The previous generation of Mercedes’ E-class was supposed to mark a return to the marque’s traditional values. Instead, it turned a great many of them into damaged goods.
Willkommen zu Hause. Die E-Klasse. Upon its market introduction in 2009, the newest Mercedes-Benz E-class was ‘welcomed home’. Attentive observers may ask when and why the E-class had left in the first place – an answer to which would require a return to the decade most people of Stuttgart Sindelfingen and Untertürkheim would like to forget : The 1990s.
The E-class for the ’90s, unveiled in the middle of that decade, was of course the W210 generation, which has since gained notoriety for issues of rust, profit-optimised engineering and styling that has aged as gracefully as the materials the Benz was made of.
The latter point was an astounding case of design reflecting ethos, for the W210 rejected almost all the tropes that had defined the form of its predecessor, as well as an entire generation of highly successful Mercedes-Benz cars. Starting with the 1979 S-class and ending with the first-generation C-class saloon in 1993, Mercedes design had adhered to Vertical Homogeneity/Horizontal Affinity, a concept devised under then-chief designer Bruno Sacco, intended to create a form language that translated the company’s core values of quality, diligence and expediency into design.
With W210, Vertical Homogeneity/Horizontal Affinity quite obviously came to a rather abrupt ending and was replaced with a clumsy take on the soft, organic forms that were de rigueur during the decade that also gave us techno, grunge and boy bands. All things considered, and minor details apart, Mercedes-Benz design was now flowing with the mainstream, and not even in particularly slick a fashion.
The next chapter in the E-class saga, the W211 generation unveiled in 2003, was less clumsy in terms of appearance (yet even softer looking) and didn’t physically disintegrate with the same vigour as its predecessor, but countless electrical niggles and some of the most prominent and expensive product recalls Daimler-Benz/-Chrysler AG had ever seen cost it dearly – literally, as well as in reputational terms.
So when it came to defining a successor to yet another generation of E-class that had attained a somewhat dubious reputation, it was only logical for the engineers, product planners and stylists involved to look back to a past when the company’s core product was not renowned for severe quality issues – or for sporting four round headlights.
Unfortunately, the people in charge of design did not bother to concern themselves with Vertical Homogeneity/Horizontal Affinity – certainly not the substantial aspects of it – and instead came to the conclusion that softness was the problem, rather than any recent failure to withhold stylistic fads. For that reason, Bruno Sacco’s successor, Peter Pfeiffer, as well as the company’s board decided upon a rather unsubtle proposal by Winifredo Camacho for this E-class’ exterior, while current Mercedes-Benz Interior Chief designer, Hartmut Sinkwitz, was reportedly in charge of the blunt interior.
In the end, this W212 generation of E-class, as presented to the world in 2009, had as much to do with Gute Form as the city of Ulm has with Milton Keynes. Despite actually being a more solid and solidly engineered car than its two immediate predecessors, W212’s form did not convey substance, but a coarse kind of mock-solidity. Its simplistic graphics and blocky volumes do not suggest quality and clinical sophistication as much as they irritate with their clumsy, ostentatiously stark appearance.
The carelessly applied brightwork, the four busy, semi-square headlights (because round shapes by then equalled poor quality, of course!) and the squared-off rear wing flares (a gratuitous nod to Mercedes’ 1950’s Ponton saloon), despite supposedly a return to the stylistic sobriety of yore, were another repudiation of Vertical Homogeneity/Horizontal Affinity.
For it hadn’t been the incorporation of soft shapes into the previous two models’ designs that had made them appear unsubstantial, but the quality of each design’s execution. W212 may have traded in soft shapes for blocky ones, but in terms of stylistic craftsmanship, this was no better a piece of design than the two E-classes that had preceded it. In some ways, it was worse.
Back in 1995, the public would accept as ungainly-looking a design as W210’s, simply for the fact that it was a Mercedes-Benz E-class. In 2003, fashionable slickness was enough for people to overlook any plasticky ephemerality. But six years later, the E-class moniker no longer possessed enough lustre to make up for W212’s overbearingly coarse appearance. Thus a car that actually was more durable was sabotaged by styling that was supposed to achieve the same, but proved to have an exceedingly brief half-life.
Eventually, W212’s failure in the marketplace, which was mostly due to its styling deficits, resulted not just in one of the most expensive facelift efforts in car design history, but also helped pave the way for the stylistic reign of a certain gentleman from Essen, Northrhine-Westfalia.
Without W212’s lacklustre sales, which allegedly demonstrated that ‘sober forms don’t sell anymore’, Herr. Wagener’s doctrine of Sensual Purity wouldn’t have become possible. Because without the shockingly ill-conceived final car designs developed under Wagener’s predecessor, Mercedes-Benz design wouldn’t have needed the kind of ‘saving’ it has since been subjected to.
Two years ago, Sensual Purity was finally introduced to the E-class. This car, an amorphous blob of a saloon, is not arriving home – it’s left Swabia for pastures new, without any need to reference the past. It has attained Sensual Purity – for which it can thank its misbegotten progenitor.
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