We know what it means. Or at least what it’s supposed to mean. Yet the word excellence in today’s hyperbolic lexicon has become the go-to endorsement of everything from resort timeshares to pharmaceutical marketing to pork industry remediation. Let’s assume for the moment that the word has been somewhat diluted.
Climb into a 2021 Mercedes-Benz E-Class, however, and you will immediately understand the true emotional and physical definition of the word, its impact, and its inferred accountability. In sedan, coupe, or wagon form, the new E-Class is a stunning accomplishment. And it is the MotorTrend 2021 Car of the Year.
The Mercedes-Benz E-Class carries the stout imprimatur of old-school luxury, from the graining of the dashboard wood to the suppleness of the heated and ventilated, posture-correct leather seats. But it is also thoroughly modern, from the robust yet efficient responsiveness of its engines to the plethora of high-tech and high-zoot features. The E-Class epitomizes an automotive brand in full, one whose currency in the current zeitgeist of automotive wants and desires is unmatched.
“As the car market contracts and SUVs continue to gobble up market share, it says something about a company that a midcycle refresh of a sedan could take an already good car and move it to greatness,” senior features editor Jonny Lieberman said.
Mercedes didn’t need the E-Class to be this magnificent, this dominant, Lieberman added. “They could have slapped on some new body panels, updated the engines, and called it a day. But the engineers went the extra mile. They pulled the all-nighter. Put in the hard work. The result? Car of the Year.”
Yes, our Car of the Year is a mere midcycle update to a vehicle that has been on the market for several years. Some of you may wonder how and why such a car merits this award—especially when our COTY field boasted the innovation of the Porsche Taycan, the flash of the BMW 8 Series Gran Coupe, and the newfound value story of the Nissan Sentra.
But when there is a midcycle change so dramatic, so striking, so … well, excellent, we open our garage doors.
German luxury automakers have a long history of intertwining major design changes and powertrain updates so that there is always something new every few years. Many other automakers take a “fire and forget” approach, where everything is clean-sheet at the redesign every five or six years.
Four years ago, the restyled E-Class rolled out with new but uninspired sheetmetal, an inconsistent nine-speed transmission (depending on the engine it was paired to), body control issues on sweeping curves, and a tendency to understeer on sharper winding roads. At the time, we stated, “In all, the [E-Class] was not convincingly at the top of its class—either as a sport sedan or a luxury sedan. It has all the right ingredients to be either but couldn’t seem to do both at the same time.”
What a difference four years makes.
“The E-Class delivers on every front you can think of—both from a passenger’s view and from the driver’s,” MotorTrend en Español managing editor Miguel Cortina said. “It’s the one that makes everyone feel special, the one that delivers the best experience, and the one that stands out from the rest of the segment. It does everything right and shows the legacy that it has playing in a segment like this. Feels truly like a Mercedes should. And it does it all naturally.”
What is perhaps most impressive is that the E-Class extends its excellence across all body types and performance measures. The dynamics of a sedan are different than those of a coupe, owing to dimensional differences and the divergent expectations and driving habits of their owners. Then, the body of a convertible or wagon requires a massive restructuring of sheetmetal and reinforcing crossmembers, with completely unique and specific geometries. A taut coupe can turn into a floppy convertible. Same for the transformation of a sedan into a wagon. And can the same platform provide a plush ride for the mainstream while bringing the hammer for the performance-minded?
Any automaker trying to create that many variants from the same basic platform will usually deliver at least one throwaway, one vehicle that felt like an afterthought. In past years, Mercedes has given some of its non-sedan models insufficient R&D coverage, and the result felt half-baked.
Not so with the 2021 E-Class. Whatever the shape or task, the E-Class excels. The sedan is firmly in the “family transport” milieu without sacrificing performance when needed. The coupe is rigid and gutsy, the convertible a luxe seaside conveyance with a top-down “Air Cap” that won’t disturb your intentionally tousled coif, and the AMG E 63 S Wagon is a thunderbolt that will transform anyone’s preconceived idea of a Montessori-mobile. (A note on the platform-sharing E 450 All-Terrain: It’s an E-Class, but because of its ground clearance, Mercedes-Benz insists on classifying it as an SUV. As such, it competed separately in our SUV of the Year competition.)
