IT WAS a sombre moment when the last R129 SL rolled off the line in 2002: it marked precisely the moment a Mercedes-Benz became a Merc. Indefatigable G-Wagen aside, the SL was the last of the old school to be replaced, having formerly held office with the W124 and imperturbable W140 S-Class. Daimler’s marketing department had done their research and found that people, when asked to think of which animal Mercedes was most like, had rhinos come to mind. When asked what they really wanted (always a mistake), vox populi pronounced dolphins the winner. So out went boxy proportions, flat surfaces and engineering uber alles, and in came elk tests, quality problems and a partnership with Chrysler (swoon) as Mercedes cut costs and tried to capitalise on a name a century in the making.
It was all a bit much for die-hard fans who swore by the eccentric logic of yore. No more single-wipers diving into the corners of the windscreen and asymmetric door mirrors. No more gas-struts hidden in the roof. Farewell wood trim cut to switchgear specification to avoid the abhorrent sight of blanks. Ash-trays lost their dampening and straight-sixes made way for modular V6’s. The integrity that Mercedes had stood for was diminished by the time the last SL rolled off the line.
I have a sense of deja-vu today as the current W212 E-Class stares retirement in the face. It too has seen a lot in its time: front-wheel drive introduced on the A-Class; those F1-derived bonnets; Maybach; and the repeated shaking up of nomenclature. Could they just settle down! One of the greatest assets Mercedes had was lineage and consistency, and no aspect of Mercedes has faltered more than the styling as themes are invested as disposed by each subsequent model change.
Having de-coupled their styling from C111-sourced geometry in the mid-nineties, Mercedes-Benz has fought hard to reassure customers that their illustrious past had not been forgotten. Only with the introduction of the Mercedes-AMG GT does it feel like the company has a suitable zenith for each model to emulate.
The current E-class started life as something as a tribute to the W124: deliberate corners, trapezoidal cabin shape and flat surfaces, mixed with a distinct haunch plucked from the ponton generation. It was an odd mixture that never really worked: the stiff theme and cheap details let the car down, and the ephemeral status of the W124 was never troubled.
Enter ex-Hyundai designer Robert Lesnik. Like a Samaritan guiding a dowager across the street, Lesnik has been deployed at the side of design director Gordon Wagener to assist the aging Mercedes. The forms of the current range are now much more developed and details more integrated. Getting the details right costs money, so it is indicative of the rise of design within Daimler that the cash is found to pay for them. If there is a criticism, it is that current designs are more persuasive as Mercedes by association that by birthright, and I have long since tempered my expectations of a revival of eccentric features. I still pore over each 190E I spot, whereas the current C already feels a bit unremarkable and unfamiliar as a Mercedes. There lurks something South Korean about the back-end in particular.
This is where the face-lifted E succeeds. The trapezoidal carry-over architecture has grounded any Eastern influence, lending authoritative utilitarianism to much-needed surface fluidity. Flow. It was something the donor car never had, each surface boxed in by creases.Note too how the chrome side-strip has been dropped to the rocker; the effect is to make the car’s stance feel far more planted. The over-arching belt-line is unchanged and still too tippy-toe, but that woeful ponton fender has been smoothed to an elongated bulge not unlike a Subaru Impreza. I suspect customers will never make the association, however, and will unlikely appreciate the effort required to persuade the purchasing department to invest in a new door skin for a facelift.
The front is most obviously modified with one-piece lamps containing two-piece signature LED’s, ending Bruno Sacco’s reintroduction of twin headlamps that came with the W124’s replacement, and if you are a bit sportlich the grille can be had SL-style with a dominant star. Let’s not forget colour and trim: ruby reds in the rear light cluster, and a darker body colour palette add real gravitas to the car. Park next to the supreme 5-series and the E looks at least as expensive.
Not many column inches have been dedicated to the design of this car, facelift commentary normally reserved for engines and options, but this crossing of design cultures at Mercedes is a welcome blip. The W212 is no show-stopper, but it is a hat doffed to the past by a company that realises it made a mistake in underestimating the appeal of a rhinocerous. The next E-Class is soon due and will do without the forced parameters of the old-guard. Let’s see if they can exercise the restraint that makes this car more than the sum of its parts, and a worthy descendent of the W124.