First Drive: E-Class puts Mercedes back in the running

New vehicle is prime weapon in Merc’s battle to be bestselling luxury car brand by 2020

Make: Mercedes-Benz

Model: E-Class

Year: 2016

Fuel: Diesel

Date Reviewed: April 13, 2016

Wed, Apr 20, 2016, 01:00

   

How can Mercedes Ireland, as a privately-owned car importer, compete with its two great rivals BMW and Audi, which in Ireland are owned and operated by their parent factories?

Be in no doubt about Merc Ireland’s challenge in this case. Mercedes, globally, has said that it wants to be the bestselling luxury carmaker by 2020, and so all of Merc’s national and regional operations will have to follow suit.

Last year in Ireland, Audi sold 5,224 cars and BMW shifted 4,833. Mercedes sold 2,634 and so far this year the positions are broadly similar: Audi on 3,204 units, BMW on 2,686 and Mercedes on 1,815.

Financial butter knife

There’s no objective reason, in terms of the cars themselves, why this should be so.

Indeed, I reckon that Merc’s C-Class is actually a better car than either the BMW 3 Series or Audi A4 right now, but the gap in the sales numbers are a reflection of the marketing, advertising and pre-registering muscle of the two factory-owned luxury brands.

Mercedes, being smaller and privately-financed, is bringing a financial butter knife to an artillery battle.

It does have a plan to beat the others, though; as Mercedes Ireland’s sales manager Ciaran Allen told The Irish Times, the key is simple: offer lower prices and more equipment.

This doesn’t mean that Mercedes is about to become the new Dacia (far, far from it) but certainly there has been a significant move in the past year to bring better value and focus to the Mercedes range.

As Allen points out, the new GLE (the facelift and re-badge of the M-Class SUV) came to the market last year with a claimed €12,000 worth of extra equipment over what its forebear offered, yet its price went up by just €150.

Likewise, the facelifted A-Class hatchback now has a claimed €1,600 worth of extra toys, yet its price climbed only marginally.

“The idea is to build cars for stock, and not to order,” says Allen, “so that what’s on the forecourt is the car the customer actually wants to buy.”

In other words, Mercedes Ireland can direct its narrower resources at cars which will sell, rather than over-specced forecourt queens.

The new E-Class, which looks every inch the inflated C-Class or shrunken S-Class, depending on which social strata you’re viewing it from, is an exemplar of that strategy.

Mercedes has rationalised the model range down to Avantgarde, Exclusive and AMG-Line (and you can pick and choose items within those packs to suit yourself – a sporty AMG exterior with a more traditional Exclusive inside, for instance), while standard equipment now includes full leather (albeit Mercedes’s man-made “Artico” leather), heated seats, LED lights, sat-nav, keyless ignition, reversing camera, active braking, driver drowsiness sensor and ambient interior lighting as standard.

Crucially, for your €52,850 (which Mercedes says is actually an €850 price reduction) you also get the new 9G-tronic automatic gearbox and Park Pilot, which not only slots you into parking spaces, but which can autonomously drive the car out by 50 metres when you want to get back in.

It’s part of a battery of autonomous driving sensors and equipment which means that the new E-Class can (optionally, which seems a bit mean when you remember that Volvo’s similar system is standard on the upcoming €48,000 S90) drive, steer and brake for itself on the motorway.

Automated lane-chasing is also available in Europe and the US, but currently verboten in Ireland.

Rewarding

Thankfully, taking control of the E-Class yourself is an unusually rewarding experience.

We sampled an E220 CDI automatic in AMG-Line trim (yours for €61,745) with utterly gorgeous 20in black-and-grey alloy wheels and a similarly muted interior layout (far jazzier cabin options are available).

While the slightly squared-off (and very small) steering wheel is a bit fiddly, the rest of the cabin is pretty lovely, with big, bright central infotainment screen and fantastic quality.

Merc is definitely back to its best when it comes to cabin design but there were two letdowns: one, the standard analogue main dials look a little old-school compared to the optional all-digital dash, and two, the graphics for the sat-nav menu look hilariously childish.

Still, the fundamentals are right. The new 2.0-litre, 195hp diesel engine is terrific – far quieter and smoother than the clattery old 2.1, and sufficiently fast and responsive that I don’t think you’ll find much need to spec up to the E250 or the V6 E350.

And it’s fun. Refinement is still the E-Class’s watchword, and it’s impressively quiet in the cabin, with the requisite great seats, but the steering has excellent weight and is surprisingly chatty in terms of telling you what’s happening at the tarmac.

The ride is perfectly smooth and unruffled, yet without an ounce of slop to the body control.

It really is dynamically something of a masterclass, easily the equal of the BMW 5 Series and Jaguar XF and well ahead of the current Audi A6.

Rear-seat space

I was a little concerned about rear-seat space, though. One of the things I’ve always liked most about the old E was its commodious rear seat and massive boot.

Here, the boot is only a match for the XF and 5 Series, not any larger, and rear-seat space, certainly for knees and feet, seems less generous than it did on the old E.

Still, this is a hugely impressive car – soulful to drive, comfortable in the extreme and displaying hefty levels of quality.

It’s got the moxie to do what Ciaran Allen and the rest at Mercedes Ireland want, need it to do: double E-Class sales in the next 18 months.

Whether it can actually be done is in the lap of the gods.

The lowdown: Mercedes-Benz E220 CDI AMG-Line

Price: €61,745 as tested; range starts at €50,550*

Power: 195hp.

Torque: 400Nm.

0-100km/h: 7.3sec.

Top speed: 240km/h.

Claimed economy: 4.3l/100km. (65mpg).

CO2 emissions: 112g/km.

Motor tax: €200. *Price for the E200 CDI Avantgarde Auto which is not yet available