Review

2020 Mercedes E-class review: plug-in hybrid that seamlessly blends internal combustion and volts 

4/5

Innovation is more important than the styling of the facelifted E-class, with a hybrid system that blends the best of petrol and electric

2020 Mercedes E-class E300e EQ - tested August 2020
Interior and suspension improvements complement styling revisions Credit: Barry Hayden

New cars don’t smell like new cars any more. They now smell of antiseptic cleaner, wiped down ready for the next driver and (as some car makers have found) gently fading the interior trim. 

Nor are new-car launches the same. No airline ticket to Europe’s finest resorts, no fine dining in the l’hotel de posh, but much more importantly no more face-to-face with engineers and marketing wallahs to talk about the oily bits and the thinking behind the decisions on trims and drivetrain derivatives.

Hour-long drive-and-photography slots and 25-minute group telephone interviews with the Michael Kelz, chief engineer for the new E-class, don’t quite cut it for this the most important car on the Mercedes-Benz price list. Nor does the gnomic spec sheet, which among other things detailed an amazing new hybrid air/steel suspension system that doesn’t actually exist...

So, this brief drive of the E-class took place in the UK in a couple of imported German-specification plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) models. They existed, but they raised some fairly significant questions. Not the least of which is why the £2,000 option of air suspension, which we thought really good, will not be available to UK buyers on standard cars as it has been on previous E-class models.

One might also wonder out loud just why we were given these unicorn cars costing an options-included £87,727, which is almost twice the £46,000 starting price of this plug-in hybrid drivetrain when it comes to the UK this autumn. 

AS with most mid-life facelifts, the styling revisions are subtle Credit: Barry Hayden

As Sherlock Holmes might have put it, tracking down the real E-class has been a three-pipe problem.

What’s new?

Starting at the beginning; this is not an all-new car, but what is termed a mid-cycle facelift. It’s recognisably similar to the current E-class and, at 4.94 metres long and 1.85 metres wide, roughly the same size. 

On the front and rear are new bumpers and end panels with larger intake grilles. As before, the boot lid and front and rear panels are aluminium, and there are new bonnet power domes. The E isn’t the best-looking executive saloon in the world, but at least the updates have given it a slightly more coherent look.

A new rear bumper assembly helps provide a more coherent look than the existing E-class Credit: Barry Hayden

Cabin updates are more comprehensive, with loads more interior trim choices including two sorts of alloy highlights, new wood finishes and a new steering wheel design, which has twin spars and is festooned in new touch-sensitive switches.

Connectivity has become yet more comprehensive (and confusing), with the company’s MBUX system now accessed through that array of touch-sensitive panels, a central armrest touchpad and voice control. Mercedes Me, the voice-activated system, is as annoying as ever, listening in on conversations for any mention of “mercedes”, “mercaptan”, or “mainonides” (it answers to all of these) to interrupt like an inquisitive toddler.

What about the tech?

There’s now an electronic noise generator/noise cancellation system, which works through the car’s loudspeakers to dull combustion, road and wind noise. The collision-prevention system has been thoroughly upgraded with new sensors, which even recognise children scooting along on toy cars. The safety and assistance systems have been upgraded to the latest generation of active software including: stop-and-go cruise control, steering assistance, speed limiting and braking assistance.

The seats are supremely comfortable and the interior, despite some garish bits, exudes opulence Credit: Barry Hayden

A welcome addition is the way the car’s systems work out whether you’ve still got your hands on the wheel when it’s in auto-pilot mode. With a capacity mat under the wheel cover, it knows your hands are there so there’s no need to waggle the steering wheel to reassure it that you are still in charge.

The self-parking system is smoother and more comprehensive, but as is Mercedes-Benz’s way, the E-class won’t park itself as rivals can do since the company doesn’t think US and European rules allow it.

Plug-in hybrid drivetrain explained

All very much the same, with Mercedes’s excellent series of diesels, which used to make up the lion’s share of E-class fleet sales, but there’s also a new diesel and petrol electric plug-in hybrid drivetrain which, given their favourable tax status for company car users, might persuade more than a few UK buyers.

The hybrid system comprises a 2.0-litre petrol or diesel engine combined with an electric motor between it and the nine-speed gearbox

The petrol system which we drove consists of a 208bhp/258lb ft 2.0-litre turbo petrol engine combined with a 110bhp/324lb ft electric motor in the gearbox bellhousing of the transmission along with the electronics and cooling system. Whether you think tucking such precious things away in the gearbox is a good or a bad thing might depend on whether you’ve ever had to pay a large bill for a replacement integral oil cooler/water radiator on a Mercedes-Benz.

There’s a 13.5kWh lithium-ion battery, which gives an all-electric range of about 33 miles and a WLTP Combined fuel consumption of about 51.4mpg, which I can’t verify as the drive was so short. We don’t yet have any homologated CO2 emission figures, but this near two-tonne car will accelerate from 0-62mph in 5.7sec and on to an electronically limited top speed of 155mph.

The transmission is Mercedes’s own nine-speed automatic driving the rear wheels.

What’s it like inside?

