Ever see a bad car accident sequence in a movie or TV show and notice that when the occupants emerge from the origami'd automobile, they're not just dazed, but also deafened, their ears traumatized by the sound of the crash? That's not just Hollywood taking dramatic license, that's a real phenomenon.
It's also something owners of the all-new 2017 Mercedes-Benz E-Class aren't likely to ever experience. That's because not only will the luxury sedan's phalanx of advanced active safety systems work ceaselessly and feverishly to avoid all potential accidents in the first place, if one somehow proves inescapable, the E-Class will warn occupants' ear drums ahead of the impact, coaxing them into an involuntary battening down of their auditory hatches. Yes, really.
When an unavoidable crash is deemed imminent, the E-Class' new "Pre-Safe Sound" uses the car's audio system to immediately play a "short interference signal" -- basically a loud, specifically chosen warning tone. That emergency sound triggers the "Stapedius Reflex" of the vehicle's occupants, a self-preservation contraction of the tensor tympani and stapedius muscles designed to protect one's inner ears from damage.
There's so much new advanced safety, semi-autonomous and connected-car tech in the new E-Class that it's hard to know where to start. Even a jaded auto journalist like me can't help but marvel a little.
That's not to say the 10th generation model is perfect, of course. At the behest of Mercedes, I flew to Lisbon, Portugal, to thoroughly assess the E-Class on both street and track, and while I found a great deal to praise, I did drum up a few reservations, albeit most of them temporary.
I'll start with the E-Class' all-new appearance, which doesn't actually look "all-new" at all. That's because Mercedes' mid-range luxury sedan now reads exactly like the models that bookend it -- the entry-level C-Class on the low side of the ledger, and the larger, more sybaritic S-Class on the high side. For years, stylists from Mercedes and its nemesis, BMW, suffered the same "one sausage, three sizes" barbs from critics. Perhaps as a response to those jabs, in recent generations, Benz has cultivated more meaningful visual differentiation between its three mainline four-doors. The new E is something of a retreat in this regard, looking like nothing less than C- or S- blueprints run through a Xerox machine set to shrink or enlarge, respectively.
It's not that the W213 is unfortunate looking, or even unattractive from most angles (although it does suffer from the same serially saggy-looking rump as its siblings, leavened slightly by new "Stardust-effect" taillights). It's just a bit banal and overly familiar. Its visual conservatism stands in stark contrast to its quicksilver innards, which are those of one of the most advanced and connected cars the world has ever seen.
That last bit? It's not lazy hyperbole. Most notably, the E-Class is the world's first production car to feature V2X technology, the next essential building block on the road to connected cars and full autonomy. Essentially, the new E-Class will quietly broadcast and receive key bits of information about its journey via the road infrastructure to other nearby V2X-equipped cars in an effort to relay things like road traction conditions, traffic, area weather, and so on, in hopes of "effectively allowing the driver to see around corners and through obstacles," says Benz. Obviously it will take a while for roads to populate with enough E-Class models and the cars that follow to make this a major benefit, but the movement has to start somewhere, and the E-Class is the four-wheeled tipping point.
The catch? While European customers will get V2X technology from launch, US availability remains TBD -- likely because Daimler's lawyers are still trying to assuage the concerns of Washington legislators as well satisfy the gimlet-eyed stares emanating from its legal department. If I were a betting man, I'd guess that the technology wont show up in our market until late 2017 or early 2018, around the same time as Mercedes' new out-of-car self-parking technology is expected.
The latter, dubbed Remote Parking Pilot, employs the driver's smartphone and near-field communications (NFC) technology to enable the car to be unlocked, started, moved and turned off without anyone ever setting a foot inside it -- useful when pulling into a very tight parking space, for instance. Yes, Tesla's Model S already offers similar technology, but its deployment hasn't been without its hiccups, so a larger company like Mercedes may be wise to slow its roll(out) and spend some time dotting its "i"s and crossing its "t"s. (The smartphone "key" app and wireless charging will be available at launch without remote park, however, and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are also expected).
Hopefully the E-Class' lighthouse-grade 84-LED headlamps will arrive sooner. These trick units not only automatically adjust for rain, they selectively dim parts of their field of vision whenever oncoming traffic is detected -- effectively meaning this car can run its high-beams all the time, without blinding other motorists or pedestrians. Unfortunately, our government hasn't signed off yet on this or a myriad of other cutting edge lighting technologies already available overseas, but I've spoken with a number of automaker lobbyists and engineers who finally see a light at the end of the proverbial legislative tunnel on such matters. Less capable LED headlamps will be fitted to US cars in the meantime.
These are just a few of the new high-tech features of the E-Class, but the most impressive of them in daily use is likely to be the updated Drive Pilot system, the most natural-feeling and consistent semi-autonomous technology I've yet experienced. The next-generation system can not only follow cars at speeds of up to 130 mph at a driver-selected distance, it will fluidly steer itself around freeway bends up to that same speed. (At least while the road line markers are clear. If they're muddled or not present, the system can still cope at speeds of up to 81 mph). Drive Pilot even uses GPS data and reads traffic signs to keep within sight of the speed limit (the system will allow you to program in extra-legal speeds at your discretion). Worryingly, however, I did find more than one occasion where it failed to note a change in the posted limit.
