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The car he’d like to get hit by

Several years ago, while on assignment for a magazine, I participated in an experiment with Mercedes-Benz that involved my being wired up like a lab monkey and driving across the Austrian Alps in an E500, some 10 hours of hellbent berggeblitzen (not officially a German word). These biometric readings were later plotted against the car’s telemetry in an effort to measure the effects of fatigue on my driving. Given my superhuman talents and composure behind the wheel, naturally, the effects were negligible.

Especially because I unplugged the monitors and took a two-hour nap at a rest stop.

Wrote the story, cashed the check, and that was that. Until Thursday, when I got into the new-for-2010 E-class and discovered the Attention Assist system, which -- lo and behold -- detects the gradual raggedness in driver inputs that betray drowsiness. The boys in white lab coats have been busy.

If the car senses erratic steering and rapid corrections, the telltales of fatigue, the Attention Assist will advise you to get some rest as it displays a big coffee cup icon in the instrument panel (this is my favorite ISO 9000 icon, by the way). Attention Assist is just one of a dozen or more marquee safety systems Mercedes has piled onto the E-class for 2010, and it’s clear at the outset that Mercedes is returning to safety as a transcendent brand value after years of marketing itself as the spoils of well-paying bad behavior, the glittery metal floss under Britney Spears’ untrussed derriere.

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Suddenly, the E-class is, again, the car for grown-ups.

I won’t parrot the company line about the E-class being the heart and soul of the brand, except that it is. The E-class is a “business saloon,” the standard-issue Mercedes -- stout, reliable, comfortable and enduring. This is the stainless-steel Rolex of cars, steadily elegant and appropriate for any occasion, and you have to admire the alacrity with which the E-class can go from being a tan airport taxi drone in Berlin to being a valet-park star in Beverly Hills.

To save you the suspense, I’ll tell you now: The new E-class is a fantastic car but for one huge, agonizing, inexcusable error that baffles me like a Rubik’s Cube the size of the Seagrams Building. More on that in a moment. For now, consider a short list of some of the more fun safety systems available on the E-class as standard or options.

In case of a pedestrian accident, the Active Bonnet spring system pops the hood up a couple of inches to make a softer place for said pedestrian to bounce off. Strangely, this makes the new E-class the car I’d most like to get run down by. The optional night vision system has a thermal imaging sensor that alerts the driver to the presence of pedestrians (not sure about vampires, who tend to run a lot cooler).

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The intelligent lighting system dynamically shapes the beams of the bi-xenon headlights according to oncoming traffic, speed and terrain. Cornering and fog lights are integrated. It has five lighting modes so that, if the system sees that you’re on a lonely country road -- prime territory for a single-car accident -- it will flood the landscape with beams worthy of a Baja 1000 truck. Very cool, like a Pink Floyd concert with headlights.

Many of these systems -- the Blind Spot Assist, Distronic distance-keeping cruise control, the Brake Assist Plus (which will pre-load the brakes for max stopping power in case of an impending rear-end accident and will actually slam on the brakes if the driver is completely out to lunch) -- are transferred from the S-class. One I like a lot is the Speed Limit Assist, which actually can read speed limit signs and post the number in the instrument cluster. I absolutely love ignoring this feature.

The whole car is like that. Everything is “adaptive” or “assisted” or “active” or “automatic.” (I’m guessing the Mercedes German-English Wortbuch was lopped off after the “a” section.) That all of these systems and so much techie content have jumped over the cost-cutters’ knives to land in the mid-price E-class tells me one thing: The stakes are high. It’s no secret that Mercedes cost-cut itself out of the esteem of many longtime owners in recent years. No secret either that Audi and BMW have boxed out Mercedes in styling and performance, respectively. (Lexus outsells both brands in the U.S., but a Lexus just doesn’t feel like a German car).

The E-class tells me somebody at the board level said, “Fix it.” And here is why, when people ask me what kind of car to buy, I always say, if you can afford it, Mercedes-Benz. Year to year, model to model, some brands overtake and others fall behind. Mercedes certainly has had its little felt hat handed to it from time to time, and some of its cars have been laughable. But longitudinally, decade by decade, no other company has the technological chops, the brand poetry, the routine genius of Mercedes-Benz.

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Because of scheduling problems here at the Mercedes-Benz mothership, the only E-class I could wrangle was a E250 CDI, with a sewing-machine smooth 2.2-liter turbodiesel under the hood, one of a suite of diesel engines M-B has branded “BlueEfficiency.” And not without cause. The E250 CDI is an astonishing piece of machinery that gets about 44 mpg while generating -- get this -- 369 pound-feet of torque at 1,600 rpm. Rommel had whole mechanized divisions that didn’t have that kind of torque. It’s crazy.

So, yes, while 8 seconds to 60 mph doesn’t sound that fast, leverage that factoid against 2.2 liters of displacement, 44 mpg and a curb weight of 3,817 pounds. The car absolutely scampers down country roads, quite fast enough to exercise the seriously improved driving dynamics. The E250 has only 16-inch wheels with all-season radials wrapped around them, and yet the car had plenty of cornering bite and drama-free road holding, excellent steering feel and a tight, snubbed-down ride.

A year ago, I’d have bet anything M-B would not bring an E250 CDI to the States. Today, I’m cautiously optimistic. If this is the shape of automobiles to come, with smaller and more fuel-efficient engines supplanting snot-fire V8s, well, I’m down with it.

The E-class has otherwise been pretty ferociously squeezed for every watt of juice. The fuel pump and the power steering pump now vary their outputs depending on demand. The radiator fan housing has active vanes that can close, thereby making the car a touch more aero-efficient. The new body style returns a coefficient of drag of 0.25, which I believe is the best in class. As for the body styling, well, the wind may love it, but I’m less enthralled. It’s very proper and Swabian and gloriously unartistic. Still, it’s good to have the old Mercedes mirthlessness back.

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What’s the tragic flaw in our hero? Geez, of all things, the interior materials. Ugh. Especially in the “Elegance” package (the other upgrade package is Avant Garde, which looks more promising) the burred walnut wood looks like something out of a Happy Meal. There are some nice touches -- the optional wraparound ambient cabin lighting, for instance. But honestly, if you gave me this car, I’d glue orange shag carpet on the dash like in my friend’s old surf van before I rode around looking at that hot sweet mess.

As they say in 12-step programs: progress, not perfection.

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dan.neil@latimes.com

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BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX

2010 Mercedes-Benz E250 CDI BlueEfficiency

Base price: $48,000 (est.)

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Price as tested: $60,000 (est.)

Powertrain: 2.2-liter four-cylinder turbocharged common-rail diesel engine; six-speed manual transmission; rear-wheel drive

Horsepower: 204 at 4,200 rpm

Torque: 368 pound-feet at 1,600-1,800 rpm

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Curb weight: 3,817 pounds

Wheelbase: 113.1 inches

Overall length: 191.6 inches

0-60 mph: 8 seconds

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EPA fuel economy: 44 miles per gallon city/highway combined (est.)

Final thoughts: A Three Pointed Star, but somebody call wardrobe

Source: Mercedes-Benz


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