Somewhere, sitting in Manhattan traffic last week between Houston and Second Avenue, I had a startling realization: I didn’t smell amazing, as I had been telling myself smugly for hours. My car did.
It was a 2017 Mercedes E300 4MATIC sedan in bright cherry red, which I began to examine more closely in order to find the source of the lovely fragrance. I discovered in the glove box a squat glass jar of optional air cabin fragrance system that had been spewing “Freeside Mood” all day. The subtly citrus scent excellently complemented the leather notes of black Nappa sport seats; it can be adjusted to three levels of intensity and comes as part of a $7,650 Premium package upgrade. Refills cost $115 a jar.
This is nothing new—Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and Rolls-Royce, among others, have been installing their own types of subconscious olfactory soothers for years. But the novelty here is that the technology popped up in a sub-$60,000 car; earlier systems had appeared only in the six-figure S-Class versions.
This, then, is part of the current mode we see in the premium car landscape: As prices for seriously good small- and mid-size sedans continue to decrease, even in the $30,000-range, creature comforts once reserved for upper-echelon conveyances now appear as options or even standard-issue accoutrements in these mass-luxury cars.
Insulated From the World
Perhaps no other model embodies this trend as well as the E300. Now in its 10th generation, the 241-horsepower sedan comes updated this year with more space and a refined suspension, Bluetooth, power folding seats, rain-sensing wipers, dual-zone climate controls, ambient lighting, brake assist, LED lights, and the sunroof all come standard, among too many other technological wonders to name. My eyes glazed halfway down the configuration option list.
The 2.0-inline four-cylinder engine comes standard, as does the nine-speed automatic transmission and 4MATIC all-wheel drive, as the name suggests. There are four drive modes, plus individual settings. If you prefer a larger, six-cylinder engine, look elsewhere; you won’t find even an optional one here. (Early next year, Mercedes will debut the AMG E43 sedan, the first high-performance variant of the E-Class developed by Mercedes-AMG, with an AMG-enhanced 3.0L V6 bi-turbo engine. If you want something powerful in E-Class form, wait for that.)
I suspect the target buyer for this car won’t notice its absence. Here, Mercedes has made a sedan whose every fiber strains to relieve you of the inconvenience of driving. (Yes, there is even an optional “Drive Pilot” that will command the car in traffic for short periods of time, though at this point the technology remains more about bragging rights and first-adopter egos than about genuine practicality and functionality. Indeed, “this system is meant to enhance the driving experience to help the driver arrive more refreshed and alert,” a Mercedes spokesman told me.)
The feel of the steering wheel has been softened, compared to what you’d feel in an AMG version; the suspension numbed. The adaptive brakes respond to your press with dampened but capable attention. Zero to 60 miles per hour takes a normative 6.3 seconds; top speed is 130mph. In short: Buy an E300 for ease and comfort and because you want a shot of Novocain to dull the harsh realities of the outside world, not to feel especially connected to the road beneath.
Respectable and Nondescript
This is not a negative distinction, just an observation. In fact, the E 300 simply plays the role of comfortable middle sibling between the C-Class and the S-Class. (Audi’s A6, Jaguar’s XF, and BMW’s 5 Series have their own merits and are more engaging to drive, though at this point the differences among them are matters of taste, rather than divisions between right and wrong.)
E-Class certainly can claim a strong family resemblance. Where the $38,950 C300 sits at 184.5 inches, and the $96,600 S600 stretches the overall length to 206.5 inches, the $54,650 E-Class occupies the Goldilocks positioning of “just right” in the middle, at 193.8 inches long. If you photographed the E-Class from the side and zoomed a little to stretch the image, it would look like an S-Class. If you compressed the photo, you’d have the C-Class. From the front, though, E-Class looks more modern than the S-Class because of the large Mercedes tri-star placed firmly along the three lateral rungs of the big front grill. (S-Class still has the hood ornament on top.) It has gaping front vents along the bottom, with a body styled to resemble those Mercedes AMG cars that do work to give an exhilarating, engaged driving experience. Otherwise, the soft, long lines from front to back and the appropriately apportioned rear end remain as safe and nondescript as the suburban streets they most often frequent.
Buy the $650 Sport Wheel Package for 18-inch AMG 5-spoke wheels, as well as the black headliner, to give it more edge. But avoid the roof spoiler (just: why?) and logo projector (you are more than 18 years old—you don’t need thatt).
Too Much Tech Is Never Enough
The focal point of the cabin in the E300 is the 12.3-inch computer display operated by the dial controller in the center console, or with the touch-control buttons on the steering wheel. A 12.3-inch display placed right in front of the driver, behind the steering wheel, is optional.
There are lots of buttons in this car—on the wheel, along the console and doors and ceiling—controlling the front seats, split folding rear seats, and auto-dimming mirrors. A quick breeze through the safety/technologies options list includes such things as heads-up display, heated steering wheel, and a push-button power window sunshade. Yes, if there’s one general complaint with Mercedes it’s that the cars are overladen with nonessential technologies.
Then again, that is exactly why many, many people buy a Mercedes in the first place. Who would say no to an “Acoustic Comfort Package” that insulates the car to the outside world, a “Rapid Heating Seats” upgrade, an “Air Balance Purification System,” or “Rear Cross Traffic Alert?” Who would decline a “Parking Pilot” feature that identifies suitable parallel- or perpendicular parking spots nearby? None of these has anything to do with the act of driving, not that it matters. The company has pioneered safety, crash avoidance, and comfort technologies like no other.
Better yet, the rear of the car has virtually the same comforts afforded in the front, with the aforementioned power split folding seats, which came in handy during two grocery runs to Long Island City, and leg room extended over last year’s model, thanks to a 2.5-inch-longer wheelbase. There is plenty of head and shoulder room, even for three adults spending a day in the rear.
And really, you’ll have no problem finding friends who want to ride with you in this car. It is comfortable and luxurious and cutting edge. It’s not sporty. But it does exactly what it is supposed to do—even, it would seem, fool you into thinking you smell good.