Hitching a ride from LA to Las Vegas in the 2016 'W213' Mercedes-Benz E-Class reveals a car that's near autonomous, hugely luxurious and very technologically advanced. Its competition should be very worried indeed, as the E-Class feels like it's leaped two model series forward rather than just one.
In the metal
The W213 E-Class will be revealed at the Detroit Auto Show in January, but we've had early access to it and it's still wearing its pre-production disguise. What is evident despite the disguise is that that the E-Class has lost some of the busier elements to its design, now sharing lines with its smaller C-Class and larger S-Class relatives. That's deliberate, says Gorden Wagener, Head of Design Daimler AG, who wants all of Mercedes-Benz's saloons to be immediately recognisable as such. We'll need to wait until it's revealed without the eye-tricking camouflage to know for sure, but even with it in place it's obvious that the E-Class will be a bit more elegant in its shape - as well as larger. An exterior promising something akin to a larger C-Class might disappoint some for not pushing the boundaries of Mercedes-Benz design, which is understandable perhaps, as the E-Class is hugely important to the firm and radical design upsets loyal customers.
However, inside, there's no such conservatism, the E-Class feeling like it's taken a couple of evolutionary leaps over its predecessor - and its rivals. In front of the driver sits a pair of screens that dominate the fascia, stretching almost two-thirds of the width of the cabin and containing everything from digital displays, showing conventional instruments, to the satnav, entertainment and vehicle functions. It's similar to that in the S-Class, only better, and the completely revised 'Comand' set-up is configurable to your preference via a choice of three different themes called Classic, Sport and Progressive. Those screens eschew the trend for touch operation - no messy fingerprints here - instead being controlled via a combined click-wheel and touchpad in the transmission tunnel between the driver and passenger. If you're familiar with Benz's system it's all very easy to operate, and makes all its rivals' systems look last century in comparison.
Sadly for now, we didn't drive the E-Class. We were driven in it. Thing is, that's pretty much true of the chap in the driving seat too - Michael Kelz, Chief Engineer E-Class/CLS/GLC - as the E-Class is as close to autonomous motoring as current legislation allows.
What's immediately apparent is how quiet the E-Class is. Kelz says that the refinement benchmark was the Mercedes S-Class, and it's obvious that the engineers have not just achieved that, but surpassed it. His biggest push was for luxury, Kelz saying "There are plenty of engineers who can do sporty in the company, but I am focused on comfort. It's important". That's not to the detriment of engagement, says Kelz, adding: "the steering has to feel natural too, I don't like synthetic steering."
Not that there's much steering going on, as Kelz's inputs at the wheel are limited to him brushing one of the touch sensitive buttons to assure the car he's still there. Otherwise it's driving itself. Within limitations, as legislation does not allow the E-Class to be completely autonomous. For example, Kelz has to take over when bends reach a certain radius, but on the long straight roads between Los Angeles and Las Vegas his inputs are pretty infrequent.
The E-Class could theoretically drive without any input thanks to the E-Class's new electronic architecture, the CAN bus system 'Star 2.3' enabling its autonomous ability - as well as the E's huge safety arsenal. That includes Drive Pilot, Active Brake Assist, Evasive Steering Assist, Active Lane Change Assistant, Car-to-X communication, Remote Parking Pilot, Pre-Safe Impulse Side, Pre-Safe Sound and more beside. It's safe then, and you'd be hard pushed to crash it.
It'll come with a range of trim and engine choices as ever when it arrives in Ireland next year, along with a biturbo V8 in the AMG E 63 flagship. All, with the exception of that AMG model, will feature Mercedes-Benz's nine-speed automatic and will be initially offered in rear-wheel drive - 4Matic four-wheel drive models following after. Being a new platform it has been designed to accept alternative powertrains too, so hybrids will also make up the product offering in time.
From the passenger seat it's the refinement and comfort that are really noticeable. The two cars we ride in featured different suspension systems, one a steel sprung set-up with adaptive dampers and the other the more expensive air sprung system dubbed Air Body Control. Both ride beautifully, but it's the air system that impresses most, it providing fine body and roll control yet a supple, forgiving ride. The engines we experienced, both a four-cylinder turbodiesel and a V6 petrol, are all but silent in their operation, while the cabin, along with its clear opulence and focus on technology, is very accommodating too.
What you get for your money
We'll be eying lesser trims with the four-cylinder turbodiesel here in Ireland when it arrives next year. Its certain class-leading CO2 emissions are sure to make it a tax-friendly choice. We'll not know what the standard equipment will be until nearer its on-sale date, but given Mercedes' push to beat its German rivals even entry-level versions should come very well stocked. What they won't feature is the full double screen dashboard, as lower priced models make do with conventional instruments in front of the driver - though still featuring the huge central screen.
Audi A6: Audi's A6 might not be the sharpest to drive in this class, but it's a tough car to overlook if you value clean design, superb space and an exceptional interior. Diesels very efficient, too.
BMW 5 Series: alongside the new E-Class the BMW 5 Series will really be showing its age. Still the driver's choice, but a new one is needed soon.
Jaguar XF: recently renewed British contender for the usual German trio puts up a good fight, but it's lacking in some of its competitions' finer details.
Okay, so we've sat in the 2016 Mercedes E-Class, for hundreds of kilometres, but only from the passenger seat. You can tell a lot from there, particularly about refinement and comfort. Both of which are exemplary. So too is the interior, which is not just spacious and beautifully finished, but technologically advanced, as well. We'll reserve our judgement on how it drives until we get behind the wheel, but in every other way the new E-Class feels like it's taken not just one, but two steps ahead developmentally. And that should worry its competition.