Benz's semi-autonomous cruise missile is more fun to drive yourself
Mercedes' semi-autonomous midsizer gets so much more power and personality you might prefer to drive it yourself.
The latest Mercedes-Benz E-Class is one of the poshest and most tech-rich cars on the road, at any price. The Three-Pointed Star's rival to the Audi A6, BMW 5 Series and Jaguar XF features a class-above cabin and is available with some of the most advanced semi-autonomous tech in the auto industry, brandishing even more self-driving features than its S-Class big brother. If the E-Class lacks for anything, it's that it's not a particularly pulse-quickening machine. The E's primary mission is to coddle occupants and smother road surfaces, not encourage drivers to charge around corners or blister them with mass quantities of spent rubber.
That's set to change with the next-generation Mercedes-AMG E63, a nearly here, twin-turbo 4.0-liter V8 sledgehammer expected to marshal over 600 horsepower in S trim (enough oomph to dispatch 60 mph in about 3.5 seconds). But that also means there will be a huge gulf in performance between today's base $52,150 E300, whose 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder offers less than half the power -- 241 hp and 273 pound-feet of torque -- and the forthcoming E63. A gaping hole big enough to drive this 2017 Mercedes-AMG E43 clean through, in fact.
Something of a more spirited replacement for the outgoing E400, this new-for-2017 E43 neatly splits the difference in displacement between the E300 and the coming E63, its twin-turbo 3.0-liter V6 dispensing a welcome 396 horsepower and 384 pound-feet of torque through a nine-speed paddle-shift automatic. View it as a rival to Audi's S6 and BMW's 550i XDrive instead of an RS6 and M5 competitor, and you've got it right.
It isn't just a larger engine under the hood that gives the E43 the right to wear Affalterbach's fabled A-M-G script on its trunk lid. It also receives a lot of other performance-minded hardware, including a self-leveling air suspension with dedicated sports tuning, standard 4Matic all-wheel drive with a more pronounced rearward torque bias, and a quicker steering ratio.
While the model won't be available until early 2017, Mercedes invited me to Hamburg, Germany last week to sample its new E43 last week on the bucolic country roads outside the city, as well as on the Autobahn, and it's clear the new model injects a welcome helping of "sport" into the E-Class' repertoire. It'll take more hours behind the wheel to know for sure, but my brief drive in the E43 suggests AMG has struck a fine balance, imparting the E's chassis with significantly more power and a more entertaining disposition while stopping short of resorting to the full-on, driver's license-shredding rapidity and madness of the last E63.
Zero-to-60 is pledged to run about 4.5 seconds, and top speed is electronically capped at 130 mph. The former figure is a lot quicker than the E300's 6.3-second estimate, and while the latter number may sound like little more than bar trivia to North Americans, for those piloting the E43 in its German Vaterland, a high top speed is a very welcome, very exploitable asset on the country's de-restricted stretches of Autobahn. So much so, in fact, that the European-spec model will hit a still-governed 155 mph.
If anything, Benz's official 0-to-60 time feels a shade conservative. Despite having larger turbos and running more boost than it does in the C43 and SLC43 Roadster guise, this V6 engine still builds power quickly, and a 31:69 rearward torque bias on the E43's AWD helps get power to the ground as weight shifts rearward under acceleration. The resulting surge is surprising for a 4,145-pound sedan, both from a standstill and particularly at midrange engine speeds, as when passing a convoy of semis on the freeway (peak torque kicks in at 2,500 rpm and hangs out until 5,000 rpm).
Although I really didn't get the chance to build up a proper head of steam on a twisty road to fully assess the E43's handling, its variable-ratio steering felt slightly but noticeably keener than that of the standard E300 I drove in February. It's been fitted with unique steering knuckles and stiffer bushings, and there's more negative camber dialed in to enhance turn-in and cornering grip. Personally, I'd love to have a more assertive exhaust note when really giving the engine the stick in Sport or Sport Plus mode, but AMG is likely reserving the Full Steven Tyler for its next E63.
If you're not fortunate enough to be behind the wheel of an E43, you'll recognize one on the street most easily by spotting its unique chromed-pin grille and its "Big Gulp" lower fascia with three large air inlets, as well as AMG-specific gloss-black and machine-face 19-inch wheels (20s, like those of my test car, are optional). Out back, a pair of twin-element exhaust finishers poke out beneath a silver-chrome diffuser, as well as a discreet lip spoiler.
Inside, the E-Class' cabin has been given an industry-standard "sports" makeover, including grippier seats (with red seat belts!), unique pedals and red contrast stitching. It's a pretty convincing transformation as far as these things go, but the E-Class' top priority is clearly still luxury, as it should be.
My tester was fitted with optional extras including an exceptional 23-speaker Burmester High-End 3D surround-sound audio system (with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay compatibility), and Benz's rather precious Air Balance fragrance system borrowed from the S-Class. However, the cabin's most amazing feature will always be the twin 12.3-inch screens that make up the gauge cluster and center infotainment display. They're encased in a floating mount covered by a single piece of mineral glass, lending them the appearance of one long, uninterrupted screen. The sharp, richly colored displays are user configurable and all but shout, "Look at me! I'm expensive, dahling!"
As with lesser E-Class models, the E43 is an advanced driver-assistance systems showcase par excellence, as it's available with Benz's Piloted Drive technology, which affords semi-autonomous driving at speeds of up to 130 mph, including the ability to change lanes just by activating the turn signal. It'll even reconcile speed limits using mapping data and reading road signs with the forward-facing camera (Pro tip: The system will even allow you to manually select speeds over the posted limit so you don't get run over by faster traffic).
In fact, like other E-Class models, the E43 will shortly be available with Car-To-X capabilities, making it the first production connected car on the market. By communicating through a central information center, E-Classes will automatically be able to update other nearby E-Classes about driving conditions on the road ahead. The tech is actually already available in European models, but MBUSA still has some red tape to cut in Washington before it can offer it here.
Sadly, it's not yet clear how much all of this prescience, performance and poshness will cost. E43 pricing has not yet been released, but for reference, today's E300 4Matic starts at $55,575, and it's quite easy to option a model into the low $70s. I'd expect the E43 to start somewhere around $70K to $75K, leaving plenty of daylight between it and the next E63, which is likely to have a six-digit starting price.
It's rumored that the next E63 will take the stage at the Paris Motor Show at the end of September, and after my day's drive in Hamburg, one thing is clear: it's going to need to be a stunning piece of work to justify a sizable cost premium over this already-excellent E43.