German Legend vs Chinese Startup (NIO ET7 vs Mercedes-Benz E 350eL)
Issuing time:2022-07-18 20:00
What is it?
The ET7 is a full size, a premium sedan from one of China's best-known automakers, NIO. It is the first of its kind and potentially a big hallmark in the development of Chinese EVs, because it is taking on the premium full-size sedan segment, a category that has long been dominated by European automakers. It will go on sale in Europe later this year, including in Germany.
When NIO debuted this car, they made it clear that their biggest rival wasn't going to be Tesla, but rather the likes of Mercedes-Benz and BMW. What better way to test their assertion than to put it up against one of the benchmarks of the premium European sedan segment, the Mercedes-Benz E-Class.
For this comparison test, we managed to borrow a Mercedes-Benz E 350eL, a plug-in hybrid, extended wheelbase version of the E-Class only available here in China. It should serve as a nice benchmark for understanding the ET7 and what it offers. A comparison with the all-electric EQE would have been more ideal, but the EQE still isn't available here in the Chinese market.
There is no official European price for the ET7 as of yet, but the price tag of 68,000-80,000 USD here in China puts it right in line with the locally produced version of the E-Class. In fact, our top spec model is only a couple thousand dollars more than the E 350eL we borrowed. The asking price of the ET7 can be lowered to as little as 56,000 USD, however, if you choose the battery as a service (BaaS) option, basically buying the car, but leasing the battery from NIO.
A 70 kWh battery pack costs around 150 USD per month, while a 100 kWh pack will set you back 220 USD. We suspect the ET7 will cost more than your standard E-Class when it debuts in Europe, but around the same price, or even less, than an EQE.
Three-box Sedan vs Sleek Liftback
The Mercedes-Benz will serve as the benchmark for this comparison, and what a high bar it sets. Our test car is an E-Class L, which means it has a slightly longer wheelbase than that of a standard E-Class, but that does nothing to dilute its very handsome three box sedan shape. The liberal use of chrome throughout the exterior lets you know that it’s a Mercedes Benz from every angle, and that's a compliment.
The ET7’s approach couldn’t be any more different, but is equally successful. As NIO’s first attempt at a sedan design, it does an admirable job of adapting the design language of the company’s SUV lineup to the sedan shape. The result is a sleek, liftback roofline with a very low coefficient drag of just 0.208. That ties the Tesla Model S and is second only to the Mercedes-Benz EQS.
Apart from the striking Double-Dash daytime running lights, the most noticeable thing about the ET7’s front profile is the so-called “Watchtower” sensor array, which is integrated above the windshield, and includes a center LiDAR flanked by two 8MP cameras.
These are part of the ET7’s Aquila Super Sensing suite, which features a total of 11 8MP high-resolution cameras, one ultralong-range high-resolution LiDAR, five-millimeter wave radars, 12 ultrasonic sensors, two high-precision positioning units, V2X and ADMS.
The flanks of the ET7 are smooth and simple, with the beltline and roofline intersecting at a subtle rear spoiler. The taillight is equally minimalist, but still gives it a very recognizable rear profile.
A comparison to the EQE would seem to be appropriate at this point, but we’re not sure the electric Mercedes would fare very well. It clearly takes after the humpbacked EQS, and while it rivals the ET7 in terms of looking futuristic, we have difficulty calling it beautiful or even good-looking. Others may disagree, but we give the nod for overall design to the ET7 over either German sedan.
Cosseted Luxury vs Airy Minimalism
The inside of the Mercedes-Benz E-Class shows why the company is known for some of the best interior design in the business. Material quality is nearly impeccable, and leaves you feeling cocooned in leather and wood. Despite the two big screens, it definitely feels like the best of old school luxury.
From what we’ve seen of the EQE, it seems to retain the same level of quality, but the optional Hyper Screen seems positively overwhelming. Call it a personal preference, but the sheer amount of fingerprint-attracting black surfaces on that screen gives us anxiety. We haven’t been able to sit inside an EQE, but we have spent time in an EQS equipped with the Hyper Screen, and the experience did nothing to dissuade us from our conclusions.
