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
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
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
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.