The E-Class family of cars includes a four body styles and five distinct engine choices, all of them new since the 2012 model year. That makes for an amazing range of personalities in the lineup, most of which we're on a first-name basis with.
Going with gas
We'll start with the gentler manners of the standard E350. At times, it can feel distantly related to the hot E63 AMG, but it's the E-Class most drivers will order and own. It's powered by a combination of the Mercedes 3.5-liter V-6 and seven-speed automatic with paddle controls. The direct-injected V-6 spins out 302 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque, with smooth power delivery and a relatively wide powerband. Zero to 60 mph times are well under 7 seconds, and top speed's 130 mph.
These models come standard with a seven-speed automatic transmission with paddle shift controls. They're not the most responsive automatics we've driven, better than some of the six-speeds in the luxury world, but not quite to the smooth par set by the eight-speed automatic in many other luxury models.
All E-Class cars now have electric power steering, too. The "Direct Steer" system adapts both the quickness and the weight of the steering across its dynamic range. In practice, it's given engineers a way to beef up the E-Class, and to make it feel more sporty, by adding some heft to the steering feel. There's more razor-sharp quickness with, say, the Lexus GS F-Sport's available rear-steer system, but the E-Class' system feels better than most.This E-Class comes in Luxury or Sport trim. Softly tuned, the Luxury model has ample body lean and scrubs its 17-inch wheels and tires easily. As a Sport, the E350 is more controlled, thanks to a suspension lowered 15 mm and to bigger 18-inch wheels. Neither removes an iota of polish from the E-Class' demeanor.
All-wheel drive is an option on the E350 sedan, standard on the wagon, and it's only a slight acceleration and fuel-economy penalty. It's now standard on the E550 sedan.
On the E550 sedan, a 4.6-liter V-8 with twin turbochargers and direct injection makes 402 horsepower and 443 pound-feet of torque. The carryover V-8 is a much more evocative performer than the basic six, with top speed rising to 155 mph and with 0-60 mph times falling to 5.2 seconds.
The E550 also comes standard with an air-spring adaptive suspension and lower-profile tires, and now comes with electric power steering just like the other E-Class models. In practice, the suspension shaves off the peaks and fills in the valleys of the suspension's stroke graph, evening out its mood almost all the time without giving up the supple ride. (The E350 wagon also gets rear air springs.) Enjoy it while you can: it's still offered in the sedan this model year, but next year the E550 sedan bows out in favor of a new twin-turbocharged V-6 E400, in the name of fuel economy.
Diesel and hybrid
That's the angle taken by the next two E-Class variants, too. Last year's 210-horsepower, 3.0-liter turbodiesel V-6 has been dropped from the E-Class lineup for 2014. In its place, Mercedes is downsizing to a new turbocharged four-cylinder diesel also coming to the GLK crossover.
With 195 horsepower and 369 pound-feet of torque, as well as available 4Matic, the E250 Bluetec sedan is very satisfying and engaging, though, with a light, responsive feel at most speeds (because there's less weight at the nose than with the previous E350 Bluetec). Only from a standing start or when ordering up a quick pass after trundling along does the diesel hesitate for just a moment more than the gasoline version.
We'll have more on this model later, while we work on driving impressions of the new E400 Hybrid. That sedan pairs the current V-6 with a 27-hp electric motor, start/stop, and lithium-ion batteries, just as in the S400 Hybrid.
AMG, in a class by itself
Most E-Class models have controlled and agile road manners, but they're not tuned as tautly as the sportier end of BMW's or Audi's ranges. That changes when you step up to the factory-tuned AMG car.
The performance-oriented E63 AMG models aren't left untouched this year, but unlike the other models, gas mileage isn't their problem. They're up from 518 hp to 550 hp and 531 pound-feet of torque in base form, and if you spec up to the "S" model--a new sub-sub-model in the hierarchy--you'll net out at 577 hp, 590 lb-ft of torque. They're also shod with standard all-wheel drive, with a fixed torque split of 33:67.
The result: a scalding-hot 0-60 mph time of under 4 seconds, measured through the standard RACESTART launch control and on-screen telemetry. Top speed is 155 mph on the E63 AMG sedan, 186 mph on the E63 AMG S sedan and wagon.
It's impossible to mistake the E63's hellacious performance for a lesser E-Class. The big, ripe exhaust noise coming from the V-8 barks out sharp orders, and the firm thump of its Pirelli P-Zero tires never intrudes as you wind the steering through visceral heft. There's no such thing as halfway here.
Granted, the E63 AMG is a big car riding on a long wheelbase, and even the AWD system's power split and brake-torque vectoring can't turn it into a pint-sized flyweight. Hairpins can be hair-raisers, but sweeping turns are electric--the E63 AMG just unfurls massive power and sticks to the ground with an iron will.