Story and photos
by Laurance Yap
Surely there’s something in the “what NOT to do when you drive a Mercedes” section of the manual about stuff like this. Stuff like sleeping on your friends’ floors while in the midst of gritty, grimy road trips. Stuff like breezing past drive-thru windows and clogging already-abused arteries with horrible double-deep-fried pap instead of stopping to eat something more civilized. Yeah, well. Mercedes may be aiming the new E-class at a younger audience, but even in their rampant enthusiasm, they understand they’re not going to reach someone like me, who can’t afford, much less really understand the lifestyle that goes along with owning such a fabulous automobile. And with the press preview in Halifax over, and an aversion to flying back home around September 11th at the back of my mind, well, why NOT drive the new E back to Toronto and make a trip of it? I needed a break anyway.
After more than a week behind the wheel, and a series of unlikely encounters with other road users, interesting roadside attractions, and somewhat-seedy bargain establishments along the way, what impresses most about the new E is its amazing adaptability to almost every circumstance I tried to throw at it.
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For instance: while couch-camping at my friend Robin’s place in Halifax, I left the still-gleaming four-door parked out on a downtown street not more than a couple of blocks from Halifax’s drug- and immigrant-smuggling container docks, and it remained remarkably unscathed during my stay. Sure, the new E is an expensive–and an expensive-looking–car, but its friendly googly eyes, the gentle curves of its shoulders and all-glass roof give it a much less uppity aspect than many of its competitors; the last Honda that I left on a city street overnight was keyed front to rear.
We took the car for a day-long road trip before I left, running it up and down the sinuous, but sometimes poorly-paved, roads to and from Peggy’s Cove (site of what must be the most-replicated lighthouse in history), and were thoroughly impressed with its credentials both as a luxury sedan and a sports car. Even without the Airmatic Dual control suspension (optional on E320s; standard on the more expensive E500) it has an uncanny ability to blend a luxurious ride with stable handling; though the new E is bigger than the last, it flows faster and more sure-footedly between bends, and its cabin is quieter and more comfortable to boot. Optional seats can now shape-shift themselves to provide optimum support during hard cornering, and the new Harman-Kardon digital audio system blasts forth a sufficiently loud wall of sound to totally drone out the engine’s cheerful, tappety gurgle at low revs.
Too much dawdling around the Maritimes meant the need to make haste back to town in order to return the car when I’d told them I would. Happily, the new E played road warrior as well, or better, than any car I’ve driven in recent memory. Stability at speeds way over the legal limit is impressive, and the engine and five-speed automatic transmission make for a perfect pairing every time the roads open up: toe into the gas, and the ‘box drops a couple of gears and the motor really starts to sing. It takes a few miles behind the wheel for the adaptive transmission, gas, and brake to “learn” your driving style, but once they do, the car drives as intuitively as any other.
Despite a new four-link front suspension and refinements to the five-link rear, the new E is still no BMW 5-series in the corners; it’s stable and safe rather than sharp and speedy. You can push just as hard and go just as fast, but the steering has been calibrated to damp out all kickback, and the electronic brakes in particular have a bit of a nonlinear feel. In town, the “soft-stop” function actually makes for jerkier driving. It’s designed to ease off on the brakes for a smoother stop, but that’s something experienced drivers do anyway, meaning there’s not enough brake pressure, meaning you have to stomp on the middle pedal, and activate the brake assist, which snaps your head forward in a quite undignified manner.
It’s probably bad form for Mercedes drivers to pick up hitchhikers as well. Okay, so he wasn’t a hitchhiker–just a friend from Toronto who happened to be out in Nova Scotia and needed a ride home. But after a week of backpacking around the maritimes, my high-school chum Jonathon declared the big E the nicest ride he’d ever had. Four-zone climate control meant individual comfort levels could be maintained in the cabin (we chilled the rear compartment, and our snack pile, to perfection), and even after hours behind the wheel, fatigue just wasn’t an issue.
Time with the car also revealed some other clever features: a handy cell phone drawer in the dash, a bi-level console bin with a cooler in the bottom section, a glasses box covered by a powered door, and an endlessly amusing array of options available on the trip computer display on the dash. As the sun slipped beneath the horizon, we appreciated the car’s soft ambient lighting, which gave the interior an expensive-restaurant (hah! we thought) feel, and the power and clarity of the optional bi-xenon headlights.
The big trunk came in handy, too, when we passed into Fredericton and I made my ritual stop at the Owl’s Nest used bookstore. It’s simply huge, swallowing a week’s worth of luggage, my tripod, and a pile of books I couldn’t find anywhere else with ease. The hinges are a bit over-eager, though: keep your chin well clear when you’re loading. Split-folding rear seats are now optional, and you can even flop the front passenger seat forward if you want to carry really long items, like lumber. (Not that we did, but we could have.)
While it may be hard to justify any $70,000 car as a good value, the new E makes a convincing case for itself. Consider that a decade ago, an E320 would have actually cost more than today’s car, and that was in 1992 dollars. It didn’t have most of the new car’s safety features, like rollover-protection airbags, ESP stability control, and electronic brakes that wipe their pads clean in the rain. Standard equipment was way more meager as well; Mercedes has even finally tossed in a CD player for free, as are seat heaters, keyless entry, and a power-adjusting steering wheel.
Not that I can afford an E320 anyway, at a base price of $69,950, but after a week behind its oddly-styled, but exceptionally comfortable steering wheel, I definitely want one. Want one bad. Maybe it’s the cool new ad campaign, or the product placement in this summer’s Men In Black II movie, or maybe it’s just the car. Memo to Mercedes: mission accomplished.