2006 Mercedes-Benz E350 Review


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Byte Bite: With its new engine and transmission, the Mercedes-Benz E350 continues as the benchmark for mid-size luxury sedans.

DRIVING DOWN THE ROAD
WITH CAREY RUSS

SEE ALSO: New Car Buyer's Guide for Mercedes-Benz

From outside, there seems to be no change to Mercedes-Benz's mid-size, mid-level six-cylinder E Class sedan for 2006. Looking closer, the name has changed, from E320 to E350. That seemingly small change makes a major difference. Important changes to the engine and a seven-speed automatic transmission add power and refinement to a car that has long been a benchmark in the mid-luxury class, with no decrease in fuel economy.

Although the 90-degree engine block is familiar, cylinder displacement has been enlarged and compression slightly increased. More importantly, the old single overhead cam, three-valve-per-cylinder heads have been replaced with new dual overhead cam, four-valve-per-cylinder heads with variable cam phasing on both intake and exhaust cams and other high-tech features that improve power output considerably, with no increase in fuel consumption. Performance and efficiency are also enhanced by a new transmission. The previous five-speed automatic is gone, replaced by a seven-speed unit, except in four-wheel drive (4MATIC, in M-B speak) models, where the new transmission's slightly larger size is incompatible with the four-wheel drive hardware.

An astute observer of all things Mercedes-Benz will be getting a sense of deja vu all over again, to quote Mr. Berra. And it's true. Neither the engine nor the transmission is new to Mercedes-Benz, they are only new to the V6 member of the E-Class. The engine was first used in the SLK350 last year, and then in the 2006 ML350 SUV. The ML350 also has the 7G-TRONIC transmission, and it was used in the E Class last year, but that was in the premium, V8-powered E500. Together in the E350, they make a wonderful and formidable match.

With 268 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque, the new E350 bests last year's E320 by 47 horses and 26 lb-ft. And it compares favorably with the previous generation E420 V8's 275 hp and 295 lb-ft. I've just finished an impressive week with a new E350. As great as the drivetrain may be, there is even more to recommend the car. It's very well balanced, with a chassis that provides luxury levels of ride comfort and quiet... and near sport levels of handling ability on the road. There is a long list of option packages and standalone options for personalization, but my test car was very simply-equipped with only pewter metallic paint, leather upholstery, the sunroof/sunshade package, and the 6-disc CD changer. Even at that, it had first-class interior comfort and very enjoyable driving characteristics. The Mercedes-Benz E-Class has long been the benchmark mid-size, mid-level luxury sedan, and that won't change soon.

APPEARANCE: There have been no changes to the current E-Class's exterior since its introduction in 2003, and none were needed. Over the years, Mercedes-Benz styling has gone from old-world formal, with simple, almost austere lines, to an increasingly less formal look. With its elegantly-sculpted, almost coupe-like lines, today's E-Class sedans are almost ``business casual'' in comparison to their older predecessors. Which is very fitting given the tastes of the target market. Traditional elements are there, in the ever lower and wider Mercedes-Benz grille and the proudly-standing three-pointed star above it, as are more recent additions to the company's design language in the form of the quad oval headlights and the front fenders that take their shape from them. But the graceful shape of the passenger cabin is more that of a coupe than a formal sedan, and the car's proportions are athletic without being muscle-bound.

COMFORT: A quiet, refined driving or riding experience has always been at the heart of any European luxury car, and the E-Class delivers this in a near-perfect manner. ``Insulated, not isolated'' was a company slogan a few years ago, and that does describe the experience very well. Occupants are aware of the world around them, but it does not unduly intrude. Inside, the contemporary design complements the exterior, with flowingly-rounded shapes and first-class materials. The equipment level is high, with dual-zone automatic climate control with dust and pollen filtration, 10-way power-adjustable front seats with three-position memory, excellent interior lighting, and burled walnut trim among the many useful standard comfort features. MB-Tex synthetic is the standard upholstery, with leather inserts; full leather is available. The front seats are, in the Mercedes-Benz manner, firmly comfortable with excellent support for long days of travel. The rear seat is just as comfortable, and offers good head and leg room. Instrumentation and controls are generally well-placed and simple to understand. The COMAND system is the interface to the audio and car information systems, and also to the telephone and navigation systems if they are specified. It uses a combination of (marked, thank you) hard-coded and context-sensitive buttons, and is generally simple to use. But a Mercedes wouldn't be a Mercedes without at least one hidden feature, and here it is the optional CD changer. It's well-hidden, which comes as no surprise as this is the company that used to put the cassette deck behind the audio head - and still puts the nav system CD behind the screen. Read the manual - the CD changer is accessed via an unmarked switch under the hazard flasher button. The panel then moves up out of the way to reveal the CD changer, which is placed perilously close to the shift lever. But both the changer and the single-disc player can play MP3 CDs as well as commercial and home-burned discs, and there is a jack in the glove box for an MP3 player.

