WITH A HERITAGE that stretches back 60 years, it?s no surprise that the E-Class and its forebears have long been the mainstay of Mercedes-Benz?s passenger car line-up.
Due to its relatively conservative image and positioning in the Benz stable, it?s safe to say that the E-Class has achieved most of its past sales success with an older and more traditional demographic. And that's something that Mercedes is looking to change.
While it still wants to hang onto its ?traditional? E-Class market of 45-plus professionals and retirees, the company is keener than ever to tap into a younger market.
It is carrying its aspirations on the all-new 2010 E-Class. And, according to Mercedes-Benz, it's not just a new look, but a totally new product.
Aesthetically, the svelte new E-Class is a winner.
While traditionalists might scratch their heads over the new model?s squarer face and sharper creases, the reality is that the outgoing E-Class was a seven year-old design, and was beginning to look more than a little dated against its competitors.
The new E-Class?s ground-up redesign fixes that, and it makes a bold statement in doing so. The quartet of rectangular headlight clusters continues the outgoing E-Class?s quad-lamped theme, but with a sharper and more modern execution in the new model.
A subtle pontoon-like treatment to the rear quarterpanels is also a tip of the hat to the E-Class?s 1950s-era forebears, and a classy fusion of retro and contemporary.
LED daytime running lamps are fast becoming de rigeur in the luxury car segment, and Mercedes has used them to good effect in the E-Class.
The L-shaped array of LEDs (mounted in the lower half of the bumper), do much to enhance the new car?s presence, and are a standard feature on Avantgarde-spec V6 and V8 models. LED tail-lights are also standard.
While it looks good in photos, the new E-Class looks even better in the flesh. A more muscular shape than its soft-edged predecessor, the new E-Class sedan is sharper and more dynamic.
As handsome as the E-Class sedan is though, it is soundly trumped by the style of its coupe stablemate.
Built atop a stretched and widened version of the CLK?s platform, the E-Class coupe features more strongly defined rear quarterpanel ?pontoons?, uniquely contoured headlamps, sashless windows and, of course, a big three-pointed star in the centre of the grille.
It?s also physically larger than the CLK it replaces, and with a coefficient of drag of just 0.24, the E-Class coupe can lay claim to being the most aerodynamic production car in the world.
Inside, there is now a sportier feel to the interiors of the entire E-Class range. Black is the dominant theme across the E350 and E500 sedans and coupes (the four models available from launch), with the default Avantgarde trim level featuring a black dashboard, black leather, black headliner and brushed-alloy dash highlights.
Mercedes-Benz?s 'traditional' buyer base can opt for the Elegance trim package at no extra cost. It includes a two-tone grey interior colour scheme, grey upholstery and different wood trim options.
The wheels are downsized (17-inch as opposed to the Avantgarde?s standard 18-inch wheels) and the suspension is comfort-tuned (read: softer).
Us? We preferred the moodier atmosphere of the Avantgarde, and Mercedes believes a lot of E-Class buyers will as well.
So, inside and out, the new E-Class range looks sharper and less conservative, but does the drive deliver on the promise of the styling?
To find out, Mercedes sent us on a lengthy drive taking in a variety of Victoria?s rural backroads so that we could sample at first hand the E-Class?s on-road prowess.
With the diesel and direct-injected models not yet available, the test fleet consisted of the E350 and E500 sedan and coupe variants, each of which we were afforded the chance to sample.
Mercedes-Benz has fitted its Direct Control adaptive damping system to the new E350. The system automatically varies damping force, and allows the E350?s ride to transition from supple to firm, the instant road and driving conditions demand it.
Aggressively turning into corners under power sees the suspension firm up and handling response instantly improve.
And hit a rough patch of tarmac while cruising? Direct Control will quickly adjust the dampers to soak up the bumps. Its operation is virtually imperceptible, and the result is significantly increased driver confidence and comfort on winding and bumpy roads.
The E350 coupe is fitted with Agility Control adaptive dampers, instead of the sedan?s Direct Control system.
Switching between the Coupe and sedan however, revealed that it was difficult to distinguish a great deal of difference in the way both cars handled.
The E500 sedan is equipped with Airmatic suspension as standard which replaces the conventional steel coil springs with a set of adjustable airbags.
