It’s the dawn of a new era for the executive sector. As good as W212 Mercedes-Benz E-Class v F10 BMW 5 Series was to watch, the battle has drawn on for long enough. Both of these heavyweights are now six years old – well past their sell-by date and in dire need to be dragged out of the ring.
Not a minute too soon, Mercedes has done just that, replacing its tired-out grappler with the all-new, very impressive W213. Sindelfingen’s latest brawler packs a mean punch, with swoopy new looks, a luxurious cabin, lithe new underpinnings and plenty of fancy, world-first gizmos. We’ve already sampled it in Lisbon earlier this year, and found plenty to like about the suave way it goes about its business.
But this is only the beginning of what will surely be a long, hard-fought two-way tussle. The Munich corner has just responded by bringing out the G30 5 Series, which looks to be a promising contender; its handsome, if evolutionary skin hides its own bag of tricks. Throw in wildcards like the Audi A6 – surely due for a replacement soon, in light of these two – and it looks as if the W213 won’t have everything its own way.
Time, then, for a more thorough assessment of the new E-Class – in volume-selling E 200 trim, no less – on local roads to see if it has what it takes to slug it out in what is set to be one of the toughest fights in the lineage’s history. Will it be a knockout, or will it fall flat on its face? Read on to find out.
Mercedes did not, and could not afford to mess around when it came to updating the E-Class, as the car is arguably its most important model. Despite the brand’s massive lineup expansion – which includes a recent downward trend with the A-Class, B-Class, CLA and GLA – this executive market mainstay remains its traditional centre. It is perhaps the car Mercedes is most identified by, along with the S-Class.
Landing in Malaysia just five months after it was revealed to the world at the Detroit Auto Show in January, the new W213 is only available as a fully-imported (CBU) model for now, in E 200 Avantgarde, E 250 Avantgarde and E 250 Exclusive trims. The E 300 AMG Line, also CBU, will be offered later on in November, while locally-assembled (CKD) units will be introduced sometime next year.
By now you’d have realised that the white E 200 seen here looks nothing like the E 200 Avantgarde that we officially get. That’s because this is one of the few advance units of the E 200, specified with all the equipment and goodies of the E 300 AMG Line. It’s priced at RM415,888 on-the-road without insurance, RM20,000 more expensive than the E 200 Avantgarde.
Likewise, the dark blue E 200 is another advance unit, this time coming in the Exclusive trim level, matching the E 250 Exclusive in kit – that one costs RM410,888. Meanwhile, the proper E 250 Avantgarde or E 250 Exclusive are priced at RM420,888 and RM425,888 respectively.
I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t particularly like the look of the W213 when the first photos were released at the start of the year. Say what you want about the polarising chiselled design of the W212 – or the slightly disjointed, smoothened-out facelifted model – but at the very least it had a style that was all its own, distinct from other members of the three-pointed star family.
By contrast, the W213’s oversized C-Class look didn’t seem anywhere near as distinctive at first, and appeared to have lost some of the stately regality of its predecessor – something which the excessive amount of chrome trim on the Exclusive models didn’t exactly redress. It’s a little reminiscent of when Audi replaced the elegant Typ 4E A8 with the current Typ 4H that looked like an inflated B8 A4.
In the metal, the new car does look appreciably different from its smaller sibling; the added length, fuller surfacing and more balanced proportions – especially compared to the C-Class’ exceedingly cab-rearward profile – give the E-Class its own dignified stance that isn’t immediately discernible in photos.
You’ll also notice some of the neat details up close, such as the “stardust effect” LED tail lights – these use fibre optics in the reflectors and a specially-configured surface structure, resulting in an appealing glittery shimmer when turned on. It’s these kinds of little touches that provide the E-Class with a more upscale aesthetic compared to the straighter-laced 5 Series.
Other details still grate, however – the massive grille, even more so than the C-Class, looks out of proportion with the rest of the front fascia, and the tail light shape smacks of the previous W204 C-Class. I’m also not a big fan of the way the Multibeam LED headlights look – the huge lamp units (which contain 84 LEDs per side) are positioned closer to the centre of the car, making it appear almost cross-eyed.
Nothing quite prepares you for stepping inside. If the exterior is a bit of a disappointment, the interior is a masterclass in ensconcing you in pure luxury. Everything here looks, feels and smells expensive, particularly with the gorgeous saddle tan Nappa leather and Artico faux leather-wrapped dashboard on the AMG Line.
