Mercedes-Benz builds a wide variety of vehicles, including sport coupes and SUVs. But it’s the company’s luxury sedans that make and maintain its reputation and prestige. So the all- new 2003 E-Class is a very important car for Germany’s best known luxury marque. The previous E-Class was an exceptional sedan, easily setting the standards for its middleweight class. So what about the new E-Class? Is it more than more of the same?
Well, in the case of the new E-Class, having more of the same means having a lot more than any other car in its class. While the architecture may be familiar, we found our 2003 Mercedes-Benz E500 to be packed with innovation and refinement , refinement most obvious in the sleek new lines, which have a more youthful, stirring, aggressive appeal. The wedge-shaped, aluminum intensive body draws the eye towards the laid-back four- lens front end, making the E look hunched forward, ready to spring. The more tapered tail is less aggressive, with a lip on the trunk lid and distinctively Mercedes SL tail lamps. This sporty-yet-dignified design, which rides on a slightly longer wheelbase than before, is supported by our E500’s 17-inch wheels and 245/45 ZR tires.
But between the body and wheels, the innovation really starts. It’s a new 4-link front and 5-link rear suspension, which on the E500 is now mated to a version of the S-Class’s Airmatic Dual Control suspension, a first for a high volume Mercedes. Airmatic simultaneously adjusts shock damping, air spring stiffness, and drive height with the goal of a sport and comfort suspension in one. The driver can further select three shock absorber damping settings, Comfort, Sport 1, and Sport 2. While Sport 1 tightens things up nicely, Sport 2 yields a car that handles far better than a 3,800 pound luxury sedan has any right to! Unlike most big 4-doors, there is almost no front plow, turn-in is instant and precise, with the E500 feeling precision balanced from corner entry to exit. Gone is the modest body roll of Comfort and Sport 1. The Sport 2 mode keeps the chassis virtually flat. The power rack-and-pinion steering is faster and more responsive, if still lacking in feel.
While the E500 handles like a slot car, it still delivers a silky ride. Naturally the smoothest ride is in Comfort mode. That setting easily soaks up bumps, transmitting little noise or vibration to the cabin. Our only complaint is that the Comfort produces a bit more float over choppy pavement than we’d like, but it’s still the best setting for day-in and day-out driving. The most popular new E500 gadget for long distances will likely be another S-Class derivative, Distronic adaptive cruise control. Using radar, it automatically maintains a safe distance from the car in front.
But the E500’s engine can close any distance quickly. It’s a new 5.0-liter single-overhead- cam V8. It’s shared with the big S500 sedan, as well as the CL500 and SL500 coupes. Up from 4.3-liters last year, V-8 output is 302 horsepower and 339 pound-feet of torque, and it’s classified as an Ultra Low Emission Vehicle. Last year’s 221 horsepower 3.2-liter V6 returns in the E320. The only transmission is a 5-speed adaptive automatic, with Touch Shift manual mode. The V8 and 5-speed gearbox are ultra-smooth. With a fly-by-wire throttle, they propel the E500 to 60 in only 5.7 seconds. The 1/4 mile flows quickly by in 14.1 seconds at 102 miles-per-hour. The power band is wide and flat, and vibration almost nonexistent. We found little speed advantage in using Touch Shift, since the standard automatic setting is so efficient.
Efficiency is also the aim of the E-Class’ standard electronic braking system. Stops from 60 averaged a fine 124 feet. The ultra-sensitive pedal feel takes a bit of getting used to, but power and stability are first rate.
The classy, brighter cabin gets similar accolades. Its eye-catching design, superb materials, and long list of standard features should please even the most discriminating buyer. The standard 10-way power front seats are very firm, but super-supportive. Heat and ventilation are available, as is a new Drive Dynamic air cushion system that adjusts support depending on vehicle cornering motion. A massage function is included, too. The gauges and trip computer readout are expectedly large and clear, as are the thankfully now far more intuitive switchgear for the standard 4-zone climate controls and CD stereo. Now, if they would just stick the stereo above climate we’d love it. For those who love a challenge, Mercedes’ latest DVD COMAND navigation system is also available.
The rear is as comfortable as the front, with wide, supportive seats, and enough head and leg room for even tall folks. And to top it off, there’s a huge, 15.9 cubic-foot trunk.
The price for all this, and more, starts at $47,615 for the E320. Step up to the E500, and the base price is $55,515. With options, our E500 test car rolls off the dealer’s lot for $58,810.
The 2003 Mercedes-Benz E-Class sedan offers today’s luxury car buyer everything that yesterday’s buyer expected, and then some! It’s much more than more of the same and again resets the lofty standards of the prestige middleweight class.
Engine: 5.0-Liter Single-overhead- Cam V8
Torque: 339 Lb Feet
0-60 MPH: 5.7 Seconds
1/4 Mile: 14.1 Seconds @ 102 MPH
60-0 MPH: 124 Feet
EPA Mileage: 17 MPG City 24 MPG Highway