The Car That Killed Sobriety

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. 

E350 CDI Elegance (W212) 2008
Round is out, photo (c) Daimler AG

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.

Round is in, photo (c) Daimler-Benz AG

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 rounder, the better, photo (c) DaimlerChrysler AG

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.

Edgy is the new round, photo (c) Rappler

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.

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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.

E-Klasse (W212) 2008

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.

The author of this piece runs his own motoring website, which you are welcome to visit at

Author: Christopher Butt

car design critic // runs // contributes to The Road Rat magazine // writes a column for Octane France //

37 thoughts on “The Car That Killed Sobriety”

  1. I’ve always hated the hideous Ponton fenders but love the four square headlamps. They looked different without being out there and I think the writer is quite mistaken to think they are the cause of this car’s slow sales. The Ponton fenders yes, the sullied reputation from the previous two generations too, maybe the price or the very good competition from BMW, but the beautiful headlights? Nope.

    1. You are obviously entitled to like the square headlights, but why are you quite so convinced they didn’t contributed to W212’s failure in the marketplace? After all, the headlights and the rear wings were both changed come facelift time, which probably wasn’t a decision made on a whim.

    2. The headlights form part of the plastic bumper and they were cheap to facelift. Most of the money went on changing the side pressing and the rear doors.

      And you answered yourself. Just like I cannot prove it wasn’t the headlights that supposedly made this car not sell, you can’t either. Your logic here is exactly the same “feeling” as mine. You have absolutely zero proof as to which caused supposed slow sales: headlights or Ponton fenders. Nor indeed did you even try to look at what the competition were selling at the time and that perhaps that was the reason for the sales decline?

    3. Steady, my friend.

      Yes, I did exactly what you just ‘accused’ me of: I pointed out that both the rear wings and the headlights were changed. What makes you think I dislike the headlight design more than the wings?

      I find both utterly inept. I hope this settles this particular argument for good.

    4. Just because you’re shouting louder from your pedestal that you’re right and I’m totally wrong doesn’t remotely settle any “argument” I’m afraid.

      You completely ignored what the competition was doing at the time and what impact that might have had on the market. Hanging your hat on reputation, Ponton fenders and headlight design as the only possible reasons for an expensive facelift is utterly bizarre.

    5. I was shouting? I’m sorry about that.

      Have a pleasant day!

    6. @99johann,

      You are being needlessly combative. No need for that. DtW enjoys friendly discussion; please help to keep it that way.

    7. I’m not being combative at all. I’m just questioning dubious statements (as fact I presume) like this:

      “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…”

      Who decided it was styling alone? Herr Butt? Furthermore where else has this car ever been called “a failure in the marketplace”? I find generalisations like these extremely annoying without any facts to substantiate them.

    8. I think there has been more than one individual who suggested W212’s styling ‘deficiencies’ were at the root of perhaps the most expensive facelift in history. One of them happened to be me.

      And while it’s obvious that a good deal of the money spent (squandered?) was not necessarily in the styling studio, what was altered does suggest that in pre-facelift form, W212 was not stylistically well-received. Indeed, W212’s facelift wasn’t just the most expensive, but perhaps the most comprehensive Mercedes facelift in living memory. Back in the VHHA days, such matters would have been anathema – largely because they would have been wholly unnecessary.

  2. You’d be astonished how much the city of Ulm has in common with Milton Keynes in terms of being designed on the drawing table, only less well executed.
    The once proud free imperial city of Ulm, immensely rich and a spearhead of Protestant reformation right in the middle or arch Catholic Swabia, was standing about thirty centimetres tall after a succession of air raids in 1944. Except for their Gothic cathedral (featuring the world’s tallest church tower and a sixteen ton campana) and a couple of stone walls from ancient Roman time there was nothing left and as late as 1977 the last ruin of war was treated to some dynamite rods and the end of reconstruction was officially declared.
    Like with many cities of post war Germany it was more important to reconstruct it quickly than to do it in an architecturally pleasing manner. Ubiquitous standard types of blocky buildings were used with very little respect for urban development and planning and only now these buildings are slowly replaced with objects not necessarily more pleasing to the eye.