Layered onto all this plushness – as on the S-Class – is a generous swathe of decorative trim that spans the full width of the dash and spills over into the door cards, finished either in glossy wood on the Exclusive variant or a very technical-looking carbon-esque metal weave on the AMG Line.
Together with the chunky quad round centre air vents hewn from metal, it gives the car an impossibly glitzy, polished appearance. It’s a shame, then, that the lower centre console is only available in a gloss black finish that’s not just a fingerprint magnet but is also incredibly easy to scratch.
There’s more – the new engine start button replaces the old piece that jutted so far out it looked like it was removable (because it was), and has a nice rifled design that’s almost Bond-like. Meanwhile, the ambient lighting has become way more sophisticated, with the usual three colour choices growing to a staggering 64, enabling you to literally choose the exact hue you want.
The strong first impression is bolstered with the S-Class-style Widescreen Cockpit that’s standard on Malaysian-market models (except for the advance E 200 Avantgarde). Twin 12.3-inch high-definition displays fill your field of view, and with the seamless glass cover over the entire thing (not even the S-Class has that), the impression is of a massive digital wall that shows all kinds of vehicle-related information.
Ahead of the driver, the virtual instrument cluster is customisable with Classic (twin white-on-black dials), Sport (yellow on black, ugliest of the lot) and Progressive (central rev counter, digital speedo, twin peripheral displays) themes. The last one is my personal favourite, as it is the only one that allows you to have a map or the full trip computer displayed and still retain the rev counter.
To the left is the redesigned COMAND interface, now with split-screen functionality. Aside from the standard rotary controller on the centre console, it can also be fully controlled by the fantastic steering wheel-mounted touchpads that are reminiscent of the black squares on old Blackberry phones – the left pad manipulates the centre screen, the right one does the instrument cluster.
These feel a little disconcerting at first, but spend a few minutes getting used to them and they become much more intuitive, letting you work practically every function on the two screens without taking your hands off the wheel. All of this contributes to a distinctly futuristic look and feel, one that will have your fellow passengers ooh-ing and aah-ing as you play with the full suite of toys on board.
It’s not all sweetness and light, however. For all the work Mercedes has put into revamping the COMAND infotainment system, it still doesn’t quite have the measure of BMW’s first-rate iDrive in terms of the sheer logical way all the menus and functions are laid out.
For example, the settings menu has been split into two – one for the vehicle itself, another for the system – and while it’s probably been done to keep you from scrolling endlessly on the touchpad, the result is a confusing network of controls, and you never really get on top of exactly which function goes in each menu.
The integration of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto is also supposed to revolutionise the way smartphones are integrated into the car, but in the E-Class’ case at least, it leaves a lot to be desired. Unlike COMAND itself, neither system works with the touchpad – only the central controller.
What’s more, the instrument cluster won’t show the currently-played media, and you can’t pause or skip playback with the touchpads; you’ll have to either dig through the menus or use Apple or Google’s respective voice recognition systems. With these restrictions, I much prefer to connect my phone straight to the COMAND system – it’s a way, way better experience.
Looking at these photos, you’d think these cars are very well-specced, and of course they are. Among the kit included on both advance models are the trick Multibeam headlights, keyless entry, four-zone climate control, 360-degree surround view and Qi wireless smartphone charging, and the AMG Line throws in a panoramic sunroof, a colour head-up display and the mid-range 13-speaker Burmester sound system as well.
But the main draw of the latest W213 is the barrage of driver assist systems built in, and it’s here where local models are left wanting. We get the Active Brake Assist with autonomous emergency braking that’s now standard on every E-Class, but not the semi-autonomous Drive Pilot, which allows for handsfree driving in certain situations and will even change lanes for you. No Remote Parking Pilot or Digital Car Key, either.
As expected, the new E-Class is plenty roomy, helped by the increased dimensions over the W212. Length has increased by 43 mm to 4,923 mm, while the wheelbase has been extended some 65 mm to 2,939 mm. Meanwhile, width and height have been nominally reduced, at 1,852 mm and 1,468 mm respectively.
The result is a commodious rear cabin, with lots of legroom and shoulder room, although there’s not that much more compared to its predecessor, despite the longer wheelbase. There is, however, quite a bit less headroom, no thanks to the sloping roofline – the W212’s boxier hindquarters certainly helped matters tremendously. Boot space is also down 10 litres at 530 litres, although it’s still not what you’d call cramped.
