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2021 Mercedes-Benz E-Class Test Drive Review
For 2021 there are modest and becoming changes for the supreme midsize Mercedes-Benz E-Class sedan.
When money is but a mild concern, a brand-new Mercedes-Benz is a reasonable purchase. The E-Class is the company's most practical and versatile car, as high-quality and necessary in a nice garage as a Kitchen-Aid mixer is in a baker's kitchen. It offers four body styles, four engines, and dozens of color schemes. Fast or efficient? Loud or library quiet? Modest or rich as hell? The E-Class is all of those things, depending on which of the 13 models you order and how deep into the options list you dive. For 2021, the E-Class receives a mid-cycle update for the infotainment system, engines, and exterior styling. We tested the AMG E53 that features a mild-hybrid inline-six powertrain.
Look and Feel
The W213-generation E-Class was new for the 2017 model year. It departed from the sharper, boxier angles of the W212 to match the fluid, curvier forms of the 2014 S-Class and 2015 C-Class. Mercedes chief designer Gorden Wagener calls this theme "sensual purity." Car designers like Wagener speak in abstract phrases to justify their big salaries, but there's truth to it. The E must have been too smooth because it's now a little edgier up front (squinted headlights, inverted trapezoid grille) and more like the W212 from behind (horizontal taillights cutting into the trunk lid). New bumpers with bigger air intakes, new exhaust tips, and new wheels are the major changes. It's a handsome, elegant car as always, whether as a sedan, wagon, coupe, or convertible.
With an exception: The standing hood ornament on the sedans and wagons is no more. Formerly offered on the Luxury package that brought smaller wheels and a softer-riding, slightly taller suspension, that look was classic Mercedes and fit the E to a T. The E-Class is not and never was a sporty car, despite the Sport package on the 2014 model which, for the first time, swapped the hood ornament for a giant blazing star in the grille. Trouble is, the Sport style has become very popular among buyers. Pity they have no taste.
We kid, sort of. This look gets gaudy when the star emblem is backlit, a hokey dealer-installed option that thankfully is unpopular (it can't be paired with the car's adaptive cruise control and other systems that require the logo be sealed flush for the radar sensors). On the AMG models, which feature vertical grille slats, the big star looks appropriate for the firepower behind it. Else, it's a bit showy for a car driven by people who, for the most part, don't like showing off. The AMG drivers want you to see their quad exhaust tips and 20-inch wheels, yet that's as dramatic as an E-class gets. This is a reserved and conservative car—at least from the outside.
The cabin is a bacchanal of decadent materials and exuberant style, even in baser trims. Rich woods dominate the space, either finished to a polish, in matte, or inlaid with painted lines. Aluminum and carbon fiber look just as beautiful sweeping across the curved dash, around the four circular air vents, and along the intricate doors. Consider the details: Metal speaker grilles (with optional illuminated and motorized tweeters on the front doors) elaborate stitching (for MB-Tex leatherette or two grades of real leather) and incredible ambient lighting (that animate, fade, and interact with the car's climate and mood settings). It's a rich, inviting space.
The black monolith on the dash, when the door opens, reveals two 12-inch screens with crisp detail and brilliant color. For 2021, the instrument panel abandons the analog gauges for a standard digital display. All the various steering wheels are new. They make the E feel beyond its years: Our AMG model had six spokes—four on the horizontal axis!—with flat, touch-sensitive controls that swipe and scroll, plus two dials on the bottom spokes with more screens. It's all insane. It's lavish and modern. Five years into its lifecycle, the E's interior is unmatched by any car at this price.
The biggest change to the 2021 E-Class will be invisible to the casual driver. It's the switch from conventional V6 engines to electrified inline-six powertrains for the highest-volume models. The E450 is now a hybrid, with a version of the powertrain introduced on the AMG E53 for the 2019 model year, but not in the usual sense.
Mercedes and other luxury automakers (even Ram trucks) use secondary 48-volt electrical systems as a supplement to the common 12-volt system. A small lithium-ion battery powers an electric starter-generator sandwiched between the engine and nine-speed automatic transmission. This provides extra power and torque (up to 21 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque) for brief seconds. It allows the engine to shut off more often, including at highway speeds and while the vehicle is slowing to a stop. It replaces the starter motor, alternator, and accessory belt drive on a normal engine. This means the engine doesn't power the air conditioning, heat pump, or other high-draw accessories. Theoretically, this saves fuel and reduces emissions.
