As the world’s oldest car manufacturer, around for 130 years, Mercedes-Benz is steeped in tradition. It has a history spanning three centuries, after all. So a new car from the doyen of motoring comes with a wealth of pre-conceptions. It will be meticulously engineered, expensively crafted, a plush armchair on wheels. With a price tag to match.
What you might not expect is a car wearing the famous three-pointed star, and imminently on sale, that comes close to dispensing with the need for a driver. Well, for some of the time anyway.
Yes, we all know that self-driving cars are on the way, and soon. Trials of them on UK roads have already been given the green light for next year. But what came as a surprise, when I went to drive the new Mercedes E-Class at its international launch, was just how far down the line of autonomous driving it already goes.
You signal, the car steers …
Just imagine this: here is a car capable of driving itself in traffic, keeping a safe distance from the vehicle in front, automatically braking if the gap ahead risks becoming hazardous, maintaining its position centrally in lane even when the road curves left or right, and – weirdest of all – steering itself into another lane if you briefly hold the indicator stalk to show that’s where you want to go.
The law currently demands that you stay in control at all times, with your hands on the steering wheel. But if it didn’t, here is a car that can safely and efficiently steer itself round bends, change lanes and overtake other traffic while you just sit back in the ‘driving’ seat and let it get on with the job.
It does so by means of a system of cameras, radar, sensors and electronic wizardry called Drive Pilot, that is more advanced than anything yet seen on a production car. It is activated by pressing twice on the cruise control activator mounted on the steering wheel.
This tells the car to begin its semi-autonomous mode and use adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping technology, blind spot monitoring and other techy kit to scan the road in front, behind and alongside the car and keep it at a safe distance from other vehicles.
Tight garage? No Problem.
The other clever feature is when you press the indicator in either direction and hold it for two seconds. This tells the car to overtake or change lanes automatically, which it does safely without any assistance from you.
It can even park itself tidily into a tight garage or parking space while you stand outside and watch. This feature could be a real boon for anyone with an older, narrow garage that predates wider modern cars.
This partially self-driving Mercedes is impressive. It takes another step down the road towards the entirely autonomous cars that we may all find ourselves driving in the not-so-distant future.
For now, though, the lane-changing and auto overtaking feature will be deactivated in the first of the new E-Class models sold to British customers from the end of next month. That’s because it is not yet legal here, although it is in Mercedes’ native Germany.
Best driving E-Class yet
It’s really quite ironic that although the new E-Class is on the cusp of driverless control, it is also the most enjoyable of its ilk for driver satisfaction. It is a more engaging drive than any previous E-Class.
It has shed some weight, added 43 mm to its length and acquired new engines, notably a four-cylinder diesel engine in what is expected to be—the best-selling version here, the 220d. It also has a much upgraded cabin.
The new E-Class drives like a smaller S-Class, with a limo-like ride and flat, grippy cornering. It has a more responsive agility than the previous model, which still did very well for Mercedes UK with 14,000 sold here last year. It is also impressively refined, with very slight noise intrusion into its hushed, classy cabin.
Prices starts from £35,935 and rise to £47,425, with a mid-range 220d AMG Line at £38,430. For that you get a two-litre, 192 bhp diesel, nine-speed automatic gearbox, a brisk 7.3 seconds sprint from 0-62 mph, a modest 102 g/km CO2 output and a combined fuel figure of 72.4 mpg.
Yes, we all know that’s going to be over-optimistic in real world driving, but even a more attainable 60-something mpg is a pretty good result in a big roomy saloon of this calibre.
All images: Sue Baker