2003 Mercedes-Benz E-Class - Print Version
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Moving toward the head of the class

written by J.P. Vettraino


The Mercedes-Benz E-Class cars have been re-engineered from the axles up for the 2003 model year. Mercedes has redefined its traditional best seller with loads of new technology, a sensuously athletic new look and more youthful, vigorous driving dynamics.

The E-Class has never been the biggest, fastest nor most technically sophisticated of the Mercedes-Benz cars, but it is surely the most recognizable Mercedes in the world. The company's mid-line E-Class luxury sedan is a fixture from Burbank to Berlin to Baghdad.

The E-Class was knocked from the top of Mercedes' U.S. sales chart in 2001 for the first time ever, replaced by the compact C-Class sedan and coupe. The switch, more than likely, is an anomaly. Since World War II, the E-Class has accounted for nearly half of Mercedes' worldwide sales. Without major updates since 1995, the outgoing E-Class might have grown stale in the buying public's eye, and it still averaged 50,000 sales annually for the past five years.

The importance of the E-Class in Mercedes' lineup brings an important benefit for consumers: The company spent four full years and nearly $2 billion developing the all-new 2003 model. By any measure, that's serious investment. Clearly, the company in Stuttgart is flexing its muscles for a real show of force. It appears BMW and Audi have cause for concern here.


Model Lineup

The Mercedes-Benz E-Class comes in two variants, the more popular V6-powered E320 and the V8-powered E500.

E320 ($46,950) comes loaded with the standard equipment buyers expect in this class, starting with fully automatic dual-zone climate control, a power tilt and telescoping steering wheel, 10-way power front seats, real walnut trim, a 10-speaker stereo, power windows with one-touch operation up and down, auto-dimming mirrors and rain-sensing windshield wipers.

E500 ($54,850) has been gaining sales ground on the E320 in recent years. For 2003, the V8's engine displacement has increased from 4.3 liters to 5.0 liters (hence the name change from E430 to E500), with a corresponding increase of 29 horsepower. Besides more power, the E500 adds standard equipment, including four-zone climate control with separate temperature adjustments for both sides of the cabin, front and rear, and the new Airmatic Dual Control suspension.

Our test car, an E500, came with several options, starting with the E-Class sport package (high-intensity headlights, dark-tinted glass and aggressive looking body cladding). It also had heated seats and steering wheel, a hands-free telephone package, the see-through, all-glass Panorama sunroof and a 420-watt Harman Kardon stereo upgrade with six-disc, in-dash CD changer. These extras brought the sticker to $62,405.

All the options on our E500 are also available on the E320, and there are dozens more offered on both cars. Popular choices include radar-managed Distronic adaptive cruise control, which maintains a set distance from cars ahead, and the Keyless Go system, which can unlock the doors and start the car by touching the door handle and gear selector. Parktronic obstacle warning helps with parking and enhances safety by alerting the driver to objects behind the car. Also available: GPS navigation, a DVD-capable in-dash information management system; voice operation for the phone, audio controls and navigation system; ventilated massaging seats; and solar-powered interior ventilation. This is a luxury car, so there's even a power trunk closer.

By the first of the year, Mercedes will launch the mighty E55, performance-tuned by subsidiary AMG with a supercharged V8 producing 493 horsepower (and that's no typo). Expect a premium of at least $10,000 over the E500.

The E320 wagon continues, though it will be built from the old E-Class sedan at least through 2003. A wagon based on the new-generation E-Class should arrive by 2004.



The new Mercedes E-Class is slightly larger than its predecessor. It's nearly an inch longer in wheelbase and overall length and it's a half-inch taller in overall height. Mercedes' mid-size sedan is also 50-100 pounds heavier, depending on the model. Yet the weight increase is hardly significant, given more standard equipment and improved crash protection. The 2003 E-Class is the first Mercedes to use aluminum body components extensively, starting with the hood, front fenders, trunk lid and front subframe.

You won't notice any of that when you circle the E and then step back for a critical inspection. What you'll notice is how handsome this machine is. Mercedes-Benz has put a new emphasis on styling of late, and the E-Class may be the best example yet.

The E-Class looks like a smaller S-Class, only better. The four-headlight theme introduced on the previous E-Class, now the standard at Mercedes, has been refined to a more sophisticated level. The new E's front end seems lower, and it's more steeply raked. Every line from one end of the car to the other flows and blends. The new E-class is more fluid and graceful than the old, which seems doughty in comparison. The design produces an impressive 0.27 coefficient of drag (great for minimizing wind noise and maximizing fuel economy), but the look is the thing. It's stylish, for certain.

