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Cars have improved dramatically compared to 20 or 30 years ago, with better reliability, ride quality and safety, but they also tend to feel pretty similar from behind the wheel. Mercedes-Benz, however, manages to distinguish itself, even where other premium brands fail. The S-Class leads the luxury pack, and my recent week in the 2018 Mercedes-Benz E400 Coupe made me want more drive time.
From my first moment in the driver seat, maneuvering the E400 Coupe out of our parking garage, the car's feel impressed me. The throttle was powerful and smooth, while suspension, body and steering all felt perfectly synchronized.
Over many miles, as I got used to the incredible drive feel, the car continued to engage me with its many useful features. Caught in stop-and-go traffic, Mercedes-Benz's adaptive cruise control literally drove for me. The digital instrument panel let me explore different styles, and the new COMAND interface, Mercedes-Benz's infotainment system, proved much more intuitive than its past versions.
And what's that pleasant aroma? A glance in the glovebox reveals the Air Balance cabin fragrance system, a vial of scented liquid that plugs into the climate control. This E-Class Coupe pampered me, while remaining an engaging driver.
Mercedes-Benz offers the E-Class as a sedan, coupe, convertible and even a wagon. In sedan form, it seats five and, designated E300, comes with a turbocharged four-cylinder engine good for 241 horsepower. Figuring E-Class Coupe buyers might prefer a more sport-oriented car, Mercedes-Benz sells it as the E400 Coupe, equipped standard with a turbocharged three-liter V6 making 329 horsepower and 354 pound-feet of torque.
New for the 2018 model year, the E400 Coupe also comes with a nine-speed automatic transmission, complete with paddle shifters. The version I drove came with Mercedes-Benz's 4Matic all-wheel-drive system, adding $2,400 to the price.
With less of a practical focus than the sedan, the E400 Coupe's two fewer doors also mean a rear seat only made for two, as a center console negates a third occupant. Given the pillarless side window opening, I wouldn't regret the loss of passenger space. The E400 Coupe's fluid body lines give it an absolutely gorgeous look.
I knew I was in for a technical treat when, digging into the car set-up menus on the center dashboard screen, I found three different styles for the LCD instrument cluster panel. Classic and Sport gave me traditional and realistic looking virtual gauges, while Progressive showed an integrated tachometer and speedometer along with a driving efficiency coach. My only complaint was that I couldn't program each style to come up when I engaged a particular drive mode.
I've previously written many words criticizing Mercedes-Benz's COMAND system, the acronym standing for Cockpit Management and Data, which encompasses navigation, stereo and connected features. The E400 Coupe shows off a whole new -- and much improved -- interface for COMAND. Doing away with the former hodgepodge of drop-down menus and icons, the new system goes to an easier-to-understand icon format with sidebar menus, all showing on a wide, 12.3 inch LCD.
It remains a non-touchscreen system, relying on a console-mounted dial and touchpad, both of which have some duplicative functions.
The onboard navigation system looks good, with rich graphics on the maps showing terrain and rendered buildings. Destination entry uses a one-box interface where I could enter place names or street addresses, which is nice. However, when the system failed to find a regional park that came up on my Google Maps app, I turned to its online search function, and the car failed to establish a data connection. That may have been a service issue, but I would check that capability out at the dealership before making a purchase.
Bypassing the onboard systems, the E400 Coupe supports both Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. I plugged in my iPhone and found the nontouch interface to work well, after I figured it out. My only complaint with Apple CarPlay integration is that, unless you set it to connect automatically, it takes a number of steps to switch between it and the onboard systems.
The E400 Coupe supports the usual audio inputs, such as USB and Bluetooth, and I was very impressed with the Burmester stereo, with its 13 speakers and 590-watt amp. Surprisingly, I was listening to the base system in the car, as Mercedes-Benz offers an upgrade to what it calls the Burmester High-End 3D Surround system, with 23 speakers, for $5,400.
As if the sounds and scents in the E400 Coupe weren't enough, the ride quality proved very comfortable in three of its four drive modes. Although particularly chunky pavement jarred the ride, most of the time it was smooth sailing. It felt just second to the bigger S-Class, which is the most comfortable car I've experienced in a long time.
