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On The Road

Rich with choices

courtesy of Mercedes-Benz
Mercedes-Benz’s 2014 E-Class lineup offers an array of choices – from a diesel-powered engine to a convertible and a hand-built, high-performance V8 engine.

At a press launch event a few weeks ago in Portland, Ore., Mercedes-Benz USA introduced the complete lineup of the bread-and-butter center of its product range – E-Class automobiles comprehensively updated for 2014.

Accounting for 25 percent of Mercedes sales in the U.S., the E-Class range offers something for virtually every driver seeking a mid-range luxury automobile.

The choices are truly impressive. The E-Class lineup boasts four body styles: four-door sedans, four-door station wagons, two-door coupes and two-door cabriolets (the classic term Mercedes uses for its convertibles).

Across the range of cars, the company offers an impressive choice of five engines, including a four-cylinder diesel engine, a V6 and a V8 gas engine, a V6/electric hybrid and a hand-built, high-performance V8 engine. To meet every driving need, the company offers two-wheel drive to the rear wheels and the all-wheel-drive powertrain called 4Matic.

In total, there are 15 variations in the lineup – truly something for every billfold, transportation requirement and driving style.

Prices for the standard models range from $51,500 for the E250 BlueTEC diesel rear-wheel-drive sedan to $67,300 for the E550 cabriolet. The high-performance all-wheel-drive AMG E63 sedans and station wagons are priced ranging from $92,770 for the E63 sedan to $102,370 for the E63 S-model wagon.

A redesigned E-Class

With so many choices, and such a range of performance, we could only hit the high spots in two days of driving – one day east along the Columbia River Gorge and then south to Mount Hood before returning to Portland, and one day west along one set of curving backroads to the Oregon coast, returning to Portland along another curving route.

If you’re looking for a great getaway, incidentally, just catch a cheap flight to Portland, rent a convertible and take a weekend to do either drive, staying at one of the new small boutique hotels in the downtown district around Pioneer Square.

The highlight of the event was the extent to which Mercedes has redesigned the E-Class lineup after only a few years. On the exterior, the front end has been completely redesigned, doing away with the separate running lights that had been an E-Class cue, and adding more verve to the grille and vents. In addition, the side panels have been brought up-to-date with Mercedes-Benz’s new flowing design, especially on the sedan and wagon.

There is a lot more to comment on in the interior, with a redesigned steering wheel, display screen and switchgear, as well as new upholstery patterns. And Mercedes-Benz has moved the clock from its decades-old position as a gauge in the driver’s cluster to an elegantly executed analog design in the center of the dashboard.

Diesel engine

The second big deal at the launch was our first opportunity to drive what is now the entry point to the entire lineup, the four-door sedan with all the E-class elegance that is powered by a highly competent inline four-cylinder direct-injected turbocharged – wait for it – diesel engine. Mercedes-Benz was the first automobile company in the world to put a diesel engine in a passenger car – way back in 1936 – so it’s no surprise that it is the first to do a proper luxury car with the advantages of a modern clean-diesel engine.

The new engine, now in several Mercedes products, is quiet and torquey (that means responsive acceleration, for the nongearheads), with exceptional fuel efficiency. In an informal contest, journalists recorded as high as 44 mpg over 150 miles of mixed driving, while those who had no interest in playing the game were measured at no worse than 35 mpg. Remember when those fuel-efficiency numbers were only available in anemic compact cars?

Safety in numbers

The third big deal with the E-Class lineup is that it comes equipped with all the same standard and optional safety features introduced earlier this year on the top-of-the-line Mercedes-Benz S-Class. Surrounding the car with a veritable bubble of protection – both for the occupants of the car and for pedestrians, wildlife and other vehicles that might cross its path – these safety features are the first practical spin-outs from the extensive research into autonomous cars going on at Stanford University and other research centers: cars that drive themselves.

Self-driving option

The feature we enjoyed most – and we think will be used most often – is the car’s ability to drive itself in low-speed, stop-and-go traffic conditions of the sort common on every Bay Area freeway at commute times.

Returning to Portland at 4:30 p.m. in bumper-to-bumper traffic, we simply set the cruise control at the posted speed limit and engaged it – and the car took over. As long as traffic was running under 25 mph, the car would accelerate and stop on its own, maintaining a safe distance from cars around it.

But wait, there’s more. The car could even steer itself with the driver’s hands completely off the wheel, guided by the vision and radar sensors that key off surrounding cars and pavement lane markers. As soon as traffic opened up and speed surpassed 25 mph, the warning system beeped to alert the driver to assume steering control, while the car continued to maintain its own speed and safe distances among surrounding cars.

If you’re in the market for a comfortable, competent mid-range luxury car – whether you’re looking for an elegant sedan, sensible station wagon (so much more practical than an SUV), stylish coupe or sporty convertible – the new Mercedes-Benz E-Class is seriously worth considering.

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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