First drive: 2017 Mercedes-Benz E300

The E-Class gets an overhaul.

When one thinks of the advances made in safety, luxury and performance in the realm of luxury automobiles, the first car to come to mind is frequently the Mercedes-Benz S-Class. But in the modern era of more frequent overhauls and facelifts, no manufacturer can afford to wait for its flagship to go under the knife in order to introduce, improve or expand on automotive technology. The days of relying on trickle-down tech are behind us.

Enter the W213 -- the 2017 E-Class sedan. While the E-Class nameplate may only officially date back to the middle of the W124 generation (which ran through the early 1990s), Mercedes-Benz counts this as the tenth generation of its midsize luxury sedan.

Modern luxurySet aside for a moment the fact that the 2017 E-Class is a luxury offering. How often does any modern redesign bring with it nothing overt in terms of technology? There was a time when a basement full of patents would impress the car buyer, but those days are over. Technology needs to slap us in the face to be impressive these days.

Fortunately, Mercedes-Benz product developers have gotten into the habit of wearing steel gauntlets. Step into anything but the most basic of new E-Classes and you're greeted by dual 12.3-inch screens (one in the center -- housing the Mercedes-Benz COMAND infotainment system -- and another that replaces the traditional gauge cluster).

We call them "dual" screens, but that's only because they house separate functions. Upon first sitting down in the driver's seat, you're immediately given the impression that it's really a single panel. That's no accident. While they are divided by a very narrow seam, it's more to visually separate their functional roles than anything else.

That's not all, though. The E-Class also features touch-sensitive controls, though not the kind with which you're likely familiar. Forget about the traditional implementation, which suffers from quite a few drawbacks. Instead, Mercedes-Benz put them where they make a ton of sense -- on the steering wheel -- and made them significantly more functional and less finicky than those found in other vehicles, luxury or otherwise.

Located on each side spoke, they give the driver control of both the cluster and COMAND screen with simple thumb motions. Your left thumb controls the gauge cluster; your right, the COMAND screen. Think of them as smartphone "Home" buttons, but with more functionality. You can swipe left, right, up or down to cycle through functions in each screen, then press to select. It's elegant. It's simple.

And most importantly, given that this is a luxury car, it's clean design. Speaking of which, the rest of the interior is quite pleasant on every level. Our test vehicles were fairly loaded up, which in this segment means heated, ventilated and massaging seats; lots of wood trim and other wonderful materials.

And a new lookThe new E-Class gets a styling update as well, bringing it in line with the rest of the company's newer cars (the E-Class is just one of nine launches expected in 2016).

There's no mistaking it for anything but an E-Class, but subtle changes abound. The new LED tail lamps (which dim at night so as not to blind following drivers) make for a softer, more integrated rear end. You can have the front end one of two ways -- pronounced and aggressive as in our testers or with the more sedate, upscale look of an upright-mounted star on the hood and a grille devoid of anything too brash.

Further rounding out the more aggressive look, the balance of our test pool was equipped with five-spoke AMG wheels and upgraded brakes featuring cross-drilled rotors -- comforting additions on the back roads of central California.

Under the hoodFor better or worse, the 2017 E-Class follows another Mercedes-Benz trend: the right-sizing of its powertrains. The launch was dedicated to the E300 model, which means only one engine was available for evaluation. Yes, it's a four-cylinder. The four-cylinder, in fact.

We say "the" because anybody who follows Mercedes-Benz products is already familiar with the company's new turbocharged four-cylinder. It's a two-liter engine producing 241 horsepower and 273lb-ft of torque. As in other models, it replaces the old base model's V6. It's lighter, more efficient and produces more torque. The first of those is important because the engine (along with the extensive use of aluminum and other lightweight materials in the chassis) contributes substantially to the E300's lower curb weight. Before you start going crazy with the options, the E300 weighs just under 4,000lbs.

Behind the wheelGet out on the road, and that lower curb weight pays dividends. While our sport-canted testers may have tipped the scales a bit further in the direction of dynamics than the typical E-Class that will actually be purchased by a customer, they nonetheless comported themselves well.

For starters, the 2017 E300 accelerates with more authority than we'd expect given its power output and curb weight. Sure, torque matters, but this car feels healthy for having a four-banger under the hood. It sounds healthy, too. Mercedes-Benz pipes in additional engine sound through the speakers. It's "pre-digitized" (read: recorded, not live) but the company's product folks insist it's a recording of the engine in the car. No dubbed-in V8s here.

And when the going gets twisty, the new E300 can keep up. Our testers were equipped with dynamic adjustments for the suspension, engine, steering and even the seat bolsters (yes, active seat bolsters that tighten with steering input). We must admit that we fell in love with the E300's Sport+ mode. While many vehicles get a bit too obtrusively aggressive when the sportiest setting is selected, such wasn't the case here. You can easily drive all day with the aggression turned up and not be bothered by it until it comes time to fill the gas tank.

The driving experience isn't the whole story here, though. Mercedes-Benz calls the new E-Class the "most intelligent car in the world." While some of that is simply marketing bluster, there's a kernel of truth hidden there. It's called DRIVE PILOT, and it's pretty impressive.

The system is composed of several existing semi-autonomous driving features, many of which already exist on various Mercedes-Benz models in one form or another. Essentially, you take adaptive cruise control, forward brake assist, lane keep assist and blind spot monitoring and attach them all to an array of sensors and cameras capable of monitoring the E300's surroundings at all times (all 360 degrees, mind you), and you have what is essentially a Mercedes-Benz take on Tesla's Autopilot.

Yes, the 2017 E-Class can essentially drive itself.

It's not a permanent setup, nor is it meant to be. It only operates for extended periods of time if you keep your hands on the wheel and its viability is dependent on road surface conditions. A system designed to follow shoulders and center lines can't operate if neither is present.

Eventually, Mercedes-Benz will integrate this system with both other vehicles on the road (if they are so capable) and other car-to-X systems that have not yet been turned on. Vehicle-to-vehicle communication among new E-Classes will be online in a matter of months, allowing them to communicate traffic information, road conditions and other environmental factors that impact drivers' experiences behind the wheel.

This system has the capability to be expanded later to talk to other yet-to-be-determined networks. For now, it may be "hey, neat" tech, but the potential for more practical applications is very attractive.

The other bonus that applies here-and-now is that a lot of these in-vehicle systems have practical uses even without the benefit of the whole package. A flick of the "resume" toggle while the adaptive cruise control is running will reset the vehicle's target speed to the current speed limit. Mercedes-Benz uses a camera-based system that can pull temporary speed limits from construction zones and even highway off-ramps, too.

Whether you're in control or the computer is, it's a luxury experience through-and-through.

Leftlane's bottom lineFear not, Mercedes-Benz fans. The S-Class will come along to leapfrog its smaller sibling again soon enough. For now, the E-Class is one of the most advanced luxury cars in the world. And it's not a bad drive, to boot.

2017 Mercedes-Benz E300 base price, $51,250-$54,650 (4Matic) Destination, $925.

Exterior photos by Byron Hurd. Interior photos courtesy of Mercedes-Benz USA.

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