A lot of our readers think Mercedes have become over-the-top blingy of late and if you are so minded, you’ll probably feel the same of this exceedingly well-specified model. Myriad surface changes quickly become exhausting and the new open-pore wood surfaces look like co-respondent shoes.

Cabin updates include even more interior trim choices including a new steering wheel design as well as alloy highlights and wood finishes

For all that, however, there’s also a gorgeous opulence in the cabin, where every lid glides silently open, the leather is soft, buttery and perfectly stitched, and surfaces feel lovely to the touch. The double 10.25in instrument binnacle and touchscreen works brilliantly, with graphics and fonts which are an object lesson to the rest of the industry.

The seats are comfortable and with the new base level trim option have more bolstering than on the previous model. There’s plenty of leg and head room in the rear but the boot is a mean 370 litres against a standard E-class’s 540 litres – BMW’s equivalent plug-in hybrid (PHEV) 5-series holds 410 litres.

The driving experience

Unrepresentative it might be, but this air-suspended Merc saloon is simply fabulous, with a delicious creaminess and refinement in a way it drives. The wheels seem to follow the bumps, but are never shocked by them. On a motorway it’s soft and gentle, on a country road it’s supple and comfortable. 

Yet if you corner with verve, the body is held almost flat against the considerable side forces trying to heel it over. So far, so air-suspended Merc, then, but the excellent steering feedback is all new in this car, as is the reduction in low-speed vibration, which characterised Mercedes air suspension in the past. 

The air suspension is an exemplar of how good such set-ups can be, providing a cossetting ride with cornering prowess should you want it 

In short, it’s a performance saloon when you want it, a comfortable cruiser when you don’t. There’s also a manual override to harden the drivetrain and suspension response and the steering, although the system will automatically do it for you according to the chassis inputs.

In terms of hardware, the E-class’s rivals from Audi and BMW have all this and occasionally more, but as that Fun Boy Three/Bananarama single went: It Ain't What You Do (It's The Way That You Do It).

The M254 petrol engine is an all-aluminium unit and has Nanoslide iron- and carbon-alloy cylinder coatings instead of cast-iron cylinder liners, which used to be only the preserve of the six-cylinder engines. It’s supposed to save weight but this is still a big, heavy car.

There’s plenty of leg and head room in the rear but the boot is restricted to 370 litres (the standard E-class has 540 litres) because of the lithium-ion batteries located above the rear axle

With a total 315bhp and 516lb ft of torque, however, the performance is brisk. The E will always try to pull away using the electric motor only because of its low-speed torque delivery, but if you want a fast getaway the engine starts almost immediately. Despite feeling the gearchanges, the installation is highly refined and at speed gentle throttle applications will see the engine stop and the car ‘gliding’ using just a smidgeon of electric power, which is just charming.

And while there’s no sense of one dominating drivetrain, diesel or petrol, the PHEV seamlessly combines volts and hydrocarbons to give a sporting feel and big-numbers performance.

Conclusion

There’s been a dream-like quality to the introduction of this car. I was driven in it back in January and noted that the air suspension seemed really good but that the PHEV system needed work. Then we drove it briefly last month and it fulfilled its promise, but was in a form that might or might not make it to the UK and for which there was very little in the way of accurate information.

What I can tell you is that the petrol plug-in hybrid is powerful, responsive, quite fun and, on paper at least, quite economical. For company car users, there’ll be lucrative benefit-in-kind tax savings, but high-mileage business drivers might be further tempted by the plug-in hybrid diesel version, which gives even bigger fuel savings.

Will that diesel PHEV model make it to the UK? Will air suspension? Erm, no one seems absolutely sure. We’ll get back to you when and if they are, but I wouldn’t hold your breath.

THE FACTS

2020 Mercedes-Benz E-class 300e EQ saloon

TESTED 2.0-litre, four-cylinder turbo petrol engine and a 48-volt plug-in hybrid system with 13.5kWh lithium-ion battery; nine-speed automatic gearbox, rear-wheel drive

PRICE/ON SALE from £46,000 (£87,727 as tested)/now

POWER/TORQUE

ENGINE 208bhp @ 5,500rpm/258lb ft @ 4,500rpm

ELECTRIC MOTOR 110bhp/324lb ft

TOTAL SYSTEM OUTPUT 315bhp/516lb ft

TOP SPEED 155mph

ELECTRIC-ONLY RANGE 33 miles

ACCELERATION 0-62mph in 5.7sec

FUEL ECONOMY 51.4mpg

CO2 EMISSIONS n/a

VED n/a

VERDICT Grand, grown-up (and expensive if you tick the options boxes), in this air-suspended PHEV form the facelifted E-class is, more than ever, a brilliantly engineered combination of performance saloon and economical and comfortable mile-eater. Trouble is, it isn’t the best looking car among its peers and we’re still not exactly sure which models are coming to the UK.

TELEGRAPH RATING Four stars out of five 

THE RIVALS

BMW 530e, from £46,820

Very nice plug-in hybrid concentrating on economy and all-electric running (range 29 miles) rather than out-and-out performance. In the canon of executive German saloons the 5-series is the driver’s choice, but this generation is comfortable for passengers, too.

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