Road test: 2011 Mercedes E 350 BlueTec

There is something unusually dissonant in the land of harmony and quietude, a low rumble that initially intrudes, then blends into the sea of traffic sounds or disappears altogether with the playing of music, only making its presence again obtrusive when passing power is summoned.

That discord is the initial engagement of the 3.5-litre V6 turbodiesel residing under the hood of Mercedes’ E 350 BlueTec, said E-Class an otherwise inspired blend of all things smooth, luxurious, safe and serene. By the measure of other diesels, the BlueTec is by no means overtly loud or displeasing. It is a highly sophisticated unit that is both clean running and exceedingly fuel-efficient. Compared with the silky silence of the gasoline V6 that I’ve sampled in numerous other Mercedes vehicles, however, the BlueTec is gruffer. It quickly settles into its rhythm, though, and easily disappears into the subconscious — only to reappear when it comes time to fill up at the pumps.

Maybe I’m just inserting my working-class sensibilities into what is assuredly an upper crust car but, for me, the BlueTec’s superior fuel economy easily outweighs its thrum. A week-long test average of 8.4 litres per 100 kilometres for a mid-sized luxury sedan that weighs 1,845 kilograms is more than fair trade, especially when the bulk of my driving was suburban commuting, not long highway runs. In fact, it quickly became my favourite version of E-Class, replacing the E 350 gas — despite giving up 58 horsepower to that model. At 7.8 seconds to reach 100 kilometres an hour, the 210-hp BlueTec is only 0.6 seconds slower (credit 400 pound-feet of torque at a low 1,600 rpm). Meanwhile, Transport Canada rates the BlueTec at 9.7 L/100 km in the city and 6.1 in the highway — the E 350 gas is rated at 12.7 L/100 km in the city and 8.3 on the highway.

Considering there’s also a $700 credit between the two 2012 models — $62,700 for the BlueTec, $63,400 for the gas — that’s cash I would pocket in a heartbeat. Other than the price of diesel, which, at the time, was 10 cents higher than regular unleaded, the only negative — though it is fairly significant — is that the E 350 gas comes standard with 4Matic all-wheel drive while the BlueTec is rear-drive only. C’mon Mercedes, this is Canada. Give the E 350 BlueTec the drivetrain it needs and I’ll never look at another high-end sport-ute again!

Seriously, taking into account the E-Class is more of a boulevardier than an outright sport sedan, its ride and handling aspects are impeccable. The 7G-Tronic automatic knocks off upshifts and downshifts with flawless precision. The steering has a muscular heft to it without being artificial. And one can thank Mercedes’ engineers for the standard Direct Control suspension and select damping setup, which provide a blend of firmness and comfort without going overboard in either department.

What truly seals the deal with the E 350 is its interior environment, a veritable oasis of comfort and entertainment that kicks stress to the curb and soothes the nerves of frazzled drivers. There’s a full measure of the modern conveniences one would expect from the tri-star brand, including (now that winter is approaching) heated front seats and steering wheel. The Comand controller that operates the audio/visual and communication interfaces is reasonably intuitive. But, what is especially worthy of praise is the instrument cluster, featuring gauges that are clear, sharp and well lit, plus the navigation display, which has to be the easiest to read of any car I have driven in recent memory. The rest of the controls are large, properly marked and fall easily to hand. Finally, the cabin’s sound deadening allows just a hint of the outside world to intrude so as not to seal the occupants in tomb-like silence. The one nit to pick was the audio system’s front speakers, which sounded tinny when I was listening to a news station. This isn’t the first time I’ve complained about the speakers in Mercedes cars, so I expect that the company’s sound engineers are half deaf from all those years of cranking Pink Floyd to 11.

Mercedes gives up nothing in the safety department, with a long list of devices and backups all designed to keep the car’s occupants safe and the sheetmetal from getting pranged up. Along with the usual assortment of standard safety nannies is Attention Assist, which monitors and evaluates more than 70 different parameters in order to recognize driver drowsiness and provide warning if it detects the driver is nodding off. One option worth considering, especially long-distance drivers, is the $800 Driving Assistance Package. This includes blind-spot monitoring and Passive Lane Keeping Assist. While the former is self-explanatory, the latter sends a pulse through the steering wheel when sensors detect the car is drifting into another lane. For those who might think that annoying, it can be switched off.

Although the tester was a 2011 model, there are no mechanical changes to the E 350 BlueTec for 2012, and the cosmetic differences are minor. Plus, the price increase is only $450.

A dozen years ago, the idea of finding any diesel-powered car desirable would have been laughable. However, the BlueTec engine is just too good to ignore, offering plenty of grunt when needed along with the tangible benefit of compact car-like fuel economy. Also, with the amount of traffic congestion these days, the more comfortable and comforting aspects of fine driving are taking greater precedence over absolute performance.

The E-Class sedan, no matter what engine resides under its hood, is my definition of attainable desirability.

Type of vehicle: Rear-wheel-drive luxury sedan
Engine: 3.5L DOHC V6 turbodiesel
Power: 210 hp @ 3,400 rpm; 400 lb-ft of torque @ 1,600 rpm
Transmission: Seven-speed manumatic
Brakes: Four-wheel disc with ABS
Tires: P245/40R18
Price: base/as tested: $62,250/$68,680 (2011)
Destination charge: $1,995
Transport Canada fuel economy L/100 km: 9.7 city, 6.1 hwy.
Standard features: 14-way power-adjustable heated front seats with memory, split-folding rear seats, power tilt and telescoping steering column, heated steering wheel, dual-zone automatic climate control, leather upholstery, one-touch power windows, auto-dimming rear mirrors, SmartKey remote, Parktronic with Advanced Parking Guidance, Comand with MP3-compatible six-disc DVD changer, satellite radio, Bluetooth connectivity, AMG Styling Package (front apron, side skirts and rear apron), heated windshield washer system with rain-sensing windshield wipers, bi-xenon headlights with washers and cornering lights, Intelligent high-beam control

Photograph by: Brian Harper, National Post