First Drive: 2014 Mercedes-Benz E-Class

But more than just sultry sheet metal, the E-Class’ standout features lie in tech – including unmatched autonomous driving features that make this car one step away from having a heartbeat.

Though renowned for its luxury, Mercedes has traditionally reserved its comprehensive driver-assistance and safety technology for upper crust models like the CL and S-Class.

With the introduction of the 2014 E-Class, Mercedes has decided to share the wealth, packing in a host of digital upgrades, along with a handsome facelift, ultra-efficient turbo diesel models, and wicked pair of E-Class AMGs (a wagon and sedan) that the devil himself would be proud of. While Mercedes reps didn’t come right out and say it, the result is a car that makes you feel safer inside than a bank vault, and virtually capable of driving itself when the situation calls for it.

Just how capable is the 2014 E-Class’ driver tech? Against Mercedes’ recommendations, I took my hands off the wheel – and into the hands of a computer – to find out.

First Drive Video

Just let go (for a while)

I’ve written extensively about autonomous vehicles for a while now, but I’m still waiting for a car I can get in, tell it where I want to go, and it takes care of the rest.

That’s not exactly what we have with the 2014 E-Class, but apart from the Google Car and Toyota’s own AASRV, the 2014 E-Class is as close as you’ll get to driving a car that doesn’t really need your input – at least until Mercedes’ new S-Class flagship hits dealer lots in the coming months.

Most notably, Distronic Plus adaptive cruise control system (ACC) with Steering Assist, will let you take your feet off the pedals and your hands off the wheel entirely at highway speeds – for a little while, anyway.

Flicking an almost-hidden stalk to the left of the steering wheel engages Distronic Plus. From there the car continues to chug along at its current pace without your foot on the gas, just like regular cruise control. But when traffic slows to a crawl, the 2014 E-Class reacts by slowing down on its own and picking up again as traffic begins to move. It can even bring the car to a complete stop, with only a tap of the gas pedal needed to re-engage the system once it has fully stopped moving.

… a Mercedes rep once confided in me that designing a luxury car was easy… Creating an economy car worth giving two craps about, he said, was the hard part.

Mercedes has offered Distronic Plus in previous models years, but Steering Assist is brand new – and far more impressive. It allows the car to automatically steer itself to follow slight variations in the road. Mercedes didn’t approve, but I was able to take my hands completely off the wheel and let the car steer itself on roads with lane markings that were clearly visible. The system isn’t designed to function that way though, which is why after about 10 seconds or so the car detected that my hands were off the wheel and kindly flashed a graphic in the LCD cluster to scold me for misbehaving.

Despite my best efforts, there isn’t a way to game the system, so anyone thinking that they can fully relinquish control of the car for prolonged periods of time is out of luck. Even with my index finger placed lightly on the wheel the E-Class knew I wasn’t really “steering” the vehicle properly and reminded me to place my hands firmly on the wheel.

In short bursts, the 2014 E-Class really feels like it’s driving itself, and it’s a totally surreal experience to have the car going around slight corners and keeping itself in the center of the lane – and at a distance from cars ahead – all on its own.

The Driver Assistance package even includes an Active Lane Keeping assist system that applies one sided braking to the inner most tire and pulls the car back into the road when it detect the car veering off the side of the road. Up until this year, the system was only able to pull the vehicle back into a lane when it detected a solid line, but Mercedes has upgraded the system so that even if the car is veering off into oncoming traffic, and only a striped-lane marking is detected, it will still pull the car back into the lane to avoid a collision.

Driving through the snaking back roads along our route to the Oregon coast wasn’t exactly the ideal environment to test out Steering Assist or Distronic Plus, but I managed to make do and was surprised at how well the system was able to follow the curve of the road. Granted it’s only capable of following slight turns, but for car tech lovers, it’s an undeniably awesome to get a taste of the future in a modern car.