In addition, clicking through drive modes provides actual dynamic differences in throttle, braking, and suspension response. You want to loaf along with your family? Done. You want to charge up a canyon? Check. You want to tackle an autocross? Can do—though testing director Kim Reynolds noted that the sedans felt “fast but heavy” in the figure eight. Hey, you want bank vault safety and an indomitable ride? That adds some pounds, but as Reynolds added, “It’s as solid as granite.”
On top of all that engineering and manufacturing complexity, Mercedes then invites in its AMG team to create models that deliver brain-sizzling performance without sacrificing any of the luxury.
“What stands out here is how excellent this chassis is,” Cortina said. “Being able to support everything from an E 350 sedan to the menacing AMG E 63 and include the coupe, convertible, and wagon is just inexplicable. It speaks for what Mercedes engineers were going after, and they delivered in a perfect package.”
Added Lieberman: “My most-improved award goes to the convertible. It used to have some of the worst cowl shake I’ve ever experienced from a modern car. I’m now very happy to report that finally the E-Class convertible feels like an E-Class: solid, refined, luxurious, better than the competition. Very impressed, Mercedes.”
Now, to go under the skin. Mercedes offers its 362-hp, 369-lb-ft M256 3.0-liter turbocharged mild hybrid inline-six engine as the heart of the E-Class lineup. It features an integrated starter-generator that delivers 21 hp of electrical “EQ Boost” to help acceleration from a dead stop while the turbos spool up. It also contributes to fuel economy and reduced CO2 emissions. Its 48-volt onboard electrical system means there are no belts for the water pump and air conditioning, which reduces parasitic losses from the engine. It also allows the car to “sail” in Eco mode with the engine turned off.
As a result of this new tech, the E 450 4Matic sedan accelerates like a V-8 (with a rapid 0-60 of 4.6 seconds and a quarter mile of 13.3 seconds at 103.2 mph in our tests) while also delivering 23/30/26 mpg city/highway/combined in the most recent EPA fuel economy tests. Not quick enough for you? You can upgrade to the 429-hp E 53 or even to the bonkers 603-hp AMG E 63 S 4Matic+, which will turn a blistering three-flat 0-60 and an 11.2-second quarter mile at 124.2 mph. Meanwhile, for those on less than a baller’s budget, the base E 350 comes with a 2.0-liter turbo-four that generates 255 hp and 273 lb-ft and still gets to 60 mph in a claimed 6.1 seconds while returning 22/31 mpg city/highway.
Mercedes engineers also have improved the shifting of its nine-speed automatic transmission. “There is a steady pull of power, yet some gearshifts are literally unnoticed,” Reynolds said.
The Merc’s exquisite Air Body Control suspension is the best $1,900 you will ever spend on an option. (It’s even available on the base E 350.) It soaks up freeway chop, road rash, and bumps and divots with impunity. “On the freeway its ride is smooth and floaty, but on the twisty roads it shows its handling and sporty side without being shy,” Cortina said. Added Buyer’s Guide director Zach Gale: “What fantastic ride quality. One of the best of any car I’ve driven in a while.”
As for accommodations, the E-Class delivers exactly what people expect from a Mercedes: luxury, and more.
Our test model came with seats that were not only heated and ventilated with adjustable lumbar support and several massage settings but were also “multicontoured” with bolsters that activate to give your ribcage extra support under hard cornering. Be sure to tick the box for “seat kinetics,” which gently adjusts your spine and hips every few minutes—it’s orthopedics at work on long drives. The Cabriolet models come with special sun-reflective leather that remains cooler than regular leather when baking in direct sunlight. In cooler weather that still invites top-down motoring, the “Air Scarf” provides neck-level heating.
Looking ahead in the cockpit, the driver sees twin 12.3-inch displays that unfurl layer after layer of information. And here resides our one big gripe with the E-Class: MBUX. Although the screens are gloriously crisp, the new MBUX infotainment system and user interface raised the ire of nearly every editor for its overly (and needlessly) complicated nature.
“I’m not unfamiliar with MBUX, but the amount of times I had to focus on the center display screen or take my hands off the wheel to try the touchpad or touchscreen is unacceptable,” features editor Christian Seabaugh said. An irked Gale noted that MBUX’s integration of Apple CarPlay didn’t fill the perimeter of the screen, merely a reduced square of it.
