Getting old is not for sissies. Aside from a general degradation in motor skills, sensory perception, memory and earnings, the 401K set is prone to health complaints that are both fantastically expensive and endlessly annoying. Fortunately, there are compensations: grandchildren (kids free from a no-deposit, no-return policy) and the Mercedes Benz E350 4Matic. I'm not saying the E350 was specifically designed to salve the fading sensibilities of the blue rinse brigade, but any car this numb, beige and expensive is clearly aimed at Baby Boomers who are wealthy as Hell and aren't going to take it anymore. Unless you ask nicely.
The E350 is a polite request on wheels. While Mercedes' product developers have been busy performing bizarre genetic experiments in pursuit of The Next Big Thing– carbon fiber supercars, mutant crossovers, four-door chop tops, re-imagined Nazi staff cars– their mid-sized model remains reassuringly bland– I mean, conservative. On the downside, the E still suffers from the swoopy dorkiness of its oval headlights, which make the grill look small, which denies the E350 get-out-my-way gravitas. And it continues to share far too many family traits with the lower-priced C-Class to please the legions of status conscious Mercedes buyers.
Inside the E350's cabin, it's… beige. Although the soft touch plastics dominating the cabin blend well with the black controls, burled wood and [slightly less dark] leather, it gives the Merc's cockpit a nursing home's demeanor. No surprise, then, that E350 residents aren't troubled by any of that mouse-driven menu-mad multi-media mishegos; they enjoy sensible controls sensibly located requiring nothing more than common sense and reasonable eyesight. The rear seats are only more than merely adequate for two– count 'em two– passengers, and the front headrests and sloping C-pillar restrict sightlines, making the Ecar seem unacceptably small and confined.
The E350's V6 engine is, in contrast, large and expansive (expensive?). After ten years spent thumbing through Mercedes' in-house parts catalogue, their E engine engineers have finally given the old powerplant a major makeover. They've added displacement, compression, valves, dual overhead cams, variable cam phasing and an industrial-strength KRUPS espresso maker. Well it sure feels that way. Whereas the old E always arrived a few minutes late and a bit groggy to the game known as forward thrust, the new E350 is fully caffeinated and good to go. With 268 horses foraging underhood, and 258 ft-lbs. of torque keeping them saddled for action, enthusiasts would be hard-pressed to find a smoother-spining mill.
Hard-pressed indeed. What's with Mercedes and their rigor mortis go-pedals? Did some overly literal German executive overhear an American say "step on it" and figure we prefer to stand on the gas pedal rather than tickle it with our toes? The 4Matic's five-speed gearbox does an excellent job making up for the E350's Novocained throttle, slurring changes like Greg Allman during his Elijah Blue period. But you can still find yourself kicking down when you're trying to stretch out. Bottom line: torquefest or no, if you don't cane the E350 4Matic at slow speeds, it's takes a while to get to the higher ones.
Once you're there, don't chuck the E350 into a corner. It's not about the chassis; the E350's suspension delivers an ideal blend of comfort and control, complete with progressive breakaway and safe as houses understeer at the limit (should you be daft enough to explore the performance envelope of a car that's more fundamentally sedate than solo shuffleboard). It's about the steering. Rotate the E350's rotund helm going into a bend and it's as if someone's unplugged the road feel generator. There's no way to judge your wheels' position in the turn. In fact, it's all too easy to overcompensate; continuing to turn long after the turn has been turned. It's not an ideal set-up for inattentive drivers.
Did I say "inattentive"? Maybe I should have said "old". Luxury motoring might mean "mindless ease" to the people whose money ultimately defines the term, but any car that encourages sloppy driving amongst our elderly population is more than slightly worrying. And here's another problem: older buyers may recall the days when Mercedes were built like brick shit-houses. This $50k sedan is most decidedly not. From a glove box and trunk lid that close with all the solidity of a Pampers wipes box, to the upmarket duct tape flapping around in the engine bay, the E350 fails to sweat the small stuff. Although Audi lacks Mercedes' cachet, if Ingolstadt continues to trounce Stuttgart in perceived build quality, that could change…
Meanwhile, financially secure luxury-seeking car buyers without sporting aspirations will find the E350 4Matic a wonderfully comfortable, reasonably rapid carcoon for motoring from empty nest to college campus, regardless of the weather up there at Hah-vaad (please God). If they want more zing out of life, well, there's always Viagra. And the E55 AMG.