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Drew Smith: ethnographer, strategist and host of Rising Minds

E is for "Eh?"

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There was a time when Mercedes-Benz built the ultimate premium (not luxury, old Mercs could never be considered luxurious) cars. They were engineered to a standard and the price was set accordingly.

PorschebenzfrontMy client’s neighbour is the proud owner of an early 90s 500E, a performance saloon (again, old Mercs, no matter how powerful, were never sports cars) produced at the peak in Mercedes’ unwavering dedication to excellence in the automotive art.

The price of entry was a staggering DM134,000, or around €100,000 today, taking into account inflation. Yet because of the design and engineering integrity that all that cash purchased , after more than 20 years and 300,000 kilometres the only major work that needs doing is a reconditioning of the gearbox.

That Mercedes’ determination to build the world’s best cars was so dogged that it lead them to the brink of bankruptcy cannot be ignored. Yet the subsequent, wholesale dilution of their core value of integrity in the chase for bigger margins exacted a heavy toll on their brand image.

I recently spent a day with the new Mercedes E-Class and, despite going in with an open mind and the assurances of the mainstream motoring press that the car represents a resounding return to form, it was a frustrating experience. I really wanted to love this car but the new E has come out of the Sindolfingen oven rather under done.

Although my steed, a lowly 220 CDI Blutec, will “only” set you back €47,000 in Elegance trim, the messages – for one of my interests is perceived versus actual quality – sent out by both design and construction made me feel that trouble-free years will be counted on one hand, not four like the neighbour’s 500E.

From a design perspective, the overall theme communicates confusion about what the E should represent. Should it be a dynamic sports saloon, like the 5 Series, an upper-middle-class slice of American-school “luxury” or does it tap into the rich vein of elegance and understatement that typified Benz’s of yore? Unfortunately the car represents an awkward mélange of all three with, unsurprisingly, mixed results.

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The confusion starts in the latest interpretation of Mercedes’ down-road-graphic (DRG). Aggressive inner lamps jar against a somewhat anonymous outer lamp graphic and, despite being an evolution of the classic Mercedes twin-lamp hallmark, the visage communicates nothing intrinsically “Mercedes”.

There’s a level of dignity in the scaling of the lower air intakes but poor resolution of number plate placement sees the centre intake graphic broken unceremoniously. Simultaneously, the plate butts up uncomfortably against the sharp surface break that defines a bold, some might say crass, get-out-of-my-way grill.

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The thing that really shocked me, however, was the choice of twin, round fog lamps in the trapezoidal lower grilles. To my eyes they sit so uncomfortably with the other forms and surfaces in the DRG as to beggar belief. I have a suspicion as to what might have inspired these chromed carbuncles and it lends weight to my theory that this is a design born out of sheer confusion.

carlsson-aigner-ck65-rs-blanchimont-17For those of you unfamiliar with Mercedes tuners, there’s an outfit by the name of Carlsson and they produce some of the most garish bodykits and interiors to have graced the three-pointed star. Case in point is the gob-smacking Carlsson Aigner CK65 RS Blanchimont. Note the twin round lamps in the lower grills? They’ve long been a Carlsson hallmark. Tuner fog lamps on a bread-and-butter E-Class? Really?

In profile, the car suffers from a heaviness that all the wedge, light catchers and chrome detailing in the world can’t disguise (even though the designers have tried; there are 10 surface changes from the rear door window down…).

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Heavieness in profile can be fine and, used well, it communicates gravitas and elegance. It worked, in my view, for the previous BMW 7 Series, and hell, Mercedes’ of the 80’s and 90’s positively revelled in their largesse. So why did these cars wear their weight so well? The designers made no bones about it and the heaviness was celebrated. The E-Class, on the other hand, is trying to pull off clothes that her frame just isn’t built for. The term “muffin top” comes to mind, especially when looking at the rear wheel arch blister.

The discord between the chrome rubbing strip as it relates to the other side feature lines and it’s continuation into the rear bumper is particularly noticeable and uncomfortable. And while I’m never one to shy away from a clamshell hood, the tolerances in the shut lines on this particular car were so variable as to make me try and stick my finger through the gap, much as you could on a series 1 Range Rover.

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The rear is just that; the part of the car where everything comes to a close. Enormous lamp graphic and an Opel-esque centre crease aside, there’s not a great deal to be said, except for this: in the age of stunningly intricate lamp units from Audi, BMW and Volkswagen, Mercedes can’t continue to hide its lights under a bushel.

