Review: The Mercedes E450 sedan is a master class in luxury, even if it's not the most user-friendly

Business Insider US

2021 Mercedes-Benz E450 4Matic sedan.

The big, brash Mercedes-Benz G-Wagens and the tech-laden flagship S-Class sedans might grab all the attention and headlines, but at its core, Mercedes has always been about the E-Class.

Since 1946, Mercedes has sold more than 14 million E-Class sedans and wagons worldwide, according to the automaker's own figures. In all of Mercedes' history, the E-Class has remained the best-selling model series, though SUVs have sold better in recent years.

2021 Mercedes-Benz E450 4Matic sedan.
The current E-Class just went through what the automaker calls a "refresh," though the updates and additions were far more numerous than a typical mid-cycle refresh. Changes include a major styling revamp and engines with improved efficiency.

I spent 10 days and put about 1,300km on a 2021 Mercedes-Benz E450 4Matic sedan. It was a delightful thing to drive, though sometimes a frustrating one to use.

The 2021 E450 4Matic sedan: Goldilocks approved

Mercedes launched the 10th generation of its mid-range E-Class in 2016 and refreshed it four years later in 2020. That refresh saw: redesigned headlights, tail lights, and front fascia; the addition of more advanced driver assistance systems; electrified engines for the E450 models; and dual, widescreen interior displays as standard.

2021 Mercedes-Benz E450 4Matic sedan.
The E-Class is Mercedes' most versatile model series. As of this writing, you can get an E-Class as a sedan, wagon, coupe, or cabriolet. Within those body styles are different engines and trim options, including several AMG variants.

I know. It's a whole spectrum of cars. Mercedes offers more versions of the E-Class than Rolls-Royce has models.

The Mercedes E-Class family.
But because it's used as everything from humble taxis in Europe to luxury superwagons, E-Class designers have a lot of incentive to get it right. It can't stray too far from appealing to the most amount of buyers lest it alienate anyone.

Much like how the E-Class folds neatly into the middle of Mercedes' greater lineup, the E450 sedan I had is your staunchly middle-of-the-road E-Class.

2021 Mercedes-Benz E450 4Matic sedan.
It also came in a shimmery coat of silver paint and was about as unassuming a spec of luxury car that you could possibly get. That's what made it great.

Details and safety ratings: an electrified boost

As mentioned above, the E450 now gets the new M256 engine: a 3.0-liter, turbocharged inline-six unit. That engine also has a 48-volt onboard electrical system that provides EQ Boost via an integrated electric motor - a feature that supplies the gas-powered engine with temporary bursts of power and gives the car the ability to "glide" without the engine running.

2021 Mercedes-Benz E450 4Matic sedan.

2021 Mercedes-Benz E450 4Matic sedan.
In terms of crash safety, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration gave the 2021 E-Class five-star ratings all around. The Insurance Institute of Highway Safety has yet to rate the 2021 E-Class on crashworthiness, but the 2020 model earned the agency's Top Safety Pick Plus award in 2019.

What stands out: long-distance runner

Mercedes fitted my loaner with the optional air suspension and Acoustic Comfort Package - extra insulation on the windows and windshield and with additional acoustic- and heat-absorbing materials - which meant that the car rode like a dream with the silence of an old library.

2021 Mercedes-Benz E450 4Matic sedan.
Paired with Mercedes's (mostly) excellent adaptive cruise control, the long highway kilometres fell away effortlessly. This E450 was a long-distance runner, that much couldn't be clearer.

With the aid of its massive fuel tank, I didn't need to stop and refuel the car as frequently as I've needed with other loaners. When I finally did and then performed some quick math, I found that the E450 returned an impressive real-world fuel consumption  combined - bang on with the EPA's estimates.

2021 Mercedes-Benz E450 4Matic sedan.
The leather and piano-black dashboard pinstriping were both pleasant to the touch and eye, but I particularly enjoyed the dual interior displays. Too often, I find that car screens get washed out from the glare of a sunny day. That wasn't the case with these high-contrast screens. Integrated nicely in the dashboard, the long, flat layout means your front passenger is privy to the driver information gauge cluster as well.

The E450 has healthy low-end power thanks to the EQ Boost. Typical commuter stuff - like merging and passing - were performed with alacrity, yet the engine volume never raised to above a polite purr in the heavily insulated cabin. Even the transmission shifts were fluid and barely noticeable.

