First Drive Review: 2009 Mercedes-Benz E550
This 2009 review is representative of model years 2003 to 2009.
By Matt DeLorenzo of Road & Track
Madrid, Spain — In remaking the sedan that arguably defines the brand, Mercedes-Benz faced the daunting task of conceiving a new look that is not only contemporary, but also timeless enough to last a decade. It's a tall order, but Mercedes wisely hedged its bet by packing as much advanced technology beneath that new skin as it could, thereby raising the bar yet again for the entire executive class sedan segment.
The design of the new car is a huge departure from previous models, much more angular and with more character lines. The car is slightly larger, gaining an inch in wheelbase (113.4), a little more than a half-inch in overall length (191.6), and 1.2 in. in width (72.9). The E550 has a strong presence, but Hyundai has done the German automaker no favor by offering a look-alike grille on its new Genesis. And Mercedes hasn't exactly blazed its own design trail by squaring off the headlamps in a manner reminiscent of the Lexus GS and fitting Audi-like LED light bars in the lower fascia. Also, the rear of the Mercedes is almost indistinguishable from other sedans in its segment.
The E550's individuality emerges in its flanks. The strong character lines and muscular wheel arches make the car appear as if it's always in motion. A strong upswept haunch recalls the 1953 Mercedes Ponton and emphasizes the fact that this car is rear drive. I suspect this is one of those designs that we'll grow to appreciate over time.
But it doesn't take long to warm to the comfy interior, sterling road manners and dizzying array of driver aids. The cabin is tasteful in execution, with high-quality materials and a straightforward design. Two trim levels are offered, sport and luxury, allowing a choice of either satin accents or more traditional wood. The dash features analog gauges and a center LCD screen for navigation, night vision and infotainment, controlled by the center-mounted COMAND jog shuttle. While there have been improvements made to the system, such as a back button and redundant controls on the console and steering wheel, the basic menu structure of paging through various elements remains cumbersome. It's a system that becomes intuitive only through repeated use.
What is intuitive is the E550's responsiveness, courtesy of a 388-bhp 5.0-liter V-8 mated to a 7-speed automatic transmission. The E350 (the only other model available in the U.S. at launch) is equipped with a 272-bhp 3.5-liter V-6 using the same gearbox. The E550 is quick and solid, with excellent chassis feedback. The variable-ratio power steering has enough heft to remind you who is really in control here. There are various modes for both the transmission (normal, sport and manual) and suspension (sport and comfort), but most drivers probably won't feel an appreciable difference among the settings. The transmission in particular has such closely spaced ratios that I found myself playing with the paddle shifters a few times, then losing interest and allowing the gearbox to unobtrusively go about its business. The basic competence of the E550 allows you to quickly hustle the car down the road with no need to worry about buttons and settings — perhaps Mercedes should look at dispensing with them altogether.
Besides, there's even more to contemplate in the wide array of driver aids offered, most which are quite useful. The lane departure system eschews warning buzzers and instead subtly vibrates the steering wheel (much like hitting Botts dots on California freeways) when you drift over a line. The system doesn't kick if you crank in some steering angle without the turn signal activated, guessing (correctly) that you intend to change lanes without signaling. This ensures that the driver is likely to always keep the system engaged.
There is also a drowsy driver warning that monitors the time you've been behind the wheel and matches a baseline steering correction pattern. Too few or too many corrections and it sends a warning that you need a break. An add-on to the radar used for the Distronic cruise control and assisted braking system is a mode that will automatically engage full braking if it senses an imminent collision within 0.6 second, a feature that is likely to greatly reduce the impact's severity.
Other techno wonders include automatic headlamp dimmers — nothing new really, but Mercedes' approach of actively dipping and shaping the beam to allow for maximum visibility is quite clever — while the new infrared night vision offers stunning resolution. The system also identifies "targets" such as pedestrians and animals lurking at the road's edge.
Thanks to all this technology, solid handling and even a design that we're warming to, the E550 remains a leader in its class and even raises the bar.