Any discussion about the Mercedes-Benz E-Class will without fail include a mention of its eternal rival, the BMW 5-Series. Never mind the Audi A6 or Lexus GS, the folks at Stuttgart must have long accepted the inevitable E versus 5 comparison people will make. But actually, it need not be that way, for both German execs are different cars for different folks, as we find out in this report.

Many of us who are younger (read below 40) or belong in the “car enthusiast fraternity” will never ever consider a Benz, which has built itself an old-man’s car image throughout the years. This trend has not gone unnoticed within the four walls of Stuttgart, and the attempt to inject dynamism in their core range started with the current C-Class. The W204 looks good and drives well, which is why it’s making an impression among yuppies who would otherwise have bought a 3-Series. Personally, I’m seduced enough by the C200K to choose it over the 320i.

The visual leap from peanut light C-Class to the W204 was huge, and Merc’s range renewal continues with this – the W212 E-Class. Ditching its predecessor’s organic shape for a sharper, more chiseled look, the W212 is a distinct three-box sedan with a classic outline but there are lots of visual tricks and details going on. The front design retains the four eyed look but the lights are now sharp edged and the overall look aggressive. Today’s must-have LED running lights aren’t integrated into the main units but are built into the lower bumper – an afterthought perhaps?

Run your eyes along the E-Class’ profile and you’ll see “arrows” shooting up from the front. There’s one that emerges after the front wheelarch, slicing through the door handles before fading away after the rear door. Another lower line goes in the same direction, but the highlight is the crease above the rear wheelarch, inspired by the Ponton saloon of the 1950s. Disrupts the elegance a bit, I feel. Although it totally doesn’t look the part, the W212’s drag coefficient of only 0.25 means it’s as aerodynamic as the Toyota Prius and more slippery than most sports cars!

So far so good, but if you first spot a new E-Class from the rear, chances are that you’ll think of something else, something less premium perhaps. Some say Sonata, some say old Corolla, some just say not nice, but while it’s not offending, the look is rather nondescript and doesn’t match up to rest of the car’s visual appeal.

The new E-Class is a big car, and appears obviously larger than its predecessor. Its length, width and height of 4868mm/1854mm/1471mm eclipses that of the E60 5-Series, itself not petite. The BMW’s wheelbase, at 2888mm, is slightly longer than the Merc’s 2874mm though, but that doesn’t mean its cabin is a better lounge, more the other way around.

Open the W212’s doors, and you’ll find a cabin that’s warm and inviting, perhaps the best feature of this E. Compared to the technical feel of the A6, the Camry feel of the GS and the sombre, business-like ambience of the E60, the Mercedes cabin feels like home, and a major reason are the colour schemes. The E200 Elegance has grey or brown hues (we much prefer the latter) while the E300 Avantgarde comes with a black dash, grey seats and headlining – in no way will Mercedes sell you an all-black cabin (unless you custom order and pay extra).

The resulting airiness emphasizes the Merc’s generously spaced interior and puts driver and occupants at ease. The dash design is pleasant and ergonomically perfect. Tasteful dark wood trim and bits of silver work well together, and the instruments, stacked Porsche style, are classy and legible. I found my perfect driving position and liked the seats, but Paul couldn’t get comfortable, so it’s not “one size fits all” – we’ll let your butt be the judge.

Rear quarters? Good leg and headroom that betters its classmates, while the 540-litre boot goes very deep. Big boots aren’t friendly to small cargo, so Mercedes incorporated a retractable drop down “basket” which I found to be very useful. Just as well, because stuff rolling and knocking around in the boot irritates me like nothing else. My three days worth of luggage fitted in the basket neatly!

Sharper design and a nice cabin isn’t enough to win over “non-fans”, and the meat is in the drive. If you come in with pre-conceptions of “how a Mercedes would drive” or have driven the W211 before, a surprise is in store.

The media test drive programme started from Subang Jaya to Tanjong Jara in Terengganu, and the route we took passed by the Karak Highway to cross the main range, before veering off to the Jabor-Jerangau highway, turning right at Batu Buruk on the way to Dungun. The earlier section showed off the E’s ability to cover big miles with ease. I sat behind while my teammates drove, and from the boss’ seat the E’s ride comfort was very soothing. I barely felt the highway expansion joints and the car remained relatively flat even in the bigger corners; no boat like wallowing here. However, we thought that the Conti SportContact3 tyres were generating a little too much noise, which isn’t in tune with the E’s fine cruising ability.