DSC08114From a distance (and where it counts for making an impression on the road) the lamps appear little more than painted on graphics. Up close, you can perceive a cool backlighting effect of the main elements but it’s so subtle that only a geek like me would notice.

There is one area, however, where the exterior designers and, moreover, the engineers have truly excelled: they’ve succeeded in the creation of a regular saloon package that cleaves the air like few others. Brought to my attention by the learned Joe Simpson from the Movement Design Bureau, the cd of .25 bests that of any other saloon in the E Segment and equals that of the Prius. Happily, the E Class proves that aerodynamically efficient cars needn’t look like slippers.

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The interior is a vast improvement over the previous car, especially when it comes to material choices. Even in this entry-level car, specced as it was with black cloth upholstery, there was, superficially at least, a sense of the resilience that characterised Mercs of years gone by.

694943_1253872_5773_4330_08C1053_002Unfortunately some of the forms spoke of a little too much resilience, case in point being the navigation screen cowl. This blocky resolution worked a treat in the GLK, where is looks overtly tough and utilitarian. Here it just looks, well, overtly tough and utilitarian and not entirely suited to the E-Class’s role in life. The clunky change in surface and material half way up the centre stack also jars.

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On the positive side there are some cute, thoughtful details to be found, like the ratcheting bottle holder and a speedometer needle that, magically, rotates without a visible centre pivot. Yet for every neat little thing, there are irritants like the Elegance badge that would look more at home on a Korean whitegood, the otherwise lovely ambient lighting in a shade that can only be described as “motorway rest stop” and the traditional Mercedes multifunction stick that’s hidden so resolutely by the steering wheel. I really shouldn’t need to peer over and around the wheel while driving to work out how to wash and wipe my screen. It’s this glaring lack of attention to detail that will continue to hinder Mercedes’ bid to rebuild it’s image as a premium manufacturer.

You may be getting the impression that, after 1100 words, the new E-Class is a disappointing car, and in many ways it is. There is one area, however, where it absolutely excelled.

After a grueling photo shoot where we successfully attempted to shoot three cars in a day, it was heaven to slip into the generously proportioned seats and get the Commodores cranking through the sublimely intuitive COMMAND interface. The car settled into a hushed 180 clicks for the trip home as I picked off the slower cars through the three-pointed star sitting proudly on the hood

The ride was unflustered, the steering light but direct and the engine, which sounded like a marital aid with a death wish when overly pushed, wafted me along on unstressed waves of torque.

It was, simply put, an excellent ‘bahn cruiser, demonstrating that underneath all the design confusion, Mercedes has produced a wonderfully capable car. If only the design was as unflustered and focused as the car underneath.

[Images: Andrew Philip Artois Smith (silver exterior shots), Mercedes-Benz, Carlsson]

Category: Car, Design, Design Strategy, Photography, Premium

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  1. David Cameron-Russ says:

    Congratulations Andrew,

    A really well constructed piece of writing. It is great to read that you can see through the ‘lure’ of the ‘star on the hood’ and be critical of the car at hand. In these times, it is disappointing that makers such as Mercedes are producing disappointing cars like this, whilst charging premiums for them. Yes the interior makes me want to have another look, but we buy a car as a package. As said in your previous Volkswagen Polo article, if they can get in right on an entry level car, I think Mercedes should be able to do it here.
    Do I need a break? Thank you dash! I think so

    David

  2. Ben says:

    They are in trouble when a 20-year old 500E is more appealing than their brand new model.

    Also, I’m glad to see I’m not the only one to count surface changes down a cars doors. Try it on mid-90s Australian iron, then compare with current Commodore and Falcon.

  3. […] Sloppy strategies and even sloppier products have dealt manifold blows to companies like Mercedes-Benz (1st gen. A-Class, R-Class and Maybach), Porsche (Cayenne) and BMW (X6, X5 & 6Ms and 5 Series GT). For now, these brands can manage it. Decades of superb, focussed products have established strong brand perceptions that will take a few cheap hits (although I’d argue that Mercedes is really starting to try the patience of even the mainstream car nut with products like the new E-Class). […]

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© Andrew Philip Artois Smith and DownsideUpDesign, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Andrew/Drew Smith and DownsideUpDesign with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.