You still have to keep your eyes on the road. But keeping your hands on the wheel? That’s becoming optional.
The all-new 2017 Mercedes-Benz E300 is available with a feature called Drive Pilot, which should not be confused with Tesla’s Autopilot, even though they do pretty much the same things. Drive Pilot is actually a collection of features enabled by cameras and radar that combine to allow the E300 to steer itself between the lines on the road, manage its speed and autonomously brake for things that get in front of it.
What’s that? Your car already does all that? Yeah, there are quite a few out there with lane-keeping assist, adaptive cruise control and automatic emergency braking systems. But, believe me, aside from maybe the Teslas, they don’t do it as well as this one – including your year-old Benz.
If there are relatively clear lane markers to keep a camera eye on, Drive Pilot locks the car in the middle of them. There’s no bouncing side to side like a poorly thrown bowling ball between gutter bumpers, and it traces curves likely as well as you. It’ll do it on the highway and also in stop-and-go city traffic, where the experience is more creepy than thrilling.
Like the looks of the lane next to you? Just hit the directional and prepare to be transported into it. The car checks its blind spot on its own, waits if there’s anything there, and then changes lanes when there’s room. I dare you not to laugh out loud the first time you try this. Or the hundredth.
You can’t sit back, relax and enjoy the ride for too long, though. Mercedes would prefer that you treat Drive Pilot as a safety net, rather than a chauffeur. Every minute or so it asks you to touch the wheel to prove you haven’t gone AWOL. If you don’t, it turns on the hazard lights and gently brings itself to a halt to save itself ... I mean you. It also checks in more frequently if the road starts getting twisty, even though it can handle typical interstate-grade curves on its own just fine.
Most of the time.
Over about 200 miles of driving, there were two or three occasions when the E300 I was testing started drifting out of the lane and urged me to take control as its road departure prevention system alerts kicked in. I chose not to see what happened if I didn’t, but I’m told that if the car was about to hit anything it would use the inflatable side bolster in the seat to push me a couple of inches further away from the door and the speakers to emit a noise to brace my inner ear muscles for any damaging louder ones that might ensue in a crash.
So, while Drive Pilot is impressively effective, it’s not flawless, and you’re still very much on the hook. It’s also lacking the navigational ability to guide it from point A to point B, changing roads along the way. Although the E300 can read speed limit signs and adjust itself accordingly, the car can go only in the direction you point it. Obeying red lights and stop signs is up to you.
The package Drive Pilot comes bundled in adds $11,250 to the E300’s $53,075 base price, but it also includes a few distracting luxuries that might make the extra layer of safety worth it. These include heated massaging seats, a 14-speaker Burmester audio system and a cabin air fragrance system, all of which can send you off to dreamland.
Even stripped of all of these, the E300 is once again the belle of the midsize luxury sedan ball. It looks like a shrunken version of an S-Class on the outside, and all of that flagship’s goodness is concentrated within. The accent light-equipped interior design is fabulous, especially at night, with flowing lines and a panorama of dueling 12.3-inch displays for the gauges and infotainment system. The ride comfort is so good that I can’t imagine there’s a reason to shell out for the optional adaptive dampers or air springs, though I’d like to be proven wrong. A new 241 hp 2.0-liter turbocharged engine isn’t overly powerful, but it is smooth and efficient. I’d tell you it’s as quiet as a car can be, but there’s a $1,100 Acoustic Comfort package available that stuffs in extra insulation and laminates the windows to muffle it even more.
My only real gripe is that, as has often been the case with the E-Class, its rear seat legroom is fair to middling among its peers. But that’s OK this time around, because the driver’s seat is the best one in the house.
Especially when you’re not driving.
2017 Mercedes-Benz E300
Base price: $53,075
Type: 5-passenger, 4-door sedan
Engine: Turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder
Power: 241 hp, 273 lb-ft torque
Transmission: 9-speed automatic
MPG: 24 city/31 hwy