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First drive review: 2021 Mercedes-AMG E53 scintillates with smooth performance

First drive review: 2021 Mercedes-AMG E53 scintillates with smooth performance

After a few minutes in the 2021 Mercedes-AMG E53 sedan, I have to get out and check the badge on the trunklid. Is this really an E-Class and not the smaller, sportier C-Class? The mid-size E-Class has always been smooth, but when did it become so fun to drive?

Sure enough, I’m in the refreshed 2021 E53 sedan, and there is no such thing as a C53 (maybe there should be). The E53’s sporty character dates back to when it was introduced for the 2019 model year, but this car is updated with a revised look and new technology, including a first-of-its kind steering wheel.

The steering wheel is part of the fun, and it represents most of what’s new about the 2021 Mercedes-AMG E53. It’s a chunky, small-diameter, flat-bottom AMG wheel that feels sporty because of its size and the urgency with which the car reacts when it’s turned. It’s also a control hub for many of the interior displays and drive modes, and it helps drivers relax when using the car’s driver-assistance system.

The new wheel has a dual-spoke design, a heating element, and a capacitive touch matt that serves two purposes.

When the car is equipped with the optional Driver Assistance package—like my tester—it provides hands-free driving on highways for up to a minute at a time. It then requires me to put my hands back on the wheel, but unlike other systems, I don’t have to apply torque to the wheel to show the system I’m paying attention. Instead, that capacitive touch pad wrapped around the steering rim detects my hands and I can hold on loosely and still let the system steer the car.

The car stays in the middle of the lane on straight stretches, but tends to pinball between lane lines through sharper corners, and the system gives up completely in intersections where there are no lines. It doesn’t let me keep my hands off the wheel for hours at a time like GM’s Super Cruise, but at this stage of autonomous driving development, I prefer to pay attention and be ready for when the system won’t work. Not having to apply pressure once my hands are back on the wheel makes for a more relaxing experience on longer drives.

The wheel’s capacitive touch buttons also serve as the nerve center for the new digital instrument cluster and, if you like, the new MBUX infotainment system. The left buttons control the gauges and offer AMG-specific screens, including performance information like auxiliary gauges, a G meter, and real-time horsepower and torque, plus a Supersport-themed screen with a large central tachometer.

The right buttons can work the center infotainment screen, as can touch controls, voice commands, and a track pad on the center console. The center screen is the home for the new MBUX infotainment system, which responds to commands preceded by saying “Hey Mercedes.” It also overlays augmented reality directions on a forward camera view when a navigation destination is programmed. As an AMG model, the system also includes a track app that records telemetry during track driving.

2021 Mercedes-AMG E53

2021 Mercedes-AMG E53

2021 Mercedes-AMG E53

2021 Mercedes-AMG E53

2021 Mercedes-AMG E53

2021 Mercedes-AMG E53

Titillating tiller

Despite all this technology, the steering wheel works best when steering the car. The front end bites hard and turns sharply in response to the nicely weighted, direct steering, making the E-Class feel smaller than its mid-size proportions.

Air springs at all four corners carry over and help fight body lean in corners. The adjustable, adaptive dampers return as well, but the 2021 model’s suspension tuning is revised for a larger delta between its soft and firm settings. Softer bushings and revised damper software make the E53 more comfortable in its Comfort mode and just as dynamic in its Sport and Sport+ modes. The baseline in Comfort remains firm but never harsh, and the sportier modes amp up the responsiveness without turning the car into a paint shaker.

The powertrain is also just slightly tweaked, not that it needed a change. It’s a turbocharged 3.0-liter inline-6 that makes 429 horsepower and 384 pound-feet of torque. A 48-volt electrical system spins an electric turbocharger to help reduce turbo lag and build power quickly. It also runs an integrated starter-generator that adds up to 21 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque and helps the stop/start system work smoothly. That’s all hooked to a 9-speed automatic transmission that shuttles the power to all four wheels via a sport-tuned all-wheel-drive system Mercedes calls 4Matic+.

Mercedes made adjustments to the powertrain for better drivability, and it’s all well-integrated. In fact, the powerplant delivers its thrust so smoothly that it doesn’t feel the car is moving as fast as it is. Mercedes quotes a 4.3-second 0-60 mph time, and that run goes by without the fuss and rumble of a V-8. The engine is smoother and quieter, though it does howl and spit out pops and crackles in Sport+ mode.

Controls on the center console and steering wheel cycle through driving modes and a pair of tabs at the 8 o’clock position around the steering wheel hub lets drivers change individual parameters like damper stiffness, exhaust note, start/stop—basically anything other than throttle response. I like the idea of staying in one driving mode and changing the behavior of various systems to suit the type of driving. However, throttle response and damper settings are the two systems I’d most often want to change and I don’t understand why Mercedes left out the engine behavior.

2021 Mercedes-AMG E53

2021 Mercedes-AMG E53

2021 Mercedes-AMG E53

2021 Mercedes-AMG E53

2021 Mercedes-AMG E53

2021 Mercedes-AMG E53

Refreshing refresh

The Mercedes-AMG E53 is part of a larger 2021 E-Class refresh. In addition to the tech upgrades, all E-Classes get a revised look, and the E53 has a design of its own.  It gets a new AMG front grille with vertical slats, an A-wing shaped front bumper, redesigned LED headlights, new two-piece taillights split between the rear fenders and trunk, and a revised rear bumper with a new diffuser insert.  It also comes standard with staggered 19-inch tires on aero-optimized wheels that might even be uglier than the chrome version of Mercedes-AMG’s monoblock wheels. The car’s overall look is an appropriate mix of luxury and sport, and it comes off much better with the blacked out wheels shown in the pictures.

Priced from $74,950, the 2021 Mercedes-AMG E53 ticks a lot of boxes. It’s sporty and powerful, and even ready for some track driving, though it doesn’t have the brakes, grippy tires, or cooling to handle long stretches on the track. It’s also luxurious and spacious inside, and it’s packed with the latest safety and infotainment technology.

The latest E-Class, especially in E53 guise, wraps around the driver to deliver the kind of driving fun expected in a would-be C53 model. The changes made for 2021 only serve to make the best generation of the E-Class even better.

Mercedes-Benz provided three days in a 2021 Mercedes-AMG E53 for Internet Brands Automotive to bring you this firsthand report.

READ MORE: https://www.motorauthority.com/news/1130150_first-drive-review-2021-mercedes-amg-e53-scintillates-with-smooth-performance

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