Arvind Anantha Narayanan
The W214 E-Class: More than Meets the Eye?
At the outset, I must confess that this article has been motivated by Ishaan’s request for my views on the recently launched W214 Mercedes-Benz E-Class. I must also present a disclaimer here that I am an enthusiast of automobiles, and I suspect dear readers so are most of you. Therefore, it is common for us to forget that automobiles are a consumer durable (if even that these days) and designed to create a purchase impulse in customers. In turn, manufacturers are running a highly competitive and capital intensive business and many matters that make enthusiasts like us raise our noses in indignation are motivated by business necessities. With that in mind, let us look at the W214, and do let me know if you agree or disagree with my views.
The lineage of Mercedes-Benz passenger vehicles has always included a “middle class”, which the marketing department labelled the E-class. Despite the ever increasing market share of cross-over formats and truly risible SUVs, it remains an important model for the Swabian brand. In truth the first Mittelklasse Mercedes-Benz to carry the E-class designation was the W124, but this has not stopped marketing from pulling this back all the way to the 1950s and rolling the W120/121 “Ponton” under the E-class designation retrospectively. Whatever, the view on this (and there is some polarity), there is no debating that the middle class cars carrying the three-pointed star have always stood for excellent engineering, fitness for purpose and rationality above all else. At least this was unequivocally true till the W124. Post this however, Mercedes-Benz in thrall to the pressures of commerce and capital misallocation diverted from its engineering first approach and sought to rationalize product development.
The W210 with its avant-garde styling but outsourced engineering and high electronics content was asking for trouble. With constrained budgets and development times as able hand maidens, fate duly obliged and the W210 has sullied the reputation of the three-pointed star like none other. Nevertheless, the company fought back with the W211, 212 and 213 creating better products that were desirable and appealing to the market. Now, the perceptive among you might be awaiting the inevitable statement that these newer cars were not as “well engineered” as the older cars, but after much introspection, I might have to say that they are not as indiscriminately engineered. The changing financial conditions and customer expectations have fundamentally altered what is expected of a car. Perhaps wisely, Daimler has chosen to pursue commercial reality even at the expense of critical acclaim from enthusiasts.
After all, we enthusiasts did praise Lancia’s indiscriminately engineered products, and now the hallowed name is a shadow of itself adorning posh Chrysler products. This shows how ephemeral critical acclaim can be in itself. In contrast, the W213, the predecessor of the W214 has sold well and in India has proven to be a dominant player in the segment in long wheelbase format. The W214 then has to follow-up a very successful product at a time of unprecedented transition. How does it shape up?
The W214 is likely to be the last combustion powered “E-Class” and while the EQE is the de-facto electric E-class, I don’t see the E-class name being pensioned so soon. So all future middle sized Mercedes-Benz cars are likely to retain the E class designation. However, the fact that the W214 is one of the last combustion cars means that the company has sought to increase returns on the existing MRA architecture by basing the car on this and carrying over four and six cylinder engines largely unchanged.
In this sense, the W214 is more a W213.5, but the new car is larger and claims to be more spacious for occupants. In terms of suspension or underpinnings, the vehicle is a deep modernization of the W213 and adds rear-wheel steering to the car as Mercedes softly concedes that perhaps the E-class has become too gargantuan.
Speaking of being gargantuan, the car is also noticeably heavier. An entry level, standard wheelbase E200 crushes the scales at 1750 kg. In comparison the W213 E300 in standard wheelbase form weighed in at about 1600 kg. With shared architectures and a much shouted about aluminium-steel hybrid construction, this must mean that the vehicle is now much more rigid than before or has been saddled with even more insulation and technology. The upper range E300e and the E400 4matic can then bend light and make Bentley’s finest look anorexic with a kerb weight exceeding 2100 kg.
Of course, what they lose in weight they make up in emissions with 12-14 g CO2.km-1 so the average fleet emission numbers are low and the green party is happy. Overall drag coefficients are similar to the predecessor model at 0.23 but the increased frontal area of the larger car is likely to increase overall drag, but there might be savings in rolling resistance. So far so good then, but I do feel that this car also highlights that a pinnacle in body and structure engineering has been reached without resorting to exotic materials. It is also somewhat ironic that this entire quest for environmental sensibility is not accompanied by a simplification of the vehicles and a drive for mass reduction. While commercial success is important, I wonder if manufacturers are trying to change or are they content to push products on to the market that are new on the surface but have no spark of novelty in them. I am also sure that customers will be drawn to them like Magpies.
