Flawless execution

BY Kelly Taylor. Jul 07 04:00 am

LILLOOET, B.C. — Driving between snow-capped mountains north of Whistler is not where you expect to find — of all things — a winery.

Yet here we are, two hours outside that famous winter playground, having a gourmet lunch at Fort Berens Winery.

This is where the excellent pinot noir at dinner the night before was grown, fermented, aged and bottled.

At a time when carmakers strive to host media ride-and-drive events that befit the car in question — in this case a 2018 Mercedes-Benz E 400 Coupe — it’s surprising to find a drive route through the middle of, essentially, nowhere.

But in Lillooet, for years a logging town, a new economy is springing up — complete with just the right microclimate for growing grapes — that’s seeing chefs move into town to open a bakery and soon a restaurant offering locally-sourced food. Another winery is in the works, as well.

As more people are driven out of Vancouver and Whistler by out-of-control real estate prices, the folks here can expect to see more investment, more opportunities and more high-end cars such as this Benz.

The coupe is the latest variant of the current generation of E-Class. It is aimed at high-net-worth empty nesters who are looking for a more sporty version of the E than a sedan, but who still occasionally need to be the chauffeur to three passengers.

Despite its coupe profile, the car’s rear seat is spacious, while the lack of a B pillar makes getting there easy, too.

It is, for now, offered with one powertrain — a bi-turbo V-6 and a nine-speed automatic transmission. It has plenty of power with handling to match. Stay tuned is how Mercedes responded to questions about other powertrains, such as an AMG variant.

As with the sedan, the coupe is available with Mercedes’ semi-autonomous driving technology that when activated will help you stay in your lane, will automatically change lanes when you signal and it’s safe to do so and will manage your speed and steering in stop-and-go traffic.

That last bit comes from the part of the system called Intelligent Drive, which we put to the test on the arduous journey into Vancouver along the Trans-Canada Highway. It’s the same system available in the sedan, but unlike when it was announced, it’s no longer called Drive Pilot.

Thank Tesla and an unfortunate (or obstinate) Ohio doctor for that one. Mike Maduro, Mercedes-Benz Canada product manager, said to avoid the impression the system is fully autonomous, the company has renamed this particular feature Active Distance Assist DISTRONIC.

It’s always been the case the system was only an aid and it has always required drivers to keep their hands on the wheel, but after that fatal Tesla crash in Florida — where the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board ruled it was the driver’s refusal to obey the car’s repeated warnings to return his hands and attention to driving — names that can confer the mystique of an actual autopilot system are no longer de rigeur.

Indeed, in Mercedes’ world, such flagrant disobedience of the car’s instructions would have your drive brought to a halt in short order. When the car senses your hands aren’t on the wheel, you get escalating visual and audible warnings to retake the wheel. Fail to obey and the car will activate its four-way flashers and slowly bring the car to a stop, on the assumption you’ve been incapacitated for some reason.

The system also includes Active Steering Assist, which detects a panic swerve and helps you execute both the swerve out of the way but also the recovery afterward.

Also new to E is an offering from the Mercedes Designo collection: a mahogany or piano black dash trim decorated with horizontal metallic pinstripes. In either the woodgrain or black trim, the effect is stunning. “I could look at that all day,” said my drive partner, Edmonton’s Tom Sedens.

It might just be worth the $1,000.

The road north from Whistler, through Pemberton and on to Lillooet, is a perfect choice for highlighting this car’s on-road prowess. Hairpin turns, sweeping turns, multiple switchbacks, short straights to test acceleration. The location was an excellent choice.

The road-holding ability of the E, in any of its body styles, is far beyond what you’d expect for such a large car.

Yet it does all this even in Comfort mode (with a relaxed acceleration program and softer dampers). In sport, the throttle becomes more responsive, the dampers tighten and the performance improves even more.

We found comfort mode capable enough we often preferred it to sport, where the acceleration and downshifting was, at times, too responsive for a grand-touring kind of drive. Great for a track, though.

The interior is gorgeous, with flawless execution, but I do have one quibble with the design. For most models, Mercedes has freed up centre console space by using a column-mounted transmission shift lever. Yet the storage bay shares an opening with the cupholders and anything in those cupholders blocks access to the storage area and USB connector. Minor, to be sure, but in the relentless pursuit of “the best, or nothing” (Mercedes’ words), something to at least take a look at.

A mesh storage area to the passenger side of the centre console offers a handy spot to slip your smartphone while it’s connected to the in-car entertainment system, which supports Android Auto and Apple Car Play.

The instrument panel offers a choice of a conventional analog display with a 12.3-inch digital display screen for car functions, navigation and audio, or a pair of 12.3-inch digital displays, with one serving as the instrument cluster. That optional display gives you a choice of three display styles: a classic style that emulates the standard analog display, a sport style that emphasizes the tach or a “progressive” style that includes a tach and a digital speed display.

kelly.taylor@freepress.mb.ca

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