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The Mercedes-AMG E53.

Matt Bubbers/The Globe and Mail

Remember road trips? Remember those long days of total freedom with nowhere to be and no schedule to keep? That sounds pretty good right about now. The question – in this recurring daydream scenario, at least – is what car to take.

In January, before this all began, the Mercedes-AMG E53 seemed like the perfect road-trip chariot as we cruised across the California desert with the sun setting behind the San Bernardino mountains. The yellow-pink light reflected off the E53’s matte grey paint, which gave this otherwise innocuous mid-size sedan a bit of a Stealth Bomber vibe.

Crossing over the mountain at Big Morongo Canyon and heading toward Las Vegas, the highway became dark and twisty, but – with the flick of a steering-wheel-mounted dial – the Mercedes hunkered down, firmed up its steering and adjustable suspension, turned on the afterburners and powered through turns.

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Flying under the radar, at speed, across that landscape, the E53 was sublime. It offered pillowy comfort, precision handling and all the latest tech you could want, not to mention all-wheel drive and ample space for four.

The sun sets behind the San Bernardino mountains in California.

Matt Bubbers/The Globe and Mail

That in and of itself is probably not surprising. Something that costs as much as four Honda Civics had better be sublime. Ever since Jaguar invented the super-sedan genre with the 1959 Mark II, fast family-friendly conveyances like this Mercedes have been plentiful, and often quite excellent, provided you have a small fortune to spend.

What makes the Mercedes-AMG E53 unusual is its mild-hybrid engine. It’s not just fast; it’s also fuel-efficient – in theory, at least.

Under the hood is a technological marvel of a motor. The turbocharged 3.0-litre straight-six is mated to a 48-volt integrated starter-generator, which provides power for an electric compressor that helps fill in the turbo lag. Peak torque of 384 lb.-ft. is available from just above idle all the way past 5,000 rpm.

Fuel economy is rated at 8.3 L/100 km on the highway and 11.2 in the city. In real-world highway driving, the E53 would regularly average around 7.5 L/100 km. That’s roughly on par with the Volkswagen Golf GTI’s official consumption figure and far better than the V-8 powered Mercedes E63, which is rated at 10.5 L/100 km on the highway. In other words, the E53 is frugal for a big luxury car that takes off like there’s a jet engine under the hood. It’s no Toyota Prius, but then, the Prius isn’t this good to drive.

The E53 maintains the understatedly handsome styling of the current E-Class.

Matt Bubbers/The Globe and Mail

For those with a need for speed who nevertheless want to lower their carbon footprint, the holy grail is a car that is fast, fun and eco-friendly. Automakers of all sizes are still figuring out how to offer those things at a non-outlandish price. Tesla probably comes closest with the Model 3, but in an electric car, your post-pandemic fantasy road trip would be punctuated be lengthy stays at charging stations. As for gasoline-powered cars, choices are limited, and none are what you could properly call eco-friendly. Audi’s new mild-hybrid A6, Volvo’s plug-in hybrid S60 and V60 Polestar Engineered are good options. The Volvo offers very useful electric-only range (which the Mercedes does not), but the Swedish car is less spacious, and its powertrain and ride don’t feel quite as refined.

Where the E53 falls down is its non-intuitive rotary-dial infotainment system. It’s been around for years, but I’ve never gotten the hang of it. For the 2021 model-year, the E53 is thankfully getting upgraded with the latest touch-pad MBUX infotainment system, which I prefer for its ease of use. Your mileage may vary, of course.

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A few special badges differentiate the E53 from the base E-Class.

Matt Bubbers/The Globe and Mail

The last hurdle here is the price. Nothing from AMG comes cheap, but at $84,900, the E53 seems like reasonable value compared to the $121,000 E63, at least until you start ticking options. For this much coin, you would have hoped the heads-up display and full suite of advanced driver-assistance systems would come standard, but they don’t.

Before we were all told to stay home, the E53 sedan seemed like an ideal road trip vehicle, a real jack of all trades. Back then, we took road trips for granted. Now, after having been inside for more than a month, this writer’s post-pandemic fantasy road trip involves feeling the wind and the sun again. Remember those? Good thing the E53 is also available as a convertible.

Tech specs

  • Base price: $84,900
  • Engine: 3.0-litre turbocharged straight-six, 48-volt mild hybrid
  • Transmission: 9-speed automatic
  • Fuel economy (L/100 km): 11.2 city, 8.3 highway
  • Drive: all-wheel drive
  • Alternatives: Audi A6 55 TFSI, BMW M550i, Volvo S60 Polestar Engineered, Jaguar XF S

Looks

The AMG version of the E-Class sports slightly more aggressive bumpers.

Matt Bubbers/The Globe and Mail

The current Mercedes E-Class has been around since 2017, but it still looks handsome. The E53 adds a smattering of AMG badges and more aggressive bumpers, but maintains the understated appeal of the E-Class.

Interior

The E53's interior comes in a variety of trims.

Handout

The interior design of the E-Class has always felt a little too Baroque, but some people love it. Our test car had piano black trim that looks cheap and shows fingerprints easily. Many other trim options are available, including open-pore wood, at no extra cost.

Performance

A rotary dial hanging off the steering wheel lets you choose from a plethora of driving modes that run the gamut from comfortably luxurious to entertainingly sporty. It can add a bit of fun to any commute without making passengers uncomfortable, but it lacks feedback and is clearly not a track-day weapon.

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Technology

Add the $1,500 heads-up display, the $3,000 package of advanced driver-assistance systems and the $6,900 Burmester stereo and the E53’s price gets uncomfortably high.

Cargo

If you need more cargo space for things like bicycles or strollers, the E53 is available as a station wagon.

The verdict

An excellent all-rounder with an ingenious engine.

The writer was a guest of the automaker. Content was not subject to approval.

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