Our E500 wore a glossy, non-metallic deep gray topcoat, very German, very cool. The sport package is distinguished by its dark glass, aggressive-looking wheels and very low ride height for a standard sedan. In a week that included visits to restaurants, a 30-screen movie theater and open house at the local junior high, we heard the word gorgeous five or six times from passersby.

This is a Mercedes-Benz, a brand identified for decades by technological advancements, so there's more to the new E-Class than meets the eye. Underneath are a redesigned multilink suspension, structural enhancements and new technology that delivers tangible benefits to both driver and passengers. Much of this is trickle-down from Mercedes' engineering flagships: the full-size, $120,000 CL600 Coupe and the $90,000 SL roadster.

One such system is Sensotronic Brake Control, which might be called brake-by-wire. The connection between the brake pedal and reservoir of brake fluid is electronic, not mechanical or hydraulic. The advantage? The electronic system can apply brake force to each wheel independently, helping to keep the car traveling straight and true during panic stops, even on bumpy, uneven roads. It will also keep the brakes on full in an emergency situation, as measured by sensors, even if driver eases off, a common mistake. And if it's raining, the system periodically, lightly, applies the brakes to sweep them dry.

Airmatic Dual Control suspension, standard on our E500 and included with the sport package option on the E320, replaces conventional steel coil springs with air springs. This computer-managed system adds more or less air pressure to the spring at each wheel, based on road conditions or driving style, to slightly soften or firm the ride and add or decrease body roll (the left or right lean when the car turns). In combination with electronically adjusted shock absorbers, the ADC suspension can automatically improve ride quality or handling characteristics, or optimize the balance of the two, depending on where the car is traveling and whether the driver is dawdling or going quickly. The system works automatically, without switching suspension settings between sport and comfort.

No new Mercedes would be complete without safety advances. E-Class cars come standard with eight airbags (dual front airbags, side bags for front and rear, and head-protection curtains that run the length of the cabin on both sides). The 2003 E-Class also employs a new airbag management system with more impact sensors, designed to more precisely control the timing and rate of deployment. The system accounts for the weight of a front-seat passenger, and controls seat belt pretensioners according to the force of impact.


Interior Features

The 2003 Mercedes E-Class is as attractive inside as it is outside. The dashboard applies what Mercedes calls a "double sweep" cockpit theme, meaning that the lines sweep from each side and blend into the doors and center console. The wood trim (maple stained nearly black with the sport package) is complemented by splashes of chrome throughout. The plastic panels, quite rich in the old E-Class, are even better thanks to a new soft-touch finishing process. All are sprayed with a polyurethane coating that delivers impressively consistent color and appearance.

The instrument cluster has white script on black gauges with sharp LED lighting, creating little eyestrain even after hours in the driver's seat. There's a big speedometer in the middle, with a menu-operated display for diagnostics, feature selection, ambient temperature, date and other information at the speedo's center. To the left sits a large analog clock, to the right the tachometer. On either end of the cluster are neat bar gauges that resemble thermometers, displaying fuel level and coolant temperature.

Overhead, dual sun visors on both sides allow driver and passenger to swing one across the side window and still have full protection in front. Between the visors on the headliner sit a cluster of switches controlling cabin lighting and the telematic SOS call button. On our E500, this panel also included a switch to open and close the expansive sunroof shade, which unrolls front and rear from the center of the cabin. Switches for the Homelink package are located on the bottom of the rearview mirror. The new E-Class has duplicate controls on the steering wheel hub to operate the phone, radio and information display.

Climate controls are set across a narrow strip below the center dash vents and above the radio controls. The E-Class features set-and-forget automatic operation, but it also allows full manual override of heating or air conditioning, and full control of airflow for foot, dash or windshield vents. Moreover, besides the separate temperature adjustments, the E-Class allows different airflow directions on either side of the car, via simple radial dials for both driver and passenger. The passenger can choose heat from the foot vents, for example, while the driver selects dash vents. The heating and cooling controls are easy to find and operate.

