The new Mercedes-Benz E-Class saloon is here for 2016 and it's pushing the boundaries of how luxurious and technologically advanced a car can be.
The future of self-driving cars is edging closer and vehicle companies are working harder and faster to be the first to deliver that reality. Bit by bit we're seeing self-driving features seep into newer cars as safety systems, steering us back into lane or breaking for us. The new Mercedes-Benz E-Class aims to offer a leap forward in that technology.
With self-driving competition from the likes of Tesla, and technological developments like key fob controlled driving in the BMW 7 Series, Mercedes has a lot to compete with while sticking to its starting price of almost £36,000.
We took the new E-Class, E 220 d, E 350 d and A400 models, on the road and around tracks to test the limits and find out if the new E-Class is a glimpse into the future of driving.
Mercedes-Benz E-Class 2016: Design and build
As you'd expect from Mercedes' luxurious saloon, the E-Class design is bleeding edge while still maintaining classic lines. The new model manages to be longer yet narrower and lower than the previous E-Class, while still offering plenty of internal space.
The upstanding badge won't be making it to the UK but everything else about the models pictured here are largely what you can expect to hit our shores at launch.
The new E-Class Saloon is lighter than ever, in fact it's a full 100kg lighter than last year's model. This is thanks to a combined steel and aluminium build, something lots of companies are now doing as a way to improve fuel efficiency.
Both the headlights and tail lights are power efficient LEDs with optional high-resolution multi-beam headlights to light the road intelligently without dazzling others. This upgraded version is able to block out certain parts of the beam so full beam can stay on while oncoming cars are blocked out so as not to be dazzled, which worked well in our road tests. This tech continues on the interior where 64 colours of LED lighting create an ambient glow inside the car.
One of the things you notice inside the car immediately is the silence. We stepped in from some stormy weather and were immediately relieved by the welcoming seats and almost vacuum like silence from the outside elements.
The seats, which deliver optional heating and cooling, have been designed for long journeys with comfort in mind. The optional heating not only heats the seats but also the arm rests for ridiculous levels of comfort no matter the driver's shifting positions. Plus there are massage settings, which are great for loosening the back while sat in one position for a long time.
One of our favourite touches comes on the steering wheel. As standard the three-spoke wheel features two touchpads. This lets you easily swipe and tap to get through menus, just as you would on a phone or tablet. You'd think you might accidentally brush them by mistake but they're perfectly placed for easy access but not accidental selecting.
Mercedes-Benz E-Class 2016: Drive and handling
Despite being a larger car the E-Class offers plenty of power, especially in the 350 d and A400 models. But it's ride comfort that's important in a car of this type, that's why lowered comfort suspension is standard on UK models. The result is all the comfort you'd expect, absorbing bumps effortlessly, while still offering enough stiffness to corner quickly with plenty of feedback through the wheel.
The E 220 d can hit 149mph, does 0 to 62mph in 7.3 seconds yet offers an impressive mixed range of 72mpg, according to Merc. The E 220 d features a 1950cc four-cyldiner engine with 194hp. This is a new engine for Mercedes as it's lighter and more efficient and offers lower CO2 and better fuel economy despite still pushing out the power.
The E 350 d tops out at 155mph, does 0 to 62mph in 5.9 seconds and still offers a decent mixed range of 54mpg, claims the manufacturer. The E 350 d sports a 2987cc six-cylinder engine that tops out at 258hp.
Both have plenty of pull, enough for a quick take off or easy overtaking at any speed and certainly more than enough for a comfortable ride.
Sport and Sport+ modes do rev a lot higher and tighten the handling so if you ever need a little more punch, it's available. We found Comfort mode the best to drive in as suspension was super smooth while cornering intelligence kept everything tight when needed. Even the seats could be set to react and pull you in using the bucket wings as you corner.
All that said our model did have the Air Body Control option which means multi-chamber air suspension, making it the only car in its segment to offer this. It also means adaptive suspension stiffness.
Pulling away is smooth thanks to the nine-speed automatic gearbox which makes power delivery feel almost as if there aren't any gears. It's not the torque driven, gear-free pull of an electric drivetrain yet, but it's one of the closest we've tried.
The car certainly looks and feels wide, judging from the internal space. But on the road, thanks to a great turning circle, it was easy enough to manoeuvre around the city.
Mercedes-Benz E-Class 2016: Infotainment system
Inside the E-Class feels like we'd imagine being at the helm of a spaceship spa might. Surrounded by leather, lights and electronics you're immediately filled with a sense of excitement about how advanced the machine you're in control of is. That said it does a lot of the controlling for you.
