DETROIT -- Mercedes-Benz faces a crucial test when its redesigned 2017 E class goes on sale this summer. Sedan sales are stagnating in a U.S. market increasingly dominated by trucks. To counter that trend, the automaker has packed a bigger but lighter, more coupelike car with advanced technologies.
Mercedes is betting the 2017 E-class sedan, introduced Sunday night at a press event on the eve of the Detroit auto show, can continue the nameplate’s role as a heavyweight in its luxury segment and the source of profit margins other automakers envy, while reversing the severe drop in sales the E class suffered last year.
With the redesign, the E class moves from a standard six-cylinder gasoline engine to a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine. It’s the first four-cylinder gasoline E class ever.
Also with the redesign, Mercedes advances its semiautonomous driving features to a new level -- though the U.S.-spec vehicle won’t get the most advanced of those features at launch.
‘Core’ of the brand
“The E class is the core of the Mercedes-Benz brand and in the past has repeatedly redefined the standards in the business-class segment. Now it carries this tradition into the future with a wealth of top-class innovations,” Thomas Weber, Daimler AG board member responsible for group research and Mercedes-Benz cars development, said in a statement. “The new E class takes another major step towards fully autonomous driving.”
Compared with existing Mercedes vehicles, the semiautonomous driving features in the coming E class have sharper steering inputs, leading to longer periods in which the driver can go without hands on the wheel. That could stretch from 10 seconds today to as long as 60 seconds with the advances, a company source said.
Some features, such as active lane-change assistance and a remote parking feature, are being offered by the automaker for the first time, but they won’t be available in the U.S. at launch because of the legal and regulatory environment here.
The newest semiautonomous driving features include:
Active Lane-change Assist: It helps the driver change lanes on multilane roads. After a driver has indicated a turn for at least two seconds, a radar-and-camera based system can steer the vehicle into an adjacent lane if it detects that the lane is unoccupied.
Remote Parking Pilot: It moves the vehicle into and out of garages and parking spaces remotely using a smartphone app. It allows occupants to get into and out of the car easily even when space is tight.
Car-to-X communication: Enabled by mobile phones, the vehicle can exchange information with other vehicles farther ahead on the road, allowing the driver to effectively “see around corners” well in advance. Mercedes says it can help in the event of immediate danger such as black ice on the road or a broken-down vehicle ahead.
Car to X, more commonly called vehicle-to-X, or V2X, refers to “vehicle to anything,” a connected-car term for cars that communicate with other cars as well as infrastructure such as traffic lights. In this case, the new E class simultaneously acts as a receiver and a transmitter of data.
Mercedes says it will provide more about the system’s availability and capabilities at the time of the U.S. sales launch.
The new four-cylinder engine produces 241 hp and 273 pounds-feet of torque. That’s 61 hp less and the same amount of torque compared with the outgoing six-cylinder. But even with the lower horsepower, Mercedes says the vehicle’s lighter weight will translate to comparable performance, while providing significant fuel economy gains.
More powertrain variants will follow after launch. Expect a diesel model, a plug-in hybrid, an AMG performance model and a performance-tuned AMG Sport variant.
All E-class models available at launch will have the brand’s new 9G-TRONIC nine-speed automatic transmission as standard equipment. Mercedes touts the nine-speed as more efficient and quieter with fast gearshifts and low engine revs while cruising.
Mercedes unveiled the interior of the E class in December. It draws from the Intelligent Aerodynamic Automobile design concept that Mercedes-Benz showed in September at the Frankfurt auto show. It boasts a wide, high-resolution dual display and newly designed touch-sensitive control buttons on the steering wheel that enable drivers to control vehicle functions without taking their hands off the wheel.
In the interior, Mercedes was striving for design that makes an emotional connection with consumers but also offers technological innovation, said Hartmut Sinkwitz, head of interior design for Mercedes-Benz.
The display features two 12.3-inch high-resolution screens behind one smooth piece of glass stretching across the cockpit. One display directly in front of the driver serves as the instrument cluster with virtual instruments. Drivers can choose among three styles to customize the design of the cluster to their preferences. The second screen is above the center console and displays infotainment and other functions.
Touch-button controls on each side of the steering wheel are a world debut technology, Sinkwitz said. The new design replaces with one button what previously required five buttons, he said, using much less space. The new technology should result in less distraction for drivers as they control vehicle functions, he said.
The redesigned E class is bigger in all interior dimensions, with rear-seat legroom most improved. New seats take a more sculptural form. New trim materials are offered including open-pore woods and a woven metal. Drivers can customize interior lighting using 64-color LED technology.
Mercedes expects the redesigned E class to appeal to younger customers. Today, the average age of the global E-class buyer is 55.
“We will probably drop the average age by quite a few years,” Sinkwitz said in December.
The 10th-generation E class is a key vehicle in an all-important segment for Mercedes. Even as truck sales have dominated the U.S. industry, many high-volume luxury makes such as Mercedes still count cars as the majority of their vehicles. But sedans aren’t selling well, particularly in the large and midsize luxury segments, and Mercedes has suffered because of it.
The brand boasted record sales in 2015, but sales of the flagship S class and E class fell sharply.
In 2015, the E class was the company’s second most popular nameplate in the U.S., behind only the C class, even as sales plunged 25 percent to 49,736 vehicles. The E class fell to third place in the brand’s stable if you combine the sales of the M-class midsize crossover and its successor, the GLE.
While the E class held on to second place in the midsize luxury car segment last year, the segment itself was down 6.8 percent last year. The E class was the segment leader from 2010 through 2012, after its last redesign in 2009. It sold a record 69,803 vehicles in 2013 but was passed by the Lexus ES that year, which still retains the segment title.
Mercedes won’t reveal pricing for the 2017 model until closer to launch, but don’t expect a significant increase. The segment is hotly contested, plus it’s under increasing pressure from midsize crossovers such as the GLE, the Lexus GS and BMW X5.