What falls short: Just give me a scroll wheel

Driving the E450 was one thing. Using its infotainment system was another beast altogether.

You have to, like, swipe in this little touchpad area on the wheel.
Part of the E-Class' extensive updates included a steering wheel with touch-control buttons and a touchpad center console. I found both to be frustrating to use. They produced undependable results and were an overall distraction from the road.

I drew particular ire from the steering wheel, which included far too many buttons controlling far too many menus in the driver information cluster. You could adjust the volume and cruise control speed by swiping along the touchpad on the wheel, but more often than not, the system either did not register the movement or changed the inputs by undesirable increments. This is where a simple scroll wheel - like what you'd find on your computer mouse - would have succeeded.

This is also swipe-activated.
I also suffered some baffling issues with the cruise control. While traveling at speed in a 65-mph zone, the car inexplicably made the executive decision to slow down to 52 mph before I manually disengaged the system. This happened a couple of times on different stretches of road.

The best explanation I could come up with was that the E450's Active Speed Limit Assist with Traffic Sign Assist - a system that uses the car's camera and GPS navigation data to determine an appropriate speed - was influencing my cruise control speed. But that still didn't explain why the car slowed down past 55 mph, which is the lowest speed found on that part of the New York State Thruway.

2021 Mercedes-Benz E450 4Matic sedan.
"The system is able to read most speed limit signs and then compares that information to data from the navigation system," a Mercedes spokesperson explained. "It may inadvertently detect a highway exit ramp speed limit sign, or the speed limit sign on a road parallel or close enough to the highway, and interpret it to be the highway speed and intervene."

This didn't bode as a particularly helpful feature to me, but the spokesperson pointed out that you can disengage the speed limit function with instructions from the owner's manual.

2021 Mercedes-Benz E450 4Matic sedan.

2021 Mercedes-Benz E450 4Matic sedan.
Among comparable BMWs, Porsches, Audis, and Genesis models I've driven, I've always thought that Mercedes has leaned more in the direction of opulence - especially in non-AMG guise. The interior designs have always seemed richer and more embracing than Audi and Porsche's futuristic but cold minimalism.

I particularly loved the EQ Boost of the inline-six. The package as a whole put down power silkily with barely a ruffle of a feather, especially with the air suspension and noise-canceling package.

2021 Mercedes-Benz E450 4Matic sedan.
And if you don't want a sedan, the E-Class comes in three other body styles for you to choose from. No other luxury brand can boast this.

Our impressions: It's an institution

My overwhelming impression walking away from the E450 was how much Mercedes set out to liken it the perfect hotel concierge: a car with total anticipation of your needs and behind-the-scenes, invisible support. Things that just work without you being conscious of the fact that they are.

2021 Mercedes-Benz E450 4Matic sedan.
Brakes that don't grab too rudely. A transmission that shifts like butter. Smooth and linear power delivery. A sound-deadened interior that tamps out the worst of rude traffic noises. Comfortable, billion-way adjustable seats.

The inside even sort of smelled like a nice hotel lobby because of the in-cabin fragrance system (at an extra cost).

2021 Mercedes-Benz E450 4Matic sedan.
Luxury cars will be eternally chased with questions like "Why?" and "What's the point?" And for some so-called luxury offerings, those inquiries are justified.

But not for the E-Class. Mercedes can wax poetic as often as it wants about the E-Class, but the car's empirical popularity is evidenced by how many the automaker has managed to sell over the decades.

2021 Mercedes-Benz E450 4Matic sedan.
Save for its annoying interior gimmicks, the 2021 E450 is the real deal, built from the ground up to deliver a quality ride by the people who've learned to perfect it.

2021 Mercedes-Benz E450 4Matic sedan.
2021 Mercedes-Benz E450 4Matic sedan.
2021 Mercedes-Benz E450 4Matic sedan.

2021 Mercedes-Benz E450 4Matic sedan.
2021 Mercedes-Benz E450 4Matic sedan.
2021 Mercedes-Benz E450 4Matic sedan.
2021 Mercedes-Benz E450 4Matic sedan.
2021 Mercedes-Benz E450 4Matic sedan.
2021 Mercedes-Benz E450 4Matic sedan.
2021 Mercedes-Benz E450 4Matic sedan.
2021 Mercedes-Benz E450 4Matic sedan.
2021 Mercedes-Benz E450 4Matic sedan.
2021 Mercedes-Benz E450 4Matic sedan.
2021 Mercedes-Benz E450 4Matic sedan.

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