Like the Direct Control suspension, the Airmatic system also features adjustable dampers and an in-cabin switch that allows the driver to alternate between the conventional automatic mode, and a far tauter sport mode.
The Airmatic?s suspension characteristics, while similar to those of the Direct Control system, were noticeably firmer in ?sports mode? - perhaps a little too firm - especially when travelling over choppy pavement.
As Mercedes presently has no plans to introduce an AMG variant of the E-Class coupe, all Australia-bound E500 coupes will be equipped with the (otherwise optional) AMG Sports package, in lieu of a full-blooded performance model.
While the AMG Sports package does not include a power-boost for the 5.5-litre V8, (the E500 is not a car lacking on that front to begin with) it does include a sports steering wheel, revised bumpers, a modified induction system and AMG-branded trim.
Far and away though, the most impressive addition to the AMG Sports package is the Dynamic Handling system.
It is selectable between comfort and sport settings via a dash-mounted button, and while the comfort setting nicely isolates occupants from the travails of the road (and the world) without compromising handling, sport mode is a much more rakish beast.
Engage sport mode in the E500 coupe, and not only does the suspension firm up (a lot), the transmission mapping is altered (gear ratios are held for longer) and the big V8?s throttle mapping is also sharpened up a notch.
And what a fantastic V8 it is. The 5.5 litre unit produces 285kW and 530Nm, making it more than capable of propelling both the sedan and coupe with consummate ease.
In comparison to the V8, the E350?s 3.5 litre V6 feels less eager but is nevertheless a refined and willing performer.
With 200kW and 350Nm it certainly isn?t lacking, and is well up to the task of whisking the 1700kg E-Class along swiftly, comfortably and quietly.
Mercedes-Benz?s 7G-Tronic seven-speed automatic is the only gearbox on offer for both the V6 and V8 models. In tiptronic mode, there?s a noticeable lag between tapping the gearlever (or steering wheel-mounted paddle) and the next gear engaging.
The E500 coupe?s ?sports mode? of course produces faster manual changes.
The majority of drivers however will be perfectly content to select 'drive' and leave the smooth 7G-Tronic to its own devices.
With the notable exception of the E500 coupe, most in the E-Class range make far better long-distance cruisers than back-road rockets.
Our time at the wheel also gave us the chance to test several of the new safety features available on the E-Class for the first time.
Lane Keep Assist is bundled with the new Blind Spot Assist system, the former vibrating the steering wheel should the driver veer towards the painted lines and the latter warning the driver of vehicles hiding in the E-Class? blind spot should its rear-facing radar system detect any obstacles.
The radar-assisted adaptive cruise control system has also been upgraded, and will match the speed of the traffic ahead, right down to a complete stop.
Should the driver also start feeling drowsy and behaving unusually, the new Attention Assist program will alert the driver and prompt them to pull over for a rest. And should things come to grief, there is a full complement of front, side and curtain airbags to protect both front and rear passengers.
As for physical dimensions, the cabins of both two-door and four-door are larger in virtually every way than the models they replace.
Wheelbases are longer and body shells wider, liberating more legroom and elbow room for all occupants. Headroom has also improved, with the sedan offering 10mm more head-space in the front row and 11mm more in the back row.
Prefer even more opulent surroundings? E-Class sedan buyers can option the rear Comfort Package, which deletes the middle seat and replaces the standard bench with two separate (and very comfortable) pews.
The boot is also more capacious, and now able to swallow four golfbags in its 540 litre compartment. And loading those golfbags will be an easier task thanks to the enlarged bootlid opening.
After our brief taste of the first wave of E-Class models it would seem that Mercedes-Benz has managed to combine traditional E-Class exclusivity with a stylish new look and, dare we say it, a ?sportier? nature.
There?s more room inside, truly sumptuous interiors, better ergonomics, a great V8, an impressive V6, stunning good looks and a very desirable new coupe to round out the range.
And while there may be a sportier edge to the on-road performance, the new E-Class appears to have evolved without compromising its core values; class, distinction and quality.
We?ll be thoroughly road-testing the E-Class in the coming months, and providing a comprehensive review. Until then, for a brief run down on the 2010 E-Class sedan and coupe range and a complete retail price list, click this link.