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.