REVIEW DATE: 23 Jun 2006
Mercedes Does Powerful Better Than Any Other Car Manufacturer. Here, Andy Enright Tries The Mid-Range E280 Model For Size.
This car ought to be utterly forgettable. Mercedes even seemed to think so, launching it with no fanfare. Even the press release that accompanied the original introduction (unveiling would be a notable exaggeration) of the E280 only ran to four lines of copy. It's almost as if this was a car Mercedes were rather keen you didn't know existed. That would be understandable if it were akin to those tedious filler tracks that sully otherwise enjoyable albums, but the E280 is anything but. In underplaying this car, the German company may have created an intriguing automotive secret.
Even the name underplays the E280's hand. Look at the badge on the back and you'd be forgiven for thinking this was a 2.8-litre car, but pop the bonnet and there's a healthy 3.0-litre V6 staring back at you. Why this wasn't called an E300 is frankly beyond me, but trying to second guess Mercedes is often a thankless task. This engine even punches above its weight, generating a healthy 231bhp.
The E280 has another surprise up its sleeve. It's available from just £31,770 which looks very competitive against an equivalent BMW. Yes, this is in Classic trim, but even the Plusher Elegance version retails at £33,870 and the Avantgarde model weighs in at £34,370. Bear in mind that you'll need over £34,000 to get a BMW 530i with an automatic gearbox. What's more the E280's transmission is no ordinary automatic slushbox.
This engine is mated to the 7G-TRONIC automatic transmission, making the most of the engine's 300Nm of torque, which is available as low down as 2,500 rpm. This seven-speed automatic makes the E280 even more economical and further boosts acceleration. In addition, the gearbox also considerably enhances shifting comfort still further. 7G-TRONIC has replaced the conventional five-speed automatic 'box and allows significantly quicker intermediate sprints from 30 to 70mph. At the same time, shifting is even smoother, and therefore more comfortable, than with the old automatic transmission.
"Quite why Mercedes are keeping a car this good under their hat is anybody's guess"
Drop into the driver's seat and you'll be greeted by buttons, hundreds of the things, slathered all over the centre console, on the front of the steering wheel, on the fronts of the seats, by the doors, up on the head lining. Inveterate fiddlers will have found their nirvana. Almost everything seems to be adjustable, heated, ventilated, tweakable and tuneable. The test car we drove was fitted with seats that could not only roast your backside but also waft it with cool air and massage your lower back to keep your spine supple. The side wings of the seat could even be inflated to generate a sort of Teutonic death grip.
You may need them too. Rumble up behind a dawdler, spot a clear section of road ahead and plant the throttle and an extraordinary transformation occurs. Instantaneously. The clever gearbox can drop a couple of gears and the E280's power will despatch unwary Sunday drivers with real alacrity. As with any E-Class, the faster you go, the happier the car feels. It's almost as if it's shrinking around you until it feels no larger than a Focus-sized hatch. This is a trick only the best cars can pull off and is a result of a superb chassis.
The performance figures speak for themselves. With a top speed of 154mph, the E280 will be fast enough for all but the most committed autobahn stormer. 60mph from rest will detain you for just seven seconds whilst the overall fuel consumption figure of 29.1mpg is, in the light of these figures, pretty remarkable. Even around town you should see over 20mpg while on a gentler run nearly 40mpg is achievable. The estate version isn't quite so economical but it's still a very creditable performance. Emissions are reasonable at 224g/km for the saloon and 232 for the estate.
Mercedes took extensive measures to improve the quality of the E-Class introducing more advanced technology across a number of its systems but it's not immediately apparent that the current model is such a heavily revised vehicle. True Merc anoraks may spot the front bumper, v-shaped grille and revised headlights but that's about it externally. Inside, it's more of the same with a revised steering wheel and climate control panel being about the size of it.
Under the skin, it's a different story. Handling and steering have been improved and the adaptive braking system has been borrowed from the S-Class. This hydraulic dual-circuit braking set-up provides better safety and comfort features. Safety is a standout E-Class feature and the latest models feature the PRE-SAFE system which primes the seatbelt and airbag if it thinks the car is about to be involved in a collision. The NECK-PRO head restraints move forward within milliseconds of a rear shunt, protecting the driver and front passenger from whiplash injuries. Flashing brake lights are also featured, illuminating during particularly heavy braking.
There's something hugely refreshing about the pleasant surprise a car like the Mercedes E280 serves up. So many manufacturers launch a new model with enormous hype, only for the end result to feel curiously flat. Even cars which, with some hindsight, were really rather good can feel somewhat flat after getting the big build up. In underplaying its hand, Mercedes introduced a car that doesn't have anything to live up to. Exceeding expectations shouldn't therefore be difficult yet the Mercedes E280 is a better car than it has any right to be. Next time you see one, take a good look at the person inside. Now you know what informed people look like.
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