The Mercedes-Benz E-Class gets its name from the German word for injection, einspritzung, which originally referred to the car's fuel-injection system in the 1950s. For the 2007 model year, the E-Class gets a couple more injections: its front end gets some Botox work and a shot of sporty grille treatment, while the engine gets a near-overdose of power in the form of a barnstorming 382-horspeower 5.5-liter engine. The resultant outpatient is the 2007 Mercedes-Benz E550, the new face of Mercedes's midsize executive sedan series, a discreetly styled Teutonic tourer, potent enough to bury the Audi A6 and the BMW 550i in the dust of the autobahn. Inside, the E550 presents an array of communications and entertainment features that tick most of the car-tech boxes, but some, including the GPS navigation system, have less-than-user-friendly interfaces.
Hawkeyed observers of the E550 will be able to tell that the E-Class's midcycle face-lift has made the front end look sharper than the previous E500, thanks to a pointed, more beaklike front grille. Other cosmetic tweaks, including additional horizontal eyelids on the car's headlights and the addition of some extra wire mesh beneath the front bumper, give the E550 a more aggressive, sporty expression, although not to the detriment of the car's understated character.
Speedo display trumps COMAND
The interior of the 2007 Mercedes-Benz E550 is a mix of old-world Mercedes styling and new-world cabin tech. Plush leather upholstery and burl walnut trim provide the framework for the car's dated-looking head unit and HVAC controls. Thanks to Keyless Go, drivers can gain access to the E550 and fire up its engine via a button on top of the shifter without having to take the car's weighty key fob from their pockets. Further evidence that this is going to be a technoride is provided in the form of 10-way adjustable seats and an automatically tilting-and telescoping steering wheel. The latter is furnished with four large, pushable remote-control buttons, which are used to control the car's audio settings (volume/CD track/satellite radio station), to answer and end phone calls made via the Bluetooth hands-free interface, and--most usefully in our experience--to scroll through the information shown in the multifunction monochrome display nestled in the center of the speedometer.
We liked the four steering wheel-mounted buttons.
This display was our favorite cabin-tech feature of the E550: with a push of one of the oval buttons, we were able to call up information on: the current satellite radio station; current road and direction of travel; real-time turn-by-turn directions from the GPS navigation system with distance to the next turning, direction of the next turning (in the form of a bright white arrow), and the name of the upcoming street we were to turn onto; phone status; and readouts on speed, current gas mileage, and range to empty.
And we loved the in-speedo multifunction display.
It is just as well that this was all available via the speedometer display, as the E550's Cockpit Management and Data (COMAND) system LCD display is less than user friendly. This is most evident with the navigation: instead of a touch screen or the center-console-mounted dial that we saw in the 2007 Mercedes S550, the E550 requires wayfarers to program destinations using a fussy, five-way rocker switch, which requires a good deal of repetitive button-pushing to enter a single destination. One of our colleagues was particularly critical of the washed-out light-blue-on-lighter-blue color scheme for the menu screens. If you can live with that, then you might also find yourself frustrated with the fact that the display will show only one function at a time: more than once, we wanted to know the name of a song playing on Sirius while navigating to a destination. To do so, we had to leave the map screen by pressing the Sat button (not the Audio button, which will stop the satellite radio station altogether), then press another button for Info to get the names of the artist and track. We much prefer multiple-info display configurations, such as those we've seen in some Acura, Lexus, and GM models.
Turn on, zoom in, fade out
Without the use of the instruction manual (our test car came without one), we also had a hard time figuring out how to change the volume of the navigation's voice commands, which were set at a volume too soft for us to hear, especially with the Harman Kardon Logic7 surround sound playing in all its glory. Fortunately, we are tech-savvy geniuses here at CNET, and some extensive digging and decoding of cryptic Mercedes design led us to the solution: rather than a volume gauge, the voice volume is adjusted by a fade setting--minimum fade for minimum voice-guidance volume, maximum fade for maximum voice-guidance volume--easy when you know how. And our gripes with the navigation interface don't stop there. We found that the E550's LCD display is set too far down in the center console for quick, easy glances at the directions and also that the E550's maps give inadequate street-name information: even at maximum zoom, the names of many San Francisco cross streets didn't show up.
The E550's navigation display is washed out and set too low in the dash for easy viewing.
OK, enough of our gripes with the navigation system. Other cabin tech in the E550 is generally well integrated and useful. We particularly liked the pop-out faceplate for the insertion of CDs into the in-dash six-disc changer and the fact that there is an auxiliary input jack subtly installed in the glove box. A dedicated iPod integration kit, enabling control of an iPod via the car's head unit display, is available as a dealer-installed option for an extra $321. In addition to playing regular CDs, the E550's stereo accepts homemade MP3 discs, giving full ID3-tag information for artist, album, and track. The Logic7 surround-sound audio system's immersive output was a pleasure to listen to, sounding great across all ranges right up to maximum volume.
As with other Mercedes we've tested, the standard Bluetooth hands-free interface in the E550 is no use to those who don't own one of the seven bespoke Mercedes-Benz handsets that are compatible with the car's phone cradle. Those wishing to use other phones with the car must fork out $350 for a dealer-installed Bluetooth Interface Module--insult to the injury of dropping more than $60K on the car itself. As our tester came with the Premium II package, we had the pleasure of a couple of extra comfort tech features, including heated and ventilated front seats and an ultraluxurious power rear-window sunshade.
