LAS VEGAS – In an era of Wall Street Ponzi schemes, non-existent bonuses and evaporating retirement savings, it is refreshing to drive a vehicle so secure it is known as a bank vault.

The Mercedes-Benz E-Class sedan has been called just that for decades because of its rock-solid chassis stability and impressive crash-safety credentials. Now the metaphor conveys another meaning beyond vehicle dynamics: conservative automotive investment rather than reckless indulgence.

With today’s unstable economy, and 401K plans losing as much as 50% of their value since last year, the ninth-generation, ’10 E-Class may be one of the safest places you now can figuratively – if not literally – put your cash.

It may not be the trendiest car, but it does have nine airbags to protect driver and passengers, plus a stronger, lighter body shell that uses 47% more high-strength steel than the previous model. That’s more exciting than avant garde styling if you’re in a crash.

Just like today’s 401K, the Mercedes is a depreciating asset, but unlike most sorry retirement plans, the E-Class can give a relaxing massage when you are stressed. If you’ve been losing sleep about the falling value of your vacation home, a standard drowsiness detection warns you if you start to nod off while driving.

In an emergency, the optional radar-based braking system protects by automatically making a panic stop. And before it stomps on the brakes prior to an imminent collision, the Mercedes Pre-Safe system takes numerous preemptive measures to limit injury, including cinching up the seatbelts, moving seat positions for optimal airbag deployment and closing the sunroof and windows.

Did the folks who run your 401K take any preemptive measures or do anything to cushion the blow before last year’s stock market crash?

Okay, we are not seriously suggesting anyone stop contributing to their retirement fund to make car payments, but the luxury vehicle market clearly is changing and Mercedes is pulling out the stops to sell the new E-Class as a value proposition rather than a vain personal reward or sexy piece of rolling sculpture to impress the neighbors.

To underscore its intentions, Mercedes reduced the price of the base gasoline V-6 model 8.7% compared with the outgoing ’09 version, from $53,200 to $48,600 (not including an $875 destination charge). A spokesman argues it actually is a 10.2% reduction because value-added features such as Attention Assist, knee and pelvic airbags and an adaptive suspension damping system have been added at no extra cost.

Mercedes may be better known for its big S-Class sedans and extravagant roadsters, but it is the midsize, high-volume E-Class sedan and all its varied configurations that carry the auto maker’s water. Mercedes has produced more than 10 million E-Class sedans during the past 60-plus years, and by sheer global volume it defines the Mercedes brand more than any other model.

Bernie Glaser, general manager-product management, Mercedes-Benz North America Inc., readily acknowledges this launch by far is the auto maker’s most important for the year.

The E-Class sedan and coupe go on sale in the U.S. in June with V-6 and V-8 engine options, followed by the introduction of all-wheel-drive 4matic models in September and a 518-hp E63 AMG model in November.

The diesel-powered E350 BlueTec debuts in March 2010 and an all-wheel-drive wagon rounds out the lineup the following June.

For the ’10 model year, the E-Class has been restyled inside and out and grown slightly in size, but aside from the highly advanced electronic and safety features, the changes are evolutionary. The V-6 and V-8 engines are carried over. All models – even AWD versions – now will be equipped with a standard 7-speed automatic transmission with a column-mounted electronic shifter that frees up precious real estate on the center console.

The new AWD system also is more compact and lighter.

The last time Mercedes took a big gamble with the E-Class’s styling was in 1995 when it shifted to a then-startling twin-headlamp face. That look since has been widely imitated, but for this latest generation, stylists chose a more cautious approach that freshens the design without changing it much.

’10 Mercedes-Benz E350
Vehicle type Front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, 5-passenger sedan
Engine 3.5L DOHC V-6
Power (SAE net) 268 hp @ 6000 rpm
Torque 258 lb. ft. @ 2,400
Transmission 7-speed automatic
Wheelbase 113.1 ins. (287 cm)
Overall length 191.7 ins. (486 cm)
Overall height 75.9 ins. (193 cm)
Curb weight 3,891 lbs. (1,765 kg)
Base price $48,600
Fuel economy 18/25 city/highway (13-9.4 L/100 km)
Competition BMW 5-Series, Audi A6, Cadillac CTS, Lexus GS
Pros Cons
Good luxury value V-6 lacks personality
Advanced safety features V-8 getting old
Supremely comfortable seats Baroque interior design

Designers also are further hedging their bets by offering “luxury” and “sport” versions of the model with significantly different exterior and interior visual cues, in addition to technical and performance features, to attract the widest buyer demographic possible.