If the mechanical side serves nothing new, perhaps there is some charm in the styling? Overall, there indeed is. The W214 sits in the middle of the Mercedes-Benz sedan line-up with the C-class and A-class sedans below it in a range crowned by the S-class. All the cars share common styling cues courtesy of the Gordon “Flash” Wagener and subtlety was not one of Gordon’s calling cards. Yet, I find that with this philosophy ageing, a tasteful restraint has descended on the W214, almost as if time has evaporated the harsher, less resolved cues of the design language. In a déjà vu sense, Mercedes-Benz has returned to the horizontal homogeneity of the Sacco era with a different language, although I am certain that Gordon might find this assertion disquieting. Still, if the proportions and aesthetics of the basic shape are fine then this Russian doll approach can yield a strong corporate image. So let us take a deeper look.
The car is available with the standard chrome grille or the sporty one with the star in the middle (Avantgarde trim). In keeping with the modern bling image of Mercedes-Benz, both can be optioned with LEDs to let everyone know. It makes me miss the time when the star implied quality and did not have to shout. Still, the camels moan and the caravan rolls on. The bonnet itself has power domes and has a nice tight aesthetic to it. It is almost muscular but the tall bonnet line does detract, although it for pedestrian protection. The lower front bumper is heavily styled with the now obligatory faux air intakes. The headlights are a standout feature with a free form shape that pays homage to the W212 and the twin lamp designs of the W210 and 211, although with the LEDs rather than with separate light units. The blending of the lights with the front bonnet is also a success in my eyes.
Moving to the front three-quarters, the joining of the front wing, bonnet and door shut is a bit heavy handed but this is a common bugbear on most modern cars. I personally miss the elegant folding of the front wing over the A pillar edge like it was on the W126, 201 or 124 and carried over till the W203 at least if my memory serves me well. The side profile overall is more successful with none of the flaccid details of the W213 and exuding a muscular, leaping forward stance. The wheels are very large and may have an impact on the ride comfort but Mercedes-Benz do have some elegant wheel designs at the moment. The chrome arc around the window line is beautifully executed and places the car in-line with its stablemates. The slivers of chrome on the door handles hint at a similar treatment on the W124. That said, I can say this car is one of the few that works similarly well with the dark trim, which makes most other cars look cheap and chintzy. How this will look on the long wheelbase car headed to our shores remains to be seen. I am fairly certain that the elegant arc will be flattened in the interest of rear accommodation giving the car the daschund like appearance.
Over to the rear, the styling is clean and uncluttered but Gordon’s fetish for fake exhausts and extrovert tail lights does show up. The former can be excused as this is a gargantuan vehicle and the chrome details do reduce the visual bulk of that rear. The semi-circular rear windshield seems to be a carryover item from the W213 but seems to work better on this car.
The interior is a full on tech fest. In line with the EQE, high fidelity displays dominate the cabin and there are cameras as well to conduct meetings on the move. Is this Mercedes finally accepting that modern cars are so anodyne that they are nothing more than luxurious cabins on wheels?
The multi-colour LEDs may however be more Spearmint Rhino than Saville Row. I am also concerned that while the interior may promise quality to the eyes, like many modern Mercedes-Benz cabins may renege on that promise to the fingers. The black gloss material around the steering wheel spokes seem quite suspect actually.
So, what can I say about the W214? In terms of mechanical specifications, it reinforces the belief that the automobile is as perfect as it can become. The embellishments, bells and whistles are then an added to justify the existence of a newer model and these are vehicles that equate delight with satisfaction; engagement with introspection. The W214 by accident of commercial realities has rediscovered the considered horizontal homogeneity the brand was famous for. However, it does not have the quality of detail or the depth of execution to be as memorable as one of its storied predecessors. It is a great product and a lovely car, but by being the last of its kind, it is also likely to be less than the sum of its parts.