Mercedes-Benz brought the concept of the big elegant coupé into the world. Although the chauffeured saloon has never lost its lustre as the ultimate aspirational mode of transport, and the supercar continues to snap heads and command attention, big, powerful coupés are the stealthy choice; not ostentatious enough to incur unwanted attention, but discreetly stylish all the same. For decades, Mercedes has produced a series of sleek but understated two-door cars, closely related to their saloon car siblings but eschewing the functionalism of rear doors in favour of style.
The tradition continues today, although, it has to be said, the contemporary car market is going through a spell of avoiding understatement wherever possible. The E500 is the flagship model in Mercedes' new E-class coupe range, a V8-powered four-seater that's been given a slightly more aggressive feel than lesser models thanks to bodykit that lurks just on the wrong side of tasteful. The boomerang-shaped LED daylight running lights, the current must-have styling trend in German car design, are embedded in a deep chin spoiler, along with flashy wheels and side skirts. It's a shame, because the E500 really doesn't need any kind of performance-embodying blandishments. The problem is that Mercedes can't really pull of the kind of bratty design heroics practised by BMW, and to a lesser extent, Audi and Jaguar.
Although the E coupé looks contemporary, it isn't a classic. That said, no rival can currently muster up a matching model with a better claim to timeless design, with the possible exception of Audi’s A5. Whereas Mercedes coupés of old had elegant profiles that adhered strictly to horizontal lines, newer cars have a trademark rising shoulder line, a shallow curve that gives the whole car a tipped-forward stance – no doubt to aid aerodynamics (where indeed it excels). The downside is a pronounced amount of sheet metal above the rear wheel and beneath the glasshouse, an expanse that has to be carefully styled if it’s not to seem bland. Mercedes’ solution is to bulk up the rear wings with a self-conscious curve, supposedly in homage to the classic Ponton S220 model of 1955 (which itself represented an evolution of pre-war car design, where the distinction between body and wheel arches was pronounced).
Despite that lack of classic elegance – and one has to assume that Mercedes’ core audience is rather less concerned with visual simplicity than it used to be – the E500’s interior is truly exceptional. Beneath a panoramic glass sunroof, the coupe contains ample space for four, with a neatly styled dashboard, intuitive controls and a feeling of quality that’s right up with the very best in class. This car is groaning with technology and safety systems.
In E500 guise the hefty V8 pushes out nearly 400 horsepower, resulting in the kind of effortless performance that makes an open, empty road a thing of temptation. It's worth pointing out, however, that unless you find yourself using autobahns on a regular basis, the big diesels in the range banish the unwelcome sight of the fast-plunging fuel needle without sacrificing too much in the way of horizon-shrinking oomph (for Europeans at least, diesel has none of the industrial and agricultural associations that linger in the USA).
The E500 is a supremely pleasant place to be, a performance car that cloaks its abilities with serene comfort and quality. Yet as power outputs surge and our demand for gadgets grow, the contemporary grand tourer can only achieve refinement through the hefty use of soundproofing. The E500 is a fine car, but it’s not a svelte one. Are slender pillars and graceful lines gone forever in car design, or will new means of propulsion and new materials usher in a new era of elegant motoring? Right now, the E500 defines refinement, but the future could look very different indeed.