FIRST DRIVE: Mercedes-Benz E-Class saloon

WHEN a manufacturer opts to revise a car midway through its lifecycle the results are often more predictable than earth shattering. With a mild tweak here and there, the car is sent packing for a few more years until something better comes along. Not so Mercedes and its E-Class, which has been subject to a considerable makeover.

The car's exterior caused a few raised eyebrows when it first appeared, with particular attention drawn to the rear three-quarter angle. Some liked it and some did not, but you couldn't fault Mercedes for choosing a bold and visually arresting look. In a move that will please the critics, that nod to classic Mercedes designs of old has been toned down in favour of a more streamlined and simplified appearance.

In contrast, a bolder nose complete with dominant three-pointed star is now the default configuration. Complimenting this is an enlarged air intake layout below the bumper. Overall there's no question that the changes have resulted in a bolder stance and aligns the E-Class more closely to existing cars in the Mercedes family.

It's the mechanical changes to the car that are the real headline-grabbers, though. In a bid to improve safety and efficiency much work has been done to maintain the popular executive saloon's competitiveness.

A new 2.0-litre petrol engine boasting clever turbo and fuel injection systems promises to deliver added refinement alongside improved performance, emissions and economy. Badged as an E 250, the 211 horsepower unit's rated at 138g/km for CO2 despite its beefy 258lb/ft torque figure. It's suitably brisk too, which should satisfy buyers seeking the trappings of E-Class ownership but without having to spend too much in the process.

Of course diesel power is where it's at for most buyers, especially in the company car sector, and the E 250 CDI offers a decent mix of performance and economy from its 204 horsepower 2.2-litre four-cylinder motor. The six-pot equivalent might be smoother but the 250 CDI offers ample performance for when pounding motorways is the norm. It's one of many to gain a standard fit seven-speed auto gearbox - only the lesser E 220 CDI makes do with a manual gearbox - which further adds to the car's ease of use. Factor in official an combined 57.7mpg and it's easy to see the car's real world appeal.

Buyers seeking more thrust can opt for the aforementioned six-cylinder E 350 CDI, and while its 252 horsepower rating might not be a big step over its smaller cousin the extra torque is most welcome and something to consider if you opt for the commodious estate variant.

But if its high-tech you want then the E 300 Hybrid delivers in spades. Utilising the 2.2-litre diesel from the 250 CDI alongside a compact battery and electric motor system, you have the best of both worlds regarding economy and extra acceleration when you need it. There's also an engine-off coasting mode, which works well on flat and downhill road sections, while there's no compromise in terms of cabin or load space thanks to the hybrid system's compact design. All in all, despite the price premium over a regular diesel, it's hard to ignore the hybrid's impressive 109g/km CO2 and 68.9mpg figures.

And it's also hard not to be impressed by the amount of clever safety kit being thrown at the E-Class by Mercedes. Some familiar technology remains, such as road sign-reading cameras, blind spot warning and night vision, but the tighter integration of adaptive cruise control with the auto braking function should result in a greater chance of you avoiding an accident - especially at low speeds in urban environments.

Mercedes also wants to keep you safe at higher speeds with its active lane keeping assist function, which will gently add steering input to guide you away from danger if you wander too close to the centre of the road into oncoming traffic or out of your lane on a motorway. Factor in intelligent headlights with a beam that adapts to traffic conditions and obstacles ahead of you plus an array of sensors tuned to help detect hazards at junctions, and it's hard to fault Mercedes' commitment to safety.

Of course not all the fancy safety kit will be standard on every car but this is the exception not the rule for the new for 2013 E-Class thanks to Mercedes UK's generosity. As with before, the UK spec deviates somewhat from the default Euro template and you get a great deal more than in years past.

Two trim levels, SE and AMG Sport form the backbone of the range, with the former gaining the likes of 17-inch alloys, simulated leather upholstery, Comand navigation and DAB radio, parking sensors, folding mirrors and practical LED headlights. Moving up to AMG Sport trim adds 18-inch alloy wheels, sports seats trimmed in the same simulated leather as SE models, plus a subtle sporty exterior trim to compliment its specification level.

The casual observer could be forgiven for thinking not much appears to have changed with the E-Class. However, on closer inspection it's clear that this is more than a simple nip and tuck from Mercedes. While the car's exterior is now more elegant and sporty in equal measure, the wealth of smart technology on offer to entertain and keep you safe is impressive.

With equipment levels now rivaling that of the more expensive S-Class and real world economy and performance to please both the head and heart respectively, this thorough revision of an already accomplished car should see the E-Class remain competitive for some time to come.

FACTS AT A GLANCE

Model: Mercedes-Benz E 250 CDI SE saloon, from £36,590 on the road.

Engine: 2.2-litre diesel unit developing 204bhp.

Transmission: seven-speed automatic transmission as standard, driving the rear wheels.

Performance: Maximum speed 150mph, 0-62mph 7.5 seconds.

Economy: 57.7mpg.

CO2 Rating: 131g/km.

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