2003 Mercedes E320/E500 Review
SEE ALSO: Mercedes Buyer's Guide
2003 Mercedes Benz E320 Base price: $46,950 Price as tested: $51,915 EPA mileage: 19 city/ 27 highway 2003 Mercedes Benz E500 Base price: $54,850 Price as tested: $59,545 EPA mileage: 16 city/ 23 highway By Des Toups "Viscous-dampened everything," my friend murmured, releasing the rear-seat grab handle of the new Mercedes-Benz E-Class to a satisfying, controlled "thunk." It's that kind of car, as buttoned-down as any wearing the three-pointed star. But the bumper-to-bumper remake leaves Mercedes' bread-and-butter sedan with something equally as satisfying: soul. The new E-Class is the most graceful-looking Mercedes-Benz sedan ever to hit a driveway, and it is the most graceful-feeling Mercedes sedan ever to attack a curvy road. It’s less upright, less uptight, more joyful. It’s even cheaper. In fact, the improvements abound in every direction but one – but it’s a big one. Only the engines remained untouched as Mercedes massaged every corner and every system in the E-Class. Underneath the svelte new lines that bring the E-Class look in line with other Mercedes sedans (but maintaining the E-Class’s round-eyed “face”), there’s a more compliant suspension, a better-designed, richer interior, more room and more toys. Computer wizardry now controls virtually every dynamic function: acceleration, braking, handling. Through it all, there’s an energy and verve all but unknown to Mercedes sedans, which have tended to be remarkably solid cars that go, stop and turn stiffly, almost grudgingly. Not so the E-Class, even in its basic E320 form. Steering has heft, not heaviness, and the driver never has the sense he’s asking the car to do something it’s not made for. What's remarkable is that this aggressive new feel transcends ambitious electronic tampering with gas pedal, brake pedal and suspension. Take the accelerator, which looks like any old accelerator but in fact is merely a way to send impulses to the computer controlling the throttle, for it, like the brake pedal, lacks any direct mechanical connection to the components it controls. The trademark Mercedes accelerator-pedal delay is still there, but it’s a half-beat quicker and less abrupt than before. And the thrust that follows, even in the smaller, 221-horsepower V-6 models, is energetic enough to erase any negative thoughts from your head. So far, so good. The new Airmatic suspension (it replaces the standard coil springs with air bladders and is standard on the E500, optional on theE320) is remarkable for the ways it allows a driver to control the car. There’s a discernable difference from setting to setting, the softest filtering out clatter and small bumps, the firmest harshening ride but limited body roll and bob. The system also allows a moderate ride-height adjustment for a little extra clearance on, say, an unplowed road (movement is almost unnoticeable unless you’re stopped and watching the horizon rise or fall). And, unasked, the suspension senses aggressive cornering and firms up the appropriate side and automatically levels the car when a heavy load is placed in the trunk. Backing up the smart suspension is the Electronic Stability Program, which compares the angle of the steering wheel with the car’s direction and steps in if things are out of whack. All the Rube Goldberg suspension technology is useful mainly at the fringes -- in emergencies, vicious turns and the like -- but the improvement in basic handling is evident even on the way to Kmart. Steering is lighter and more sensitive, and the E-Class feels pliable in a way it never has before, handling transitions from freeway to cloverleaf seamlessly. That feeling of a very heavy car settling on an overly stiff suspension is long gone. Small things, but they’ve long been the difference between a Mercedes and a BMW. The E-Class even responds well to an enthusiastic thrashing; turn off the electronics and it’s easy enough, especially in the V-8 powered E500, to provoke power oversteer (fishtailing). The five-speed automatic transmission allows manual shifting, and it’s quick enough on downshifts to be a willing partner on a winding road, if not as much fun as a true stick. Massive, 17-inch wheels wearing low-profile rubber (standard on the E500, optional on the E320) don’t hurt ride quality (not with the adjustable suspension) but immensely sharpen the car’s reflexes. And then there are the brakes, which in the end do provide the massive stopping power promised, but not without some frustration. Mercedes brags that the electronics are always busy, doing things like lightly squeegeeing the brake shoes on a rainy day or deciding whether or not you're trying a panic stop. In practice, all this electronic second-guessing makes something as simple as pulling into a parking spot a lurching, grabby, uncomfortable task. It's almost impossible to creep forward smoothly using the brakes. In routine, stop-and-go traffic, the brakes feel as if the car isn't stopping quickly enough, so you apply a bit more pressure, then feel the brakes grab and slow the car too much.. Perhaps time will allow owners to properly gauge the amount of pressure needed and render this annoyance inconsequential. I drove two E-Classes for two weeks and never got used to it. (One nice feature is that the brakes electronically "release" just before the car is fully stopped, keeping nosedive to a minimum. Good thing, too, because otherwise the E-Class would appear to the outside world to be piloted by a rogue 10-year-old.) The stern interior of previous E-Classes has given way to a softer, more organic look and feel. A strip of wood -- the expensive-looking sweep of black maple in our E500 was especially nice -- swoops across the two-tone dashboard, leading the eyes and hands to a simpler, easier-to-use center console. The leather, wood and chrome of course are rich-looking and well-finished, but one change previous owners will appreciate even more is the much-improved quality of the plastics throughout the interior. The plastic covers for under-seat storage, for example, were flimsy and cheap-feeling; now they’re substantial and close with a solid-sounding click. Controls for the stereo are still, unfortunately, hidden behind the hideously complex COMAND system, but volume and station can be changed using the steering-wheel controls. At least now the compact disc changer is in the dash, behind a wood-paneled door, and rises to meet your hand once the door is pressed. Better than rooting through the trunk, as in E-Classes past. Starting well under $50,000, the E-Class seems a good value for its class. A comparable BMW 5-series is a little less expensive, for example, but it's arguably not as good-looking and its interior substantially more downmarket. Of course, the sticker soars if you take Mercedes up on the gee-whiz toys: Distronic cruise control ($2,950), which uses radar to maintain a set distance from the car in front of you; or the Panorama sunroof ($1,500), which adds a spectacular all-glass roof; or Keyless Go ($1,015), which lets you open and start the car without a key, as long as you keep a credit-card-sized gizmo somewhere on your person. Most intriguing, perhaps, are seats that can warm and cool the driver and, sensing hard cornering, pump up the appropriate places to keep you well-planted. That’ll be $2,350, please. At least leather is standard, and a nice grade of it to boot. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety hasn’t crash-tested a 2003 E-Class, but previous model years garnered a “best pick” designation. The federal National Highway Safety Traffic Administration hasn’t crash-tested any E-Class or rated it for rollover resistance. Antilock brakes, traction control and head and side airbags (front and rear) are standard. Both E-Class models qualify as Ultra Low-Emissions Vehicles and rate a 7 out of 10 on the EPA’s air pollution scoring system (about average for midsize sedans; a Toyota Prius rates a 10, a big GMC Sierra pickup a 1). The E320’s EPA ratings of 19 mpg city and 27 highway are average; we got 20 mph. The E500’s 16/23 is thirsty for this class; we saw 16 mpg. Both require premium fuel. Des Toups is a Seattle free-lance writer whose work has appeared in AutoWorld magazine, The Seattle Times and newspapers nationwide.