Having given vent to our niggles with the cabin, we are obliged to say that the 2007 Mercedes-Benz E550 is an awesome car for those who want a car for good, old low-tech driving pleasure.
To say that the 2007 E550's performance credentials are understated is itself an understatement: the midsize sedan inherits the family performance jewels from its S550 big brother in the shape of a 5.5-liter all-aluminum 32-valve, variable-valve timed V-8 mill making 382 horsepower when pushed to 6,000rpm. With neither access to a closed-circuit track nor a death wish, we didn't manage to get the sporty sedan up to its full 6K in any gear above second, but we did enjoy taking advantage of the E550's oodles of torque--391pound-feet at 2,800rpm--to put a BMW M3 in its place en route to San Jose. And being a Mercedes-Benz, the E550 reserves its most impressive technology for enhancing its performance.
A system called Shift into Optimum Gear enables the driver to select the most effective of the car's seven gears to achieve maximum acceleration or engine braking by pulling the shifter laterally toward the driver's seat for one second. For those wishing to let the car shift on its own, the E550 features driver-adaptive programming, which adjusts shifts to the current driving style. We would be hard-pushed to say that we felt any noticeable effects of the this system, but we also never found that the car was hunting for the right gear, despite our various experimental driving styles, so it was probably working just fine. One feature that did have a discernible effect on the E550's performance was the button enabling us to switch the transmission to Comfort mode, which started the car from standing in second gear and delivered upshifts at lower rpms for a more sedate ride.
Buttons on the center stack allow the driver to customize suspension and transmission settings.
Also customizable from the cabin is the E550's Airmatic air suspension, which can be set to one of three configurations according to your preferences for hauling the 4000-pound Benz through the bends. Nevertheless, while it has the muscle to beat the BMW 550i to 60mph, our E550 felt and drove more like a comfortable, executive sedan with a performance secret than like a sports car--even when tuned to the stiffest suspension setting. Perhaps if we'd had the Sport Package (larger, 18-inch wheels; lowered suspension; sportier bumper and exhaust pipes; white racing gauges), we would have felt differently.
Thanks to its gas-gulping V-8, the E550's EPA fuel-economy ratings--15mpg in the city, 23mpg on the highway--are on the low side for a midsize sedan. In practice, we found that it performed at the high end of the scale, getting an average of 20.7mpg in mixed, freeway-skewed driving. The E550 scores less well on the EPA's midsize car emissions table: at 10.1 tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year (10.5 for the all-wheel-drive 4Matic), the E550 is among the top five emissions offenders in its class.
Pre Safe as standard
The most impressive safety-tech feature of the 2007 Mercedes-Benz E550 is the installation as standard of Mercedes's Pre Safe collision-mitigation system. Previously the preserve of the S-Class, Pre Safe is a radar-based active safety system that analyzes braking, steering, and electronic stability control data to identify a probable imminent impact. If a crash seems likely, the system prepares the car to best protect its occupants by tensioning the seatbelts, closing the sunroof and windows, and moving the front seats into the safest upright position to maximize the effect of airbag deployment. Also inherited from the S550 are the E550's adaptive brake lights, which operate as regular brake lights under normal driving conditions, but which flash intermittently when the brake pedal is forcefully depressed, to alert drivers behind.
Other active safety features on the E550 include bi-xenon high-intensity discharge headlights featuring active curve illumination, and cornering fog lights that follow the car's path into a bend to give the driver better visibility when turning. (European owners of the E550 get an additional active lighting feature called Intelligent Light System, which analyses the car's speed and orientation to set the headlamps to one of five illumination modes including dedicated settings for driving on the freeway, on country roads, and in heavy fog--no word from Mercedes if and when this will be available in the States.) Standard passive safety on the E550 is equally impressive: driver and front passenger get dual-stage front- and side-impact airbags, while outboard rear passengers also get side-impact airbags all within a steel-reinforced cabin with front and rear crumple zones. Window curtain airbags are also installed along each side of the car, ready to deploy in the event of a side impact or in response to the car's electronic rollover sensor.
The 2007 Mercedes-Benz E550 comes with a four-year/ 50,000-mile warranty, and a no-charge checkup between 1,000 and 3,000 miles. Mercedes's TeleAid system is also available to provide emergency aid, information, or roadside assistance.
As mentioned, our E550 tester came with the Premium II package ($4,740), which comprises DVD navigation, Sirius Satellite radio, heated and ventilated seats, power rear-window sunshade, hands-free communication system, Keyless Go, bi-xenon headlights, and cornering fog lights. In addition to the car's base price of $59,000, gas guzzler tax ($1,300), and destination charge ($775), it all rang up to $65,815.
With a higher base price than the 2007 Audi A6 4.2, the 2007 BMW 550i, and the 2006 Acura RL, the E550 is pricier than the competition. While its mediocre onboard technology suggests that this price premium is not justified, an afternoon of spirited driving behind the E550's wheel might convince you otherwise.