    The W210 was a typical product of the Edzard Reuter era. In typical German intellectual fashion cars were seen as an evil (and not even a necessary one) at which one’s nose had to be turned up and therefore former Benz standards of engineering had to be duly neglected if you didn’t want to get under suspicion of taking serious something as utterly contemptible as cars. W210’s successors had to earn the money to pay for egomaniacal Jürgen Schrempp’s expensive experiments which did nothing for their quality. Later Zetsche’s gang saw that wildly exaggerated stylistic experiments from Munich’s arch rival sold and earned a reputation for whatever Benz people thought was enviable and they wanted to replicate that.
    Mercedes’ downfall is just a consequence of neglect by management and recklessness by complacency.

    1. Dave,

      I’m quite aware of Ulm being a largely reconstructed city, so just for purposes of clarification I’d like to point out that my comparison was concerning the fact that Milton Keynes lacked both the Swabian city’s long history and a world-class design school.

      Edzard Reuter is one of the more interesting people to have dabbled in the automotive industry, in that he is a genuine thinker, whose interests reach well beyond the automotive realm. Unfortunately, as you correctly pointed out, in his case that entailed a certain disdain for his employer’s core product, which is not ideal (to say the least). So while I do hold him in quite some regard (though not to the same extent as the man who enthroned him, Alfred Herrhausen), I must agree that he was completely the wrong man to head Daimler-Benz – but then again, by the 1980s, globalisation and the neoliberal dawn had ensured the likes of Werner Breitschwerdt were being seen as petty-minded anachronisms, which is why I pinpoint the beginning of the downfall or ‘der Daimler’ to his ousting.

      Given you level of insight and understanding, I’d like to know what you make of Jürgen Hubbert.

    2. I had the immense good fortune to visit Ulm on Good Friday, 2009. Enough of old Ulm remains to enjoy but the worst was the unpleasant white visitor centre (I think) plonked on the square. It´s by a starchitect as well. However, near the Domplatz is a lovely old hotel with some fine oak panelling in the dining room. And the atmosphere along the Donau was striking, very mellow and joyful. On the square churchgoers talked in groups around a brazier. It was an unforgettable evening.

    3. I absoutely agree with Richard Meier’s building being no adornment to Ulm’s Münsterplatz – Ulm still takes considerable pride from having a Münster (Protestant cathedral) instead of a Dom (Catholic cathedral). They still aren’t taking pride from having been home to HfG and it took them a shamefully long time to accept Albert Einstein as well as the Scholl siblings their most prominent descendants.

  3. More depressing in my view is that all the generations you mention have sold reasonably well. Maybe not achieving MB sakes targets, but still quite well, you find them almost on every corner.
    This is the tragedy for me – no matter where / what the star is affixed to, it will sell. The common folk doesn’t care about design trends or minutia, they just want a star…

    1. The combination of the A-class fiasco, rusty E-classes (at a time when so many lesser manufacturers were getting a handle on the matter) and haywire electronics would’ve ruined any other car brand. So yes, that three-pointed star did perform quite a few miracles.

    2. The problems related to the W211 SBC brake system on their own would have been enough to break any other manufacturer. 200,000 W211s got new brake central units (ECU and hydraulic block) and 680,000 cars got new hydraulic pumps. For a safety-oriented company like Mercedes this is intolerable, even if they replaced the SBC with a conventional system at facelift time.

  4. You made me start my week by browsing through a variety of new Mercedes-Benz offerings, which left my head spinning – they all look the same! There’s no way to differentiate the C, the E and the S other than the size. Yaaaawn.

  5. Excellent article herr Butt. I remember on 2009 flerting with an old W124 T Modell. I abandoned the buy after reading that the all new to come E-class would stand on W124 core values, as for quality, reliability and timeless Design. So I waited for it to come…and I am still here waiting! Got a SUBARU instead.

    1. Thank you. I guess many of us around here are united in that we’re eagerly awaiting better times…

    2. Even sensible shoes Skoda treated their facelifted Octavia to the same silly front light design. Since then I can’t take them serious anymore and it does not look as if better times were coming too soon…

  6. I have to say I didn’t like the styling of the pre-facelift W212 at first but it grew on me, just like the W221 S-Class did.
    In the right colour and with the right wheels I actually find them interesting to look at and mostly true to what I expect from M-B, with that blend of austere and baroque that only they could get away with in the old days.

  7. One notable advance on this E class was the interior – again, soft and organic was out and ‘blocky’ was in, but it all looked and felt pretty solid, and appropriate for a Mercedes.

    I am really not too sure about the baroque cabins of the latest Mercedes. Will they still convey that vital sense of solidity in a few years’ time?

