Audi A7 TDI Bi-Turbo 2013 review
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A warning symbol has just appeared in the car I'm driving and it's one I've never seen before. It's an image of a steering wheel with a driver's hands coloured alert red. Pretty soon, a tone will sound.
It's a relatively undramatic event in the singing-ringing cabins of modern luxury cars, which warn you before you've had a chance to belt-up that your pre-flight checks are incomplete or for any number of potential hazards.
But this one is a landmark. I'm on a freeway heading out of Melbourne sitting on 100km/h and negotiating its gentle curves and obedient drivers. The car is steering itself.
Mercedes new E-Class can, within tight limits, drive without you. The symbol is telling me that I've just exceeded the “letting go of the wheel” limit. That happens after only a few seconds. But I have another go, and another.’
It's part of a system Mercedes calls Intelligent Drive and it heralds a new era of car technology that will eventually mean -- I hope -- that you won't need to take a train if you want to read The Australian on the way to work.
The technology to accelerate, brake and steer a vehicle autonomously is the subject of feverish work across the industry and beyond, as the well-publicised Google project shows.
Once steering and these systems are electronically assisted, as they are in almost every car now, it's not difficult to make a car that can drive itself in, say, an empty car park. We already have automatic braking, assisted counter-steering and hundreds of other software interventions when we're behind the wheel. A computer can control a car reliably and consistently in a way no human can.
This E-Class, a heavy overhaul of the current model, relies on a greater array of sensors than previous Mercedes and especially two cameras mounted high on the windscreen which scan the surrounds. They build a 3D map of an area up to 50m in front and have a range 10 times that. Software adds up all these inputs and steers for you.
In one sense, this is just the next step. But it's a biggy. One small beep for a car, one giant leap for vehicle-kind. The next S-Class, the model up from the E and the traditional techno flag-bearer for the brand, will take this even further. One limit to these systems is their ability to interpret complex environments, such as a busy main street. Humans are better at thinking outside the box.
The other limit is regulation, although rules are already being relaxed in some US states and in Europe. The E-Class is core Mercedes, used in Europe in more rudimentary forms as taxis and as executive expresses in their performance guises. It comes as a sedan, wagon, coupe and cabriolet with a bewildering variety of engines that bear little, if any, relation to the badge on the back. An E250, for example, does not run a 2.5-litre engine or have any meaningful dimension that corresponds.
The luxury market has been typified by a few trends recently, with Mercedes -- in this market at least -- often taking a lead. These include the shift to smaller capacity turbocharged engines, higher levels of standard equipment or price cuts or both, and simplified line-ups.
Even a simplified E-Class line-up is complex. The rollout of this upgrade begins with the most popular four-cylinder models, which fit new generation 2.0-litre petrol and 2.1-litre diesel engines. The list of technical and luxury fitments is longer but the starting price remains at $80k minus change. All but diesel wagon begin below $100k.
If you do choose to leave your hands on the wheel, then even the bottom-rung E delivers the core driving virtues of the brand. Handling is quietly assured and smoothly capable. The smallest four-cylinders are worth a look but step up to an E250 is driving enjoyment is in your DNA. For those times when you're not reading the paper.
Three further variants are the way, two of which also introduce new drivelines. The E300 Hybrid combines the 150kW four-cylinder diesel with a 19kW electric motor to achieve average fuel economy of 4.3 litres per 100km. That makes it the most fuel efficient large luxury car available and Mercedes' first hybrid in this market. It arrives in July, as sedan only, for $108,900 plus on-road costs.
The previous E350 V6 and E500 V8 variants have been dropped, replaced a single V6. Thanks to turbocharging, though, the E400's 245kW 3.0-litre unit is good for a 5.9 second sprint to 100km/h. In other words, it's the match of the previous V8 on performance but with much improved fuel economy of 8.0 litres per 100km, even better for the sedan. It starts below the previous E350 at $128,900 while the wagon is an additional $7800.
The sole V8 offered is now the E63 from Mercedes's captive tuning operation AMG. The performance pack, previously an option, becomes standard-fit and there's an S badge to denote this. That means 430kW from its 5.5-litre turbocharged V8 and a higher price of entry, at $249,900.
Even without the Intelligent Drive feature, which is standard on all but the base petrol and diesel, you won't mistake this facelifted car for the previous one. Not least of the improvements is to styling, which has been a Mercedes weakness of late. Some of the heavy-handed lines of the previous car have gone without sacrificing aggression. It's the first Benz in ages that doesn't hurt your eyeballs.
The racier Avantgarde style face, which dispenses with the gunsight bonnet ornament in favour of an enormous badge on the grille, becomes standard.
The cabin is more welcoming with ambient lighting, a cute clock and, in base models, acres of fake leather that seems to be harder than ever to tell from the real thing. Even the E200/E220 CDI get a large control screen with maps, apps and Google, voice recognition and other goodies such as gearshift paddles that were extra until recently. There's still plenty of options to bump up the price, of course, including a sunroof, heated seats and premium audio.
Coupe and Cabriolet versions complete the line-up late this year and by then, the new S-Class will have moved the bar on self-driving higher still. So will cars from other brands, in all likelihood.
But Mercedes wants to say that it got there first. And I'll remember that little steering wheel symbol less as a warning sign and more as a promise. A promise that the dull bits of driving will eventually go away without losing the stuff we like. The right stuff.
|E400||3.0L, PULP, 7 SP AUTO||$44,990 – 62,900||2013 Mercedes-Benz E-Class 2013 E400 Pricing and Specs|
|E500 Avantgarde||4.7L, PULP, 7 SP AUTO||$69,190 – 79,530||2013 Mercedes-Benz E-Class 2013 E500 Avantgarde Pricing and Specs|
|E250 Avantgarde B.E||1.8L, PULP, 7 SP AUTO||$38,610 – 45,430||2013 Mercedes-Benz E-Class 2013 E250 Avantgarde B.E Pricing and Specs|
|E250 CDI Avantgarde||2.1L, Diesel, 5 SP AUTO||$39,930 – 46,970||2013 Mercedes-Benz E-Class 2013 E250 CDI Avantgarde Pricing and Specs|