My daughter’s favorite flavor of Slurpee is all of them—in the same cup. To her, it’s more exciting to combine all available options than to pick one and roll with it. If you’re the same way, you’ll find the 2013 Mercedes-Benz E550 4Matic a very exciting car.
The basic shape of the E-Class could hardly be more staid. While Audis and BMWs are increasingly curvaceous, Mercedes has been going in the opposite direction, with sharper edges and clear corners. Long for the days when sedans were composed of three distinct boxes, and did not pretend to be coupes? Then Mercedes has the car for you. It even has a hood ornament. Sajeev’s favorite shade befits it. Not crazy about the bulge around the rear fender? Well, they’re excising it with the 2014 (which also gains larger, fancier headlamps).
If the top half of the E550 was going for Q-ship invisibility, the bottom half didn’t get the memo. All E550s are now sport models, so they’re fitted with an aggressive, mesh-filled lower front fascia and 18-inch “AMG twin 5-spoke” polished alloy wheels. Add $300 for a barely there decklid spoiler.
The E550’s interior styling is similarly rectilinear. Fine materials and plentiful details help it look expensive, but not luxurious. If you’re a Benz traditionalist, and expect a big analog clock in the main instrument cluster and a cruise control stalk where most cars have the turn signal, then get the 2013. The 2014 E-Class ditches both to go with the flow.
The E-Class sedan’s seat bottoms continue to be unusually firm for a luxury-oriented car. Stuttgart knows what’s good for you. Add $660 for the “Active Multicontour Driver Seat w/Massage.” (Your passenger is SOL.) The lower back massage proved relaxing, if not so much that the standard drowsiness monitor felt the need to illuminate its coffee cup icon. The active side bolsters, on the other hand, would benefit from more sophisticated logic. While the inward movement of the outer side bolster helps keep you in place when throwing the car hard through a curve, they’re just as aggressive when navigating a parking lot. The car’s many brains know its speed and steering wheel angle. They can apply this knowledge here. Yes, you can simply turn the feature off when it’s not needed. But, judging from the features exclusive to luxury cars, the class is all about the car knowing what you want without being told.
With the 2012 E550, Mercedes replaced the previous 382-horsepower, 391-pound-feet-of-torque 5.5-liter V8 with a turbocharged 4.7-liter good for 402 horsepower and 443 pound-feet. All of this torque is theoretically available at just 1,800 rpm, but my gut didn’t detect serious shove until about 3,000. Add in a lazy throttle and taller gearing than should be necessary with seven ratios, and the initial responsiveness of the engine underwhelms. (Though it might have been a minor participant in the sins I attributed to the throttle, boost lag wasn’t obvious.) The E550 can get to 60 in under five unmemorable seconds, but it’s really set up for the autobahn, not the American stop light gran prix.
Mercedes switched to a smaller, turbocharged engine to boost fuel economy, and the EPA numbers did increase from 15 city, 23 highway to 16 and 26, respectively. The trip computer reported about 20 in suburban driving, pretty good for a 4,400-pound, 402-horsepower, all-wheel-drive sedan.
You’d prefer to add a mpg or two and some driving thrills by having all of that torque channeled through only the rear wheels? Too bad, this is no longer an option. All 2013 E550s are 4Matics. Plant your right foot in slow turns, though, and you can still induce some tail-happy shenanigans. Just not for long, as the stability control system quickly and firmly cuts in. On this particular flavor of E-Class no button is provided to dial the system back, much less defeat it.
This being a “sport” E-Class, it has a sport suspension. In casual driving the chassis feels taut (through the seat of your pants, not the numb steering). The ride could even be too firm for those seeking luxury. Push the E550, though, and the motions of its rock-solid body become sloppy, its nose plows, and its stability control system forcefully communicates that you shouldn’t be driving a 402-horsepower, sport-suspended, big-braked sedan this way. Some cars feel better the harder you push them. The E550 is not such a car.
BMW has been taken to task for softening up the 5-Series, but its 550 still steers and handles significantly better than this one. Much of the motoring press, though, has concluded that the best-handling German mid-sizer is, quite ironically, the one without a rear-drive chassis, and thus with the most nose-heavy weight distribution. How did this happen?
You can still buy a $71,430 car where you must pull the key out of your pocket, stick it in the ignition, and twist. To fix this, add another $650. As tends to be the case with Mercedes lately, you’ll pay even more for one of the other Germans. A similarly-equipped BMW 550 xDrive runs about $3,000 higher. An Audi S6 lists for about $5,000 more after accounting for feature differences with Truedelta’s car price comparison tool. Compared to earlier decades, the German pricing hierarchy has been inverted.
It’s a Mercedes, but it costs less than its archrivals. Its passé three-box body is gilded with AMG bits. Its interior includes some luxurious elements, and some sporty elements, but no distinct character. A “stately” throttle and tall gearing blunt the responsiveness of the powerful boosted V8. The chassis feels sporty, even overly so, until called upon to corner. Perhaps with a psychology like my daughter’s I could make sense of the E550 4Matic. But, with my compulsion for coherence, I can’t.
The Mercedes-Benz E-Class is not without its strengths. Its body never feels less than rock solid, its sophisticated electronic systems provide exemplary safety and convenience, and its exterior and interior are undeniably those of a premium motor car. Perhaps above all else, as noted by my non-car-person wife, “it is a Mercedes-Benz.” But these strengths are equally present within the more coherent, more fuel-efficient, $4,500 less expensive, plenty quick E350.
Mercedes-Benz provided a car with insurance and a tank of gas.
Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta.com, an online provider of car reliability and real-world fuel economy information.