Mercedes-Benz has always been synonymous with precision craftsmanship, first-class safety and unsurpassed luxury. But what few people know is just how fun the German automaker’s cars can be, especially when the road at hand turns from a smooth concrete tarmac to a twisting black asphalt ribbon. Miss Effi was privileged to experience just such a scenario when invited by Mercedes-Benz to the test drive the new E-Class against the lovely backdrop of Napa Valley.
Upon arrival, my eyes beheld a bevy of new E-Class sedans. They are lined up in the parking area of the scenic Meadowood Inn: a cozy little compound of cottages, tennis courts and dining areas nestled in the heart of wine country. While it is true the combination of wine, women and winding roads usually ends in a flaming pile of debris followed by a copious proliferation of tears, in this case the three elements blended beautifully—especially the wine and the woman.
Though I’d seen the E-Class before, these cars were different. Their purposeful look appeared more aggressive in the front and more youthful when viewed from the side. It was as though someone had smeared Vasoline over my eyes, a common photographer’s trick to make the old and tired look young and beautiful. Not that the previous E-Class was old and tired, mind you, it was just a bit sedate.
As I moved closer, I began to pick up on the subtle styling cues. A pronounced V shape emerges from the grille’s center and radiates upward in either direction, continuing across the upper portions of the car’s signature oval headlamps. The lower air intake is more aggressive, with wide openings and chrome surrounding the revised fog lamps. Moving to the side, I noticed a pair of wedge-shaped side mirrors that can now be folded inward. The wheels are bigger and sportier, too, even on the luxury models and there’s a tasteful band of chrome attached to the trunk lids lower lip. In all, the new E-Class features a myriad of minor changes that add up to a major visual improvement. The mid-sized Mercedes now boosts an exterior as crisp and edgy as a Chris Nyce photograph. My keen eye also noticed that some of the models featured larger multi-spoke alloy wheels, exposed chrome exhaust tips and cross-drilled front rotors. These models, I later discovered, are armed with the new Sport Package; but more on that, later.
There are actually four distinct models in the E-Class family. The high-performance E63 AMG is the top-of-the-line trim, while the revolutionary E320 BLUETECH turbo-diesel is the cleanest and most frugal E-Class ever built. With the E63 is in a league of its own, and the E320 BLUETECH not arriving until later this year, this review will focus on the bread-and-butter of the Mercedes-Benz fleet, the E350 and E550 sedans.
The following morning I was handed two sets of keys and sent out on what would prove one of the most spirited driving routes ever experienced by this well-seasoned gal about town.
I slipped into my E-Class as easily as a stubble-free leg enters a silk stocking. Of all the cars in this segment, I confess the E-Class’ interior is one of my favorites. It’s elegant to the point of lavish, yet it’s as easy to operate as the most pedestrian economy car. Lovely leather and warm wood trim comprise the dash and door panels, the latter hosting the seat-shaped controls that operate the 10-way power adjustable seats. The E-Class never has you feeling cramped or claustrophobic, especially if you opt for the enormous double-paned Panorama sunroof that exposes both the front and rear passengers to streaming sunlight. You won’t find any childish joystick controller in here either, no ma’am. Heating and air conditioning controls are mounted high on the dash, with proper rotary knobs for controlling the driver and passenger side temperature settings. A new LED display shows temperature and fan speed, while large, legible push-buttons control the air flow, auto or manual modes and that miracle of miracles, MAX A/C (previously not available).
The first-rate seating employs soft leather and firm foam to create a perch delivering hours of driving comfort. Both seat back and bottom can be heated or cooled, and though lumbar support is available to both driver and passenger, it’s operated via a manual lever located high on the inside edge of the seatback, an inferior setup compared to the four-way power-operated units found in Audi and BMW cars. Sorry MB, but in a car this expensive, EVERYTHING should be power operated. The Diva has spoken!
The audio system and navigation screen share a common space, a design of which I’m usually not fond. Never let it be said that Cocoa Efficient is not for integration, but only in cases involving southern high schools and Mississippi bus routes. When it comes to technology, I prefer my audio and navigation units separate but equal. Still as integrated units go, the E-Class features one of the better ones because many of the audio settings can be operated via the steering-wheel touch controls and are displayed on the circular information screen housed inside the speedometer gauge.
Mercedes-Benz’s attention to detail knows no bounds, from the creative design of the overhead halo lighting to the clever air recirculation feature that quickly rolls up the windows, closes the sunroof and seals off outside air-flow with the touch of a button. Although intended for use in smelly tunnels and when passing livestock transports, this clever feature also comes in handy when traversing the streets of West Hollywood (or any gay ghetto for that matter), where idling at a well-traveled crosswalk can expose one to a lethal cloud of Patchouli, gym-sweat and Hugo Boss.