You can even change lanes around slower cars automatically by activating the turn signal -- the E-Class will only oblige if its radar and cameras give your blind spots the all clear. You won't want to take your hands off the wheel (although the system will now let you do so for up to a minute before it barrages you with warnings), but the assistance does seem to make long-distance freeway driving less fatiguing, as it subtly works to keep you in your lane and safely interact with other cars.
The E350's interior has clearly gone to S-Class finishing school. My test car was fitted with twin, end-to-end-mounted 12.3-inch screens, just like the S550. Disappointingly, I'm being told most US models will get a similar 12.3-inch infotainment screen paired with a more conventionally sized gauge cluster readout, although the full Vegas will be available for order. The twin oversized displays are so crisp, so usable, and so central to the dashboard's aesthetic that I hope demand surprises dealer order specialists.
Beyond that, key highlights include new touch- and swipe-sensitive steering wheel controls that allow you to jockey between menus on both screens intuitively, making use of the COMAND infotainment jog wheel on the center tunnel a bit less necessary. Predictably, material quality is up, and there are new creature comforts, including heated armrests borrowed from the S-Class.
Much like plainspoken way it appears on the outside, the 2017 E-Class largely goes down the road smoothly and unobtrusively, just like a proper luxury car. If you didn't already know you were surrounded by a NORAD's worth of advanced surveillance systems and countermeasures, you wouldn't know it. You'll notice that I haven't talked about the car's powertrain yet, normally one of a first drive's top topics of conversation. That's because compared to the E-Class' silicon chippery, it's decidedly ordinary.
That's not to say it's disappointing, or even carryover. When Mercedes launches the E-Class in NA this summer, it will take the unusual step of initially offering only four-cylinder power. The 241-horsepower, 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine may seem remarkably small (it's two cylinders and a liter-and-a-half down on displacement versus the 2016 model), but it's remarkably smooth and plenty torquey (273 pound-feet from 1,300 rpm). Along with the rest of the cabin, it's also well-insulated and never obtrusive, even when shuffling from stoplight to stoplight with the well-behaved stop/start system extinguishing and firing away. I sampled a rear-wheel drive version, but 4Matic all-wheel drive will also be available.
Benz's new 9G-Tronic nine-speed automatic transmission is standard, and it works very well, never seeming either shift-happy or in the wrong cog. That was true even when bombing down twisty mountain coastline roads powering out of the corners at Circuito Estoril with the Driver Command toggle set to Sport mode. I'm normally a driver who likes using paddle shifters a great deal, but it quickly became apparent it wasn't necessary for optimal running.
While Mercedes hasn't gone on the record yet, it will have to offer more-powerful engine variants in the near future to keep pace with rivals like the Audi A6, BMW 5 Series, Jaguar XF and Lexus GS, and it probably won't wait very long to do so. I sampled a European-market E400 4Matic and its 329-hp, 354 lb-ft turbocharged 3.0-liter V-6 and enjoyed its additional power and slightly snarlier soundtrack. Even so, E300 customers shouldn't feel short-changed with their four-cylinder power.
Perhaps unsurprising given Volkswagen's recent legal troubles, a North American diesel engine option -- long an E-Class mainstay -- does not appear to be in the near-term cards.
Back on the subject of E400, the V-6 four-door still doesn't feel quite visceral enough to be an out-and-out sport sedan, but that's not really its mission. Further tuning and aesthetic differentiation will be easy enough, and a full-fat AMG version can't be far down the product pipeline.
Despite all new E-Class' slightly larger dimensions (wheelbase has swollen by 2.6 inches and overall length is up by 1.7 inches), as well as its reams of additional safety tech and creature comforts, the W213 may actually end up being slightly lighter than its W212 predecessor thanks to more extensive use of high-strength and ultra-high-strength steel, as well as structural adhesives. Benz says the E's body-in-white has dropped by an impressive 155 pounds, and it stands to reason that the loss of a couple of cylinders lowers weight, too.
Keeping weight in check, improving the adjustable suspension (Air Body Control is optional) and fitting a more-direct electric power steering system helps keep cornering commendably flat, and turn in is pleasingly quick. Understeer eventually rears its head when you take a corner too hot, but it's predictable. As it was, my E400 was shod in super-sticky 18-inch Dunlop Sport Maxx summer rubber, something all US customers will almost certainly do without, so I'll need to sample a car on US rubber to get a better feel for the E's true capabilities.
It's reasonable to assume that if weight holds the line or drops, this car's EPA fuel-efficiency figures should rise slightly from today's 20 miles per gallon city and 29 highway (E350) thanks to aerodynamic improvements and the aforementioned nine-speed cog-swapper.
Also not-yet-available are prices. Today's E350 starts at $53,100 before delivery, but Mercedes execs say pricing could actually drop slightly thanks to new production efficiencies and currency market fluctuations. That could put the base 2017 E300 at around $51,000, right in the thick of the midsize premium sedan hunt, with most well-equipped models in the neighborhood of $57-$65 large.
Whether on track or street, mountain road or city stop-and-go, the 2017 E-Class exudes not just confidence and class-leading luxury, it bristles with connected-car and advanced active safety systems never before seen a production automobile. Unfortunately, much of the Benz's showcase technologies will remain forbidden fruit until Mercedes' lawyers can get on the same page with government legislators. In the meantime, the new E-Class still manages to be technological juggernaut in a well-tailored -- if slightly conservative -- suit.