In reality, it's a complex solution that lets powerful gasoline engines remain in compliance with stricter emissions laws—and aside from the nearly vibration-free cold starts and restarts in traffic, it doesn't feel any faster or smoother than the previous V6. The 3.0-liter displacement is the same, but the new I6 has one turbo instead of two. It makes identical output (362 hp, 369 lb-ft) and more when using the battery's overboost. It's a quiet and excellent choice for a car this size. The base E350's 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder engine, revised for 2020 and without any hybrid assist, is better than earlier model years but very underwhelming. It's fine for everyday driving, but when needed, it lacks the performance expected of a $60,000 luxury car.
Our AMG E53 takes the E450's engine and adds a second turbo—technically, it's a supercharger, since it's not driven by exhaust gases—powered by the 48-volt battery. It spins very fast and builds boost without lag—the idea being that the second, traditional turbo takes over after the electric turbo is spent. Acceleration is brisk and the optional AMG performance exhaust has a healthy bark, though it's notably quieter and tamer than the 43-series AMG models from the last few years. We'd like more volume, but not more thrust. It's plenty: 429 hp and 384 lb-ft, with the same overboost available. Shifts are fast and the engine is always at its peak in Sport or Sport+ mode. In Comfort mode, it's just as lazy as every E-Class model. Remember, the E-Class wasn't built to race, even if it goes fast.
The AMG E63 S is the exception to that rule. For 2021, AMG's hand-built 4.0-liter V8 is now beltless and pairs the same 48-volt system as the six-cylinder cars. Armed with two conventional turbos and a dry-sump oil pump, this engine spews 603 hp and 627 lb-ft of torque into a lowered, widened, and stiffened chassis. Aside from the body and the interior, an E63 S is unrelated to any other E-Class—from its ability to disengage its front axle for tire-smoking drifts to its Race mode that launches it to 60 mph like an exotic supercar, or its one-piece carbon seats. And it's available as a wagon.
Still, the AMG E53 takes some of the E63's goodness, like its variable-rate air suspension and rear-biased all-wheel drive (AWD). This makes the E-Class drive with the poise and stability of the world's best sports cars, without punishing its passengers with an unruly stiff ride. It's a do-it-all machine, and to our surprise, didn't sacrifice comfort in the quest for more speed and handling precision.
Fuel economy on the AMG models is lousy, despite the EPA's 25 mpg combined (22 mpg city, 29 mpg highway) rating for the E53 sedan and 18 mpg combined (16 mpg city, 23 mpg highway) for the E63 sedan. The more common E450 4Matic and E350 4Matic sedans return 26 mpg combined (23 mpg city, 30 mpg highway) and 25 mpg combined (22 mpg city, 30 mpg highway) respectively. The 4Matic AWD is optional on the E350 sedan and E450 coupe and convertible; it's standard everywhere else.
Form and Function
A touchscreen and redesigned infotainment system go a long way to making everyday tasks easier and faster. We'll touch on that in the next section, but know that earlier versions were more complex and difficult to use without sufficient experience. The touchpads on the steering wheel have been reshaped from a square pad into a rhombus-like shape, which somewhat inhibits the ability to swipe or scroll through menus. This is where the previous model years were easier.
Shortcut buttons for the navigation, stereo, and other settings remain, but we miss the analog clock that sat in the center of the dashboard. Separate climate controls, drive mode switches on both the steering wheel and center console, a touchpad, and seat controls on the doors—a Mercedes hallmark that makes adjustments so much quicker—make the E more user-friendly. But make no mistake: You'll need many lessons on how to master this car's dual screens.
As a car instead of a computer, the E's cabin is spacious for four adults. Headroom and legroom are ample, cushions are supportive, and there are knee cutouts on the seatbacks and a scalloped roof to fit taller heads in the rear. Still, our E53 didn't have rear USB ports, separate climate zone, soft-close doors, or heated rear seats—and it cost $101,000 MSRP.
