Hybridized luxury, coming right up
Earlier this month near Las Vegas, Mercedes-Benz offered us an early hands-on opportunity to get to know the 2021 E-Class before it hits showrooms later this year. Head of E-Class development Michael Kelz took us on a ride through Red Rock Canyon in a couple different 2021 E-Class prototypes—an E 450 and a plug-in E 350e hybrid—and told us what’s up.
The current fifth-generation W213 E-Class debuted as a 2017 model, and the revisions for 2021 amount to a midcycle refresh rather than a full redesign. Although the cars we rode in were wearing light camouflage, it was easy to discern new front and rear fascias with revised LED headlights and taillights. Kelz is rather fond of the design and tells us that it previews the design language of future C- and S-Class models.
The first car we rode in was an all-wheel-drive E 450 Exclusive that features a powertrain new to non-AMG E-Class models for 2021. It’s Mercedes’ 3.0-liter mild hybrid turbocharged inline-six that has previously been available in the CLS 450, GLE 450, and GLS 450.
The mild hybrid inline-six cranks out 362 hp and 369 lb-ft of torque in this application—the same horsepower and torque outputs as the 3.0-liter biturbo V-6 that powers the outgoing model. Expect a zero-to-60-mph time right around 5.0 seconds and fuel economy numbers similar to those of the CLS 450 at 24/31 mpg (9.8/7.6 L/100 km) city/highway.
Within minutes of taking off we noticed the powerplant delivering the same silky acceleration and seamless auto stop/start it does in the CLS. Ride quality is as composed and magic carpet–like as you’d expect from a Mercedes-Benz on air suspension. Kelz tells us they changed one of the valves in the air-filled damper for reduced energy consumption during transport with the side effect that the car rides even smoother than before.
Inside, you’ll immediately notice the twin 10.25-inch infotainment and instrument cluster displays we’ve gotten familiar with in recently updated models like the A-Class. With the new screens comes Mercedes’ new MBUX infotainment system that responds to “Hey Mercedes” the same way the digital assistant in your smartphone does. We were impressed that it knew which passenger was making the request; when Kelz asked that his seat heater be turned on, the system cleverly activated his and not mine. He also took the opportunity to show us new gesture controls, which feature options that pop up as your hand reaches for the screen rather than twirling your finger to adjust the volume like you might in a BMW 7 Series.
After a few miles in the E 450, Kelz invited us to take a seat in the first plug-in-hybrid E-Class to be sold in the States, the E 350e. (Yes, it has two Es in the name.) Available in rear- or all-wheel-drive configurations, the E 350e combines a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder gas engine with a plug-in hybrid powertrain to generate combined power figures of 315 hp and 516 lb-ft of torque.
Like a lot of plug-in hybrids, the electrified E feels pretty darn electric. As long as it has enough charge, when it’s driving around town or pulling away from a stop, the E 350e mostly relies on electrons flowing through motors for forward propulsion. The four-cylinder gas engine is a little coarse when it kicks in, though lots of sound deadening and a great audio system mitigate the issue.
Kelz treated us with a couple full-throttle acceleration runs that showed the plug-in E-Class to be plenty quick and torquey. He said, “As soon as the car learns you want to go sporty, it’s pretty sporty.” (Side note: Kelz is kind of a riot. He also revealed to us that the best setting for the stability control system is Off.) Mercedes estimates it’ll hit 60 mph in 5.7 seconds.
Our ride in the E 350e also gave us a chance to experience some of Mercedes’ newest active driver assist features. On an empty one-way road we weren’t able to check out the new traffic-sensing GPS-based adaptive cruise control, but the system’s active lane centering was near flawless and didn’t ask for a hand on the wheel for a solid 30 seconds. Unlike most systems, which require the driver to tug on the tiller and activate a torque sensor to reactivate, the revised Mercedes setup senses your hand near the wheel with a proximity sensor. I dig.
It may not be a full redesign, but the E-Class update for 2021 properly modernizes Benz’s midsize luxury icon. We can’t wait to get one in the office.