Sat07262014

On The Road

Driving in style


Photo By: courtesy of Mercedes-Benz
Photo Courtesy Of Mercedes-Benz

The 2014 Mercedes-Benz E350, scheduled to be released in late spring, features a 302-horsepower engine. The four-door sedan is expected to cost from ,000 to ,000.

There’s something about sliding into a beautifully appointed full-size four-door sedan that can make you feel as if you’ve arrived before you’ve even pressed the button to start the engine.

This month we drove three such vehicles – the 2013 Infiniti M56 Sport and the redesigned 2013 Toyota Avalon Limited on the streets of Los Altos, and the not-yet-released 2014 Mercedes-Benz E350 on the roads around Barcelona, Spain.

All three are extremely satisfying to drive, but as one might expect, there are differences among them – given the broad range of pricing. The well-equipped Avalon we drove is stickered at $40,445, the Mercedes-Benz is projected to cost from $55,000 to $70,000, and the Infiniti is priced at $70,195, which includes technology and sport packages that add $10,000 to the base price.

All three vehicles are comfortable conveyances for up to five people and would be more than suitable for a night on the town.

The Avalon is more than satisfactory against the basic measures for a luxury car and would make anyone proud to own it. By comparison, the more expensive Mercedes and Infiniti have more of everything – from power to safety and interior trim – and would not leave an owner wondering where the extra money had been spent.

Our judgment is most flattering to Toyota: the company’s product planners and designers have taken a car that was a placeholder between the Camry and the Lexus (Car and Driver called the first Avalon a “love letter to the membership of AARP”) and turned it into a distinctive vehicle that rivals everything in its price range and is no way out of place in our comparison.

The Infiniti M56 was redesigned in 2011, but the Sport package with which our review car was equipped – all-wheel drive with sport suspension, stronger brakes and 20-inch wheels – is new for 2013. With 420 horsepower and 417 pound-feet of torque from its 5.6-liter V-8 engine, it is the most powerful of the three cars, making the Sport package a sensible selection.

The new Mercedes-Benz E350, scheduled to be in dealer showrooms late this spring, is mounted on the same chassis as the previous model introduced in 2009, but it’s been substantially redesigned for 2014 and has gained a wide range of standard and optional safety equipment – and some new engine options as well. The middle-of-the-range 3.5-liter V-6 engine produces 302 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque, nicely balanced to the size and weight of the car.

When testing the Avalon, the characteristic that stood out the most was the quiet comfort of the cabin. Any car in, or aspiring to, the luxury vehicle market must have this quality. The Avalon’s ride was smooth, outside sounds were minimized, and both driver and passengers could easily engage in conversation or be surrounded by music from a good audio system, while enjoying the unobtrusive support of well-designed seats.

With the Mercedes E-Class, the attributes that stood out the most in the presentations and drives are related to driver and passenger safety. While maintaining its traditional luxury standards, Mercedes has also endeavored to improve all aspects of safety in its cars, and the new E-Class offers every improvement that the company’s engineers have been able to develop.

A wide array of video, motion and radar sensors now literally surround the car. These sensors track the movement of the vehicle itself as well as all aspects of its surrounding environment.

Most interesting is the new stereo multipurpose camera mounted in the rearview mirror that works like a person’s own eyes to see objects in three dimensions for up to 550 yards ahead of the car. With the image-processing software, this vision system can differentiate between a pedestrian and something like a bush, as well as calculate speed and trajectory of moving objects in front and to the sides of the car. Likewise, radar on both the front and rear of the car senses obstacles that may represent safety risks.

Using this array of sensors in various combinations with the intelligence built into the car’s computers, the E-Class helps the driver keep the vehicle centered in its lane, respond semi-autonomously to leading and following traffic, and avoid potential front and rear collisions as well as unintended swerves or unanticipated changes in pavement. In response to sensed problems, the car works with the driver to change the vehicle’s speed or steering, or brake one or more wheels in combination – whatever is needed to keep the car stable in a straight line or cause it to change direction to avoid an accident.

What stood out most about the Infiniti is its performance. Combining power, suspension and braking enhancements, the car is the most satisfying of the three cars from a pure driving standpoint. The Infiniti Drive, a knob controller on the center console, allows the driver to select the most appropriate throttle, transmission and suspension performance for the driving situation.

If fuel economy is the desired standard, perhaps on a long trip, then the car can be put into Eco mode, which dials back on throttle response while causing earlier shifts on the seven-speed transmission to keep the engine rpm as low as possible. On the other hand, circumstances permitting, the driver can select Sport mode, which causes the car to respond more quickly to the throttle, hold shift points longer and make the steering more responsive. And, when necessary, there’s even a Snow mode that minimizes wheel spin in challenging winter conditions.

We’re happy to say that we really enjoyed all three of these vehicles. And the buyer who wants a car that is satisfying to drive that will also make his or her passengers feel special will be pleased with any one of the three – each appropriate to a particular set of preferences and price points.

Longtime Los Altos residents Gary and Genie Anderson are co-owners of Enthusiast Publications LLC, which edits several car club magazines and contributes articles and columns to automotive magazines and online services.

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