By James Wong

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I must narrate this down. It’s getting unbearable how people think the Mercedes E-Class is so comfortable and so relaxing. It may have been for models of the past, but of the W212 and especially in Avantgarde guise, I have to beg to differ.

We forget the importance of comfort so much. Comfort does not mean softly sprung. Comfort does not mean being a softie. It certainly doesn’t mean wallowing about. Let’s talk a bit about what it really is.

A Lexus is relaxing and cossetting, but does it really expound the qualities of being comfortable? An unruffled ride must not only be agreeable but also be at one with the flow and momentum of a car. For instance, a softly sprung American car (of which there are many bad examples) will bounce, rebounding several times after hitting a pothole. This after-effect or aftershock resulting from the irregular road is not comfortable. It, therefore, rejects the notion of softly-sprung cars being comfortable.

Also, some people out there think comfort is for sedate drivers. Oh how short-sighted is this view on so many levels? On one, ride comfort is tied inexplicably to how much tyre the car can put on the road given irregular surfaces. Yes, you can have a rock-hard suspension, thereby giving the impression that you are indeed sitting low and having as much rubber on the road as you can, but is it really the best solution? Perhaps on the race track, where the tarmac is very smooth, but not on public roads, and definitely not on roads as pockmarked as the UK’s. A hard suspension on irregular surfaces will hop and jump and generally not be on the road where it is supposed to be – thereby sacrificing precious traction and causing jarring imbalance to a car’s stability. A well-sorted suspension is such a great contributor to a car’s drivability and fun factor that I will go as far to say that believers of harder suspension = better handling need a major rethink of their car knowledge. So comfort isn’t really as simple as soft, it’s also about how a car flows down a road.

So now that we know what comfort is, we come back to the W212. It’s funny how nowadays, the extras actually detract from the full-on best experience of cars. I have a strong feeling that the base spec, 16 comfort suspension E-Class is the best model to buy. No need for the fancy Avantgarde pack with the lower and stiffer suspension or the AMG kit. How about this – the Avantgarde suspension is about as a comfortable as a brick. At low to medium speeds, which is what you will experience most in Singapore roads, the suspension is hopeless. It is jarring, unnecessarily stiff and unfriendly, completely at odds with the E-Class values. Over humps, you might mistake the car for losing a spring or two over the ordeal. Now, I know it’s supposed to be sportier suspension, but it definitely does not need to be that firm. Sure, the car handles nicely but it’s not worth the trade-off in ride comfort at all, not for an E-Class at least. Like mentioned before, flow is more important.

OK, I have an inkling on why the car feels as such. On German tarmac, it’ll probably be a whole lot better. Couple that to the fact that the E-Class is usually likely to cover long distances on the Autobahn most of its life – and that I must say it does very, very well – the car engineers probably didn’t foresee the problem of the jarring ride to be happening so often as the car wasn’t built to crawl in cities. Sadly, a large proportion of them do just that for their whole lives. For some reason, the suspension seems tuned to high-speed, relatively smooth driving but is completely pants at the slower stuff. This applies to the gearbox as well.

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If you’ve driven any of the 5-speed Mercedes autoboxes, you probably didn’t have a problem with them before until you encounter them paired with the new turbo-ed engines. Given the peaky delivery of the engines (despite having a light pressure turbo, the E is still a very heavy car for 1.8 litres), the gearbox drags the engines to ungentlemanly levels before it switches gear. This is so unacceptable I don’t know where to begin. For one, why give a 2011 car inferior 5-speed gearbox technology when competitors are already going to 6, 7 or 8 speeds? Second, why is the darn gearbox so poorly paired with the engine? Third, why do the old 5-speeders in the W211 actually feel better? Fourth, why the heck am I in third gear at 60km/h with the engine revving at 3,200rpm? Shift up!

My theory is that in a temperate climate, the turbo engine probably has to work less to give the power delivery, thus when tested at those climates the gearbox functions well. That concurs with my experience when driving the E in cool weather – it does seem a lot smoother. In the tropical climate however, the engine probably produces less power, which probably messes up the tuning of the gearbox with the engine.

Again, MB probably tested the car on high-speed runs, which did not test the quality of the shifts as the car cruised on top gear anyway. As to why it feels better in the W211? Probably the instantaneous torque of the old supercharged engine helped to mask any lag in the gearbox. I have no explanation for why the 5-speed is still around though. I think Mercedes knows too, which is why all E-Class models will get the 7-speeder from mid-2011. Nice way to leave current W212 drivers in the lurch.

Mercedes really needs to sort these little issues out. It can’t allow its most popular model, the E-Class, to stray from its core values. Sure, most magazines you read out there say the car has gone back to its roots in the W212. I say most definitely not, not after driving the car for a good year and knowing its faults in and out. Oh, and Mercedes still doesn’t do quality control well enough. The suspension is already making noises at low-speed. That’s only after a year and 18,000km.

I guess that’s why Mercedes is now the third-place brand behind Audi and BMW in global sales. For my love of the 3 pointed star, criticism is the best way to mend broken products.

PS. In the interest of this article, I would very much like to try a W212 in standard spec – ie. not Avantgarde or AMG. If you are keen to contribute to the knowledge of the article and allow a test drive, please get in touch!

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