Despite this E-Class nearing the end of its time in the showroom sun, it's a very pleasant looking car — one of the better efforts from the era of smooth Mercedes-Benz models with four round headlights. And it looks pretty schmick too, especially when fitted with our review car's 18-inch alloy wheels and lowered suspension.
Being a four-door sedan about the size of a Falcon or Commodore, the E-Class has ample room for five fully fledged adults. The seats are comfortable, especially on long journeys, and have enough grip for all but the most enthusiastic of driving. And while the interior design hasn't aged quite as well as the exterior, it's still a very pleasant place to be with acres of quality plastics, chrome trim and faux wood that should appeal to this Mercedes' target market.
While there's also a massive boot, which includes the traditional fold-out hazard sign, it's letdown by the hinge design that impinges on boot space, while fold down seats are only available on the wagon.
With a new E-Class waiting to debut soon, the Sport Edition we tested is akin to a run-out special — it costs less than a standard E280 CDI Elegance yet has more equipment. There's the aforementioned 18-inch alloy wheels and lowered sports suspension, as well as fog lights, "man-made leather" seats, entertainment system incorporating DVD-based GPS and a DVD player, cruise control cum speed limiter, electric seats with presets, and climate control air-conditioning. While rear headrests that drop down at the touch of a button and a remotely controlled rear windshield blind are not only neat features to have but are a hit with all new passengers.
Our car was fitted with the optional multifunction display in the centre of the instrument pack. Buttons on the rather bulbous and ungainly-looking steering wheel allow you to flick through the trip computer, operate the sound system and view sat nav instructions without taking your eyes too far off the road, although dedicated audio system controls would have been greatly appreciated.
Speaking of the sound system, it's a pleasant sounding system with a nice balance between bass and treble. Unfortunately it's letdown by some fiddly controls — for instance, you can switch between CD and radio with a single button press but to switch between AM and FM you're forced to dive into the menu system. There are further demerit points for the single-slot only CD player and the lack of MP3 playback options. Additionally, phone connectivity is not done via Bluetooth but via an optional cradle.
There's a LCD screen in the middle of the dash capable of playing DVDs when parked, but more often than not it will serve as the display for the car's DVD-driven GPS system. Being a factory fit device the navigation system will keep working even when satellite signals are lost, say underground. Unfortunately, like many in-dash units, maps are top-down only. Destination entry is also fiddly as the LCD monitor isn't a touchscreen device — instead you have to manage with a scrollwheel instead.
First timers and long time E-Class owners alike will marvel at the car's ride. There's no electronic trickery in the suspension, just good ol' fashioned springs and dampers that have been expertly set-up and finessed. Driving over Sydney's pockmarked streets, we were amazed time and time again at how the E280 CDI soaked it all up while still keeping us informed of what was happening underneath.
Despite the fact that potholes were reduced from a punch in the buttocks to a minor ripple and common road imperfections muzzled like a silenced gun, and there's never the nauseating feeling that you're floating on a bed of marshmallows. And considering our car was fitted with lowered suspension and shod with low profile 18-inch wheels makes it all the more amazing.
The E280's 3-litre turbo-diesel engine musters up 140kW of power and a massive 440Nm of torque or pulling power. With the windows up and the sound system off, it's difficult to tell that you're driving a diesel car, except when the engine's on the cold side. Only then do you hear a faint far off rattle from the engine bay. Press down on the accelerator — in true Mercedes-Benz fashion you'll need to mash it almost all the way to floor when performing overtaking manoeuvres — and there's a muted V6 growl and fist full of urge.
With its masterful ride, the E-Class should really be a fun car to punt around but there are a few factors hindering this. Obviously when it's rushed through corners it's hard to escape the fact that the E-Class is a big and heavy device, with movements being a little slow and ponderous, but body roll is well controlled and the limits of adhesion high. What really lets the side down though is the power steering set-up. Often it's over assisted (or light) when you want it to be heavy, and vice versa. And don't be too surprised when the car jolts from side to side as you saw at the wheel while the self-centring system takes a ciggie break part way through a turn.
It may be showing its age in parts, but this luxury sedan is so capable of conquering cities and subduing the highways with its supple yet firm ride, not to mention the smooth, punchy diesel engine, that we're willing to forgive it its many foibles.