If you opt for the optional advanced head unit you get twin 12.3-inch high-resolution displays sat behind a single pane of glass. This gives the display a real seamless feel, widescreen look and also future-proofs the car for updates.
The display can be used for Android Auto or Apple CarPlay, via a cable-connected smartphone. But if your phone is simply Bluetooth connected it can still be used for calls and music while sat in its own bay that Qi wirelessly charges, having connected to the car via NFC.
That phone can also be used to unlock the car using NFC on the door handle. Plus the app will allow you to start the engine and get it ready before you're inside.
The surround sound system can be upgraded to a 23-speaker Burmester 3D setup that uses speakers in the roof for complete immersion.
Mercedes-Benz E-Class 2016: Advanced smart driving
The future is all about better communication between devices and Mercedes has begun pushing forward with this using its Car-to-X communication system. This allows the vehicle to exchange information with other cars. The idea is that you will get warnings from other cars for traffic, obstacles on the road, accidents and more. Once more cars have this it should make driving safer and navigation more efficient.
In a bid to begin down the road to self-driving, Merc has upgraded the E-Class with plenty of optional smart driving features. The car is now able to spot other vehicles and pedestrians at high speeds so it can brake if needs be. Testing this on the track, we had the car brake from 40mph to a stop in front of a simulated child when we thought it was too late, very impressive.
The car has also been upgraded to maintain smart cruise control at speeds of up to 130mph, meaning it'll adjust speed to suit the car in front - presuming you want to go that fast. The point, rather, is that the car can handle higher speeds thanks to its faster-than-ever reactions. That said we enjoyed writing a message on our phone while doing 75mph following a car in front.
When it came to corners we were more cautious as the steering is limited to a certain torque level before giving out – we had to grab the wheel to take over a few times on sharper corners. Of course this is a safety aid and not built for self-driving, but we had to try.
The E-Class also recognises objects on the side of the road like buildings which, in combination with other car recognition, can keep the car in lane even when markings are missing. We were driven along accurately in Drive Pilot mode, with no hands on the wheel or feet on pedals, where there were no road markings, at night, in the rain. Impressive.
Thanks to radar sensors and cameras, the car can even change lanes by simply using the indicators. This feels a little disconcerting at first but when you've done it once you start to wonder why all driving can't be like this.
In the event of a dangerous situation the car will not only help with emergency braking but it'll also help steer clear of objects. We did a test veering the car into oncoming traffic. Rather than steering away, the car simply applies braking to the front and rear wheels on the side of the car it needs to move in, and you're drawn back into your lane. The idea is to not take control of the wheel, allowing the driver to correct if needs be. In another test, we pulled into the path of a car in the next lane, at speed, and the car automatically pulled us away to safety.
Should you be hit in the side it'll fire airbags at the right angle to move you away from danger. Also, in the event of an accident the car will emit a pre-safe sound that causes your ears to perform a natural aural reflex that protects them from damage. While this sounds amazing, much like the airbags, it wasn't something we wanted to test.
For all these smart safety features, if the driver applies the brake or takes the wheel, the car will give control back immediately. That said, we did a braking test where the accelerator was held down while heading into the back of another car. The Mercedes began braking when close, allowing you a chance to take control and stop. If you didn't, it braked at the last second to avoid a collision.
As standard the car comes with parking sensors that coordinate with a reversing camera to offer self-parking. Remote Parking Pilot was another way Mercedes has managed to take a current tech development and enhance it. You can drive the car out of a garage or space using your phone, simply by spinning your finger on the screen - it even dodged us by steering at an angle on its way out. Then when parking you can pick from multiple spaces and choose to go in front first or reverse - you can even get out halfway through the manoeuvre and let the car finish, ideal if going into a tight spot.
All these smart driving extras, except for the as-standard pre-safe sound and parking, come as an optional package for £1,695. We'd say, in the grand scheme of the car price, this is well worth it. You're essentially paying for a robotic chauffeur.
Mercedes has taken its E-Class and filled it with some of the most advanced tech on the road.
When it comes to the expectations you'd have for the E-Class, they're all are met: the design is elegant, the interior is comfier and quieter than most homes, plus power and handling offer enough of everything to keep it exciting but luxurious. On top of all that the technology pushes the brand forward, leading the way.
The infotainment system, with the dual-screen setup and in-wheel touch controls, is clear to use while offering a depth of personalisation. The ability to run Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, wirelessly charge a phone and use the app to unlock and actually drive the car is fantastic.
The self-driving safety features are helpful for long drives, making motorways nearly a hand and foot free experience, while taking the hassle out of slow moving traffic. We're not quite at the point of self-driving yet, but this is powering in the right direction.
The Mercedes-Benz E-Class starts at almost £36,000 and is available from April.