The Mercedes E550 is like one of those gently aging character actors that everyone recognizes but no one can name. I guess the fact that Mercedes put over a million of E-Class sedans on the road in the past four years may have a little something to do with it. Either that or the brand’s reacting to Bimmer’s Bangling and their own S-Class blingery by maintaining the E’s arch conservatism. While understandable, I’m not so sure that the mid-sized Merc's generic good looks and mild-mannered charisma are such a good thing…
It’s a bit of an inconvenient truth, but the E550’s appearance is a bit like “An Inconvenient Truth:” interesting for about the first ten minutes. The sheetmetal is seamlessly, relentlessly, unabashedly conservative. As an owner of no less than seven previous E’s, I could only spot only two “refreshing” differences: a crease in the front bumper which vaguely emulates the Cadillac CTS and the GPS and satellite radio warts have been combined into one plastic thingy on the roof. While there’s nothing particularly wrong about the E-Class demeanor, the model lacks both the glamour and the gravitas it needs to win new converts (i.e. stick it to Lexus).
The E550’s interior could’ve been lifted from straight from Yale’s law library. There are some new touches– a handsome wood trim piece on the front of the transmission stalk and a new interior color (Cashmere Brown replaces Sam Stone)– but the cabin’s still as sober as a Mormon elder. While the new S-Class shows that Mercedes is fully capable of fitting a modern and informative interior, it looks like we’ll have to wait for a full redesign of the E Class before their mid-sized model displays some twenty-first century chic.
That said, you can’t fault the E550’s ergonomics. While Merc has de-contented the chairs (ditching the drive dynamic option, vertical lumbar adjustment and key activated back-and-forth-ery), the Big E’s seats offer near-eternal rest, along with dangerously narcoleptic “comfort headrests.” Although I feel more than slightly anal expounding on the charms of the E’s sun visors, they are a shining example of a simple yet effective design that all automakers should adopt. The dual (quad if you’re as OCD as me) visor approach ensures that you don’t have to continually reposition one shade as the vehicle turns in relation to the sun. Which reminds me: outward visibility all ‘round is excellent.
The E’s gizmo factor is high, but implementation isn’t exactly cutting edge; the button-intensive COMAND system seems quaint compared to Audi’s MMI and BMW’s iDrive (both of which I dislike intensely). Bluetoothery is now available– for an extra $350. In compensation, the formerly optional Harmon Kardon sound system delivers terrific stereo imaging and separation. The premium II package includes a host of other goodies like satellite radio and ventilated seats, all much appreciated, all raising the E550’s price tag well into the 60’s.
Driving the E550 is a relaxing experience that never once threatens any kind of dynamic engagement. Sure, the car gathers pace with alacrity– as you’d expect from a V8 pumping-out 391 ft.-lbs. of torque @ 2800 – 4800 rpm. But the E550 adds speed without satisfying stimulus or aural satisfaction. Yes, it’s fully capable of athletic cornering, but it negotiates bends with plenty of understeer and precious little joie de vivre. The E’s Airmatic suspension presents the E’s driver with a choice of a floaty-drifty bobble-headed sort of ride or a buttoned down sport(ier) feel. I left it on the firmest setting and never felt my age. [NB: MB’s no-cost sport package was curiously absent from my ride.]
The E550’s new steering system is more direct and communicative than the previous model’s lithium injected helm, but it still needs to be a lot quicker. The E’s seven-speed transmission feels like a gear too many, but you can’t argue with 1500 RPM at 60mph– at least until you clock the model's 22mpg the EPA highway mileage. Thankfully, the “new” E has ditched the SBC brake-by-wire technology and returned to good old hydraulics. The E550 now stops with all the confidence and power you’d expect from a German sedan. In fact, the upgraded stoppers are the single most convincing argument for swapping E’s with your dealer (so to speak).
Mercedes says the refreshed E550 contains over 2000 new parts. Yes, well, the changes don’t exactly revinvent the E Class or raise its game to the next level. All of which makes ‘07 Mercedes E550 the automotive equivalent of a political fund raising dinner: the menu sounds great on paper, but the rubber chicken reality leaves something to be desired. I’m very much looking forward to sampling the more highly focused E63, which should demonstrate the E-Class’ fundamental excellence. Meanwhile, the E550 is an excellent choice for a luxury buyer who doesn’t mind— indeed, who actively seeks– a luxurious yet isolated driving experiencea.
[Mercedes provided the car reviewed, insurance, taxes and a tank of gas.]