We're almost at the point where cars must drive well, and must also drive themselves well. The E-Class has helped pull that event horizon closer with rafts of sensors, cameras, and algorithms that have formed a Voltron from more humble passive-safety features.
Take anti-lock brakes, which begat traction and stability control. The same sensors that govern anti-lock control now feed data to the E-Class' brain and draw data from it, melding with information from in-car cameras and radar, forming a data profile that tells the car how to steer, decelerate, brake, and brace itself for impact. All together, it makes it less likely that the E-Class will collide with the car ahead even if that car comes to a panic stop, even if that car is running at 100 mph.
The universe of car safety features in the E-Class now encompasses all of that, as well as a system that plays a sound that can trigger a heightened human response to an imminent accident. Mercedes calls it the Pre-Safe Sound; in layman's terms, think brown note.
A separate system couples that with inflatable bladders in the seats that push passengers away from the doors in case of side impact. A set of cameras stitches together a birds-eye view of the car's surroundings, making parking a snap--when a driver actually has to park the vehicle, rather than use a smartphone app that signals the car to park itself in the tightest of spots.
Above all, the E-Class' piloted driving abilities will set it aside as a milestone. It's possible to let the car drive itself for miles and miles, with just an occasional tap on the steering-wheel swipe controls, letting it know there's still a human at the controls. The E's adaptive cruise control can follow a car ahead at speeds of up to 130 mph; it can also follow the road ahead even when lanes aren't clearly marked, at speeds of up to 81 mph.
It's able to handle some more advanced maneuvers. The E-Class will also change lanes for the driver once the turn signal has been activated for two seconds. It can apply the brakes if it sees approaching of cross-traffic. It can amplify steering inputs when it detects a driver making evasive maneuvers.
Most important, it's active all the time. It's essentially an application running in the E-Class' background, ready to act when the driver won't.
It's beyond the usual luxury touches. Compared to piloted driving, the E-Class' new infotainment interface pales in comparison, as does the ambient lighting. It lacks for nothing, but even Apple CarPlay, panoramic roofs, Burmester sound systems, and smartphone wireless charging seem like...just...stuff. (If there's anything Mercedes learned from its starter marriage to Chrysler, though, is that people like lots of stuff.)
Minus its time-warp into the future of driving, the E300 has done nothing to disrupt its luxury force field. It's pretty, but resists being a statement piece like the CLS-Class. It's powerful and frugal, but leaves plenty of room for development. It's likely to remain a strong seller in the U.S., though it's no longer Mercedes' best-selling vehicle--that's now the C-Class.
What is it, mostly? The E300 feels more like a closing statement in the case that Mercedes is making--that it deserves the tech mantle, more than the arrivistes.
The 2017 Mercedes-Benz E-Class sedan goes on sale in the summer of 2016.