The E-Class L is considered the gold standard when it comes to transporting people here in China, and it’s easy to see why once you’ve spent a bit of time in the back seat. Rear occupants enjoy just as much soft leather and open pore wood as those in the front, while having plenty of space to stretch out. The seats themselves are soft and supportive, but they do not offer any adjustability, nor do they offer heating, cooling or massaging functions.
In fact, the number of functions and controls available to rear seat passengers is slim, and consist of buttons to open and close the sunroof covers, two USB charging ports and an armrest that looks like it should contain a wireless charging pad, but does not. There are no controls for the media or air conditioning.
Transitioning to the ET7 reveals a very different ethos. The overall look is light and airy, thanks to the combination of big panoramic glass roof and minimalist design, and helps to accentuate the copious amount of passenger space. The design is a departure from the first generation of NIO models, and features hidden air vents and a much smaller, less integrated instrument cluster. You also have a very interesting window switch design, with simple, silver toggles. While only the first row of the E-Class features heated seats, both the first and second row of the ET7 are heated, cooled and massaging.
The overall effect is definitely more Tesla-like than prior NIOs, but the ET7 does retain some of the brand's signature features. Take for example the shifter lever, which remains one of the best, most ergonomic designs available today. They’ve also kept a few physical buttons on the center console, including driving mode, hazards, and a lock and unlock button. The UI on the 12.8-inch center screen is intuitive and easy to navigate.
You can also still option Nomi, the little robotic assistant that sits on the dashboard. It’s a bit gimmicky to be sure, but it’s hard not to be charmed by her little displays and how she turns her to look at you when you talk to her. What's even more fun, however, is the 23 speaker Dolby Atmos surround sound system that comes as standard in the ET7.
The interior material qualities of the NIO are in keeping with its aspirations as a premium vehicle. The Nappa leather is supple and thick, easily outclassing the MB-Tex synthetic leather of the E-Class. Even the plastics feel soft and premium. The only area that lets this car down is the choice to use an environmentally friendly material called Karuun, which is made from Rattan. This material can be found throughout the cabin, including on the center console and door panels.
The choice to use more environmentally friendly materials and processes on their car is a laudable one, but the resulting material doesn’t feel up to par for this class of vehicle. It both looks and feels like cheap, fake wood compared to the open pore wood on that Mercedes-Benz E-Class. It was even possible to find rough seams or cracks in the surfaces that felt rather unpleasant to touch. Hopefully NIO and their supplier can improve the process for this material in the future.
The back seat of the ET7 is absolutely massive, even when compared to the extended wheelbase E-Class. Mounted on the back of the center console is a small, 6.6-inch touchscreen that is used to control functions such as the heated, cooled, and massaging seats, as well as the media and air conditioning.
The sheer size of the ET7’s backseat works against it, however, as adjusting settings on the small screen requires you to lean far forward. A better solution would have been to mount at least some of the controls on the center armrest, but that would no doubt have been the more expensive option. The center armrest is also another source of complaints when it comes to material quality, as the fold-out cupholder feels quite cheap and flimsy when compared to the rest of the interior plastics. We’re nitpicking here, but details like that matter when you’re trying to go head-to-head with ze Germans.
Despite its liftback roofline, the ET7 has a traditional trunk opening with a rather disappointing 364 liters of space, especially when you consider its 5.1m length. Compare that to the standard E-Class, which has 540 liters of space, and the EQE which has 430 liters. It should be mentioned that the only vehicle in this class with even more miserly trunk than the ET7 is the E-Class PHEV that we borrowed for our comparison. Thanks to the added battery pack, its trunk was shallow to the point of uselessness.
Big Bang for Your Buck
This is the part that gets a bit awkward, because comparing a PHEV to EV can seem a bit unfair. However, it’s interesting to know what your money gets you in Mercedes Land versus what it gets you when you buy the Chinese rival.