New for 2007 is Mercedes-Benz’s Pre-Safe system, which automatically decides when the vehicle is about to collide with something other than its intended target (are you listening Clara Harris?). Once activated, the system tightens the seat belts, brings the passenger seat into its upright most position and closes the windows and sunroof, protecting occupants from flying debris.
On the first leg of my trip, I piloted the V6-powered E350. What a lovely ride, smooth as glass yet full of pep and vinegar. The steering feel was precise, the brakes firm and the V6 engine barley audible even with the windows down. With the Harman/Kardon audio blasting out show tunes, the sun in my face and the wind in $950 worth of blond hair extensions, I was in complete and utter automotive bliss. The E350 seemed, at that moment, all the car a girl shopping at Tiffany’s could ask for. Why would anyone need more?
My answer came when I glamorously crawled behind the wheel of the V8-powered E550. What a ride! The 5.5-liter V8 engine puts the “b” in balls, giving the E-Class sedan a direct shot of testosterone right where it counts most. Flying at insane speeds over roads so twisted they make Karl Rove look like a Girl Scout, I came to know the REAL E-Class. I must admit in situations like this, I thought I’d prefer the companionship of an Audi RS or BMW 5-Series, but the Sport Package-equipped E550 opened my eyes. Charging into curves that would leave lesser cars wrapped around the Redwoods, the E550 clung to the road like a frenzied shopper clutching the last Gucci bag at a Saks Fifth Avenue annual sale. The seven-speed automatic was put out to pasture as the manual-mode allowed me to hold the rpm range just where I wanted to before tapping the shift lever and releasing the next gear. The 5.5-liter V8 with its 382-horspower and bust-lifting 391 pound-feet of torque had Miss Effi on the edge of her seat. By the end of the ride, my sides hurt from screaming with joy and my little Prada purse had been crushed beyond recognition, a victim of being wedged between a reinforced E-Class driver’s door and a 250-pound drag queen. Concerned Prada devotees may attend the memorial service being held next Saturday alongside the dumpster behind my Flatbush apartment. Wear something tasteful and bring gifts.
After about an hour or two, the road straightened and the remainder of the trip was spent admiring the scenery and playing with all the wonderful Mercedes-Benz toys. It was then that I noticed how much my E550 felt like the E350 I’d been driving earlier. Normally, cars with firmer suspensions deliver a less than luxurious ride, but the E550’s low-profile 18-inch tires, lowered suspension and stiffer shocks in no way offended my sensitive posterior. Even over noticeable road distortions and the occasionally slow-moving mammal, the E550 remained unphased; a complete gentleman all the way back to Meadowood.
Of course, it was not until I actually bothered looking under the car (an accidental happening after dropping an earring) that I noticed my E550 was equipped with Mercedes-Benz’s Airmatic suspension. There I was flat on my back, a position I must confess I’m becoming far too familiar with, gazing up at a set of large airbladders in place of conventional coil springs. The adaptive Airmatic system monitors the cars movements and changes the pressure inside the bags to provide a stiffer chassis during spirited drives or a more comfortable ride when the pavement below gets choppy. As I spent a good five minutes examining the system, I can put to rest the ugly rumor that the bags are made of leftover Louis Vuitton clutch wallets.
So what’s the bottom line? In Miss Effi’s humble opinion the E-Series is a joy to look at, to ride in and to drive. While the lack of a manual transmission on the E350 and E550 might discourage some purists, there is no denying the new E-Class is an enthusiast’s car through and through. With the E350’s V6 turning out 268 horsepower, the car can run from zero-to-60 in just 6.5 seconds (the E550 does it in 5.4). Fuel economy is not Al Gore friendly, but at 19/26 for the E350 and 15/23 for the E550, the Mercedes’ twins more than hold their own in this segment.
The E350 carries a Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price (MSRP) of $50,550, while the E550 lists for $59,000. Of course, only the tackiest of tacky buy a Mercedes-Benz without options, so be prepared to drop some cash to get such goodies as heating and cooling seats, Keyless Go (lets you enter and start the car with only the key fob), the Sport Package, Active Headlights (they let you see around approaching curves), Panorama sunroof and Cognac brown leather seating. The list doesn’t end there, so if you’re a real personalization hound, feel free to knock yourself out. After all, you don’t purchase a set of Gucci luggage and then fill it with clothing from Sears, do you? Of course not, so get out that checkbook and check off those option boxes, because a shiny new E-Class makes for the perfect summer accessory.
Mercedes-Benz is a gay-friendly company.