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 BMW M3 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 Audi A4 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.