2017 Mercedes-Benz E-Class first drive

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The car world is hurtling off on new and exciting and in some cases, highly speculative vectors. From Tesla to Google to Apple, a batch of new auto arrivals are owning the tech mantle without having built generations of backstory. Or even a business case.

They haven’t left the old guard behind just yet, though. Mercedes-Benz is as establishment as it gets, but it’s also put some astonishing markers down on technology in its bid to stay on the automotive desire path.

Case in point: With the 2017 E300, Mercedes all but glosses over how the car drives with a human at the controls. The push now, the hoped-for claim to fame, is how it drives when that human has mentally checked out.

Let’s spare the notion that anything else radical has happened with the E-Class. It remains a benchmark among luxury cars, among mid-size cars, and among four-door sedans. It’s more beautiful than it’s been in a generation. It’s more substantial. More efficient.

What has happened is radical enough. In this generation, Mercedes says it’s outdone itself, by baking in more autonomous-driving and safety and infotainment hardware in the new E-Class than it offers even in its sensuous, stalwart S-Class.

The E-Class now can drive almost entirely by itself at autobahn speeds, and can sense the road ahead at U.S. highway speeds when the road itself is in poor repair. We’re a long, long way from mere cruise control here.

On that front, it’s a magnitude ahead of rivals like the Audi A6, BMW 5-Series, Lexus GS, Jaguar XF, and Cadillac CTS. It’s now locked in a headline war with the American-made Tesla Model S for the smartest car on the road.

Copy, paste, success

With that kind of brainpower at work, the E-Class could easily have backed off on dramatic styling change. It hasn’t. It’s embraced the long-nose, short-deck sweep that’s recast the C-Class and S-Class as the most stylish cars in their respective classes.

Not all E-Class cars have this elegant new look. While the sedan is completely new, the coupes and convertibles soldier on in last-generation form for a bit longer.

There’s some variation within the E-Class fold. Drivers can choose between a Luxury model with a more traditional grille and a hood-mounted Mercedes star, and a Sport model with a slimmer, sparer grille and a flat star badge on the hood.

From there, the silhouette remains the same. There’s a tapered shoulder line that pulls down toward the rear wheels, a carefully draped roofline that flows into the abbreviated rear end. At the back, LED taillights have a diffused pattern dubbed by Benz as a “stardust” effect. It’s not as complex as Rolls-Royce’s starlight roof, with its thousands of pinpoints of LED light, but it’s a charming detail, one of dozens that set this generation of Mercedes cars well apart from those in the past.

The effusive design cues carry into the cabin. The E-Class interior is no longer bound by big bands of wood and studded by banks of buttons. It’s swept up into a rhythm of textures, from open-pore woods to metallic weaves, that rise and ebb from the door panels toward a bombe-chest of a center console. It’s all capped in stitched leather and warmed by 64 shades of ambient lighting from prom-night purple to old-money white.

Like the S-Class, the E doesn’t shy from the digital era. What would be the point, when it has twin 12.3-inch screens at hand? Most E300s will come with one screen and a handsome set of dials, but Mercedes will take special orders for what’s likely to become the stock setup in AMG-powered E-Class sedans. The dual-pane setup sets the right tech mood, but the freedom of space puts some information behind the steering wheel, no matter how you tilt or telescope it. Information fills every corner of the driver-side display–almost as if the steering wheel could go away entirely.

The cockpit’s receptive to fingertip control. Below the right-side screen, thin rows of climate-control switches sit ahead of the touchpuck that controls the infotainment system. The E’s steering wheel also has touch surfaces for swipe-and-tap operation.

Mostly, though, it wants to be admired by the other senses. The leathers are more vividly colored, the sound system speakers perforated for aural and textural thrills. The S-Class set a high-water mark for all of Mercedes when it comes to interior style, and this car has copy-pasted the look to great effect. If you still fall back on the “E-Class is a German taxi” critique, you probably haven’t been in one in this century.

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