By Jim Bray
Monday, April 30, 2007
How can a sedan with a well-earned reputation for excellence leave a reviewer feeling ambivalent after a week behind the wheel?
It couldn't have been the fact that the 2007 Mercedes-Benz E280 4Matic is the "entry level" version of the popular E-Class; heck, a "lower end" Benz (which is about as close to an oxymoron as I can think of!) is still an important vehicle in the automotive world, a car that lets mere mortals know you've arrived. And when I drove the even more "entry level" B200 Turbo a while back, I loved the little critter. What gives?
The E-Class has never looked better than it does in this current generation. It's a classy vehicle, especially dressed in the black livery of my tester, with elegant lines that ooze Mercedes-Benz and all the brand represents. It's also roomy and comfortable and features the kind of state-of-the-art technology you'd expect from a car that wears the three pointed star.
And it's a car whose development doesn't stand still. For 2007, the E-Class features a new front bumper, lower air dam, grille, headlights, taillights and more aerodynamic outside mirrors. Inside, there's a new steering wheel and shift lever and the layout for the climate control controls has been revised.
All E-Class models now get M-B's PRE-SAFE "anticipatory safety system", which has trickled down from the S-Class. It tightens up the seatbelts if the car senses a collision is imminent (and loosens them again if you manage to avoid the incident), moves the front passenger seat to a safer position if it senses it's not placed optimally, and even closes the sunroof if it thinks the car's about to roll over.
The Canadian-spec E280 features a 3.0 liter V6 engine that puts out 228 hp @ 6000 rpm and 221 lb-ft of torque from 2,700 to5,000 rpm. U.S. customers can't get the 280, but they can opt instead for a 3.5 liter V6 or a 3.2 liter diesel.
The E280's smaller six still manages to move the car away from a stop light fine, and it's more than adequate for freeway on ramps, but it lost some of its luster once we got into the ups and downs of the Rocky Mountains. On the other hand, the 4Matic's permanent all wheel drive came in really handy during spring snowfalls, offering a stable and confidence-inspiring feel on the slippery roads.
The engine puts its power to the wheels via a five speed automatic transmission that I was amazed to discover shifted quite roughly compared to some other cars of this niche that I've driven. It has a manual mode, but you shift it by moving the lever side to side (which seems weird) and it wasn't particularly sporty or rewarding anyway. This is a luxury car, not a driver's car -- and that's probably why I left my review session less than in lust.
That feeling is also brought home by the E280 4Matic's rather floaty suspension. You can choose from three modes which, theoretically, lets you tighten things up a tad for sportier handling, but none of them tightened it enough for my taste. The result was a fairly sedate ride regardless of which setting I chose.
On the other hand, the big three pointed star mounted at the front of the hood comes in really handy if you need a way to aim the car...
The four doors are big and open wide, so getting in and/or out is easy -- and once you're parked in the car you find yourself in a very comfortable and attractive cabin, with quality leather seats and nice wood accents. The power-adjustable front seats (with memory feature) feature bun warmers and, though it may seem weird to put the adjustment controls on the doors, it actually works very well and saves you from groping down around the side of the seat for the buttons.
The leather-covered steering wheel is power tilt and telescoping and has a handy heating feature. It also includes auxiliary audio controls, though the buttons don't have a lot of tactile feel to them and the wheel feels very good in the hands.
The instrument panel is attractive and easy to read, with a big analog speedometer in the middle, a smaller analog tachometer on the right and an analog clock on the left, where anyone but the driver would have difficulty reading it.
The inevitable (and, to be fair, very handy) digital display is located inside the big tach, where it's right at the driver's view. You also get cool-looking digital bar graph displays for the fuel level and engine temperature.
There are two stalks on the left of the steering column, a top one for the cruise control and a combo one for the signal lights and windshield wipers (the controls for the latter of which take some getting used to). The moisture-sensing wipers worked well for the most part, though when the Benz got splashed by an oncoming car they didn't come on to clear away the muck, which meant I had to resort to the manual mode in that particular instance.
The center stack, from top to bottom, includes easy and intuitive automatic, multi-zone HVAC controls (the fan for which made a funny wheezing noise, though it was more unusual than obtrusive or annoying). Below that is the COMAND infotainment center, topped with the slot for the single disc CD player.
The COMAND center is Mercedes-Benz' way of designing an incoherent multi-functional interface without resorting to a cursor control knob thingy such as BMW's iDrive and Audi's MMI. On the left of the LCD screen are buttons for major functions (some of which, such as navigation, map, and phone, weren't included on my lower end trim level test car --which made me wonder why the buttons weren't blacked out or removed). To the right of the screen are the number buttons for radio presets, phone numbers and the like.
Surrounding the screen is an annoying set of soft keys that let you move through the various menus at the expense of keeping your eyes on the road. This means that, for example, if you want to switch from radio to CD, you have to find and press a soft key that takes you back to the main audio menu, then go to the disc player from there. It's unnecessarily complex.
That said, the audio system sounds very good, though I'd have liked to see a little more oomph. It runs out of steam early, and you can keep cranking the volume up to your heart's delight but nothing will happen. And a favorite test disc I use for auditioning car and home audio systems skipped in the E280, though it has never skipped before or since.
At the bottom of the stack is a set of buttons that, depending on your car's trim level, control seat heaters/coolers, lock/unlock, rear sun shade, rear seat head rest folding (the headrests can fold flat backwards against the rear shelf, which is nice for the driver's sightlines to the rear) and the ESP on/off control.
Headroom is more than adequate, as is the trunk; there are storage spaces all over the place, and the car overall is a lovely place to be if you're looking for a comfortable, serene ride in one of the world's great sedans.
But if you're looking for a spirited ride, the E280 4MAtic isn't going to be your stein of beer. On the other hand, it surely isn't meant to: Mercedes-Benz offers more sporting versions of the E, right up to the E63 AMG that I imagine would address all my whining about the driving experience -- and then some!
On the other hand, this "most affordable" E class has a lot to offer and it's still Mercedes-Benz through and through. And that's nothing to sneeze at.
The E280 4Matic starts at $65,500 Canadian. The E350 4Matic starts at $53,825 U.S./ $74,500 Cdn. And the diesel-powered E320 BLUETEC starts at $52,325 U.S./$67,800 Cdn.