Detroit Auto Show: Mercedes-Benz Unveils New E-Class

Merecedes E Class - H 2016
Courtesy of Mercedes-Benz

The reboot of Mercedes' mid-level sedan comes with enhanced safety tech and semi-autonomous driving at speeds of up to 130 mph.

Mercedes-Benz unveiled the 10th generation of the E-Class sedan on the eve of the Detroit Auto Show on Sunday night — the last of the traditional Mercedes model segments, after the S-Class and C-class, to receive a bumper-to-bumper update.

Despite record U.S. auto sales in 2015, sales for E-Class fell almost 25 percent last year, according to sales data from the website Good Car Bad Car, possibly because potential buyers were waiting for the revamped model introduced Sunday.

But sluggish sales of competing mid-sized luxury cars, including the Audi A6 and BMW 5, suggest the segment itself — pressured from below by feature-loaded entry-level luxury cars like the Mercedes C-class and state-of-the-art full-size luxury sedans such as the BMW 7, which just received a complete update — may be becoming obsolete.

In Hollywood's ever-vigilant pursuit of the status car du jour, Mercedes' traditional gasoline-powered luxury sedans must also now compete at the upper end of the market with Tesla's electric Model S and Model X crossover. Along with Porsche and Audi, Mercedes is developing several "Tesla killer" long-range electric models that should launch within the next three years.

Mercedes stuffed its revamped S-Class and C-Class with industry-leading tech, and the new E-Class — Mercedes unveiled a mockup of the interior at last week's CES show in Las Vegas — sports several safety and driver-assist technologies, some of them unique to the model. The E-Class also will have imbedded deep-learning technology, which will enable the car to store and analyze information gathered by its 3D cameras and other sensors and the ability to communicate with other cars' computers, both seen as essential to the wide-scale adoption of autonomous vehicles.

"Computers in cars must advance from observing to understanding complex situations," said Dieter Zetsche, chairman of Mercedes parent Daimler, at the E-Class unveiling Sunday night at Detroit's Book-Cadillac hotel. 

One of E-Class's most intriguing innovations is Pre-Safe Sound. Hearing loss from survivable accidents is seldom discussed, but the explosive deployment of front and side airbags can create sound pressure levels of 170 dB, and permanent hearing loss can result from even momentary exposure to 140 dB. When the E-Class senses a collision is imminent, it broadcasts a signal in the car's cabin that triggers a protective "stapedius effect" in the ears of occupants that can reduce hearing loss if an accident occurs.

Mercedes is heavily invested in autonomous technology — the Model S' suite of semi-autonomous features are among the industry's most robust. The E-Class's Drive Pilot suite allows the car to follow another at a pre-selected distance at speeds of up to 130 mph, automatically keep the car in its lane at up to 81 mph even when road lines are nonexistent and change lanes automatically when the car's 3D cameras and sensors determine the lane is empty. The E-Class can also be summoned from garages and parking spaces remotely using a smartphone app.

On Sunday, Tesla added a similar parking feature in an over-the-air software update to its Autopilot, which enables semi-autonomous driving and has been criticized after videos of drivers using the system to steer the Model S while shaving and even sitting in the backseat surfaced on YouTube. The update prevents Autopilot from being used on residential streets or those without a center divider and limits the top speed to a maximum of five miles per hour more than the posted speed limit.

Even though Tesla CEO Elon Musk abruptly pulled Tesla out of the Detroit auto show last month, as is his wont he lobbed provocative quotes at reporters in a teleconference on Sunday, predicting that "within two years you'll be able to summon your car from across the country. Let's say, if you're in New York and your car is in Los Angeles, it will find its way to you." He added, "I might be slightly optimistic on that."

Audi, Volvo, BMW and Porsche will unveil new or updated models during the Detroit auto show press preview, set to take place Monday and Tuesday. At CES, Ford had been widely expected to announce a partnership with Google to build the tech giant's completely autonomous car, and there is speculation the announcement could come instead at Ford's press conference in Detroit on Monday morning.

The Mercedes E-Class goes in sale in the U.S. this summer. Pricing was not announced.