Last month I had the opportunity to log several hundred miles behind the wheel of Mercedes’ updated 2014 E Class during a full-line media review of the model (sans AMG variants) held outside of Portland, Oregon.  While the 2014 model is technically a mid-cycle refresh, it’s tough to discern this from the E Class’ heavily revised exterior.  In fact, if it weren’t for a few unchanged details and a slightly more informed eye, one could easily mistake the updated design for an all-new one.

Starting with the exterior, all E Class body styles were given more modern – and decidedly more aggressive (particularly on the Sport) – hood, grille and bumper designs that make the car inarguably one of the best looking in the class.  The E Class’ more chiseled appearance is accentuated by all-new headlamps featuring a contemporary interpretation of the model’s traditional four-lamp look, with new standard LED headlamps complementing the fluid form of the updated LED daytime running lamps.

Even though the outgoing version of the E Class wasn’t a bad-looker by any stretch, it looks downright dowdy when viewed alongside its more modern incarnation.

In addition to the new front-end work, Mercedes shaved away the metal around the rear haunches of the sedan and wagon and added LED lights to the less modified tail lamps on all variants.

Interior changes were also numerous, if a bit less dramatic.  Designers added a new instrument cluster, re-worked the design of the air vents, and perhaps borrowing a cue from Infiniti, planted an analog clock below the new trapezoidal head-unit display.

In addition to the numerous aesthetic changes, the company added or improved upon a host of comfort and safety features referred to collectively as “Intelligent Drive”.  Carrying names such as PRE-SAFE Brake, ATTENTION ASSIST, and Active Lane Keeping Assist, these systems can initiate braking when pedestrians are detected, “learn” and monitor driver habits to provide warnings should the driver become inattentive or drowsy, and detect and actively correct for drifting when an adjacent lane is not clear – which includes the presence of oncoming traffic.

The centerpiece of the new tech imparted on the in E Class is called DISTRONIC PLUS with Steering Assist, Mercedes’ highly advanced adaptive cruise control system.  The system actively keeps the car centered within its lane, moderates speed based on the flow of traffic ahead, and can even bring the car to a full stop – and gradually accelerate again – should traffic come to a halt and start moving again.

Based on a complex series of sensors, cameras, and radar, the collective set of systems provide a 360o view around the vehicle that allows for autonomous driving under certain conditions.  Depending on your viewpoint, these technologies are either pretty heady stuff bringing us closer to a completely hands-free driving experience, or ones that actually elevate the risk of an accident because they impart a false sense of security on today’s increasingly distracted driver.

Prior to experiencing some of the Intelligent Drive systems I was more of the latter mindset.  However, nine hours or so behind the wheel of the new E Class left me convinced that even with some of the most advanced technology ever put into mass production, we’re still not to the point where drivers should feel comfortable taking their eyes off of the road for a more extended period of time.  This is because there were a number of occasions when I tried to cajole Active Lane Keeping Assist and DISTRONIC PLUS to take corrective action to no avail or because instinct simply took over and I couldn’t resist applying the brakes thereby disengaging the latter system.

The systems were impressive when they did work and the seemingly sporadic engagement of each was most likely due to my lack of understanding.  But my experience highlights the challenges that Mercedes-Benz and its dealers face in convincing consumers to shell out an additional $2,800 for the optional Driver Assistance Package containing all of these features and in adequately explaining the conditions in which the systems work.

While the updates made to 2014 Mercedes-Benz E Class are impressive and somewhat unique given their scope, they were also necessary.  Annually, E Class deliveries represent about a quarter of all Mercedes’ U.S. sales, and more often than not, the series is the top selling model in the luxury mid-size car segment.

However, stiffer competition from the likes of the Audi A6 and Lexus GS, as well as the model’s perennial nemesis the BMW 5 Series, required more than the typical refresh to help preserve E Class share.  

Given the appealing new design draped over an already fine chassis and the beyond-requisite technological enhancements, the 2014 E Class should have little trouble in maintaining – and likely growing – its lead over the segment pack.