If the E-Class is the heart of the Mercedes brand, the 2021 E-Class (W213) suggests it’s a heart grown increasingly bionic. In this rather extensive mid-cycle refresh, Mercedes graces its midsize sedan with its MBUX infotainment system (which debuted in early 2018) and concentrates a multitude of controls on the entirely touch-sensitive spokes of a rehauled steering wheel. Even the available inline-six, the first gasoline powerplant using this layout in a U.S.-market E-Class since the naturally-aspirated M104 exited in ’97, features a mild-hybrid implant and a turbocharger. Its tech vocabulary is clearly demarcated from that of the 2021 S-Class—it doesn’t lean into corners or read your fingerprint—but this refreshed E-Class still adds compelling tech to an already desirable and well-executed package.
The fifth generation of the E-Class originally debuted in 2016, and the facelifted version back in March of 2020. Some journalists got an overseas preview of the 2021 model in August, but this is our first chance to evaluate the U.S.-spec model over here.
We drove the 362-hp E 450 4MATIC, which is the most powerful E-Class you can buy without springing for either AMG model. It arrived at our Ann Arbor office slathered with over $14K in optional packages. Chief among these: a $1900 air suspension system and the $1950 Driver Assistance Package, which brings the nearly-self-driving functions—more on these in a moment. Also on the tab: a $1620 leather interior—Mercedes opted not to cocoon us in $2990 Nappa leather—and the $1100 Acoustic Comfort Package, which adds plusher rear carpet and additional sound insulation.
Such a model likely reflects the taste of a buyer who wants—and can readily afford—the 107-hp upgrade from the E 350 but who ultimately values tech over performance; our E 450 actually outpriced a “base” E53 AMG, which, at $74,950 (with destination) carries 67 more horses but none of the party-trick, driver-assist packages. (Those packages can, of course, be added to any E-Class.)
This 2021 model might be just a mid-cycle refresh but it’s an extensive one, stylistically as well as technologically. The nose gets a single horizontal strake, rather than two, shooting from either side of the prominent, sensor-hiding, three-pointed star in the center of its grille. The lower fascia is sharper and more angular than its predecessors thanks to massaged air “inlets” with double plastic spears, while the hood develops twin “power bulges” that, from behind the wheel, are reminiscent of a dinosaur’s eyebrow ridges. Mercedes would probably prefer they evoke the AMG GT.
Out back, the taillights morph from a horizontal to vertical orientation, losing the last bit of CLS-esque droopiness on the rear three-quarter exhibited by the previous car. These tweaks are, in all, very subtle; the ’21 model’s understated exterior should satisfy current E-Class owners and will likely make a positive impression on deep-pocketed buyers alienated by BMW’s shouty 2022 styling.
However undramatic the E-Class’s exterior may be, the interior wears its German poshness proudly. Double 12.3-inch hi-res digital displays are now standard on every E-Class, though the rotary controller in the center console is gone, along with the COMAND infotainment system it controlled. So too is the rather redundant clock. New to the cabin is the shiny, fluted steering wheel with its extensive array of touch-sensitive pads. Our model wore two shades of grey leather—a cool shade on the lower curves of the dash and charcoal one above—with open-pore wood trim in a complementary grey tone. Paired with the optional panoramic roof, the light-colored headliner made the chrome-trimmed cabin feel airy and spacious.
The E300 is no more, but the base 2021 E-Class, the E 350, retains its turbocharged inline-four, which now generates 255 hp (vs. 241 in the E300). The other non-AMG variant is the E 450, boasting the 3.0-liter, 362-hp M236 inline-six that debuted in the previous-generation S-Class (W222 S450) but which was restricted to Europe. The same engine, given a 429-hp tune it shares with the AMG GT 4-Door, sits under the hood of the AMG E 53. The king of the E-Class line-up, the E 63, is powered by the familiar 4.0-liter, twin-turbo V-8.
