Payne: Mercedes’ personality split, electric EQE and gas C300

Posted by Talbot Payne on January 6, 2023

Detroit — The luxury segment is in the midst of a massive identity crisis. Startup automakers Tesla and Rivian have done giant cannonballs into the country club pool, turning over the lawn chairs and turning the heads of swells from their establishment dates. Oh my, who are those handsome young hardbodies?

The establishment has responded with a rush to the wardrobe department. BMW has emerged with kidneys the size of the Fox Theatre marquee. Cadillac is going all-electric behind grilles with more lights than a Trans-Siberian Orchestra concert. GMC bench-pressed a 9,000-pound Hummer pickup. And Volvo birthed a whole new EV brand called Polestar. Phew.

The grand dame of them all, Mercedes, however, just doubled down on making more of its outrageously elegant jewelry.

For 2023 Mercedes has rolled out the electric EQE and the mild-hybrid, internal combustion engine-powered C300. They flaunt similar interiors that are best in luxe — lovely layouts updated for the electronics revolution sweeping the industry. But while the interiors remind that the German maker is autodom’s best tailor, the exoskeletons indicate the different drivetrains behind the signature three-star logo on each grille.

Mercedes envisions different customers for my EV and ICE testers. The EQE is a smartphone on wheels; the C300 bristles with animal aggression to match its engine’s growl.

The 2022 Mercedes C300 4MATIC competes in the compact sedan segment.

Following the Mercedes brand’s six-figure halo EQS, the EQE debuts Mercedes’ electric look in the mid-size sedan class for the eye-watering standard price of $75,950. That’s $20K north of the gas-fired E-class, and Merc doesn’t even pretend that the pair are competitors.

On its website, Mercedes separates EVs into a separate “Electrics” category, indicating the EQE’s desire to compete against vehicles like the Tesla Model 3 and BMW i4.

“I think this is the most compelling competitor to Tesla,” said my 30-year-old son Sam after negotiating a tight turning radius with the Merc’s four-wheel-steer feature.

Sure, Tesla wows with its “Summon” feature — but is it as practical as Merc’s steering function?

The infotainment screen in the 2023 Mercedes EQE 350 4MATIC is housed in a bezeled tablet that sweeps up toward the dash.

From 4WS to auto-lane-changing, EQE goes head-on against Tesla’s signature sci-fi tech while maintaining its reputation for elegance. The interior’s centerpiece is a gorgeous 12.3-inch console screen housed in a silver-framed tablet that rolls up the dash like a wave. A 17.7-inch-wide Hyperscreen — which dominates the dash with a separate 12.3-inch screen for the passenger — is also available, but the standard screen is plenty. The screen runs on Merc’s latest MBUX software and the graphics are mesmerizing, the response instant, its ergonomics superb (flipping through radio channels, for example).

“Hey, Mercedes” I barked and the vehicle intently took down directions. It’s good, if not on par with Tesla/Google Maps. Happily for customers who prefer their phone, Android or Apple phones can take over the screen via wireless, smartphone apps.

The benefit of Merc’s native navigation system is its use of EQE’s head-up display (a feature not available on Teslas) to full effect. The massive display projects detailed directions in the driver’s line of sight. Though Mercedes’ driver-assistance system is shy of Tesla’s Autopilot and GM’s Super Cruise in capability, it will entertain you on your journey with features like auto lane change. The interior is the anti-Tesla with lush materials, ambient lighting and beautifully detailed instruments throughout.

The interior of the 2023 Mercedes EQE 350 4MATIC is simpler than its gas counterparts (like the exterior), but features similar screens and MBUX operating system.

Heading downtown to the Fisher Theatre, I pulled the console stalk into DRIVE, then set adaptive cruise control on the steering wheel. EQE glided along like a magic carpet with whisper-quiet, buttery-smooth acceleration. My phone charged in the center console on a wireless pad.

I barely drove the car — just keeping my hand on the wheel to assure the system that I was awake.  Occasionally, I flicked the turn signals for automatic passes when balked by slower traffic. Mercedes complements this laptop-on-wheels experience with an exterior design that looks like a giant computer mouse.

