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contents of this article
Page 1 | 2 | 3 | Specs | Pictures

1. Model Lineup 4. Driving Impressions
2. Walkaround 5. Final Word
3. Interior Features  

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-vaultClick for a larger 2003 Mercedes-Benz E-Class picture 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 sedateClick for a larger 2003 Mercedes-Benz E-Class picture 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 Click for a larger 2003 Mercedes-Benz E-Class picturethe 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 nowClick for a larger 2003 Mercedes-Benz E-Class picture 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.

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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.

The appeal of a mid-size luxury sedan lies in a combination of safety, luxury,Click for a larger 2003 Mercedes-Benz E-Class picture 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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