In a segment where stalwarts have waged war on one another for decades, with very few interlopers genuinely working their way into the mix, the 2021 Mercedes-Benz E-Class has pulled off an impressive feat. In what amounts to a strong mid-cycle refresh, the latest E-Class picks up a number of tricks that makes it the best midsize luxury sedan by a country mile.
The model I'm in, the E450, gets the most changes out of any variant. Gone is the twin-turbo V6 of yore, in its place a 3.0-liter turbocharged I6 mated to a 48-volt mild-hybrid system. It produces 362 horsepower and 369 pound-feet of torque, while the electric motor jammed into the equation can produce 21 hp and 184 lb-ft on its own, although its primary goal is improving efficiency by allowing for extended low-load coasting and longer stop-start durations.
No matter the intended purpose, the E450's powertrain is smooth from start to finish. Whether it's coming from the electric motor or the straight-six, there's so much available low-end torque that pulling away from lights or entering a highway feels effortless. Refinement is the name of the game here -- compared to the old twin-turbo V6, the newer I6 sounds better and translates fewer vibrations into the cabin. Its nine-speed automatic is at the top of its game, as well, providing smooth shifts in both directions and having a darned good idea of what gear is needed at what time.
The 2021 E-Class is a true luxury car in the most literal sense, prioritizing plushness at every turn. A good bit of that comes from my tester's optional three-chamber air suspension, a $1,900 upgrade that feels mandatory if I want to luxuriate as much as possible. It turns the E450 into a cloud, sailing over bad roads with very little making its way to the cabin, aided by smaller 18-inch alloy wheels and sufficiently thicc Pirelli Sottozero winter tires. Larger wheels will add style points, sure, but it will come at the tradeoff of ride quality. Despite being soft as all get-out, the E450 doesn't feel like a boat in curves, and changing to a sportier vehicle mode eliminates most of the body roll, adding just enough sporty character without distracting from the car's true purpose.
Every other component my hands or feet come into contact with only reinforce the notion that this is the singular best luxury car in its segment. The steering is nicely weighted no matter the mode. The brakes will bring the E450 to a stop in a hurry, but there's a great deal of pedal modulation available, making for smooth stops every time. The throttle is similarly programmed, which makes it pretty easy for me to meet and beat the EPA's E450 fuel economy estimates of 23 miles per gallon city and 30 mpg highway.
The 2021 E450's interior continues the theme of chill elegance. The E-Class' interior has always been a comfortable place to burn time, with soft and supportive leather seats that provide ample headroom and legroom in both rows, in addition to some high-quality wood trims. My tester's $1,620 leather upgrade makes the seats softer, but the stock vinyl dashboard still feels plenty premium without needing to drop thousands more on a full-leather getup. The physical controls for the climate control feel expensive with every push, and the entire instrument panel is mounted sufficiently low, making for great forward visibility. Storage isn't half bad, either, with deep door pockets and a capacious under-armrest cubby, although at 13.1 cubic feet, the trunk space leans towards the tinier side, lagging behind the BMW 5 Series and Audi A6 while pulling even with the Genesis G80.
Most of the E-Class' interior upgrades involve the tech. A new steering wheel revamps the controls, replacing individual toggles and knobs with a full-capacitive setup that looks slick. It works well enough -- except the volume slider, which is hard to adjust accurately, so I end up reaching for the proper volume knob on the center console to actually control loudness. Its piano-black finish is also a smudge magnet, so keep that in mind. A new touchpad graces the center console, too, with handwriting recognition that works pretty darn well.
As part of the $200 MBUX Interior Assistant upgrade, if I'm by myself in the car and I reach my arm to the passenger seat to grab something -- a mask, a wallet, whatever -- the right-side map light will turn on, then turn off again once my hand is back on my side of the car. It's clever little things like this that really enhances the luxury-car experience, always making things as easy as possible for whoever's in control.
The most notable technological upgrade lives front and center. The MBUX infotainment system now resides on the two 12.3-inch screens spanning most of the dashboard, and it's just as good as it is elsewhere in the lineup. The system is fast to boot and quick to respond to commands, whether they come from the touchscreen directly, or the steering wheel, or the trackpad, or even MB's baked-in natural language recognition. A $350 option adds augmented-reality turn-by-turn directions, overlaying a video feed of the road ahead with lane suggestions and turns, which is a fun parlor trick that actually does aid navigation in unfamiliar areas. Navigation comes standard on the E450, as does Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and connected-car services featuring a 4G LTE Wi-Fi hotspot.
Mercedes-Benz has been pretty good with its standard safety systems over the last few years, and the E450 stays the course. Standard kit includes automatic emergency braking, blind-spot monitoring and one of the highest-resolution backup cameras on the market. My tester takes it a step further with the $1,950 Driver Assistance Package that adds adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assist, lane-change assist and route-based speed adaptation, which combines for a hands-on system that does a great job of keeping the car at pace in traffic. A little extra peace of mind also comes from the $2,300 Premium Package, which tacks on a surround-view camera system and parking sensors, in addition to a trick Burmester audio system.
Of course, being the best luxury car in its class comes at a cost. The 2021 E450 starts at $63,050 including destination, with my well-equipped tester ringing in at a hefty $76,140. It's competitive with the two other segment stalwarts, the Audi A6 and BMW 5 Series, but the Merc does the best job of prioritizing driving opulence. However, there's a new competitor from farther east: the Genesis G80. This redesigned Korean luxury sedan is damn impressive, giving Mercedes a run for its money in outright plushness and breadth of available technology. While the Genesis lacks the cachet of the three usual players, it deserves a serious look from anyone who wants a capital-L luxury experience.
But even with its newfound (and closest) rival, the 2021 Mercedes-Benz E-Class is handily the king of its segment. With the best tech the automaker has to offer, a car that was already mighty luxurious has grown even more so, giving its occupants a top-tier ride that offers serenity separated from the mad world outside.