I rarely sit in the back seat, even when I’m taking a cab for the countless airport transfers that are part and parcel of a job that requires you to fly to different places to drive new cars.
Sitting up front you get a great view out and always have a seatbelt, which is often not the case in the back seat. You can’t always belt up in the rear because in many cabs the buckles are inaccessibly tucked under smelly seat covers. Being unbelted makes me very nervous, especially if your Uber driver is driving uber fast. Also, it’s easier to charge your phone in the front (again, no USB ports in the back of most cabs), which is another good reason for me avoid the rear. However, the arrival of the new E-class in our long-term fleet changed things.
In the past five months we’ve run our white E 350d, I’ve never sat in the front as a passenger. Not once. At first, I thought I’ll check out the extra space in the rear seat for a bit (the reason Mercedes stretched the long-wheelbase E-class) and then quickly hop back in the front. Instead, with a chauffeur on duty, I became a resolute back-seat rider.
As far as back seats go, the long-wheelbase E-class has set a benchmark that even the new, elongated BMW 6GT, featured elsewhere in this issue, can’t beat. In fact, it has one of the best seats across segments, even matching the S-class for absolute comfort. It’s not just the massive legroom, the perfect seat cushioning or the backrest that reclines by a business class seat-like 37 degrees, but it’s the overall sense of airiness and space as well. The massive sunroof and light-coloured trim make the cabin feel even bigger than it actually is and outside visibility is so good that I didn’t miss sitting in the front seat at all. But, for me, the true test of a great back seat is if I can work in a moving car without feeling sick. And this is where Mercedes has nailed it again. The plush ride of the air suspension and the smooth power delivery of the V6 diesel whisk you forward in an absolutely linear way. You never feel jostled, even on bad roads, and there’s no sudden surge of power, which allows you to even comfortably read a newspaper without getting a headache.
But for all the fabulous comfort the back seat offers, I did miss a few amenities, especially after weeks of living with the E-class. There are no cupholders in the central armrest, which is pretty inconvenient for a coffee drinker like me, and there’s no remote to operate the audio system. But, what truly disappointed me was the performance of the air con. It cools the cabin no doubt, but it doesn’t turn it into an igloo. On a muggy October day, even with the temperature down to the lowest setting, the cooling was adequate at best. This makes me wonder how the air con will cope during the searing hot summers of North India.
Hampering cooling ability in no small measure is the translucent screens of the twin sunroofs, which allows a fair bit of heat to seep into the cabin. Even the previous E-class’ air con struggled in peak summer.
With a 3.0-litre V6 under the hood, developing a velvety 258hp and 620Nm of torque, I couldn’t let the chauffeur have all the fun, especially when a drive to Mahabaleshwar was involved. The Mumbai-Pune Expressway was where the long-legged E 350d felt completely at home, with the nine-speed gearbox shifting cogs seamlessly to make overtaking a non-event. I was always astonished how this 5,063mm-long car weighing a good 1,920kg could pick up its skirt and gallop into the horizon. This is an impressively fast car but doesn’t shout the fact out loud; its astonishing ability to conceal speed made any long distance so effortless that you never feel the journey. Which is why it was perfect for the long and often heavily trafficked drive to Mahabaleshwar. Also, the massive 66-litre tank meant that you could do the round trip on a single tank with some diesel to spare.
I have to say I enjoyed driving the E-class around town too, especially at night when the traffic is light. It rides over Mumbai’s bad roads with an air of authority, with the high-profile 225/55 R17 tyres thumping through potholes and flattening ruts. The only thing that would slow this big Merc down to a crawl were speed breakers. Ground clearance, which could be raised by an additional 15mm by the lift system (standard on the E 350d), was sufficient for most humps, but over really large ones (and there are a lot of them), the underbelly would make contact with a sickening crunch. The poor ramp breakover is one of the downsides of a car with a particularly long wheelbase and the other is that it isn’t very manoeuvrable either. Yes, you do get park assist but the 12m turning circle won’t squeeze you into
a tight spot.
After living with the E 350d for five months, it’s the back-seat experience that stands head and shoulders above everything else. No doubt it’s great to drive too, with its lusty V6 and perfectly judged ride and handling, but it’s not a car that goads you to push it hard. On the contrary, it feels best driven in a measured, relaxed way while you soak in undisturbed luxury. It’s an addictive experience and a great way to de-stress after a hard day at the office, especially with the Burmester audio system piping concert quality sound into the well-insulated cabin. It’s the soothing effect of the E-class that makes it genuinely special and that is something I will sorely miss.