We can't say the same about the main audio and telephone controls. Centered around a new LCD display screen, the buttons look better than those in some competitors, but they can be much more difficult to operate. The multi-layer E-Class system is actually an improvement over that in the more expensive S-Class, but it still isn't particularly easy to use. We presume that a driver gets used to such things, but it will take time in this car. Be prepared to invest time learning the audio and phone controls.

Below the audio package is a single row of switches for door locks, flashers and seat heaters. A pop-up panel reveals the CD changer. The console has a pop-up cupholder and a large storage bin (two when not equipped with the telephone package). There are good-sized bins in each door and map pockets on the front seat backs. The glove-box release is all the way left on the box, within easy reach of the driver, next to a slide-out change drawer. The glove-box has a full-length dividing shelf, but it's not particularly large.

The front seats are first ratefirm enough for good support, but not hard. We can't speak for those of large stature, but drivers of medium build or smaller will certainly appreciate them. Some seats leave smaller drivers sliding across the surface between the bolsters when the car changes direction. The E-Class seats grip firmly, even if you weight less than 180 pounds, and there's more than enough adjustment (using Mercedes' patented seat-shaped controls) to accommodate just about everyone.

There's plenty of headroom and decent legroom in back, though there could be more. Unless the front seat bottoms are raised all the way (likely only with short drivers), there isn't enough room for rear passengers to slide their feet under them, depriving the long-legged of some valuable stretching space. Beyond that, the E-Class's back seat has nearly all the comforts of home. There are air vents for both sides, a fan-speed switch and, in our E500, separate temperature adjustments for rear passengers; ashtrays in both doors and a 12-volt power point; reading lamps and a switch to operate the sunroof shade; a wide, fold-down center armrest with cupholders and divided storage. Headrests are provided for all three seating positions, and they can be retracted remotely with a button in front when not in use.

The 2003 E-Class lacks something that's increasingly common in cars of this type: a folding seatback or some pass-through system that allows longer items such as skis to be placed in the trunk. The trunk is, on the other hand, one of the largest in the class. With 15.9 cubic feet of space, the E has more cargo volume than the BMW 5 Series, Audi A6, Lexus GS, and Cadillac Seville. It's even larger than the trunk in Mercedes' full-size S-Class. The trunk floor is as long as it is wide, with load height just above the bumper. This, as we joke in the business, is a three-stiff trunk. Just think how many golf bags that would be.


Driving Impressions

Luxury car buyers expect solace from a noisy world when they're at the wheel, and the 2003 E-Class delivers in spades. This sedan is so quiet that, when we transcribed audio notes taken during our road test, the recording sounded as if it had been made in a study, rather than in a car swallowing miles of interstate freeway at speeds above the posted limit. The only ambient noise was an occasional crack of the tires on pavement joints, or the deep growl of Mercedes' 5.0-liter V8 when we floored that gas pedal.

In some respects the 2003 E500 does feel (dare we say?) cheaper than the traditional Rock-of-Gibraltar Mercedes standard, though it's difficult to pinpoint exactly why. It certainly feels lighter, less THICK, than the previous E-Class, and that, largely, is good. The doors don't thunk shut with the same bank-vault security as, say, a 1995 S-Class. But times change. With ever more standard equipment, and increasingly stringent government emissions and fuel-economy standards, automakers have been compelled to trim weight where they can. In general, the new E-Class is exceptionally rigid and tight, more so than the old. There's almost no twist or flex in its body and frame, even while pounding down a cratered gravel road.

Noise, vibration and harshness control is first rate. There's very little vibration anywhere in the E500's cabin, and almost no wind noise, only that clapping of tires over pavement seams. Further, with the sport package, our test car had very low profile high-performance tires, which tend to be far noisier than the all-season variety on the E320.

As noted, the new E-Class feels more youthful than the old; we'd almost call it more USEful. The ride with the sport package is firmer than in the previous E-Class, and much firmer than the Mercedes standard of just five years ago. In our estimation the balance of ride quality and chassis response is just about perfect for a mid-size luxury sedan. If you live in Michigan, Pennsylvania or some locale where the roads sometimes resemble minefields, or if you prefer a more sedate ride in certain situations, the E500 has a ride-height adjustment and a switch to dial-back the electronic dampening for softer travel.

