Benchmark
Motor Trend|January 2021
MERCEDES RE-ESTABLISHES THE THREE-POINTED STAR AS THE SYMBOL OF THE LUXURY SEDAN
MARK RECHTIN

We know what it means. Or at least what it’s supposed to mean. Yet the word excellence in today’s hyperbolic lexicon has become the go-to endorsement of everything from resort timeshares to pharmaceutical marketing to pork industry remediation. Let’s assume for the moment that the word has been somewhat diluted.

Climb into a 2021 Mercedes-Benz E-Class, however, and you will immediately understand the true emotional and physical definition of the word, its impact, and its inferred accountability. In sedan, coupe, or wagon form, the new E-Class is a stunning accomplishment. And it is the MotorTrend 2021 Car of the Year.

The Mercedes-Benz E-Class carries the stout imprimatur of old-school luxury, from the graining of the dashboard wood to the suppleness of the heated and ventilated, posture-correct leather seats. But it is also thoroughly modern, from the robust yet efficient responsiveness of its engines to the plethora of high-tech and high-zoot features. The E-Class epitomizes an automotive brand in full, one whose currency in the current zeitgeist of automotive wants and desires is unmatched.

“As the car market contracts and SUVs continue to gobble up market share, it says something about a company that a midcycle refresh of a sedan could take an already good car and move it to greatness,” senior features editor Jonny Lieberman said.

Mercedes didn’t need the E-Class to be this magnificent, this dominant, Lieberman added. “They could have slapped on some new body panels, updated the engines, and called it a day. But the engineers went the extra mile. They pulled the all-nighter. Put in the hard work. The result? Car of the Year.”

Yes, our Car of the Year is a mere midcycle update to a vehicle that has been on the market for several years. Some of you may wonder how and why such a car merits this award—especially when our COTY field boasted the innovation of the Porsche Taycan, the flash of the BMW 8 Series Gran Coupe, and the newfound value story of the Nissan Sentra.

But when there is a midcycle change so dramatic, so striking, so … well, excellent, we open our garage doors.

German luxury automakers have a long history of intertwining major design changes and powertrain updates so that there is always something new every few years. Many other automakers take a “fire and forget” approach, where everything is clean-sheet at the redesign every five or six years.

Four years ago, the restyled E-Class rolled out with new but uninspired sheet metal, an inconsistent nine-speed transmission (depending on the engine it was paired to), body control issues on sweeping curves, and a tendency to understeer on sharper winding roads. At the time, we stated, “In all, the [E-Class] was not convincingly at the top of its class— either as a sport sedan or a luxury sedan. It has all the right ingredients to be either but couldn’t seem to do both at the same time.”

What a difference four years makes.

“The E-Class delivers on every front you can think of—both from a passenger’s view and from the driver’s,” MotorTrend en Español managing editor Miguel Cortina said. “It’s the one that makes everyone feel special, the one that delivers the best experience, and the one that stands out from the rest of the segment. It does everything right and shows the legacy that it has played in a segment like this. Feels true like a Mercedes should. And it does it all naturally.”

What is perhaps most impressive is that the E-Class extends its excellence across all body types and performance measures. The dynamics of a sedan are different than those of a coupe, owing to dimensional differences and the divergent expectations and driving habits of their owners. Then, the body of a convertible or wagon requires a massive restructuring of sheet metal and reinforcing cross members, with completely unique and specific geometries. A taut coupe can turn into a floppy convertible. Same for the transformation of a sedan into a wagon. And can the same platform provide a plush ride for the mainstream while bringing the hammer for the performance-minded?

Any automaker trying to create that many variants from the same basic platform will usually deliver at least one throwaway, one vehicle that felt like an afterthought. In past years, Mercedes has given some of its non-sedan models insufficient R&D coverage, and the result felt half-baked.

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