For as long as I've had an interest in cars, and no doubt for considerably longer even than that, there has been a vague assumption that customers who wanted a premium car would choose an Audi, BMW or Mercedes-Benz according to their personality, and until recently it could have been added that if they didn't want to be associated with any of those brands they would buy a Saab instead.
It's a horrible over-simplification, of course, but one with a certain amount of truth buried within it. The present-day Mercedes E-Class is, on paper, a direct rival to the Audi A6 and the BMW 5-Series, yet despite being armed with a formidable amount of modern technology it still has a stately bearing which the others lack (or perhaps avoid).
Some things are done in a specific way because that, to Mercedes, is the way things have always been done. The styling, despite considerable modernisation, would not be entirely unrecognisable to someone who had bought one of this car's predecessors thirty years ago, fallen immediately into a coma and woken up only this morning.
Then there's the age-old insistence on cramming as many functions as possible into one minor control. The wipers, windscreen washers, indicators and main/dipped headlight beam adjustment are all controlled by one stalk protruding from the left-hand side of the steering column, slightly lower than you would expect it to be, while another, higher stalk actually looks after the cruise control.
I didn't confuse these two, as one colleague admits to having done, but at a very early stage of this test I did select neutral when I intended to indicate left, because on the other side of the column there's a third stalk which turns out to be the gearlever. It's smaller than I'd like a gearlever to be, but I can't really complain because I did get used to it quite quickly.
This gearlever arrangement applies only to E-Classes with the seven-speed automatic transmission which, in return for 1520 of your Earth pounds, can be specified in place of the standard six-speed manual. A curious feature of the auto is that it has almost no effect on the top speed of the 168bhp 2.1-litre diesel engine of the E 220 CDI, which drops from 142 to 141mph, and actually improves the 0-62mph time by three tenths to 8.4 seconds.
Fuel economy and CO2 emissions are improved by the switch to automatic too, though not by enough to make any significant difference to the running costs. The official economy figure is 57.6mpg, which isn't at all bad for a car of this size, weight and power.
Even better, it seems to be more easily achievable than is the case with many other cars. I suspect that this particular example had had quite a seeing-to before I got it, because the long-term readout on the trip computer (which I carelessly forgot to reset when the car arrived) said that the average consumption for the previous 1300 miles had been 42.2mpg. The short-term readout told me I was managing over 50mpg on every journey.
Admittedly, I didn't use the performance very much. In this form, the E-Class doesn't inspire that sort of thing. I gave it the occasional squirt, of course, but for the most part I was content to waft along serenely.
This is something the E 220 CDI does very well. The optional 245/45 tyres on 17" wheels (SE models run on 16s unless you pay for them not to be) didn't to the ride quality over sudden bumps any favours, but the suspension set-up is very comfortable. It also allows for moderately sporty driving, since there is a huge amount of grip and, at the speeds I was prepared to reach on public roads, a more or less perfect front-rear balance. For by no means the first time, here is a Mercedes-Benz which is prepared to be hustled far more vigorously than you would at first imagine.
The interior is as comfortable as it ought to be for a modern-day executive model, and there's plenty of space up front. I found legroom in the rear fairly limited, but I'm stupidly tall so you - or people you take with you - may not find this a problem. The boot capacity is 540 litres, slightly beating the A6's 530 and the 520 of the 5-Series, though filling it might be difficult as the boot extends a long way forward from the top edge of the opening.
As test cars intended for use by the motoring media often are, this one was fulsomely be-optioned, to the point where its official list price of £31,615 was dwarfed by the £39,425 it would actually cost you to buy. Foremost among the extras was the Driving Assistance Package which includes Active Blind Spot Assist, Active Lane-Keeping Assist, Pre-Safe Brake and radar-based cruise control, all of which costs £2345.
Also notable in this context are the COMAND Online onboard computer and 6-CD changer for £1035, DAB digital radio for £335, the superb Harman Kardon Logic 7 surround sound system for £650 (well worth it if you're already spending over £30,000 on the basic car) and, for £100, a larger-than-standard 80-litre fuel tank.
Thanks to the last of these, a readout on the dash told me I could expect a range of well over 700 miles. Or, to put it another way, it should be possible to drive off the ferry at Calais loaded with diesel and arrive at St Tropez without having had to refuel. And, you know, if I really had to make that trip, I wouldn't object to making it in an E-Class.
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