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2003 Mercedes E320/E500 Review

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SEE ALSO: Mercedes Buyer's Guide

  • CLICK4Video Mercedes-Benz New E-Class(10:45)

    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 
    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 
    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.