When my dad hit middle age in the ‘70’s, his first reaction was to park a Mercedes in our garage – a ’75 450SE, which my mom nicknamed “Heinrich.” The Mercedes sedans of that era weren’t beautiful cars, but damned if Heinrich didn’t turn heads – it was obvious that someone important was driving it. By the time I learned to drive in 1979, mom had inherited Heinrich, and we had another German blitzkrieg machine – a BMW 733i. The two cars couldn’t have been more different – on the winding roads around my house, the BMW was a jock, but Heinrich was a Panzer tank of a car that sternly replied “nein” if you tried to force him into back-road calisthenics. But Heinrich always impressed the general public – only dedicated gearheads did a double-take when they saw the BMW, while Heinrich was still getting looks into the late 1980’s. Flash forward three decades, and little has changed: the BMW in this test is still an athlete with no fashion sense, while the all-new E350 is an imposing power suit of a car.
Stylistically, the 350E plays Mini-Me to the S-class; the gently-rounded (and, to this writer’s eye, far more handsome) contours of the outgoing E-Class have given way to a pronounced wedge shape, fender flares, and a stern-looking, aggressive front end treatment. The result is an expensive, imposing look, particularly in dark colors, but the E350 is clearly designed to impress, not captivate. For the Mercedes’ target audience, which is largely made up of status-seekers, that’s OK, but anyone who wants a look to fall in love with should look elsewhere.
The E350 fares better style-wise inside; entry and exit are easy, and the driver is greeted by a beautifully-detailed dashboard trimmed in chrome and gorgeous burled walnut. The air vents and door latches repeat the trapezoidal theme from the exterior, a nice touch. The only stylistic quirk is the hump on the top of the dash, which accommodates the navigation, climate control and radio displays. The BMW has a similar hump, and the E350 handles it better stylistically, but this dash would look a lot better if it had the C-class’ retractable display. The steering wheel is agreeably fat, and wrapped in particularly nice leather; the odd-looking instruments of the old E-class have been replaced by conventional dial instruments, with a large digital display in the middle of the speedometer to read out trip and vehicle data.
Rear seat passengers get first-class treatment in this new E350 – there isn’t as much space as the M35, but comfort is top-notch in this test, and the rear compartment is nicely trimmed, with contrasting leather door trim panels. Workmanship is also first-class, with conspicuously high-quality, durable-feeling materials.
The E350 may be dressed to impress, but the engine never makes a truly favorable impression. The 3.5 liter V-6 is a carryover from the previous-generation E-Class, and it makes 268 horsepower – lowest in this test, leading to the slowest acceleration (Mercedes estimates 0-60 in 6.8 seconds). The engine note is also displeasingly coarse under strong acceleration, and while the 7-speed automatic transmission helps make the most of the V-6’s limited power, it consistently vetoes runs to the redline. On the bright side, torque delivery is stout – 258 lb/ft at 2400 rpm – making the E350 feel reasonably spry enough off the line. After that, it’ll get creamed by every car in this test, particularly the ballistic BMW and Audi, and all manner of lesser cars. Mercedes clearly has some work to do underneath the hood.
Dynamically, the E350 is a mixed bag – numb and dull on twisting roads, but brilliant on the Interstate. Its suspension is classic Mercedes: tuned for comfort, even with the test car’s optional sport package (which, surprisingly, was a no-cost deal), and the steering is slightly numb and heavy. You can fling the E350 hard into a corner, and it’ll do the job, but like Heinrich, this car will take no pleasure in doing so.
But put the E350 on an Interstate, and it’s a completely different beast: the same heavy steering and overly-compliant suspension that make it such a dud in hard driving help it hunker down, track straight as an arrow, and feel remarkably stable, even at extra-legal speeds. As a long distance cruiser, no other car in this test can touch the E350 – the Lexus comes closest, but on the highway, the Lexus feels like a soulless automaton, while the Mercedes is clearly enjoying its work. Equip this car with the excellent Bluetec diesel and you may have the ultimate long-distance cruiser.
Hopefully, those long distance cruisers will have a friendly banker. The E350’s base price is a reasonable $48,600, but with the options you expect in this class of car – leather, sunroof, upgraded sound system and navigation and all-wheel-drive – the test car weighed in at $58,585. To be fair, that’s not unreasonable for this class, in which price is often an afterthought. Given the E350’s lackluster engine and handling though, it’s unreasonable for this car, particularly when the ballistic Audi and BMW are similarly priced.
For the status seekers, Interstate warriors and Panzer tank fans out there, the E350 is a worthy steed. Since status is a buying consideration in this class, the E350 won’t be alone at the bottom of the heap. Still, the luxury sport sedan game has moved on since Heinrich’s day. Too bad the E-Class hasn’t really.
Acceleration is tepid for this class, but the E350 earns two stars for its unmatched highway cruising ability
Not just comfortable – this car seems to will bumps into submission
You practically need a court order to convince this car to be driven hard
If you’re out to impress the neighbors, this is the best looking car in its class. Otherwise, there are better designs out there.
Sumptuous, comfortable, and spacious; control-knob silliness costs one point
Fit and finish: 4/5
Workmanship is impressive, and Mercedes still builds cars to last as long as your repair budget holds out, but those body panel gaps are so 1980.
Suffers from the same problem the BMW does: everything is optional, and all the options are expensive. Couldn’t Mercedes have used the money it saved carrying over the lame old-gen engine to make leather seats standard?
It’s not great to drive, but the E350 has snob appeal to burn, and that’s worth three stars