    1. I agree, this E-class’ interior wasn’t as flimsy as its predecessors’, but it did lack a bit of finesse – that ‘mini-grille’ air vent on the centre console was a silly, rather than classy touch. However, in terms of materials, it was a step in the right direction (of yore).

      For obvious reasons, I cannot comment on the long-term qualities of Mercedes’ current interiors, what I can say though is that all that glitz and luxury appears rather skin-deep. Half the ‘metal’ buttons and ornaments are obviously plastic, as is are the dreaded ‘piano lacquer’ surfaces (which not just Mercedes are so fond of these days). It’s all not only rather Rococo, but also distinctly false aspirational. The market loves it though, and the market is always right. Obviously.

    2. When US regulations demand the sat-nav screen at the same height as the main instrument pack you’ve got to place the vents somewhere further down in the centre console. The ‘mini grille’ surely isn’t the best solution but it’s still miles better than the current setup of round somethings – what are they supposed to look like? Batmobile exhaust?

    3. The last outstanding German luxury car cabin was the 2003 Audi A8’s. Its main gimmick was the retractable sat-nav screen, which immensely helped tidying up the dashboard when unused. Apart from that, it was all about clean, sensible graphics and superb materials. (And its air vents were boringly rectangular…)

    4. This A8 D3 is from an era when Audi deliberately chose designs that were difficult to make just to show the world they could do them. Starting with split rear light units over pinstripe panel gaps to shapes like this dashboard/door trim combo that only works when it is meticulously assembled to the tightest of tolerances they led the German pack mostly because Fugen Ferdl liked to challenge his production engineers.
      This A8 D3 as well as A6 C5 and A4 B6 represent the pinnacle of Audi interior quality. They are made from first rate materials with carefully coordinated surfaces and their fit and finish is impeccable even at places you normally don’t see or touch like the plastic shrouds for the seat runners (there to prevent you from inadvertently touching the greasy parts but visible only when the seat is pushed to its extreme rearward position, otherwise it’s hidden under the seat) or the front seats’ hidden belt mountings. There certainly is no surface that produces hollow sounds when tapped and there is no cheapo wobbly switch gear like in the current breed of A8. A close inspection of my current A4 against my old B6 is a shocking experiment. The decline in quality is incredible.

    5. The current E class Mercedes interior presents an intriguing mix of simplicity and fussiness.
      Screens predominate, their geometric simplicity a foil to soft, almost organic dashboard forms.
      The use of wood harks back to the W111. Opulent and présent in generous quantity. The W111 coupé interior is supremely elegant, a quality denied the W213 by the mass of the dash, in part dictated by the quantity of components to package in modern cars, in part by upper surfaces that are hampered by the insistence of retaining a vestigal visor over the wide screen. A curious reference to technology that needed shielding from sunlight. In caramel leather a half-chewed toffee comes to mind.
      The detailing of the dash and doors is generally restrained and harmonious.
      The seats are over-wrought, too many disparate textures battling for dominance.
      All is subjugate to a colour palette that insults the animals whose hides are used used to trim the interior.
      Technology ages quickly. When will the current fad for screens end? Their integration is difficult, their obsolescence certain. These are not products for life. The million-mile Mercedes is in the rear view mirror.

  8. Good evening, Christopher. I’m just catching up on your excellent, insightful critique of the W210/1/2 generations of E-Class. The W212 was certainly an attempt to restore visual heft to the model, but it had none of the quiet elegance and substance of the W124. In particular, the designers failed to emulate the subtle curvature of the panels and carefully drawn shut lines, which together gave the impression that the W124’s bodywork was made of unusually heavy gauge steel.

    The facelifted W212’s headlamps were, in my opinion, an improvement over the rather chintzy twin light arrangement, but the removal the “Ponton” rear wings was less (or not at all?) successful. In order to retain the existing rear three-quarter panel pressing, the designers had to add a rather superfluous crease into the rear door skin (which was the only new panel needed for this alteration). It’s a moot point as to which treatment was better, the ersatz original or hapless facelifted version.

    Given that the only new metalwork apparently required for the facelift was a bonnet and rear door skins, I’m really not sure where all the money went.