The E-Class has some tricks for the city, too. An automated Parking Assist feature maneuvers the car into spaces all on its own, with the driver only responsible for operating the gas and brake pedals. In some models, a 360-degree camera system to the E-Class that gives a bird’s-eye perspective – a top-down view of the car and its immediate surroundings along with dynamic guide lines that make parking and navigating tight spaces at low speeds a breeze.

When all goes wrong

For all its swanky autonomous-driving features, the E-Class also has an impressive suite of standard safety features designed for less-than-everyday situations. Like when you’re about to crash.

Distronic Plus adaptive cruise control… will let you take your feet off the pedals and your hands off the wheel entirely at highway speeds…

Mercedes-Benz’s Collision Prevention Assist uses front-facing radar to scan the area directly in front of the car, sounding off an audible warning to drivers if a potential rear-end collision is detected. An adaptive brake assist automatically applies the appropriate amount of braking pressure, even if a driver hasn’t pressed firmly enough down on the brake.

If you intend to take the E-Class on long hauls, Attention Assist can help prevent you from ending up in a ditch when all that coffee starts to wear off. It continuously monitors 70 different parameters to measure your alertness. We’re not at the point where the E-Class can just whip up a quick cappuccino for its drivers, but a visual and audible warning will let you know when it’s time to find a Dunkin Donuts or a hotel.

In the event these measures fail and crunching some metal is inevitable – a collision or rollover – the E-Class still has you covered. A feature called Pre-Safe prepares the cabin by tightening front seatbelts, adjusting the front passenger seat, and closing the car’s windows and sunroof, all in an effort to protect occupants moments before a collision. Like the other safety tech crammed into the E-Class, Pre-Safe is one of those of things you’ll hope you never have to use but glad you have onboard.

If you shell out $2,800 for the driver assistance package – now offered in the E-Class for the first time – things get even techier.

Two stereoscopic cameras mounted just in front of the rearview mirror sit 45 degrees apart, constantly scanning distances of up to 1,600 feet ahead of the car. At a distance of 165 feet, they can even differentiate between other cars, pedestrians, and cyclists. A central control tells onboard safety systems what to do when it spots a potential collision. For instance, the car could autonomously brake at a cross-walk a split second before slamming into a pedestrian, or warn the driver of a potential collision and apply the ideal level of braking as soon as the driver steps on the brake pedal.

Conclusion

After an evening’s worth of adult beverages, a Mercedes rep once confided in me that designing a luxury car was easy; automakers can simply throw money at a model and hope all the flash and cash results in something worth buying. Creating an economy car worth giving two craps about, he said, was the hard part.

If you’re looking for the closest thing on the market to a truly self-driving car, Mercedes-Benz’s 2014 E-Class is it.

Despite the challenge, the 2014 E-Class makes conjuring up an impressive mid-size sedan that ticks all the right boxes look easy. It’s fun to drive, handles like a dream, and the raucous roar of the E550 cabriolet’s 4.6-liter biturbo V8 engine was enough to give me goose bumps. Even the thrifty E250 BlueTEC, with its 2.1-liter 4-cylinder turbo diesel engine, cornered like a champ and provided an impressively smooth ride, despite being pushed by only 195 horsepower and 369 lb-ft of torque.

While technically a mid-cycle refresh, Mercedes says the tweaks and upgrades to the 2014 E-Class just as easily constitute a redesign. And at first glance, it’s clear that a great deal of sex appeal has been sprinkled into the entire E-Class lineup.

But more than just sultry sheet metal, the E-Class’ standout features lie in tech – including unmatched autonomous driving features that make this car one step away from having a heartbeat. If you’re looking for the closest thing on the market to a truly self-driving car, Mercedes-Benz’s 2014 E-Class is it.

Highs

  • Boatload of driver assistance tech
  • Responsive engines, even the diesels
  • Much-needed facelift adds more drama and style to the entire E-Class lineup

Lows

  • Various packages increase total price very quickly
  • Seating isn’t as comfortable as it should be
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