MERCEDES-BENZ'S all-new tenth generation E-Class sedan arrives this week, featuring levels of technology, safety and driver assistance to make the brand's flagship S-Class limo self-reverse into a dark corner and hide.
Innovations are moving at such a pace at Benz that its latest model is typically the most advanced, so the 2016 mid-size E-Class is the new techie marvel overflowing with wow factor.
Its cabin is the real mind scrambler. A digital widescreen cockpit blending a brace of 12.3-inch high-res screens is true Sci-Fi stuff; there's a pair of steering wheel mini swipe thumb pads to control your entertainment and car settings, while there are driver assistance systems to prevent practically every accident and even help the car as good as drive itself.
Let's not forget the engines and gearbox are refined delights, ride comfort is typically exceptional and the big E doesn't look bad either. Unless you really need to stretch out in the back seats, are you sure you need to buy that S-Class?
At launch you can buy an E 200 petrol for $89,900 plus on-roads; a similar-spec E 220d featuring an all-new diesel motor for a few more grand, or the fruit-filled E 350d for $134,900. Shoppers need to wait until later this year for the more high performance E 300 petrol (the expected volume seller), rapid twin-turbo six-cylinder petrol E 400 and a plug-in hybrid version. The AMG-fettled E43 beastie won't land until early 2017.
Our road test was limited to the four-cylinder E 200 and E 220d cars, each a fair few grand more than the run-out prices on current E-Class equivalents, but with included equipment to justify the hikes.
Move over Audi, this is the dashboard of tomorrow. Slide into the electric memory seats (which are sublime) and the classy Black Ash dash sweeps under the wide-screen cockpit display. Being fully digital you can personalise the display to suit (for example change the instrument cluster from Classic to Sport look), while choosing between 64 (!) different ambient lighting colours.
A gloss black centre console has a touchpad and controller which even recognises handwriting, but you really need never take your hands off the wheel (great for safety) as your touch controls here can navigate nearly everything. It will take an age to master everything, but the innovation, luxury and style here is superb, and these are just your entry-level E-Classes.
On the road
Neither the E 200 or E200d are quick cars, but if you value effortless refined progress in near silence they are winners. Both have enough torque to get you up to speed - the quiet diesel especially - while the new as standard 9-speed autos effortlessly sail through the many cogs. The drive is always easy and relaxed, if a bit lacking in verve. You can select Sport+ for more response, but the steering could use a bit more weight for more involvement.
Bump absorption is exceptional with air suspension (a $3900 option, but I'd say worth it), but still bloody good without. Cabin noise? Next to none: this is limousine-good at keeping the peace.
But what could be more comforting than a car that drives itself? Merc's Drive Pilot is the next step towards full autonomous driving. I simply activated the Distronic feature and the E-Class kept my pre-selected speed and I was able to take my hands off the steering wheel while it self-steered to maintain its path in the centre of the road (by using radar and cameras it doesn't need to rely on road markings). Incredibly, it can do this up to 130kmh.
Keeping things legal, after a minute or so the car reminds you to keep your hands on the wheel, while I found it wouldn't steer effectively on its own around tighter corners. For the freeway though it's a brilliant tool. Full autonomy can't be too far away.
What do you get?
So filled with tech are these E-Classes we had a separate day for learning about the innovations and safety equipment, with our thoughts found here.
In a nutshell, the car uses cameras and radar to stay in its own lane without the driver needing to hold the steering wheel (well, legally you still need to), while its lane change assist can do the freeway overtaking for you. If you pass out (or die) at the wheel the car will slowly come to a stop with hazard lights on; Evasive Steering Assist will steer you around obstructions (like drunk pedestrians) if you run out of talent and - you'll love this - if the car knows it's about to be involved in a crash it emits a brief signal via the sound system, causing a reflex action in your ear muscle to prevent your eardrum rupturing in all that crashing noise. Stunning.
Cherry picking the real standouts on the cars we tested - the two entry levels remember - both the E 200 and E 220d score 18-inch wheels, 9G-Tronic nine-speed auto gearboxes, Artico leather-like upholstery, electric memory seats, dual-zone auto climate, 64 different colours of ambient lighting, the widescreen digital cockpit, touchpad controller, infotainment able to connect to the internet, navigation, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, DAB+ digital radio, keyless start, and incredible smart LED lights.
Boot space of 530-litres trumps BMW's 5 Series, and is a decent 50-litres more than Merc's C-Class. Rear passenger space is good for height but leg and feet space could be more generous.
On paper, fuel economy for these two engines is superb, but real world testing suggested they're optimistic. The E 200 quotes 6.4l/100km and the E 200d an incredible 4.1l/100km. On test we saw 8.8l and 7.7l respectively, taking in a mix of highway, town and rural road driving.
The usual suspects, and all with a start price less than the Benz, but none to match it for cutting edge tech. Try the BMW 5 Series ($82,300), Audi A6 ($79,900) and Jaguar XF ($82,800), or for less mainstream the Lexus GS ($75,000) or Infiniti Q70 ($68,900).
Elegant and distinctively Mercedes, the new E-Class looks like an enlarged C-Class, which is no bad thing. Its coupe-esque roof adds sporty to the formalness, while front and rear lights are jazzy treats, the rears reminiscent, Benz says, of stardust or the Milky Way.
A more athletic style is yours for $6300 with the AMG Line pack (body kit, 20-inch wheels, leather), or "traditional" Merc buyers should go the Exclusive Line for $1900 with brown wood inside and the Mercedes star on the bonnet.
The E-Class needs to be a large car with cutting edge safety and technology to satisfy its market, and this new model exceeds expectations.
Pricier yes, but you have a technological tour de force of a car here with driver aids, semi-autonomous abilities and digital cockpit dash to change the game.
The future is here.
Model: Mercedes-Benz E-Class E 200 and E 220d.
Details: Premium rear-wheel drive mid-size executive sedans.
Engines: 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol producing maximum power of 135kW @ 5500rpm and peak torque of 300Nm @ 1200rpm (E 200); 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder diesel with 143kW @ 3800rpm and 400Nm @ 1600rpm.
Transmission: Nine-speed 9G-TRONIC automatics.
Consumption: 6.4l/100km (E 200); 4.1l/100km (E 220d).
Performance 0-100kmh: 7.7 seconds (E 200); 7.3 seconds (E 220d).
Bottom line plus on-roads: $89,990 (E 200); $92,900 (E 220d).
What matters most
What we liked: Quite brilliant pair of high-res 12.3-inch display screens making up the dashboard, included driver assistance systems, personalisation options, refined engines and gearbox, ride comfort particularly with optional air suspension.
What we'd like to see: Heated seats and head up display as standard, bit more steering feel, buyers will have to wait a few months more for models with stronger performance.
Warranty and servicing: Three year/unlimited kilometre warranty. Servicing is every 20,000km or 12 months.
Driving experience 16/20
Features and equipment 18/20
Functionality and comfort 19/20
Value for money 16/20
Style and design 17/20