As a new Smart is unveiled, we look at the greatest rear-engined creations of all time
Mercedes-Benz E220 CDI BlueEfficiency review (2012 onwards)
Model: Mercedes E220 CDI BlueEfficiency Avantgarde
Bodystyle: Five door estate
Engine: 2.2-litre four-cylinder turbodiesel, 170hp @ 3,000rpm, 295lb ft @ 1,400-2,800rpm
Transmission: seven-speed auto, rear-wheel drive
What is it?
People who buy Mercedes have a tendency to keep them for a very long time. Battered and bashed they may be, but the cars seem to run and run, and their owners seem happy to drive them as they do so.
To investigate this appeal, MSN Cars chose a Mercedes that could quite easily become a car for life: the enormous yet economical E220 CDI estate. Upgraded in 2011 to get a new range of BlueEfficiency engines, this is the greenest Merc exec car ever.
We drove the greenest of all, the E220 CDI, which can average up to 54.3mpg with a six-speed manual gearbox. The Mercedes for life has to be an automatic, though: for the sake of just 1mpg, we can cope. How does it get on as a contender for a car for keeps?
Where does it fit?
The E-Class is a staple of the executive car estate class, along with the BMW 5 Series Touring and Audi A6 Avant. Today, the German big three dominate this sector: rivals such as the Saab 9-5 have gone. Only the ageing Volvo V70 really offers an alternative - although that's soon to change when Jaguar launches its XF Sportbrake later in 2012.
The E-Class Estate is almost as brand in its own right. Mercedes has been selling large estates since the 1970s and models such as the W123 helped establish it as a staple in peoples' lives. You don't need to make any excuses for owning a big Mercedes estate.
Is it for you?
The E-Class is an immensely practical car that's offered with an incredibly broad range of engines. Not many manufacturers have a power range that spans from 170hp (this E220 CDI) to 557hp (the E 63 AMG with PPP kit). With a suitable blend of entry-level, luxurious and sporty-look trims, there's something for most people.
Who needs an MPV now?
The real clincher for some, however, will be the fact you can buy a seven-seater Mercedes E-Class estate. For £1,000, two rear-facing seats can be fitted in the load bay, folding away flat when not needed. Who needs an MPV now?
The test Avantgarde model is the choice spec. It's not the cheapest in the sector (you wouldn't expect it to be) but the standard kit that's included - leather, Xenon lights, auto wipers - means you won't want for anything. Saying that, our car did come with £17k of options. It's easily done...
What does it do well?
It's an immensely relaxing all-rounder that has more depth of quality and ability than most cars on sale today. It simply feels exceedingly and exhaustively well developed, as if every detail and facet has been sweated on until it was perfect.
The diesel engine is distant, it's exceedingly quiet when cruising and all controls operate with proper depth of engineering. It is not a sporty car but it handles with reassurance, and reacts with immediacy to emergency swerves and direction changes.
Ride quality is beautiful. There's a wonderful float-along absorbency to the big E at speed, cosseting occupants with a beautifully damped feel. It's better than anything in this class and only becomes more impressive as the road conditions worsen.
Overall, it won't grab you by the lapels with excitement, but will satisfy day in, day out. Living with the E-Class is a very pleasant experience: that it is such a fine all-rounder without obvious flaws is something very conducive to long-term ownership.
What doesn't it do well?
There are niggles. The twist-action windscreen wipers on the single overburdened column stalk are like something you'd get on an old Rover, not a new Mercedes. The foot-operated parking brake is awkward (and makes an almighty bang when released). Some of the dashboard 'jewellery' looks cheap.
It's also not as sporting as a BMW, nor are the interior fittings quite as richly indulgent as an Audi. The four cylinder diesel engine doesn't have the smooth timbre of a V6, and the ride can initially feel a bit knobbly at slower speed. Again, though, such is the car's depth, even these grumbles fade away with time.
What is it like to live with?
As mentioned, the more time you spend with the E-Class, the more you start to appreciate the solidity, quality and detail engineering that's gone into it. This makes it a very appealing car to live with: it feels loyal, reassuring and very much on your side.
The side windows 'self dry' themselves
Particularly when you factor in the biggest boot in this sector. Indeed, of any conventional car on sale. Seats up? 695 litres (nearly twice the size of a VW Golf!). Fold them and it's 1,950 litres - and Avantgarde trim allows fast fold-flat too, thanks to handles in the boot that collapse the seats in one remote action. Brilliant.
What else? When it rains, the side windows 'self dry' themselves at speed, as Mercedes has tuned the aerodynamics to blow water off the windows. The windscreen pillars are relatively thin, for a clear view out. The brake pedal has a lovely progressive action. Steering feels extremely positive on centre: the whole car is tuned to make things easy for you.
Of course, it's not quite a genuine seven-seater, despite the addition of those extra seats. See it as a '5+2' instead. They are safer than you'd fear, though: Mercedes has designed the crash structure of the E-Class with protecting those in the rear in mind.
How green is it?
Mercedes can't quite match the eye-opening fuel economy of the BMW 5 Series, but as nothing in this sector can, we won't penalise it too harshly. By any standard, 53.3mpg is impressive for an engine with 295lb ft of pulling power.
Factor in the massive amount of space you get with the E-Class - and the economy value proposition becomes stronger. We did find a bit of a difference in recorded economy during real world use, though: it seemed to return good mpg figures much more easily at speed than it did in town.
Not all stop-start cars do this
The stop-start works very well, too. Again, Mercedes has recognised the realities of city driving: lifting off the brake pedal signifies restart but, if the gap in the traffic disappears, putting your foot back on the brake sees the engine shut down again. Not all stop-start cars do this: it's a satisfying detail.
The fact it also feels built to last helps its green credentials, too. Mercedes offers a 30 year anti-breakdown warranty on all its new cars, to anyone who keeps up service by a franchised dealer. Such is the integrity of the car, you don't doubt it would happily do this, saving planetary resources in the process.
Would we buy it?
The BMW 5 Series is more exciting, the Audi A6 more modern and the Jaguar XF Sportbrake is likely to be more charismatic. The Mercedes E-Class estate is the stalwart of the sector though: living with it shows it's not hard to understand why.
It does everything you could wish with aplomb, feels like it'll last forever, is green and refined, can seat up to seven and, yes, is absolutely massive inside. Nothing in this sector is bigger. And no rival would make a more rewarding big estate car for life, either.
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