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Does a diesel-powered luxury sedan make sense?

The 2011 Mercedes E 350 BlueTec is a classy, stylish four-door luxury sedan

bob english The Globe and Mail

Overall Rating
The E 350 BlueTec might make sense for someone who can afford a luxury car but covers a lot of kilometres, otherwise go gas. You'll like this car if: you like to travel in style.
Looks Rating
This latest-generation E-Class is a great-looking car with styling that's dramatically modern yet classily elegant.
Interior Rating
Firmly bolstered seats, a hand-filling wheel, bright instruments, easy-to-operate controls, wood, leather, great sound - what's not to like?
Ride Rating
Controlled and disciplined is how this car feels, responding to driver input promptly and dealing with bumps positively but never harshly.
Safety Rating
First, it's a tank, with an un-crushable feel, although designed to do just that to absorb crash energy, and loaded with electronic aids and airbags.
Green Rating
Diesel produces higher emissions than gasoline, but you use much less of it so there's a net green gain.

Conversion to a new religion can manifest itself as an all-truths-suddenly-revealed-slap-on-the-forehead-and-fall-back-into-the-arms-of-fellow-believers moment of ecstasy or a more gradual and rational process of coming to see the light of a new day dawning.

My rebirth as a member the motivational sect founded by Dr. Rudolf Diesel, who surely sits at the right hand of the automotive godhead - at least now that his engine design has undergone a suitable ritual of purification - has been of the latter type.

My earlier writings describing the abominations of diesels - their hammer and anvil demon chatter accompanied by the sulphurous stink of the netherworld that trailed behind in a blue-tinged veil - had validity in their time.

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The diesels of decades ago were truly rather nasty devices that plagued owners with all sorts of devilments in return for a small fiscal reward in driving economy. I could never fathom why anybody would, for a couple of hundred bucks a year, suffer the diesel engine's downsides. Those who were enthusiastic about them tended to be of a wild-eyed messianic bent.

My not-exactly-an-epiphany began a few years ago when I drove across Kazakhstan in a diesel-powered Mercedes-Benz E-Class taxi that went very fast while using very little fuel. It continued with Volkswagen's latest-generation "oil-burners" - as car guys for decades disparagingly called them - and then the subject of this review, the new-for-2011 Mercedes-Benz E 350 BlueTec.

But what finally opened my eyes was driving around the Scottish Highlands a few weeks ago in a 2.0-litre, diesel-engined, six-speed manual equipped Ford S-Max (a kind of compact multi-seat minivan) that kept doing that thing with its onboard mileage meter wherein the distance to empty magically increases as you drive along.

Comfortable, competent and roomy, this Eveready Energizer Bunny of vehicles returned a quite amazing average of 48 mpg (5.8 litres/100 km) and was eminently driveable in all situations. I'm sure many Canadians could happily live with a vehicle like the S-Max given its 1,000-km-plus range and current fuel costs.

Not as many, however, have the wherewithal to choose a Mercedes-Benz E 350 BlueTec and if they do, should they?

Well, the fact it's the latest-generation E-Class speaks for itself. This is, down through the generations, one of the classiest and most stylish iterations of Mercedes' mainstream, four-door sedan. With a quiet, roomy, understated "first-class" style cabin accoutered in leather and wood and, in our $70,900 test unit, fitted with all the amenities, including a comprehensive assortment of the latest electronics to entertain you, allow you to communicate and keep you safe, and a family-sized trunk out back.

Okay, but with perfectly good gas engines on offer should you go diesel with the E 350?

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At $62,500, the E 350 BlueTec is priced essentially the same as the V-6-engined gasoline version, but comes with rear-drive-only, not the all-wheel-drive system standard on all models except the E63 AMG. And that's a trade-off that merits some serious consideration. Given Canadian winters, I'd want the benefits of diesel accompanied by drive to all four wheels.

Engine performance simply isn't an issue. The high-tech, 3.0-litre diesel in the E 350 starts promptly and its diesel rattle, while still evident, is very much muted.

Its rating of 210 hp isn't impressive but its torque production of 400 lb-ft certainly is, and the seven-speed automatic translates this into fluid around-town drivability with plenty of punch available when required. The diesel gets to 100 km/h in 7.8 seconds, while the V-6 gas engine is a pretty much irrelevant half a second quicker.

Fuel price doesn't likely impact the buyer of a Merc E-Class as much as the average Canadian, but nobody likes to waste money and the BlueTec engine delivers great ratings of 9.7 litres/100 km city and 6.1 highway. Figures you might actually come close to in the real world, and which would give the car a theoretical range of about 1,300 km on an 80-litre tank of fuel.

An E 350 premium-gas fuelled V-6 posts ratings of 12.7 city/8.3 highway. In Toronto in late May, when I was driving the car, regular was going for $1.25-$1.31, premium for $1.33-$1.45 and diesel for $1.19-$1.25.

To my mind the lack of AWD is the only reason not to opt for the diesel E 350, but there's also no really compelling reason to do so for those who can afford this class of car.

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Which brings us to that little matter of filling it up, which is - if you can't enlist a lackey to do it for you - diesel's one remaining downside.

Unlike Europe, where most pumps provide both fuels, here you have to go to a separate diesel pump where you often stand on oily-slick concrete and handle a nozzle that will deposit smelly fuel residue on your hands or gloves. I'd put up with this if the smell reminded me of how much money I was saving driving a VW, but not perhaps if I could afford a Mercedes E 350.

Tech specs

2011 Mercedes-Benz E 350 BlueTec

Type: Luxury sedan

Base price: $62,500; as tested, $70,900

Engine: 3.0-litre, DOHC, V-6 turbo-diesel

Horsepower/torque: 210 hp/ 400 lb-ft

Transmission: Seven-speed automatic

Drive: Rear-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 9.7 city/6.1 highway; diesel fuel

Alternatives: Audi A6 , BMW 5-Series, Lexus GS, Lincoln MKS, Volvo S80, Infiniti M, Jaguar XF (none available with diesel engines)

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