SAFETY: The 2006 Mercedes E-Class has a strong chassis structure with large front and rear crumple zones, adaptive airbags, a rollover sensor that can deploy side windowbags, and ``Tele Aid'' telematics to summon help in the event of a severe accident. ESP stability control, traction control, and antilock brakes with Brake Assist are all standard.

RIDE AND HANDLING: For being the ``base'' E-Class model and allegedly having no sports pretensions, the 2006 E350 strikes a near-perfect balance between luxury comfort and sporty handling. Credit is due its strong, rigid, and relatively light structure and well-designed suspension. The hood, front fenders, trunk lid, and suspension subframes are aluminum, as are numerous suspension pieces, and high-strength steel is used for much of the structure. In absolutely standard trim, my E350 test car had the smooth, quiet ride expected of a luxury car, with road shocks filtered but not completely removed - ``insulated, not isolated, '' remember - and yet was very amenable to spirited driving. If there was more body roll in the corners than in a ``real'' sports sedan, the comfort level was correspondingly higher. The E350 might be at a disadvantage on the race track; in the real world it is a fine performer.

PERFORMANCE: The vast Mercedes-Benz parts bin has done well by the E350. Its predecessor was comfortable and stylish, but fell behind in the horsepower race. No problem now - think of the new engine and transmission as being the equivalent of a triple espresso in the performance department. There is noticeably more oomph when the accelerator is pressed, yet fuel consumption is not really affected. The engine and 7G-TRONIC transmission work together extremely well. Better breathing afforded by the new head design and its variable phasing of both intake and exhaust cams, variable-length intake manifolds, and other technological bits has increased power and decreased emissions. The engine's 268 horses at 6000 rpm are impressive, but the real work is done by torque, and here it truly shines, with 258 lb-ft between 2400 and 5000 rpm, and nearly that from as low as 1500 rpm. How do you say ``torque plateau''? This means instant power at all commonly-used engine speeds, for immediate acceleration. Now add the seven-speed transmission. Its many ratios allow both low low gears, for acceleration, and high high gears for economical highway cruising. Sophisticated electronic controls adapt to each driver's style, and will hold gears on hills for climbing prowess going up and engine braking going down. It's manually shiftable, but that is not really necessary. If in standard mode, it seems to shift smoothly, in comfort mode shifts are nearly imperceptible. It's almost like a CVT. And in the E300, it's controlled by a regular console-mounted lever, not the strange lever on the ML350's steering column.

CONCLUSIONS: With its new engine and transmission, the Mercedes-Benz E350 continues as the benchmark for mid-size luxury sedans.

SPECIFICATIONS
2006 Mercedes-Benz E350

Base Price			$ 50,050
Price As Tested			$ 55,600
Engine Type			aluminum alloy dual overhead cam
				 24-valve V6
Engine Size			3.5 liters / 213 cu. in.
Horsepower			268 @ 6000 rpm
Torque (lb-ft) 			258 @ 2400-5000 rpm
Transmission			7-speed electronically-controlled
				 automatic
Wheelbase / Length		112.4 in. / 189.7 in.
Curb Weight			3,700 lbs. (est.)
Pounds Per Horsepower		13.8
Fuel Capacity			21.1 gal.
Fuel Requirement		91 octane unleaded premium gasoline
Tires				225/55 HR16 Michelin MXM4
Brakes, front/rear		vented disc / solid disc, ABS, EBD,
				 Brake Assist standard
Suspension, front/rear		independent four-link /
				  independent five-link
Drivetrain			front engine, rear-wheel drive

PERFORMANCE
EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed		19 / 27 / 20
0 to 60 mph				6.9  sec

OPTIONS AND CHARGES
Pewter paint				$   680
Stone leather upholstery		$ 1,500
6-disc CD changer			$   420
Heated front seats			$   680
Sunroof package - includes:
  glass sunroof, power rear window shade,
  manual rear window blinds		$ 1,550
Destination and delivery		$   720
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