In our test E 450, the straight-six’s output is boosted at the higher end of the rpm range via a single, twin-scroll turbocharger and at the lower end by a supercharger. The latter is driven by a 48V electric motor that, in addition to contributing 20-hp and 162 lb-ft of torque, doubles (triples?) as a starter/alternator and can scavenge energy during braking for its 0.9-kWh battery. (There’s a separate 12V electrical system to feed the rest of the car’s digital brains.)
This sedan is designed to make your driving life pleasant—and it excels in this mission. The creamy nine-speed automatic delivers power to all four wheels without ever hitching. The straight-six is unobtrusive when creeping through the stoplights of a crowded downtown. Lean into the power, and the hushed cabin swells with a robust tenor tone. Road noise, even over the winter-afflicted pavements of Michigan, is well controlled. The air suspension successfully and quietly cushions you from disturbance. Head out to a two-lane state highway then shift into Sport or Sport +, and the E-Class shifts its tune. The ride becomes taut and the shifts crisp. There’s no doubt that the E-Class is a luxury car, not a sports car. Yet for a vehicle that’s so capable of erasing the trouble of driving, the E 450 is surprisingly rewarding when you’d like to tug the the shifters yourself.
Most buyers, however, won’t be choosing the E 450 to slice around back roads. They’ll use it for a mix of suburban and urban driving, from neighborhood to highway to city centers. In these venues, the E-Class’s suite of driver-assisting tech shines. On a sweeping back-road bend, the lane guidance system demonstrated a tendency to ping-pong from double-yellow to single-white lines on corner exit. On interstates, however, it’s worthy of Jeeves. The steering wheel’s new touch-sensitive function, enabled via a capacitive sensor mat embedded in the rim, merely requires a touch, not an actual steering input, to register that you’re in control. Rest your fingertips on the lower rim, and you simply float down the highway.
Our E 450 featured the video-game-esque Augmented Video Navigation system, which overlays street names and navigation instructions, in the form of glowing blue arrows, on a live video feed streamed through the touchscreen dash. It’s especially helpful in city driving, when you’re struggling to choose the correct side street, or when searching for a friend’s house in an unfamiliar neighborhood in the dark—it also provides house numbers, overlaid on the nav display.
The MBUX infotainment system, distinguished by its “Hey, Mercedes” wake-up call, elevates the feeling of car as personal assistant. (The very latest system is reserved for the 2021 S-Class; the E 450’s system will be familiar to current-gen A-Class or GLC buyers.) The voice recognition wasn’t flawless, but any navigation confusion could be remedied hands-free, without resorting to manual inputs. The concentration of touch-sensitive controls on the steering wheel requires some adjustment; but after a few hours, you begin to think of the steering wheel as a digital control module, swiping to adjust the cruise control speed or tapping to accept a phone call. We were particularly impressed by the wheel controls’ integration with the digital instrument panel. With up/down and left/right swipes and a tap for “okay,” we could easily configure left and right “gauges,” plus the center area, without getting confused. One of the car’s most thoughtful features, though, is comparatively mundane: A motion sensor detects a reach into the passenger seat—say, to rummage for chapstick in a purse or retrieve a phone tossed into the opposite seat corner—and activates a downward-pointing LED spotlight on the bottom of the rearview mirror.
SUVs made up more than a third of 2018 global sales at Mercedes-Benz, but the firm knows that the E-Class remains a barometer for its ability to deliver consistent, thoughtfully executed luxury. The 2021 E 450 proves that Mercedes still knows how to deliver a well-rounded, impressive midsize luxury sedan, and that such a product remains worth considerable investment. Drivers with the requisite funds will find that money to be well spent.
2021 Mercedes-Benz E 450 4MATIC
Base price/as tested: $63,050/$76,140
Highs: Robust inline-six, a wealth of luxe interior choices, well-integrated infotainment, highly accessible driver-assist tech.
Lows: Uninventive exterior styling. The plastic, column-mounted shifter feels like a glorified wiper stalk.
Summary: The German version of Jeeves, if he had a gym membership and indulged in the latest 3-D video game technology on nights off.