Adding to the MBUX frustration are the capacitive screen navigation buttons located on the steering wheel. They’re intended to keep your hands on the wheel rather than fiddling with the mouse-style touchpad, but Seabaugh noted, “It doesn’t respond the same way each time.” Added associate road test editor Erick Ayapana, “Thankfully, the touchscreen is so good.” But seeking out information through the myriad menus can be a distracting chore that other automakers do better.
The saving grace of the E-Class infotainment system is the optional Burmester surround sound stereo, which Ayapana described as “so great, so clear; I want it for my house.”
It’s a car journalism trope to describe a luxury car’s interior as a “cocoon.” But one struggles to provide another metaphor. The interior’s sense of style and refinement immediately puts the driver and passenger into a state of lavish comfort. Mercedes has an old-luxury reputation, and the suppleness of the leather seats and grain and gloss of trim materials plays to that. Meanwhile, the turbine-style air vents lend a feeling of Buck Rogers retro-futurism. It’s a good blend.
The cocooning continues in the back seat, to a point. Although the backs of the front seats are smartly contoured to provide more rear kneeroom, the E-Class is not among the segment leaders in providing space to sprawl in back. It’s acceptable enough, as the 6-foot-1 Seabaugh described it as “plenty spacious.”
In short, the E-Class is not trying to be something that it is not. People expect certain sensual and tactile sensations when they engage with the three-pointed star, and the E-Class delivers the reassurance of sitting inside a whisper-quiet yet thunderous Mercedes-Benz sedan.
“Such a solid, feel-good car,” Seabaugh said. “It’s ridiculously competent. I feel like every time I drive the E 450, I discover something new. This is a car I could happily drive every day for years on end.”
But the E-Class is more than just a platform engineering masterpiece. It’s a design statement—which is a difficult accomplishment while still maintaining an air of understated assurance. Mercedes tore up the existing droopy lozenge of its exterior form and transformed it into an assured, planted sedan with pronounced shoulders and crisp character lines running the length of the fuselage.
The angular slashes that replace the sulky ovoid taillights of the incumbent are dynamic and confident. The trunklid has a jaunty flip at its trailing edge that keeps the stance of the car from falling off toward the rear bumper. And there’s its face, with a presence that carries just a hint of intimidation—to let bystanders know you have attained something of substance and are not to be trifled with.
Of course, Mercedes-Benzes are always anticipated to be safe. Although the 2021 model year E-Class has yet to be tested, the 2020 edition gets top-scoring five-star marks in frontal, side, and rollover crash tests from NHTSA. The IIHS also gives top-scoring Good ratings, earning the 2020 model a Top Safety Pick+.
The E-Class also comes with a laundry list of active safety features to prevent an accident in the first place, including autonomous braking with a turning maneuver function that can detect stopped cars and pedestrians. Also, its blind-spot assist now works when the car is parked and the driver is soon to exit the car.
The E-Class also offers one of the finest smart cruise control systems in maintaining distance and initiating braking in stop-and-go traffic; it can hold a full stop for up to a minute before re-engaging. However, the lane keeping software would occasionally (and startlingly) clench the brakes and swerve the car back into the middle of the lane if the driver wandered.
As to the value element of our six key criteria, one might ask what sort of value a luxury car purchase can entail with a starting price of $55,300 that can quickly climb north of six figures. But luxury can surprise you in terms of retained value over the life of a car.
According to MotorTrend subsidiary IntelliChoice, the E-Class line is mostly “average” or better in terms of its five-year cost to own. Coupes and convertibles are typically less impressive in their retained value, and the Merc is no exception. However, of key assurance to first-time E-Class sedan buyers, the entry-level E 350 sedan in rear-drive and 4Matic trims are rated “excellent.”
But outside of the dollars and cents, there is also sense and sensibility. There is a reason people aim for the three-pointed star. There is heritage and reputation. There is solidity and trust. There is value in those intangible elements.
Some car companies do less with complete redesigns than Mercedes did with a midcycle change, all while restricted to the confines of retaining the hard points for the Sindelfingen manufacturing line (which, by the way, will be CO2 neutral by 2022).
“The Mercedes feels three times as well built, as well engineered, as sophisticated as the competition,” Lieberman said. “The Mercedes is a superior vehicle in terms of ride quality, dynamics, kinematics, or any other measurements you can think of. You feel the difference.”
And that is the definition of excellence in motion.