Versus the competiton:
One thing an automotive writer lives with is automobile envy.
No one notices the SUVs, minivans or plain-Jane sedans driven week after week. But drive a Mercedes-Benz and the “gee, life is rough all over” comments come fast and furious.
Not that I can blame them. After all, who really turns their head at most blobby sedans or boxy SUVs these days?
This car with its three-pointed star at least has some lines to it.
Actually, the new E-Class is sleek and sexy, lacking in some of the heaviness usually found in German automotive design. There is no huge departure from the previous E-Class, but the Mercedes faithful will find plenty of change and plenty to like on Mercedes’ most popular line.
For 2003, the E-Class is available in two flavors: the E320 with a 221-horsepower 3.2-liter V-6 and the E500 with a 302-horsepower V-8 engine. Both engines come with a five-speed automatic transmission with manual shift capability.
The 4Matic four-wheel-drive option in the E-Class, that is not available on the 2003 model, will be back for the 2004 model year.
The E500 distinguishes itself from its less powerful sibling by employing an air suspension, which Mercedes has dubbed Airmatic DC rather than simply calling it an air suspension. The suspension helps keep the car level, which it does in an unobtrusive manner.
The E500 also gets larger tires, P245/45R17s rather than P225/55R16s.
Both E-Class cars get the usual blizzard of electronic gear aimed at keeping passengers safe. Electronic braking is employed for the first time in the E-Class. Simply put, a computer tells the valves how hard to apply the brakes.
The system can change the brake pressure on each wheel, so the outside wheels get more pressure when braking in turns.
Front passenger-side airbags activate only if a sensor detects someone sitting in it.
The driver can select the shock absorber setting, which even affects the ride height. Select a sporty ride and the car lowers by just over half an inch. An electronic stability program incorporates the electronic braking system and traction control, in addition to sensors that detect acceleration and vehicle yaw.
And that’s just what you don’t see.
There is an optional multi-function trip computer dubbed COMAND by Mercedes-Benz. It’s incorporated in an optional GPS navigation system. An electronic parking aid senses when you’re approaching an object. The rear headrests also get electronic help – they fold down at the push of a button. The front seats are power activated as well. Another button activates the rear sunshade. The E500 even comes with four-zone climate control. Each passenger can adjust the airflow to his or her liking.
That’s not to mention an optional cell phone or the array of buttons that surround the stereo or the ones on the steering wheel to access some functions quickly and easily.
So if your VCR always reads 12 p.m., this might scare you a bit. But don’t let it. The bottom line to all the electronic gewgaws is this: the new E-Class delivers the same steel hand in a velvet glove ride that Mercedes is known for.
This year, the dashboard is as curvaceous and modern as its exterior styling.
Low level ambient light constantly illuminates the interior in a soft glow.
The seats are very firm and could be a bit deeper. But don’t assume that seat heaters are standard equipment, they’re optional. Also optional is a steering wheel heater.
Another optional amenity is something Mercedes dubs Drive Dynamic seats. The seat’s side bolsters inflate to increase lateral support. and the seat has a massaging feature.
Front seat room is quite generous, but rear seat space is lacking, considering the size of the car. It actually feels tighter than the 2002 E-Class and some compromise will be needed if you’re transporting tall passengers. Where did all the space go? Into the trunk, which seems larger than its 15.9 cubic foot rating.
The E500 provided for testing was fast, feeding its appetite for fuel at a rate of 15 mpg.
Replete with buttons and featuring miles of electronic wiring and circuitry, the new E-Class with its boatload of luxury, has a velvety quiet and confident ride that traditional Benz buyers expect.
There’s little that is radically different in feel from the current car. But the increasing amount of gadgetry seems like overkill. After all, simplicity is the ultimate luxury.
Nevertheless, everything is automatic, which is what Mercedes-Benz buyers expect, and it’s all wrapped in a shell that is better looking than ever.
Engine: 5-liter SOHC V-8
Transmission: 5-speed auto/manual
Wheelbase: 112.4 inches
Length: 190.3 inches
Width: 71.3 inches
Weight: 3,815 pounds
Cargo volume: 15.9 cubic ft.
Base price: $54,850
As tested: Not available
EPA rating: 16 city, 23 highway
Test mileage: 15 mpg
Fuel type: Premium
Built in: Germany