2009 Mercedes-Benz E320 BlueTec Review
By Roger Boylan
Karl Benz gave the world the automobile in January 1886, earning himself a place in history, not just for putting the first actual combustion-powered car on the road, but also for building, under the name Mercedes-Benz, a monument to automotive ingenuity and elegance.
Actually, the “Mercedes” name didn’t appear on a car until 1901, in which year Emil Jellinek, a temperamental wealthy patron (whose favorite term for the Benz directors was “donkeys”), threatened to walk away if his daughter Mercedes were not honored by having her name applied to the machines in which her Pappi was investing so many of his plentiful Reichsmarks. “The name is both exotic and attractive,” said Jellinek, with bland disingenuousness. (One imagines Mercedes standing by, gazing up in mute adoration.) “It can be easily pronounced and it sounds good.”
Feeling the pressure, Herrn Benz und Daimler agreed, and following the merger of their companies into the Daimler-Benz company, the first “Mercedes-Benz” vehicles were made. The rest is history, some of it glorious – the Grand Prix and rally victories; the SSK; the 300 Gullwing; some less so – the company’s association with a certain dictator; the 1955 Le Mans disaster in which 82 spectators died, struck in the bleachers by an out-of-control 300SLR; the reliability meltdown of the Benzes of the late 1990s.
Things aren’t as rosy as they might be now, either, what with the aftermath of the ill-fated Chrysler alliance (blamed by bitter Benz veterans for that ’90s reliability slump) and our current Mini-Great Depression that’s shrinking the market for upscale cars, especially the thirstier ones. But the Benz marque has survived for 123 years through worse times than these, so it should come as no surprise that they have an ace in the hole apart from their reputation: diesel engines. M-B has been the world’s leading automotive proponent of diesel technology since the first Mercedes of that species, the 260D, rolled off the assembly line in 1936.
Postwar, the 170, 180 and 190 diesels became familiar sights as taxis on the streets of northern European cities. Although they were virtually indestructible, they were also homely, noisy, and slow, so I’m happy to say they bequeathed none of those defects to their descendant, the ’09 E320 BlueTec, which I had the privilege of driving for a week.
Let me not beat around the bush: This is a magnificent car. I loved it inside and out. Its lines, traditional Mercedes, flow with classic grace. (The new 2010 E-Class looks a bit more Cubist in inspiration.) Sitting in my driveway for a week, this beautiful pewter-gray test vehicle might well have enhanced property values in the neighborhood all by itself.
Inside, it boasted a profusion of the standard upscale gadgets: a Harman/Kardon premium audio system, in-dash six-disc CD changer, keyless entry and start system, memory front seats, sunroof, satellite nav system, and a full raft of safety features, including eight airbags, electronic stability control, and something Mercedes calls the PRE-SAFE system, which prepares for an imminent accident by tightening all seat belts, closing the windows and sunroof, adjusting the front seats, and playing Chopin’s Funeral March. (Not the latter.) Oh, there’s also Sirius satellite radio, hands-free Bluetooth connectability, and some kind of iPod hookup. I’m sure I missed a few features but, frankly, as soon as I ascertain that I have a good sound system, I pretty much lose interest in the supplementary gizmos. To me, the driving’s the thing.
Happily, that seems to be the prevailing philosophy at M-B, too. The E320 BlueTec is simply a delight to drive and to ride in. It’s an automobile of the first rank, a quality product that (almost) justifies its $50K+ price tag and gives its BMW, Audi, Cadillac, and Lexus competitors a real run for their (equally substantial) money, with no compromises that I could detect. The first revelation on the road is the engine, which is, after all, a diesel, and, as such, is heavier and tougher than a gasoline engine. For instance, a diesel will have cast-in iron cylinder liners to resist the immense pressures that build up in the combustion chamber. This solidity of construction is what makes diesels so durable, and in their underpowered past they were not only heavy and solid but clattering and wheezy, too. Not any more; a state-of-the-art example like the clean-diesel E320 BlueTec, unlike the diesels of the past, identifies itself by no exhaust fumes and no more than a quiet panting at idle, and, almost eerily, makes no sound at all at highway speed. (“BlueTec” is what Mercedes calls its clean-diesel system. It’s clean, but still not clean enough for California. Maybe next year.)
And, by the way, “speed” is the mot juste, because this car is fast. M-B claims 6.6 seconds for the 0-to-60 dash. To me, it felt at least as fast as that off the mark, but when called on for a spurt in highway passing, the power was downright breathtaking, reminiscent of my recent test Dodge Charger SRT8, but without the attitude. Torque, of course, is what gets things moving so quickly, horsepower being a function of RPM and, accordingly, being lower in diesels, which run at slower RPMs than do gasoline engines (hence the seemingly modest 210 hp in the E320 BlueTec). But the fearsome 400 lb-ft. of torque on tap transforms this demure fraulein into a roaring chain-mailed Valkyrie: Hojotoho! Hojotoho!
All this power is administered by an unobtrusive and efficient 7-speed automatic transmission with manual shift, driver adaptive capability and modes called sport (for that sudden spurt) and comfort (for a cushier ride, à la Buick). The shifter looks good too, with its leather sleeve and burled-walnut knob surmounted by the timelessly elegant Tri-Star symbol. Indeed, the interior as a whole is an example of stylish but restrained design; burled walnut flows evenly into the door panels across the dashboard, with a touch of chrome here and there to add sparkle, and visually blends with the supple leather that upholsters the seats. Storage compartments exist, but you need to look hard to find them; anyway, the trunk is so huge that, once filled, there’d be hardly anything left over, except for snacks and I-pods. On the dashboard, the gauges and analog clock are classic M-B: chrome-ringed and clearly and crisply numbered. In the cabin all sounds are muted, unless the Valkyries are at work. The engine, as noted, is all but inaudible; the turn signal indicators click noticeably but discreetly; the windshield wipers, even in a heavy downpour, emit nothing louder than a soft whish.
Indeed, this Merc is always unflappable, and rides on most surfaces as if on rails, with only the wind and distant tire noise as accompaniment. It feels safe and solid, in the German way, with nothing loose, and no rattles or squeaks. The brakes are sound, too; they showed no signs of fade even after I had to make a series of near-panic emergency stops in and around a poorly signposted construction zone. And, whereas the EPA instructs us that a fuel mileage range from 23-to 32-mpg can be expected, I easily managed between 34 and 37 on the highway and achieved consistently high 20s, to as high as 30, on around-town trips. With its 21-gallon fuel tank the E320 BlueTec has an impressive 600+ mile range, a good two weeks’ worth of commuting for me.
Of course, diesel fuel is higher than gasoline at the moment, so the savings over time would only start to be appreciable at around 30K miles. But if I had the good fortune to own such a car, I would regard 30K miles as barely the break-in period. Sign me up for a million kilometers, Herr Benz.
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