2017 Mercedes-Benz E-class gains smartphone-like steering-wheel touchpads, stardust tail lights

Mercedes' next E-class will be a technological juggernaut, starting from the inside out, with two 12.3-inch HD screens and a rocking Burmester sound system.

Daimler AG - Global Communications Mercedes-Benz Cars

Mercedes-Benz offers two 12.3-inch high-definition displays inside the cabin of the 2017 E-class.

Mercedes-Benz

Mercedes-Benz has been on a roll with its interiors lately, from the sporty and attractive cabin of its C-class to the high-luxury, technology-slathered confines of its S-class flagship. With a new 2017 E-class expected to debut at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit next month, one would hope for the Three-Pointed Star to continue its impressive ways in cabin design, quality and tech. After getting a closer look at the new E-class' interior during a media background event in Germany, I can confidently say the luxury carmaker appears poised to deliver.

Mercedes designers began with a clean sheet, focusing on creating a cabin that's both progressive and technologically advanced, yet also simple to use and features obviously high levels of craftsmanship. There's a welcome familiarity, too, with the meshing of design cues from the C-class and S-class. The center console will remind you of the C, while the four circular center air vents and huge dual-screen displays are S-inspired.

The wide dual displays are key high-tech components in the new E-class, consisting of two 12.3-inch, high-definition screens covered with bonded glass. One display sits directly in front of the driver and serves as an instrument cluster, with the other set above the center console to handle infotainment functions.

Controlling those screens are two touch-control buttons integrated into the spokes of the multifunction steering wheel -- a first-ever feature in a car, according to Mercedes. They allow for smartphone-like swipe gestures to command various functions.

Using the touch controls is intuitive to adjust information on both screens, toggling between navigation, audio menus and searching for real-time fuel prices in the area through the available "mbrace" package. Even with very little familiarization time, I'm confident using the touch controls will become second nature. Swiping them with my thumbs kept both of my hands on the wheel, which is something designers hope will keep drivers more attentive to the road. In a nice touch, it's possible for the user to personalize touchpad sensitivity to one of three levels for maximum comfort. Naturally, other options for inputting information remain, including the larger center console touchpad, "Comand" knob and voice commands. Thankfully, traditional hard buttons remain for the climate controls.

Three screen design themes are available: Classic, Sport and Progressive. Classic brings the clean looks and white lettering that Mercedes owners are familiar with. Sport is a yellow theme that's subtly more athletic in appearance, whereas Progressive adopts more vibrant visuals. You can also select what information the screens prioritize, including navigation and tachometer.

Touch-control buttons integrated into the steering wheel allow for smartphone-like swipe gestures to control various screen functions.

Mercedes-Benz

For Apple fans, CarPlay will be available on the 2017 E-class when it goes on sale next year. For Android users, a company spokesman would only say that Android Auto is possible, but wouldn't confirm that it was coming for the E-class. That's odd, considering Mercedes says Android Auto is on its way for the new GLS crossover SUV. Wireless charging for smartphones in the center cubby and a LED ambient lighting system that offers 64 color options are also available.

Outside of tech features, Mercedes will offer numerous new seat and seat-stitch designs, leather color combinations and trim options for customers to choose from. Designers say the front seat shape takes its inspiration from dress forms, yielding an ergonomic and stylish execution that is quite comfortable to sit in. My favorite seats are the AMG versions that feature more prominent bolsters for sportier driving. They're more supportive, yet not so much as to be too confining. Adding to the comfort equation is the availability of a massaging function with eight different movements and a hot stone feature.

Materials are first-rate, with Mercedes using design elements including ash and walnut woods, along with real aluminum for trim pieces. Leathers are soft, and major and not-so-major touch points are wrapped and padded. Even the harder plastic pieces such as top dash trim look great, with finishes and graining that blend in nicely with everything else. One novel inclusion is the availability of new "metal fabric" woven trim.

The E-class can also be equipped with a thumping Burmester 3D surround sound system with 23 speakers and 1,450 watts of power. Listening to the system is a delight, with crisp and clear audio. The 3D setting aims for a concert hall experience, while the VIP setting from the S-class can center the music on any passenger in the cabin, which works really well. With a Burmester engineer cranking up the volume, the system rattled my internal organs, yet it continued to sound stellar and well balanced.

While the main focus of the background event I attended was the cabin, some exterior lighting details were revealed. LED high-performance headlights and a Multibeam LED headlight system will be options. The latter features Benz's Intelligent Light System that adapts lighting automatically depending on weather and driving conditions, as well as Adaptive Highbeam Assist Plus that adjusts the high beam to provide the best lighting possible without blinding oncoming traffic. Out back, optional stardust-effect LED light housings use tiny, irregular reflectors in the lens for a swankier appearance when lit up. Mercedes says they're reminiscent of "the Milky Way or the glow of a jet engine," but I'll just call them neat, if a bit gimmicky.

Optional stardust-effect taillights for the 2017 Mercedes-Benz E-class.

Jon Wong/CNET

More information on the new E-class should emerge at its expected Detroit Auto Show debut, where we'll see car's full exterior uncloaked and presumably learn about drivetrain and chassis features. Until then, I can confidently say the next-generation Mercedes-Benz E-class will have the plushiest, most advanced cabin in its class when it hits showrooms next year.

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