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Mercedes-Benz E 280 CDI

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My, my, how time flies. Can you believe  it’s been over four years since the all-new Mercedes-Benz E-Class debuted. Here I am, driving the facelifted W211, and the first time I drove it is still fresh in my mind. Tunnel lights reflecting rapidly on a fluid shape, a very retro yet futuristic blue instrument console staring back at me and the speedo needle casually lounging about at 140 kph – the imagery is extremely vivid. So it’s a proper deja vu for me as I push the revamped E through its paces at the same places!

Since its worldwide debut in 2002 – in the time which feels like just yesterday to me – DaimlerChrysler has shipped over a million units of the E saloon and estate to customers worldwide. Yes, a million. So which is why they decided to sell a million more by improving the E – not too much, but just enough to ambitiously (and erroneously) call it ‘all-new’ and launched it last year in New York. Externally, except for a sharper grille, a butch bumper, headlamps with new louvers at the top and revised (and dare I say more effective) external rear view mirrors, it’s not a dramatic facelift. On the inside, a new steering wheel which looks like it has been borrowed from the SL marks its presence and it gets a sunroof too. But the biggest changes are not what you can see, but what you can feel, which I’ll come to later.

For us in India, the E-Class range has been juggled around. Out goes the E 270 CDI, and in comes the E 280 CDI V6, and the E 240 V6 has been replaced by the E 280 V6, while the entry-level E 200 K gets a power bump. And both the V6s get Mercedes’ famous 7G-Tronic automatic gearbox. Thankfully DaimlerChrysler India launched the middle-of-the-range diesel motor – it would have been tempting for them to introduce the E 200 or E 220 (no, the E 320 and E 420 CDI would be too much to ask), but I guess the impending competition made them wisen up. Just as well, because the 280 CDI is such a fabulous engine that I was left chewing my nails wondering what the 320 and 420 would be like. 

Displacing 2987cc, this common-rail turbodiesel V6 develops 196 bhp at 4000 rpm and a thick 46 kgm between 1400 and 2800 rpm. And over the years of development of common-rail diesels, you can see how these powerplants have evolved. Compared to the first-generation CDI motors, the new ones are even more refined, less noisy, powerful and yet don’t lose out on fuel efficiency. 

In the 280, even though the torque comes in as early as 1400 revs, the 7G-Tronic saps the initial go that you are used to in petrol cars or even those with manual transmissions. But that’s the advantage of this high-tech gearbox (Mercedes really knows its automatics), you can manually override in case you need that quick getaway. Once beyond that 1400 mark however, life in the E 280 CDI is all about how you play with that abundance of torque. The automatic transmission offers you that control; it keeps it in check when you are in a mood to glide gently at a steady 80 kph or when you are stuck in cheek-by-jowl traffic, and lets go when you sight an empty stretch. And that’s when the drivetrain comes into its natural element. A cruising speed of 160 kph, with the tacho nudging 2000 rpm just hits its sweet spot. And when you get a bit aggressive with the pedal, the E 280 takes a shallow breath and attains 200 kph effortlessly. 

Yes, as you might have read it often, it doesn’t feel as if its traversing the subcontinent in double-century speeds – except for the marked increase in tyre and wind noise, that is. It is calm inside the cabin and the car hardly feels its being buffeted by high wind velocities. Though 200 kph is what we attained, it is capable of going up by at least 30 kph more.And for a luxuriously appointed, full-size saloon, the E 280 CDI is pretty quick. Again, you might not really notice it, unless you glance at the speedo. Or are addicted to traffic-light drag races. It dismissed off the 0 to 60 kph run in 4.17 seconds and attained 100 kph from standstill in 9.07 seconds. But that’s still not its core strength. When you are on the highway and are already doing over 80 kph and need to overtake desperately, the E won’t disappoint. It simply flew through our 80 to 120 kph runs in just 6.06 seconds and the 100 to 140 kph runs in 7.32 seconds. Hopefully, owners of the E 280 CDI, since it’s a diesel, would use it the way it’s meant to be – not for the home-to-office run during peak hour, but to reach Goa from Mumbai in time for lunch.

Among the raft of changes that the E received, a significant improvement is in the steering feel. I guess Mercedes-Benz had enough of hearing from automotive evaluators that their steering setup, though no doubt good, still lacked the sparkle and immediacy that BMWs offered. So the engineers at Sindelfingen decided to liven up the driving experience of this luxury barge by making the steering setup more responsive. It does work well for Mercedes and turn-ins are almost instantaneous, but still the intuitive nature of BMW’s steering is still missing. This, despite slightly reworking the front suspension system – by the way, it’s a four-link setup at front and a multi-link at rear, aided by coil springs and gas pressure shock absorbers all around. But the one area that BMW can’t beat Mercedes in is in the ride quality department. Back seat drivers buy Mercs with their eyes shut. The E also handles markedly better now, body roll is not that pronounced and it feels superbly planted while cornering at ridiculous speeds. Though it’s not exactly nimble, it will provide adequate cornering thrills for the weekend driver/owner. 

Which brings me to the question: so should you plonk your Rs 45-odd lakh on the E 280 CDI? If you are a Mercedes-Benz buff, then there’s no question at all. But if you can think beyond three-pointed stars, you now have the E-Class’s arch-rivals – the BMW 5 Series and the Audi A6, both with their own strengths – waiting for your cheque. Just a few years back, you were not even faced with a dilemma like this, but now... time really flies, doesn’t it?