The easily modulated throttle let me take off leisurely or quickly, while the transmission shifted through its nine gears seamlessly, never intruding on my driving pleasure. In Eco and Comfort mode, the suspension felt nicely soft while never feeling loose, as with other adaptive suspension cars I've driven. The steering felt sure and natural.
An idle-stop feature shut down the V6 when I stopped for traffic lights, helping to save fuel, and never delayed when I hit the gas. In fact, the limited vibration and noise made it difficult to tell when the engine was actually idling when I was stopped.
Sport stiffened the ride quality and appreciably sharpened the throttle, but I didn't find it very impressive as I ran the E400 Coupe down a winding back road. It made for a comfortable sport ride, but I felt there should be more.
Then I switched it to Sport Plus. The driving character changed drastically as the car willingly sacrificed my comfort for handling prowess. The ride quality became rough, but the E400 Coupe remained very flat in the turns, maximizing its grip on the road. The transmission made itself felt with abrupt downshifts, a distinct difference from how smoothly it works in other drive modes.
In Sport Plus, the E400 Coupe became a hard sports car, and I embraced it by making the tires sing in the turns.
Back to Comfort mode, the car's default, and Eco, where I spent the majority of my drive time, I averaged 23 mpg in a mix of city and freeway driving. That's a little better than its 22 mpg combined in EPA testing, where it also achieves 20 mpg city and 26 mpg highway. In general, low 20s may seem pretty poor fuel economy for a modern car, but 22 mpg average comes in on par with the BMW 640i xDrive and Lexus GS 350 all-wheel-drive sedan.
Cruising down a country highway, I really came to appreciate Mercedes-Benz's adaptive cruise control technology, which has always been leading edge. Taking this feature closer to self-driving, I found the E400 Coupe automatically adjusting the speed I had set for lower speed limits. For example, cruising down a 55 mph highway, the car slowed down to 35 mph when passing through a town with those limits posted.
That feature was very cool, with one caveat. Mercedes-Benz also gave the E400 Coupe the ability to read traffic signs, and it dutifully displayed the current speed limit in its head-up display. In the US, unfortunately, we aren't very good at posting and maintaining traffic signage, and I found plenty of road segments where the car thought the limit was 35 mph, but had actually gone back up to 55 mph. I was able to turn off the traffic sign recognition feature.
Adaptive cruise really paid off in stop-and-go traffic, where the E400 Coupe kept a close following distance to the car ahead, so I didn't have to touch the pedals at all. Even better, at those painfully slow traffic speeds, the car's lane-keeping assist basically becomes self-steering, so I could even take my hands off the wheel.
I've largely been impressed by Mercedes-Benz's lineup, and the 2018 E400 Coupe is no exception. The cars show excellent driving dynamics, even in the sort of urban and suburban cruising that takes up most people's drive time. Mercedes-Benz is a true leader in driver assistance features, reflected in how comfortably the E400 Coupe handled stop-and-go traffic. And while the infotainment interface was a point of contention in the past, the update contained in the E400 Coupe is a welcome change. Add in the first-rate Burmester stereo system, and this car made driving more joy than task.
The E400 Coupe also occupies interesting ground in the market, as it is the only true coupe in the luxury midsize market. BMW dropped its 6-series coupe, only offering the four-door Gran Coupe, and Audi's A7's four doors and hatchback also rule out coupe purity. Most luxury coupes come in smaller, from the BMW 4-series to the Lexus RC.
While not as practical as the Mercedes-Benz E-Class sedan or wagon, the E400 Coupe is a very stylish, remarkable car. I would start with the rear-wheel-drive version, at $58,900, because I don't think all-wheel-drive would make as big a difference in slippery conditions as basic traction control. I would forgo the AMG package, which is mostly cosmetic, but add the $10,200 Premium 3 Package, which brings in a host of electronics, including adaptive cruise control, head-up display and the LCD instrument cluster. That package also adds heated and ventilated front seats, for $450, and automatic high-beams, for $250. And if I had an extra $950 in my pocket, I would throw in the massage seats, because those can be a real comfort on a long trip. That puts my total at $71,495, a big chunk of money but a thoroughly enjoyable car.