I'm a big fan of Mercedes' newly redesigned rear-wheel-drive E-Class sedans and coupes, and I'm not the only one. The E is the only class of Mercedes that has shown a sales increase in the U.S. market this year. Total sales soared 113.1% in November, to 4,828.
A major reason for the E's success is obvious: It's reasonably priced, at least by German standards. The new E-Class sedan is actually cheaper than the outgoing model, and the coupe is cheaper than the CLK coupe it's replacing. The E350 coupe starts at $48,925 and the E350 sedan at $49,475. The higher-end E550 coupe starts at $55,525, the E550 sedan at $57,175. Add an extra $2,500 for all-wheel drive in either sedan. (AWD isn't offered in the coupe.)
In redesigning the E-Class, Daimler (DAI) did what it does best. The V6-powered E350 and V8 powered E550 sedans are classic luxury cars that fall in the middle of the product range in terms of price and size but have traditional styling, solidity, and high-tech options reminiscent of the top-of-the-line Mercedes S Class. The sedan gives Mercedes a clearer alternative to the BMW (BMWG:IX) 5 Series and Volkswagen's (VOWG:IX) Audi A6, one that's more comfort-oriented without making big compromises on performance.
The new E-Class coupe (the version of the car I test drove) is smaller and sportier than the sedan—nearly seven inches shorter, six inches narrower, three inches lower, and 200 lbs. lighter. About the size of the Mercedes C-Class, the E coupe competes more directly with the BMW 3 Series than with the 5 Series. It's a marvelous vehicle if you can get past the fact that it isn't available with a stick shift. A seven-speed automatic with manual shifting function is the only transmission in both the E sedan and coupe.
As with other German cars, one appeal of the E-Class is the wide variety of niche models it comes in. For speed-lovers, there's the E63 AMG (powered by a 518-hp V8) that competes with BMW's M5, VW's Audi S6, and General Motors' Cadillac CTS-V. A four-seater E350 Cabriolet with a new sound-dampening soft top is due out next May. The following month, a diesel-powered E350 Bluetec is due out. A new E-Class station wagon, designed to compete with models such as the Cadillac CTS Sport Wagon, will also hit showrooms next June.
The available engines provide plenty of power. The E350 coupe has a 3.5-liter, 268-horsepower V6 under its hood while the E550 is powered by a 5.5-liter, 382-horsepower V8. The E350 Bluetec sedan comes with a 3.0-liter, 210-horsepower diesel V6 that generates an incredible 400 lb.-ft of torque.
As with other sport luxury models, fuel economy isn't great. The E350 coupe is rated to get 17 miles-per-gallon in the city and 26 on the highway for an average of 20; the E350 sedan does slightly better, at 18 mpg city and 26 highway, for an average of 21. The E550 Coupe and Sedan are both rated at 16 city and 24 highway, for an average of 18. (The Bluetec isn't yet rated.)
Behind the Wheel
Tooling around in a Mercedes coupe is an experience everyone should have at least once. The E-Class coupe isn't the sportiest or fastest car in its group, but it's fun and just so damned classy and comfortable. The cabin has the quietness and solidity of a more expensive Mercedes and the suspension eats up bumps like no other. There's a library-quiet, dead-air feel to the cabin when you're cruising on the highway.
Yet the driver still feels a direct connection to the road and the new Es are very quick. Mercedes says the E350 Coupe accelerates from 0 to 60 in about six seconds (about the same as a BMW 328i) while the E550 does it in about five seconds (about the same as a BMW 335i). However, I consistently found my loaner E350 a bit slower than its rated time while the BMWs were faster.
Choosing a coupe over a sedan is a triumph of the heart over the head. The sedan accounts for about 85% of sales, Mercedes says, I suspect that most buyers figure it offers better value because it is roomier inside and has four doors instead of two. But the coupe has definite appeal. Fewer doors, lower weight, and smaller size make it nimbler and tighter than the sedan. The E350 coupe also comes standard with sport seats, leather upholstery, and a panoramic sunroof, while the E550 coupe has sport suspension, paddle shifters, and 18-inch wheels.
Surprisingly, the coupe actually has more headroom and legroom in its front seat than the E-Class sedan does, although hip and shoulder space are tighter. The front seats are narrower and more bolstered than the sedan's, but I found them very comfortable. Trunk space is equal to the sedan's—15.9 cu. ft., which is adequate for most purposes. In contrast to the fixed rear seats in many coupes, the E350's rear seats fold down in a 60/40 pattern, creating extra hauling space.
The painful aspect of owning just about any coupe is how bad you feel when adult passengers have to use the rear seat. The E350's front seats slide well forward, so getting into the back seat is fairly easy, but knee and head space in back are very tight. With the driver's seat set for my height (5 ft. 10 in.), I barely had enough leg space in the rear seat. Sitting back there and watching the front seat automatically move back into place was a little like being in one of those horror movies where a room's walls start to close in. A taller person would have been scrunched.
Like other Mercedes, the E-Class is heavy on standard safety gear. The new E350 hasn't yet been crash-tested in the U.S., but it comes standard with traction and stability control, an optional night vision system, and a full array of air bags, including both side and pelvis-protecting bags.
There are also "seat belt presenters," little arms that poke out from behind the driver's and front passenger's shoulder, bearing the seat belt and reminding them to buckle up. And there's an innovative monitor that sounds an alarm if the driver seems to be growing drowsy. The thing didn't seem to work very well. During more than an hour of evening driving, I repeatedly struggled with dozing off but the system never made a peep.
Buy it or Bag It?
Once you factor in options, the E350 sedan sells for an average of around $53,000, according to the Power Information Network, roughly the same range as the BMW 528i, Audi A6, and Jaguar XF. For me, it's a toss-up between the BMW and the Mercedes, with the BMW getting the nod for handling and the Mercedes for looks, interior quality, and comfort.
Less expensive alternatives include Honda's (HMC) new Acura TL (average price: $38,055), and Toyota's (TM) Lexus ES 350 ($37,397).
PIN doesn't have average price data for the E350 coupe, but it probably averages slightly less than the sedan. The main competitors include the BMW 328i and Audi A5 coupes, both of which are cheaper. The Bimmer, for instance, goes for an average of $41,275. I love the E350 coupe, but I'd have a hard time paying more for it than for a 328i, one of the all-time great models on the market.
The budget alterative is the Hyundai Genesis coupe, which sells for an average of just $26,722. Yup, a Hyundai, priced like a Hyundai—and it's a great little car. That's Mercedes' challenge. The E-Class is much improved and cheaper than before, but the competition just keeps getting tougher.
Click here to see more of the 2010 Mercedes-Benz E-Class.