Technology drives Mercedes E-Class to new levels

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The new Mercedes E-Class comes with a self-drive feature, part of the arsenal of assists provided by Distronic active cruise control. Photos supplied

Heavy traffic to the left, to the right, immediately in front and behind - just another morning on the M2, the major motorway threading through Melbourne.

The updated E-Class is cruising smoothly in the shoal, the smart cruise control precisely maintaining 100kmh. So far, so familiar for Distronic; but now on entering a gentle left-hander for its next trick: Hands off the wheel to leave the car to its own devices.

We remain in safe charge. The E250CDI sedan continues to settle into the corner, the wheel moving slightly to hold the cornering line, as if gripped by an invisible hand.

Welcome to the world of autonomous driving; albeit briefly. Six seconds on, a warning sounds as the car ''asks'' me to resume control.

In the interim, what's been going on is this: Two windscreen-mounted cameras that act as eyes and provide a stereo view of the road up to 500m ahead have continually been finding the lane markings and determining, in tandem with other sensors, the car's precise placement between them.

However, be aware the self-drive feature that becomes the new ace ability of the arsenal of assists under the Distronic active cruise control is not the perfect chauffeur.

We try this on a multilane motorway because that's the environment self-drive best understands; the system will not maintain lane position in anything more than a gentle bend. Seeking to repeat the exercise on a well-marked dual lane rural route was unsuccessful; the system clocked the lines but couldn't keep up with the corner - something to bear in mind before trying it on home roads.

The system is also cut if the indicators are activated and when the steering wheel is touched.

Still, this addition to Distronic is a heck of a breakthrough, one only Mercedes can provide and solely restricted to the new E, at least until the brand's flagship S-Class - which has all these smarts and more - comes here about Christmas.

It is easy to see why the change for the medium E-Class model is touted as the ''most significant'' midlife revision Benz has wheeled out. Styling revisions go well beyond the requisite new headlights and smartened interior. The headline-making stuff is to do with what occurs underneath: Two new petrol engines and 11 new or improved driver aids.

Apart from self-steering, the car can also brake itself to a complete stop to avoid a collision with other cars and pedestrians, and can now also park itself.

While some gadgets have already been previewed on cheaper cars (high-end versions of Holden's VF Commodore have similar self-parking ability and rear-ender alert and the Ford Kuga performs the same trick of opening the boot when you wave your foot), on the whole it is a high-tech deep dive.

Even those ''familiar'' aids are finessed further behind the Benz badge. For instance, at conclusion of the self-park manoeuvre, the E-Class self-stops; a world-first. And, on pedestrian watch, it is clever enough to differentiate the human form even when in a wheelchair.

With so many smarts, plus all the usual luxury amenities including sat nav, you'd think that there would for once be a beyond-argument justification for a price rise, yet only the entry car costs more, and then by a mere $4100 while offering, Benz attests, $8000 worth of enhancements over the old equivalent, including a fresh engine.

The others are cheaper, at the least by $1000 (E250 CDI) and at most by $53,750 (the E63 AMG S).

And these models are also better-kitted and more efficient than their predecessors.

It's no secret Benz is anxious not to continue in third spot behind Audi and BMW in New Zealand.

''I think it is us wanting our fair share of what is a big pie,'' says Benz NZ boss Ben Giffin. ''There is a share that we think is rightfully ours.''

If the E always seemed conservative, look again. Styling nuances go beyond facial recognition. Sheetmetal revisions affect most surfaces and notably gone are the rear-wheel arch pontoons. Inside there are new seats and improved trim.

The autonomous systems are packaged as Intelligent Drive. The camera function is very much like Subaru's EyeSight system, but Benz adds a radar assist that allows the shift into autonomy.

The intent is not to let the driver sit back and read the paper while the car takes itself to work or play; the set-up is foremost giving a driver a second chance in the event of a momentary lapse through fatigue.

While this second chance intercedes so fleetingly, the software is probably smart enough to allow the car to do more. But Benz will not unlock that level of self-control.

In regard to actual hands-on driving, it's hard to describe the E-Class as a driver's delight but it is neutrally balanced and, with one of the most rigid body shells in the business it imparts a solid, dependable go-forever feel. The alternate wagon, now trimmed as standard with seven seats (the rearmost pair lifting out of the boot and facing backward) feels noticeably large.

The new range will filter in over the next few months. Our day was spent in the new four-cylinder E250 petrol, which with more torque and slightly less power than its predecessor, is much more satisfactory.

All the more so, since this stronger engine tune has no impact on fuel consumption. The E250 is rated the same 6.4L/100km as the less powerful E200 that will not be offered in New Zealand.

Also on the road at launch was the E250 CDI, which is still my favourite: Benz's diesel is not as refined as some in this category, but it has massive pull.

The E350 3.0-litre twin turbo V6 that replaces the old bi-turbo 4.6 V8 E500 has yet to launch. With 0-100kmh in 5.3sec and economy of 7.6 litres per 100km, it seems a good step forward, while the AMG will appeal for being among the world's most powerful sedans.

Technology drives Mercedes E-Class to new levels
At a Glance

Price: $114,000 to $215,000

Engines: 1991cc four-cylinder petrol, maximum power 155kW@5500rpm, maximum torque 350Nm@1200-4000rpm; 2143cc four-cylinder turbo-diesel, max power 150kW@3800rpm, max torque 500Nm @1600-1800rpm, 2987cc six-cylinder turbo-diesel, max power 195kW@3800rpm, max torque 490Nm@1600rpm; 2996cc six-cylinder bi-turbocharged petrol, 245kW@6500rpm, 480Nm@3500-5250rpm; 5461cc eight-cylinder bi-turbocharged petrol, max power 430kW@5750rpm, max torque 800Nm@1750-5000rpm

Transmission: Seven-speed automatic

Brakes and stability systems: Disc brakes, ABS, EBD, ESC, TCS

Wheels, tyres: 245/40 R18 front and 265/35 R18 rear (E250) to 255/35 R19 front and 285/30 R19 (E63 AMG)

Fuel and economy: 4.9 (E250 CDI) to 7.6 (E400) litres per 100km (E63 AMG not yet rated), capacity 90 litres

Dimensions (sedan): Length 4868mm, width 1854mm, height 1471mm