Road Test

E-Class is the heart of the Mercedes-Benz lineup

E550 4Matic is a year-round luxury sedan with great capabilities and performance

Mercedes-Benz E350 coupe 2011

The Mercedes-Benz E-Class lies at the very heart of the three-pointed-star's extensive passenger-car lineup, midway between the C and S classes in terms of size, price, and exclusivity. And like the others it wears that emblem proudly · one of the world·s most recognized status symbols.

Known internally as the W212, the E-Class comes in sedan, coupe, cabriolet or station wagon format with V-6 or V-8 motivation. At either end of the sedan/wagon price spectrum lie the $63,000 E350 4Matic sedan and the $107,000, rear-drive E63 AMG sedan.

In between you·ll find the E350 4Matic wagon and the E550 4Matic sedan. All come with a seven-speed automatic transmission and all but the AMG hot-rod, a sophisticated, with a full-time all-wheel-drive system.

My tester was a $73,200 E550 4Matic sedan.

The E-Class received a dramatic redesign accompanied by significant price cuts for the 2010 model year. Changes for 2011 included new wheels · a heated four-spoke one for steering and an 18-inch alloy wrapped in rubber at each corner.

The tester also had a

Premium package that included: Dynamic Drive, multi-contour driver·s seat, a rear window sunshade, Harmon-Kardon audio system, heated rear seats, electronic trunk closure, keyless go and a panoramic glass roof. It also had the ·Advanced Driving Assistance Package,· which includes Distronic Plus, Active Blind Spot Assist and Active Lane Keeping Assist. More on all of these anon.

This relatively big, 2000-kg (4,400-lb) sedan feels as though it was carved from a block of concrete. Whether closing a door or striking a nasty pot-hole, there is no mistaking it for anything but a Mercedes-Benz, from the star in the grille to the chrome exhaust outlets.

The interior is decidedly upscale with well-fitted and finished materials and the accoutrements expected in this price range. The doors open wide for easy access front or rear. Rear seat legroom is vastly superior to the that of the coupe, but not exactly limo-like.

While the technically-challenged can operate this car easily, you do have to spend some time becoming familiar with the wide variety of standard and optional features that demonstrate the company·s commitment to safety and technology. One little sign of this is that you can·t shift out of Park with the door open, as you might when trying to position it in a garage ort tight parking spot. Mercedes engineers know that is a safety no-no.

And when it comes to safety no car company tries harder than Mercedes. In addition to ABS and electronic stability control, let·s look at the features on this car:

Attention Assist

· A series of sensors and systems monitor 72 driver behavior parameters for any sign of drowsiness or inattention. Emitting both visual and audible warnings.

Active Blind Spot Assist

· Visual and audible warnings are provided if a vehicle is detected in the traditional blind spot. If the driver should attempt to steer into that lane and the other vehicle, the system prevents a collision by applying the brakes.

Active Lane Keeping Assist

· a camera behind the rear-view mirror monitors lane position and warns of such through a visual alert and vibration of the steering wheel. If the driver still does not take corrective action, the brakes are applied selectively to bring the vehicle back into the lane.

Distronic Plus

· an advanced proximity control system, cruise control that maintains a set distance to the vehicle in front, including the ability to apply the brakes and bring the car to a complete stop · and then accelerate away as happens in stop-and-go traffic.

Parktronic with Guidance

· a system that scans for suitable parking spots and displays a 'P' symbol on the instrument panel when one is found that the car will fit. During the subsequent parking maneuver, visual and audible steering support is provided.

All the electronic nannies can be defeated or allowed to help. With or without them this is a car for a driver who enjoys the art of driving, who goes for a drive simply for the experience, not the destination.

The automatic air suspension not only keeps things on an even keel regardless of passenger or trunk loads, it absorbs both major and minor road blemishes with equal aplomb.

The steering is accurate and responsive and the brakes immensely powerful and progressive. This is a car designed for sustained high speeds on the Autobahn. The beefy V-8 and seven-speed automatic blend seamlessly to provide a whole lot of effortless performance.

The 5.5-litre V-8 puts out a stout 382 horsepower and, with 391 lb-ft of torque available at only 2,800 rpm, acceleration is instantaneous at the mere touch of the throttle.

The control unit for the automatic has been expertly programmed to ensure the right gear at the right time, no driver intervention required. If you do feel the need for involvement, there are shift paddles on the steering wheel.

The compact and capable fourth-generation 4Matic all-wheel-drive system is seamless in operation. Fully integrated into the transmission it is both lighter and more fuel-efficient. Delivering 45% of the power to the front wheels under normal conditions it can vary that from 30/70 front/rear to 70/30 as required. It can also send up to 100% of available power to either side, front or rear.

The E-550 4Matic is a year-round luxury sedan with great capabilities and performance.

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