Though punctuated by a big three-star logo in front, the design feels generic — a contrast to the unique bling-tastic interior.

You'll know the 2022 Mercedes C300 4MATIC is gas-powered by its big rear exhaust pipes.

For those who ache for exterior drama, the C300 delivers.

The compact Merc sat on its rear-wheel-drive haunches in my driveway. Long snout sniffing the turf. Big grille, meaty jowls. A predator waiting to pounce.  It’s a dramatically different statement than the Giant Mouse.

Enthusiasts will blanche at the turbo-4 drivetrain (a $60K jewel with a similar engine to a Volkswagen GTI? Really?) but at least Merc massages it with the latest goodies. A mild-hybrid, 48-volt battery provides low-end torque until the turbos kick in. Speaking of kicking in, I punched the Mode selector to SPORT + and the C300 did a credible launch control, complete with engine growl that warmed my heart. For all its instant electric torque, the EQE can’t inspire that emotion.

As with the EQE, allow me to recommend the C300’s all-wheel drive for Michigan winters.

The posh interior of the 2022 Mercedes C300 4MATIC includes leather seats and panoramic roof.

The C300’s real revelation is an interior on par with the sci-fi EQE. Even the rear seats are reasonably roomy despite that long hood and gas-powered engine in front. The same MBUX infotainment system is here, and it’s just as impressive in a compact cabin as in a mid-sizer.

The Mercs suffer from that old German habit of over-engineering. Rather than put simple, efficient scroll wheels on the steering wheel for adaptive cruise (see the intuitive GMC Yukon Denali I was testing at the same time) and volume controls, Merc insists on smartphone-like swipe technology that is hit or miss — especially when you’re at speed.

The high-tech head-up display in the 2022 Mercedes C300 4MATIC even shows a detailed navigation map.

You could spend weeks in the Mercedes exploring their electronic goo-gaws. But the bottom line of this review of siblings is the bottom line.

The E300 delivers a similar buttery-smooth drivetrain (including identical 5.3-second, 0-60 mph acceleration) and interior experience to the buttery-smooth EQE EV for $30,000 less. Not to mention all the inherent travel advantages of a gas car versus an EV. In sync with its impressive navigation software, EQE can identify charging stations on the way to your long-distance destination. But the E300 will get you there more quickly with America’s ubiquitous gasoline infrastructure.

Impressively, Mercedes doesn’t break stride in offering these two electrified gems. Compare them to, say, BMW electric-vehicle creations like the i3 hybrid and iX EV — polarizing vehicles that challenge customer loyalty. Whether you’re a new or longtime customer, Merc’s 2023 models display a brand very comfortable with its identity.

Next week: Taking the Ford F-150 Lightning off-road

2022 Mercedes C300 4MATIC

Vehicle type: Front-engine, all-wheel-drive five-passenger sedan

Price: $46,600, including $1,050 destination fee ($63,440 AMG Line as tested)

Powerplant: 2.0-liter turbo-4 cylinder with 48-volt mild-hybrid assist

Power:  255 horsepower, 295 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 9-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.3 seconds (Car and Driver). Top speed, 130 mph

Weight: 3,957 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA, 23 mpg city/33 highway/27 combined

Report card

Highs: Modern, lovely interior; sexy exterior

Lows: Over-engineered controls; 4-banger doesn’t match luxury wardrobe

Overall: 3 stars

2023 Mercedes EQE 350 4MATIC

Vehicle type: Battery-powered, all-wheel-drive five-passenger sedan

Price: $78,950, including $1,150 destination fee ($93,840 as tested)

Powerplant: 90.6 kWh lithium-ion battery with dual-electric motors

Power: 288 horsepower, 564 pound-feet torque

Transmission: Single-speed direct drive

Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.3 seconds (Car and Driver); top speed, 130 mph

Weight: 5,488 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA MPGe 97 (est.); range, 300 miles (est.)

Report card

Highs: Modern, lovely interior; all-wheel-steer maneuverability

Lows: Generic exterior; gets pricey

Overall: 3 stars

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at or Twitter @HenryEPayne.

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