Under the bonnet sits the ubiquitous M274 DE 20 AL 2.0 litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine that was first introduced on the facelifted W212. In base E 200 trim, it makes 184 hp at 5,500 rpm and 300 Nm of torque from 1,200 to 4,000 rpm – same figures as before, but the engine is now mated to a nine-speed 9G-Tronic automatic transmission that offers up two more forward ratios than before.
As such, the new W213 is now mildly quicker to 100 km/h – clocking in 0.3 seconds faster at 7.7 seconds – while the top speed is 7 km/h higher at 240 km/h, despite the identical engine. Oddly enough, the new car does use a trifle more fuel, at 5.9 litres per 100 km versus the W212’s 5.8.
Out in the real world, the E 200 shrugs off its modest power outputs, being decently rapid in everyday use. Put your foot down and the engine responds smoothly and cleanly, without much lag. The strong mid-range pull makes overtaking a breeze, and it’s only when you wring it out in the upper stratosphere of the rev range does it start to run out of puff – then again, how many E-Class drivers you know actually do that?
The 9G-Tronic ‘box the engine is hooked up to makes a decent ally, being mostly seamless when it comes to managing its myriad of gears. Its only real flaw is that the efficiency-minded programming can be quite hesitant to drop a gear unless you absolutely steamroll the right pedal.
Refinement is where the new E-Class scores near perfect marks, the engine’s cultured nature mixing well with the transmission’s ability to keep revs very low. This makes for a very relaxing car to cruise about, what with little wind noise to throw into the equation; only the roar from the broad tyres wrapped around the 19-inch wheels equipped on the test cars blights the W213’s report card here.
That’s not the only area marred by the massive rollers. Over most surfaces, the E-Class, even on the standard passive suspension (comfort setup, lowered by 15 mm; 5 Series has dynamic dampers as standard), makes mincemeat of minor imperfections, resulting in a paper smooth ride – even over gravelled roads. Hit a deep pothole, however, and the car clonks uncomfortably, something that could perhaps be addressed by smaller wheels and fatter rubber.
It’s still an impressive performance, however, all things considered – and naturally, you’d expect this level of comfort to perhaps make the W213 less than the most involving steer on the market. Of course, past E-Class models have never set trousers on fire – that was always a job left to the 5 Series – and while things have moved on considerably from its predecessor, that’s still very much the case here.
It all starts with the steering, which is far quicker-geared than the lazy rack on the W212, imbuing the car with a much greater sense of agility. But while it’s fairly accurate and delivers consistent weighting lock-to-lock, it feels completely inert, no matter which driving mode you set the Dynamic Select system in.
Likewise, the W213 has a tighter rein of body movements compared to the old car – which felt quite unruly over larger undulations at higher speeds – but it’s still not the best. Mid-corner bumps in particular can throw it off the intended cornering line, exposing the dampers’ inability to cope with particularly spirited driving. Grip levels are prodigious, however, particularly with the AMG Line’s Goodyear Eagle F1 Asymmetric 3 tyres.
So, where does this leave the new E-Class? With the space-age cabin and the sheer amount of gizmos on offer, you’d expect it to drive like nothing else, but the fact of the matter is that it doesn’t really move the executive sedan game anywhere near as far forward as perhaps we wanted it to.
In fact, the driving experience is no longer where the W213 draws most of its substance from. That’s not to say that it’s in any way a bad car to drive – there’s a pleasant suppleness to the way it rides (although it’s by no means impeccable, not with these enormous wheels), and while it’s still not what you’d call an engaging steer on a tight, twisty road, it certainly holds its own in the corners.
But there’s so much more than that. This cabin is first class, possessing immense panache – provided you buy the right spec – and feels built to last. Simply put, it’s a feast for the senses, both for the driver and anyone who comes along for the ride. Never mind that the car is a pricey proposition for now, with most models north of RM400k; it feels twice as expensive inside. It’s a luxury good, plain and simple.
The conclusion is simple. Sure, there are plenty of other executive sedans that will give you more thrills per minute, but I dare you not to smile every single time you sink yourself into the new E-Class’ soft leather, thumb the glowing start button and watch as the interior is bathed in colour and the twin screens come to life. At the end of the day, that’s what we really want in this class, isn’t it?
GALLERY: W213 Mercedes-Benz E 200 AMG Line
GALLERY: W213 Mercedes-Benz E 200 Exclusive