The Mercedes-Benz E-Class gets its name from the German word for injection, einspritzung, which originally referred to the car's fuel-injection system in the 1950s. For the 2007 model year, the E-Class gets a couple more injections: its front end gets some Botox work and a shot of sporty grille treatment, while the engine gets a near-overdose of power in the form of a barnstorming 382-horspeower 5.5-liter engine. The resultant outpatient is the 2007 Mercedes-Benz E550, the new face of Mercedes's midsize executive sedan series, a discreetly styled Teutonic tourer, potent enough to bury the Audi A6 and the BMW 550i in the dust of the autobahn. Inside, the E550 presents an array of communications and entertainment features that tick most of the car-tech boxes, but some, including the GPS navigation system, have less-than-user-friendly interfaces.
Hawkeyed observers of the E550 will be able to tell that the E-Class's midcycle face-lift has made the front end look sharper than the previous E500, thanks to a pointed, more beaklike front grille. Other cosmetic tweaks, including additional horizontal eyelids on the car's headlights and the addition of some extra wire mesh beneath the front bumper, give the E550 a more aggressive, sporty expression, although not to the detriment of the car's understated character.
Speedo display trumps COMAND
The interior of the 2007 Mercedes-Benz E550 is a mix of old-world Mercedes styling and new-world cabin tech. Plush leather upholstery and burl walnut trim provide the framework for the car's dated-looking head unit and HVAC controls. Thanks to Keyless Go, drivers can gain access to the E550 and fire up its engine via a button on top of the shifter without having to take the car's weighty key fob from their pockets. Further evidence that this is going to be a technoride is provided in the form of 10-way adjustable seats and an automatically tilting-and telescoping steering wheel. The latter is furnished with four large, pushable remote-control buttons, which are used to control the car's audio settings (volume/CD track/satellite radio station), to answer and end phone calls made via the Bluetooth hands-free interface, and--most usefully in our experience--to scroll through the information shown in the multifunction monochrome display nestled in the center of the speedometer.
This display was our favorite cabin-tech feature of the E550: with a push of one of the oval buttons, we were able to call up information on: the current satellite radio station; current road and direction of travel; real-time turn-by-turn directions from the GPS navigation system with distance to the next turning, direction of the next turning (in the form of a bright white arrow), and the name of the upcoming street we were to turn onto; phone status; and readouts on speed, current gas mileage, and range to empty.
It is just as well that this was all available via the speedometer display, as the E550's Cockpit Management and Data (COMAND) system LCD display is less than user friendly. This is most evident with the navigation: instead of a touch screen or the center-console-mounted dial that we saw in the 2007 Mercedes S550, the E550 requires wayfarers to program destinations using a fussy, five-way rocker switch, which requires a good deal of repetitive button-pushing to enter a single destination. One of our colleagues was particularly critical of the washed-out light-blue-on-lighter-blue color scheme for the menu screens. If you can live with that, then you might also find yourself frustrated with the fact that the display will show only one function at a time: more than once, we wanted to know the name of a song playing on Sirius while navigating to a destination. To do so, we had to leave the map screen by pressing the Sat button (not the Audio button, which will stop the satellite radio station altogether), then press another button for Info to get the names of the artist and track. We much prefer multiple-info display configurations, such as those we've seen in some Acura, Lexus, and GM models.
Turn on, zoom in, fade out
Without the use of the instruction manual (our test car came without one), we also had a hard time figuring out how to change the volume of the navigation's voice commands, which were set at a volume too soft for us to hear, especially with the Harman Kardon Logic7 surround sound playing in all its glory. Fortunately, we are tech-savvy geniuses here at CNET, and some extensive digging and decoding of cryptic Mercedes design led us to the solution: rather than a volume gauge, the voice volume is adjusted by a fade setting--minimum fade for minimum voice-guidance volume, maximum fade for maximum voice-guidance volume--easy when you know how. And our gripes with the navigation interface don't stop there. We found that the E550's LCD display is set too far down in the center console for quick, easy glances at the directions and also that the E550's maps give inadequate street-name information: even at maximum zoom, the names of many San Francisco cross streets didn't show up.
OK, enough of our gripes with the navigation system. Other cabin tech in the E550 is generally well integrated and useful. We particularly liked the pop-out faceplate for the insertion of CDs into the in-dash six-disc changer and the fact that there is an auxiliary input jack subtly installed in the glove box. A dedicated iPod integration kit, enabling control of an iPod via the car's head unit display, is available as a dealer-installed option for an extra $321. In addition to playing regular CDs, the E550's stereo accepts homemade MP3 discs, giving full ID3-tag information for artist, album, and track. The Logic7 surround-sound audio system's immersive output was a pleasure to listen to, sounding great across all ranges right up to maximum volume.
As with other Mercedes we've tested, the standard Bluetooth hands-free interface in the E550 is no use to those who don't own one of the seven bespoke Mercedes-Benz handsets that are compatible with the car's phone cradle. Those wishing to use other phones with the car must fork out $350 for a dealer-installed Bluetooth Interface Module--insult to the injury of dropping more than $60K on the car itself. As our tester came with the Premium II package, we had the pleasure of a couple of extra comfort tech features, including heated and ventilated front seats and an ultraluxurious power rear-window sunshade.