The most noticeable difference of the new design is that Mercedes did away with the established oval headlamps and shifted to an angular cubist design that aims to make the car’s four “eyes” resemble gem stones. The signature grille has been made more angular as well.

The previous model’s rather flat exterior surfaces now are more sculpted, with lots of intersecting convex and concave surfaces. The rear fenders are subtly contoured while a sweeping character line stretches over the rear wheel arches to emphasize their more muscular form.

Mercedes also claims the E-Class is the world’s most aerodynamically efficient luxury sedan, with a drag coefficient of 0.25, 4% better than its predecessor. The Cd of the U.S.-spec version is a slightly higher 0.28, mainly because it is equipped with fatter tires.

Inside, designers opted for a conservative, angular design that unfortunately does not work as well as the exterior. There are lots of sharp, intersecting lines on the instrument panel and door trim panels that create a visually busy appearance that the head designer at a competitor criticizes as “baroque.”

And at least one interior trim level offered uses an excessive amount of burl walnut wood trim in an effort to be “classic” but instead borders on being anachronistic.

On the positive side, the 14-way adjustable power front seats are extraordinarily supportive and comfortable. The upholstery and craftsmanship on all trim levels provide a sumptuous feel and the optional seat-back massage function, previously available only on the S-Class, is a glorious guilty pleasure. Interior ambient lighting, also taken from the S-Class, is another masterful design touch.

The car’s human/machine interface, Mercedes’ version of the iDrive, also is intuitive and user-friendly.

The car’s most outstanding features, though, are its advanced safety related electronics. Making its industry debut as a standard feature in the E-Class, Attention Assist does not use a camera to monitor eye movements to detect drowsiness.

Instead, it couples a steering movement sensor with intelligent software that can identify the erratic steering corrections drivers make as they grow drowsy. When the system senses a sleepy driver, a warning message appears on the instrument cluster saying “Time for a rest?”

Mercedes says the system is sophisticated enough to disregard sporty driving involving high cornering speeds and lane changes, and is simpler than camera-based systems. We tried to trick the system into thinking we were drowsy during two days of test drives and never succeeded.

The E-Class also offers a dizzying array of other electronic safety options now expected on a luxury car in this price category, including blind-spot detection, lane-keeping assist, night vision and Distronic active cruise control. But the true innovation comes from Mercedes’ integration of the systems to provide added functions.

Distronic tied into the car’s Brake Assist and Pre-Safe systems allows the car to first warn the driver 2.6 seconds before a potential collision and pump up brake pressure necessary for a panic stop. If the driver does not react to the warning beep and blinking light, the system automatically triggers 40% of total braking power 1.6 seconds before impact.

About 0.6 seconds before collision, the system applies full emergency braking if the driver still has not responded.

Mercedes allowed us to evaluate this feature on a test track with a soft foam target taking the place of an actual vehicle. We found the system highly effective. While it will not eliminate collisions, it promises to substantially reduce collision impact speeds and injury to drivers who, for whatever reason, are unable to react quickly enough in an emergency.

Hopefully the price of all these separate systems and the ability to network them will come down in the future and popularly priced vehicles will benefit as well.

On the road, the new E-Class sedan remains true to its bank-vault heritage, with stable, on-center steering that is rock solid but still capable of delivering road feel.

The standard 268-hp 3.5L V-6 dutifully goes about its business, but is starting to feel dated. With 258 lb.-ft. (350 Nm) of torque, 87% available at 1,500 rpm, the engine delivers decent acceleration, hitting 60 mph (97 km/h) in 6.5 seconds. But it lacks the sporting intake noise and exhaust note that we expect from a luxury sedan with a base price near $50,000.

Many premium brands, including Cadillac, Infiniti and Lexus – in addition to Mercedes’ traditional European competitors – offer better 6-cyl. engines with higher specific outputs and more personality. This V-6 is adequate, but living on borrowed time.

The optional 5.5L 382-hp V-8 offers a throaty burble at idle and low speeds and a hearty roar during hard acceleration, as well as 391 lb.-ft. (530 Nm) of torque that brings up 60 mph in just 5.2 seconds.

Even so, its specific output is low compared with the newest V-8s from BMW AG, Audi AG and even Hyundai Motor Co. Ltd.

Yet, despite a few shortcomings, the new E-Class remains a strong value proposition. It’s practical and luxurious, and wrapped up in an attractive, durable package that is extremely safe and won’t go out of style for many years.

Not long ago everyone sneered at conservative investment strategies. Now, we all know, being conservative is the smart way to go. The same can be said for luxury car strategies.

dwinter@wardsauto.com