In the coupe, the rear seats are usable and comfortable. That's not the case in the convertible, due to the elegant folding soft top. In the wagon, there's a stowable rear-facing jump seat like the olden days—and much more cargo space (35 cubic feet or 64 with all seats folded). The E sedan measures 13 cubic feet of trunk space and the two-door models are 10 (or less with the roof down). New for 2021 is the wagon's standard trim—the E450 All-Terrain—which raises the ground clearance and adds plastic body cladding like a Subaru Outback. We reviewed that model separately.
MBUX is the latest and greatest software for Mercedes. Finally, the main screen can be touched, poked, and swiped. The interface, as we've tested in other 2020 models that debuted this system, is better organized. Menus and submenus are cut down. Shortcut buttons for each major function on the home screen, such as destinations and seek buttons, are below each relevant icon. A gesture control will magnify these icons when it senses a hand near the screen, and it will even turn on the map lights at night should you reach down to open the glovebox. Natural voice processing and online searches operate like Siri or Alexa.
When using the map and approaching a turn, the car will show a live feed from the front camera and overlay arrows and street names on the screen. When pulling up to a space or stopped at a red light, the front camera can turn on automatically as a reminder not to keep driving forward. Silly things like perfume canisters and preset moods (which change the climate, lighting, scents, and music) are extras. But the massaging seats with side bolsters that quickly inflate in corners are amazing. So is the seat kinetics function, which makes small adjustments to the seat position over time to keep body parts from falling asleep.
The system doesn't update over-the-air (OTA), and the standard Apple CarPlay and Android Auto aren't wireless. A wireless phone charger is optional, but 4G WiFi and all the usual connected services (remote unlocking, etc) are standard. Optional driving assists can move the car into adjacent highway lanes, slow down for curves, and essentially drive itself for limited times. You should never let the car do this and always be in control, but it's clear Mercedes is close to signing off on a fully autonomous feature.
The number of ways you can show info on the instrument cluster—the left, center, and right portions can swap graphics on the fly—is dizzying. But it's ultra-cool. You can set up the car to look traditional (analog gauges) or like a 1980s Japanese movie (bar graphs, zany colors). It's always slick and fast. Ask anyone to take a ride in an E-Class and they won't want to leave.
The E-Class is one of the safest cars on sale, both from a physical and electronic standpoint. The 2021 E-Class sedan and wagon scored a five-star overall rating and five stars in frontal and side crash tests and for rollover vulnerability from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). However, the driver's side received a four-star rating in the frontal crash test versus the full five stars for 2020. The 2020 E-Class sedan was rated a "Top Safety Pick+" by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) with the highest ratings in six crash tests, headlights, and collision-avoidance systems.
The coupe and cabriolet models have not been tested by IIHS or NHTSA, but given how Mercedes was the first to install a pop-up roll bar on a convertible in 1989, consider them equal. Other innovations: Pre-Safe Sound plays a "pink noise" during a crash to protect eardrums. In a side collision, the front seats instantly shift the driver or passenger from the door by inflating the side bolsters. The steering and brakes can counter the effects of surging crosswinds. Rear side airbags are available, including in the two-door models.
Some of these safety features are optional, and some are not available from any other automaker. Forward automatic emergency braking, a driver-attention monitor, and blind-spot monitoring are standard. All other driver-assist features (14 of them, in fact) are optional.
Pricing for the 2021 E-Class starts at $54,250. The keyword is "starts." Add any semblance of options, and you're looking into the mid-60s for a nice E350 or a well-equipped E450 sedan. Prices quickly jack up into the 70s, 80s, and 100s. This is a very expensive car, no matter how you compare it. We recommend buying three-year-old models off-lease, as they become great values next to other brand-new non-luxury cars. But for those with the money, the E-Class is a phenomenal car that goes well above and beyond expectations.
Clifford Atiyeh is a contributing editor at CarGurus who writes, hosts, and co-directs video reviews of the latest vehicles. He has reported and photographed for dozens of websites, magazines, and newspapers over a nearly 20-year journalism career, including Autoweek, the Boston Globe, and Car and Driver. He is vice president of the New England Motor Press Association and runs a creative marketing consultancy.
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