The E 350eL’s combination of 2.0L turbo four and rear-mounted electric motor put a total of 235 kW and 450 Nm of torque (315 horsepower and 330 pound-feet) through a 9-speed automatic. The claimed 0-100 km/h time of the PHEV Mercedes is reasonable 6.7 seconds, and thanks to its 25.4 kWh battery, it also has a pure electric WLTC range of 101 km (63 miles).
Those numbers feel adequate, until one realizes that all versions of the ET7 come with front and rear mounted electric motors making a total of 480 kW and 850 Nm of torque (644 hp and 630 pound-feet). In order to beat its official 0-100 km/h time of 3.8 seconds, you’d need to spend big money for an AMG Mercedes like the E63 or EQE53, both of which cost over 100,000 USD.
The ET7 can be optioned with a 70 kWh or 100 kWh battery pack, delivering 500 (310 miles) and 700 km (434 miles) of NEDC range, respectively. Like other NIO models, drivers can forego the charging cord and simply swap batteries at one of the company’s 900 battery swapping stations spread throughout China.
Of course, the number everyone remembers from the ET7’s debut is 1000 km (621 miles) of range, but that was contingent on the company’s plan to introduce a 150 kWh solid state battery. NIO says that the promised battery will be available starting later this year. Just for the record, a Mercedes-Benz EQE 350+ has a 90.6-kilowatt-hour battery pack with a WLTP range of 660 kilometers (410 miles).
Fast and Smooth, but Not Sporty
Thanks to those dual motors, the ET7 feels blistering quick, especially after driving the more subdued Mercedes. It’s also extremely smooth, which can be attributed to the fact that all ET7s comes standard with air suspension. Air suspension is optional on E-Classes in other markets, but is not available on the locally-produced E-Class in our comparison.
The handling of E-Class is competent, but not sporty, and that phrase can just as easily be applied to the ET7. In Sport and Sport Plus driving modes, the air suspension keeps body roll and brake dive well under control. With that said, the ET7 definitely feels front-drive biased, with a lot of plowing through corners. This despite the fact that the more powerful motor is mounted in the rear. It also falls behind the E-Class a bit in terms of steering and brake feel, both of which feel more solid on the German sedan.
That's not exactly a killing blow in a segment that emphasizes cruising comfort over raw handling prowess, and indeed, cruising comfort is something that the ET7 delivers in absolute abundance. Put it in Comfort mode and provides pillowy ride, while still remaining composed.
We also had the opportunity to use NIO’s driver assistance system, NIO Pilot. It is one of the first such systems to utilize LiDAR as part of its sensor array, which, according to the company, allows the ET7 to detect objects up to 500m away, and with more reliability than cameras alone, particularly in low-light conditions.
We used the system in various scenarios, and found its behavior to be smooth and predictable, particularly the lane change function. A major update was set to debut right about the time we handed in our test car, so more functions will likely be coming online very soon.
Being an EV, we expected the ET7 to have one-pedal driving, but while regen can be set quite aggressively, it will not bring the car completely to a stop the way that a Tesla would. This is likely a compromise for drivers who NIO hopes to win over from ICE competition like the E-Class.
Mercedes-Benz has been building cars since 1926, while NIO was only founded in 2014, giving the German company has a nearly 100-year head-start on the Chinese. But after driving these two sedans for about a week, we can tell you that the difference between them isn’t as big as you might expect. The Mercedes certainly feels more solid and tank-like than the NIO, but the electric upstart still delivers a winning combination of comfort and performance.
Is the ET7 a better car overall than this Mercedes-Benz E-Class? That’s a question of taste, and whether or not you’re willing to forgo the prestige of the Mercedes badge, but the fact that the ET7 can go blow for blow with one of the absolute legends of the premium sedan segment is truly impressive.
Motor: Front + Rear-mounted
Power: 480 kW, 850 Nm
Battery: 70 or 100 kWh
Range: 500-700km NEDC
100 km/h: 3.8 seconds
CDM Price: 68,400-80,000 USD
Engine: 2.0T 4-cylinder
Total Power: 235 kW, 450 Nm
Battery: 25.4 kWh
EV Range: 101 km WLTC
100 km/h: 6.7 seconds
CDM Price: 78,000 USD