about how it’s designed. The window sills are low, giving the cabin (even in black with dark wood) an airy feel; a Lexus GS’ windows seem like gun slits in comparison. The seatbacks are scooped out for more legroom in the back. The dashboard and console seem to fall away from the controls, liberating extra room to move; settle into a 5-series BMW and it’s like you’re staring at a wall in comparison. The trunk is immense, too: longer and more conveniently-shaped, with a lower floor and bigger opening than an Audi A6.
All of which is to say the E320 Bluetec is a big, powerful comfortable car in the expected Mercedes mould. It’s conservative to look at and reassuring to sit in and drive. It’s just that, enlivened by this new diesel drivetrain, it combines surprising economy along with its excellent performance. Mercedes is introducing Bluetec engines into other models in its lineup and many competing brands are also (finally) bringing clean, powerful diesels into Canada as well; which means more choice – and better choices – for luxury-car customers in the coming months and years.
Pricing: 2008 Mercedes E320 Bluetec
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Manufacturer’s web site