Valencia, Spain– “We liked the old one better.” Those six words from our founder and editor emeritus, David E. Davis, Jr., in our June 1997 issue succinctly summed up our feelings about the second-generation Mercedes-Benz E-class (code-named W210), following a year spent with a Four Seasons E320 sedan. The car didn’t deliver “the self-centering, the on-center feel, or the directional stability we took for granted in the old (1986-95) E-class,” Davis explained. The W210 arrived on our shores in fall 1995 with all four of its vertically slanted oval eyes blazing. We liked the car’s modern duds, which established a new and entirely appropriate visual identity for Mercedes automobiles, but we decried its move toward a softer, lighter driving experience, even as the car was heralded in other quarters and snapped up in record numbers worldwide.
At times, we felt as if ours was a lone voice in the wilderness, but, apparently, Mercedes engineers ultimately concurred with our sentiments, because in dynamic terms the new 2003 E-class, which is already on sale in Europe and arrives here in September, is an entirely different plate of spaetzle. A host of technological innovations makes this the best-ever mid-size Mercedes to drive, and careful evolution of the W210’s styling makes the beautifully proportioned 2003 E one of the best-looking Mercedes sedans.
Mercedes-Benz chief designer Peter Pfeiffer and his team stretched the signature headlamp lenses–newly available with bi-xenon illumination–back even farther onto the hood, but they retained four distinct ellipses rather than melting them into crystalline peanuts as in some other recent Benzes. The car is instantly recognizable as an E, although it now bears unmistakable family resemblance to both the S-class and the C-class. The new E is exactly the same length as the old, but the front wheels were pushed forward for a slight (0.8-inch) wheelbase increase. Interior dimensions are also virtually identical, no surprise given that cabin comfort is one of the current car’s greatest strengths.
Here in the States, the new E-class will be offered with the familiar 221-horsepower, 3.2-liter V-6 in the base E320 model, but the current E430 model and its 4.3-liter V-8 will be supplanted by the 5.0-liter V-8 from the S-class, making 302 horsepower and 339 pound-feet of torque. Yes, there will be an E500 Mercedes once again; yes, it is fast; and, says Mercedes-Benz USA E-class product planner Karen Makris, “We’re very happy to see E and 500 combined again.” Unlike the limited-edition, bulging-flanked, Porsche-assembled 500E of a decade ago, the new E500 will be a regular production model, with minimal visual differentiation from the E320. Look for an AMG derivation of the new E about a year after its U.S. debut, likely sporting the same supercharged, 469-horsepower, 5.5-liter V-8 coming this fall in the SL55 AMG. A 4Matic model and a wagon are also about a year away.
Although body-in-white dimensions have changed little, the W211’s body structure is considerably different from that of the outgoing W210, most notably in the extensive use of high-strength steel and aluminum, and torsional rigidity is increased by eighteen percent. Sixty percent of the structure and sheetmetal is now formed of aluminum rather than steel (compared with only six percent before), including the rear subframe, the parcel shelf, the front and rear bumper beams, the trunk lid, the hood, and the front fenders. This extensive use of lightweight metal allowed Mercedes engineers to keep the car at roughly the same overall weight even while bolting on several hundred pounds of additional equipment.
The W211 has two separate lower links replacing one wishbone in the front suspension while retaining the traditional five-link rear. Increased use of aluminum for the rear suspension and subframe components saves weight. The real suspension news, though, is Airmatic DC, which is derived from the S-class air suspension and utterly transforms the E’s on-road behavior. DC signifies “dual control,” meaning that electronic sensors constantly adjust both springing and damping by measuring steering and yaw angles, forward and lateral acceleration, and other dynamic indicators. The driver interface for Airmatic DC consists of a switch near the gear selector with three settings: high, low, and off. The differences among the three settings are easily discerned, and the margin between off and high is vast. In combination with much-better-tuned rack-and-pinion steering, Airmatic DC effectively eradicates most of the gremlins that afflict the current car, whether on a curvy mountain road or on a freeway. At speed, the ’02 E-class wanders like a drunk who’s just stumbled out of a tavern, requiring constant, unsettling steering corrections, but the ’03 E has unerring directional stability. We fell in behind a hot-footed Spaniard driving a between 100 and 125 mph, and our E500 test car bore down onto the autovia’s tarmac like a freight train. The following day, we had a similar experience in an E320, tailing a fleet-of-foot driver. High-speed lane changes no longer promote sweaty palms, and if a Fiat bread van drifts in front of you, the standard Sensotronic brake-by-wire system, which recently made its debut in the SL500, authoritatively scrubs off speed. Airmatic DC will be standard on the E500 and optional on the E320; if you buy an E320 without it, it’s your loss.
Inside, an artfully sculpted instrument panel, accented with either walnut or black bird’s-eye maple and subtle chrome strips, dips and swells toward the doors. The materials appear to be of a better grade than those marring some other recent Benzes. A single-disc, in-dash CD player will be standard on U.S. models; a six-disc, in-dash CD changer and a twelve-speaker Harman Kardon stereo will be optional. The new ambient lighting system’s soft-glow strips and panels accent various parts of the cabin at night, and an optional panoramic sunroof floods the interior with daylight and should soothe even the most claustrophobic rear-seat passenger. It has two large glass panels, a sliding one over the front seats and a fixed one over the rear, both with rollaway blinds. Solar panels, offered as an option with the panoramic roof, power a ventilation fan that cools the interior. A traditional single-pane sunroof is also available.
A new and surprisingly useful feature is the dynamic multicontour seat, available for driver and front passenger, which automatically inflates four different built-in air cushions depending on the driving situation. When you turn into a left-hand curve, the right bolster immediately inflates to keep you in place. When you swing the car to the right, the left bolster makes itself known to your torso. On a switchbacked road, it’s as if there’s some sort of fat-burning device digging into your love handles in alternating rhythm.
A combination audio-navigation system will be offered in the United States a few months after launch, and it might or might not be called Comand. Whatever it’s named, we hope it’s an improvement over the complicated Comand set up in other Benzes. Additional Mercedes brand names appearing in the E-class for the first time, all as options, include Distronic smart cruise control, Keyless-Go smart-card electronic entry, and a new Thermotronic climate-control system that allows all four outboard occupants to set their own temperatures in familial harmony. Rear-seat riders also get extra knee room via scoops molded into the front seatbacks. Both front and rear seats can be heated, as can the steering wheel, a first for Mercedes-Benz. Folding rear seatbacks will be available, another first for the E-class.
A sport package again will be offered here, with seventeen-inch, five-spoke aluminum wheels; the black bird’s-eye trim; bi-xenon headlamps; and side skirts and modified front and rear aprons. The real “sport package,” though, lies in the Airmatic DC suspension.
As Mercedes-Benz’s bestselling model, the E-class is the most visible and well-known member of the marque. We’re happy to report that it’s once again a proper expression of all that the three-pointed star has traditionally represented, even as it continues to reach out to new audiences with its pretty face.