This basic ride/handling balance is crucial in a luxury sedan, or any car, because it sets the tone for the car's overall dynamic performance. In our view, the contemporary buyer wants a luxurious ride, but he or she also wants good reflexes and near-immediate response to movement of the steering wheel. The E500 doesn't clunk or thud over pavement joints and moderate urban potholes, but it doesn't float or sway across them, either. It just damps out the shock and absorbs the imperfection, always keeping the tires in maximum contact with the pavement. Yet this rear-wheel-drive E-Class inspires confidence should you prefer to dodge those potholes.

The steering is improved as well: quicker, and lighter at low speeds than that in some current Mercedes, and in many competitors. The dead spot on center, that narrow band the wheel turns but the car doesn't, is smaller. The variable power-steering system works well, with more boost for easy turning at low speeds, and less for nice, progressive steering response and feedback at higher speeds. In sum, the new E-Class is more pleasant to drive than the old. It responds more precisely, more in the BMW theme, and it feels lighter on its toes.

The five-speed automatic transmission is outstanding, arguably the best ever in a Mercedes-Benz. The automatic actually likes engaging first gear (some previous Mercedes avoided the lowest gear like the plague), allowing maximum benefit from the engine's power. The transmission kicks down a gear or two on demand from the accelerator, with only the slightest pause, and it's more responsive than some previous Mercedes automatics. Better still, it doesn't hunt back and forth for the right gear, even in hilly terrain, and it rarely shifts unless the driver changes the angle of the gas pedal.

When the driver prefers, the E500's auto-manual shift mechanism allows a high level of control over gear selection. Toggling the shifter left or right, the transmission shifts quickly up and down through the gears, and the control electronics offer plenty of room to play. The system will hold the selected gear indefinitely just below the 6000-rpm redline on the tach, but it won't let you bump the engine off its rev-limiter without shifting up a gear. The transmission controls will protect the engine by not allowing the driver to select too low a gear for a given road speed, but as soon as the car slows sufficiently, the transmission shifts down. Should the mood strike, a driver can run through the gears or challenge a curving stretch of road almost as if the E500 had a fully manual transmission.

Engine performance? Truly impressive. Competitors have long since adopted dual-overhead cam cylinder heads with four or five valves per cylinder. With the new E-Class, Mercedes sticks with its tried and true single-cam, three-valve technology, which may help explain slightly lower specific output than some competitors (horsepower per liter of displacement). Yet acceleration-producing torque matters more than horsepower numbers for most drivers, and in this class the E500 is hard to beat. Indeed, with the increase in displacement from the old E430, the E500 produces an additional 44 lbs.-feet of torque. You'll notice when you step on the gas.

This V8 is nice and smooth from idle to the 6000-rpm redline, and the E500 flies. At a stoplight or from 70 mph, there's a deep well of torque underfoot, and plenty of acceleration. The seat of our pants says the E500 is now the quickest car going among mid-size luxury sedans. Mercedes engineers say it's even quicker than the original E500, a limited-production, purpose-built sports sedan called the 500E developed with Porsche in the early 1990s and still revered by auto enthusiasts today.

Our gripes? After a week in the E500, in a full range of driving situations, there were very few. Mercedes' cruise control system remains problematic. The control is a stalk on the left side of the steering column, above the turn signals. On the new E-Class, the cruise stalk may be even closer to the turn signals than before, and at some point, no matter how long you've driven the car, you are going to hit the cruise control when you intend to turn on the blinker. Mercedes engineers insist that theirs is the most effective cruise-control operation going. We've yet to meet anyone who prefers it. On the other hand, we've met few people who dislike the cruise control to the point that they'd overlook all the strengths of a Mercedes-Benz.

Finally, the new E-Class features unique ambient cabin lighting. These strips of soft, low-level cabin lighting in the headliner remain on during darkness, like a fancy nightlight in the bathroom. Initially, at least, it's disconcerting while driving at night, because we're used to nothing but the instrument lights. The distraction goes away as you become accustomed, but we're still not sure of the point.


Final Word

The appeal of a mid-size luxury sedan lies in a combination of safety, luxury, practicality, sportiness, status, and cost of operation that no other category can match.

The Mercedes-Benz E-Class has always been a benchmark in the class. The all-new 2003 edition raises the bar, and then some. Do not buy an Acura, Audi, BMW, Cadillac, Infiniti, Jaguar, Lexus, or Lincoln in the $50,000 price range without driving the E-Class first.

If Mercedes intends to return the E-Class to the top of its sales chart, we're betting the company succeeds. In nearly every respect this is the best E-Class ever.


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