I woke up in time for the fun part of the drive. Getting out of the East-West Highway, it was fast B-roads all the way to Dungun. The road surface left much to be desired, which was ideal to test a car’s suspension. For long stretches, the inside half of the road was patchy and uneven while the outside was normal, so it was to the Merc’s credit that it stayed composed throughout. There were a few mid-corner crests that I didn’t anticipate, and the way the E-Class settled after the rebound was impressive. The so called “Direct Control” adaptive damping system (fully auto, no selectable presets) evened out rough patches while taking the edge off bigger bumps. The setup is tuned for comfort, so the body does move around more than a 5-Series would, but it’s well controlled and never unsettling.

This milder approach relative to the BMW is also noticed from the Merc’s controls. The steering is precise and feels more natural than its predecessor’s helm, but is lighter and less rich in feedback compared to the car from Munich. Ditto the brakes, which feel quite soft, the opposite of some rivals’ over-servoed anchors. Some could take these to mean that the E-Class is less fun-to-drive and a less capable handler than the BMW, but it’s really just a different approach. The latest E-Class can flow through a B-road at high speeds and is satisfying in its own way.

For us, the E200 CGI BlueEfficiency was more satisfying than the E300 and is the better car. It may be “just a 1.8-litre” but the E200’s Charged Gasoline Injection motor combines direct injection, VVT and turbocharging to good effect. A replacement for Merc’s long serving Kompressor engine, it serves up 184 bhp and 270 Nm of torque. As a comparison, the 2.5-litre inline-six in the BMW 523i has 190 bhp and 230 Nm – even the 525i has only 250 Nm.

Yes, Merc’s four-pot will never rev as sweetly as that famed inline-six, but the amount of usable performance on tap is good compensation. In cut and thrust driving, or on B-roads where lots of overtaking is needed, I’m confident the E200 CGI will be swifter than the entry level 5-Series. As a bonus, it’s more well mannered and fuel efficient (by up to 23%, it is claimed) than the Kompressor of old.

It’s the same reasons why we prefer the E200 over the E300, which uses Merc’s old V6 engine. Duck out of a slow lorry to overtake, give the V6 full throttle and you’ll encounter a delay in the power delivery that could be embarassing. The lack of low-down punch plus the not exactly immediate reactions of the 7G-Tronic ‘box means you have to anticipate better and downshift into the right gear (why do you need seven ratios when six well chosen ones will do?) before making a move. It does climb the speedo very rapidly once you’re into triple digits though, and the burly soundtrack is more evocative than the CGI’s gruffy vocals. The E300 also gets shift paddles and a steering column mounted shift lever, as opposed to the conventional location of the E200’s five-speed auto.

Downsizing is all the rage in Europe at the moment, with manufacturers scrambling to lower their corporate CO2 output, and Mercedes calls its movement BlueEfficiency. The CGI engine is a major component of BlueEfficiency, which works with the 0.25 Cd and other smaller measures to offer better economy and lower emissions. The two locally assembled models we tested don’t come with engine stop-start, brake energy regeneration and low rolling resistance tyres, but have on-demand steering pump, fuel pump and alternator.

So it’s essentially a half baked BlueEfficiency, but that’s still better than nothing, especially when claimed combined fuel consumption is an impressive 12.7 to 13.3 km/l. And if the proposed fuel subsidy based on engine capacity plan takes off, E200 CGI owners can line up with Peroduas at the “cheap lane” and incite anger at petrol stations!

Both E300 Avantgarde (background) and E200 CGI Elegance wear 245/45 R17 wheels

Priced at RM366,888, the E200 CGI BlueEfficiency is priced between the BMW 523i and 523i SE. The E300 will cost you RM455,888 (prices are OTR without insurance) but it will buy you a panaromic glass roof and a rear entertainment system with two LCD screens. Coming soon is the E250 CGI BlueEfficiency, which should have all that’s good about the E200 but with more poke – 204 bhp/310 Nm to be exact. That should be the pick of the range, if the price is right.

All in all, a great effort from Mercedes, proving that there’s not just one template to make a great mid-sized exec.