  9. These vehicles are unusually resistant to close study. There´s so little to grasp onto. Well done Christopher for trying – it´s as if someone has managed an accurate taste description of some mineral waters. I am well aware M-B is under huge pressure to deliver the goods. At the same time they have strength in their market few have and this means the power to lead the customer. Ford did it with the Focus; Citroen did it once upon a time; Subaru in their wonky way do as well.

    1. Daimler AG is in a very unfavourable position because of the German Big Three they’re most exposed to capital market whims. BMW and VW are more or less family owned and as long as the Quandt or Porsche/Piech clans are happy these companies are safe. Daimler has no single big investor since Flick gave up his share package in the Seventies so they have to keep up their share price at all cost (literally and proverbial) to prevent a hostile takeover.

  10. Football manager syndrome perhaps?
    Mercedes-Benz had two charismatic, single-minded chief designers, Bracq and Sacco.
    Both enjoyed the stability afforded the marque by loyal clients, not least legions of taxi-drivers who for years extolled the virtues of their steeds.
    The departure of Sacco most likely coincided with a modification of the business model and the importance of the design department relative to that of product planning within the company. This is pure speculation, but BeBop, Laguna 3 , Vel Satis and Wind saw the sidelining of PLQ at Renault. Though the can was deservedly carried by his eminence for the ugliness, he was in no way responsible for the perceived need for such aberrations.
    Renault has fallen on its feet with LDVA, and a chastened product departent is « only » guilty of taking no risks at all. Getting the Alpine through the minefield was tough!
    MB had some turkeys and IMMEDIATELY shot the messenger.. twice.
    The Gorden is slicker, and has the benefit of a new, easier to please clientele to buy his expertly honed objets d’art.
    The product planners are in harmony with their key market once more.

  11. PLQ? LVDA?

    Are their names too sacred to be spoken? And shouldn’t it be LvdA?

    TMFA* – as they used to say in Network Rail, and probably still do.

    *Too many acronyms.

    1. So many letters, so little time..
      You’re absolutely right about Laurens van den Acker, well spotted!
      Take heart sir! Someday, all posts will be written your way.

    2. To be precise, it’s PlQ (nit thus picked).

      Rob, one of these days, you need to tell me where you worked and with whom. Your insight is certainly appreciated!

      However, as far as Sacco’s concerned, I must slightly disagree with your assessment. The change you so aptly describe was taking place while the man was still in office. With an executive board (Niefer, Werner, Reuter) increasingly interested in shareholder value on the one hand, and the departure of respected comrades in arms within his own studio (Gallitzendörfer, Tomfore) on the other, Sacco was fighting a lost cause by the time W202 had been signed off. His superiors told him to do more fashionable stuff and his staff happened to be keen on doing more fashionable stuff as well (apart from Pfeiffer, of course, who’d simply do as he was told). His final decade at Mercedes is therefore unlikely to have been a particularly elating experience.

      Nobody was more surprised than most members of Daimler AG’s design staff when ‘Flash Gorden’ Wagener got the top job. But through a combination of blunt bloody-mindedness and the good fortune of having a boss who hasn’t got a clue about matters of design (just look what Zee signed off during his stint at Auburn Hills!), he turned into the sweater-wearing, paunchy messiah we all know and worship.

  12. Ha!
    The great ridiculously E class design that should need a restyling 2 years after it’s realese (urgent! )
    It’s facelift was the most expensive in the automotive history (1.5 mill euros)
    Unbalanced volumes
    Heavy to drive
    And kill the quality a classic benz trademark: that sense of spacious inside

  13. I’m not sure the W212 was any worse than any of it predecessors.
    I had a E350Cdi for 18 months and that proved to be very sturdy and reliable, and a bit of a performance weapon, whilst still able to return 40mpg.
    For such a long car the interior space was small, especially the back seating area was cramped, especially with a 6 foot driver. I can see why Taxi drivers favour Skoda Superbs as they have a lot more interior space.
    However, it was more the market moving away from 3 box saloons to SUVs that killed its sales.

  14. I bought a 2012 W212 and loved the styling – kept it for 7 years. I am now shopping for another car after being unhappy with the 530e and 530i and I simply don’t like the styling of the new eClass including the 2021 where they tried to fix the goofy looking rear tail lights. I am actually looking for a used 2016 w212 because of the styling. I have done a lot of internet research and I am not alone on liking the W212 styling over the current edition. I know when I bought my W212 I got a great deal because the market was still digging out from the 2008 financial crisis combined with new car sales heavily migrating towards SUV’s.

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