2003 Mercedes-Benz E500 Four Seasons Test

Driver Side View

The final bit of technology that left us unsatisfied was the three-position selectable firmness for the Airmatic air-spring suspension (standard on the V-8 E-class and optional on the E320). We generally find that although such solutions claim to be all things to all people, they are in fact a cop-out for a development team that couldn't engineer-or couldn't agree upon-a single setting that balances both ride and handling.

Gillies elaborates: "In standard mode, the ride is good on the highway and in town, but too floaty in corners. Switch to sport, and the ride becomes way too firm. The intermediate mode sacrifices ride quality while offering little additional body control." Rather than search for the setting that's Just Right, most of us acclimated by choosing the one that's Just Right Now, cruising in the comfort mode most of the time (particularly on Michigan's truck-pummeled pavement) and switching to the firm setting for high-energy corner carving. Having to switch back and forth is not the most elegant solution, but it works.

When switched on, the E500 works exceptionally well, in fact. Contributing photographer Glenn Paulina piloted our E500 for several thousand miles in and around Death Valley, and this longtime BMW guy (currently a 5-series owner) came away very impressed with the E500's moves. "The E500 handles both the sweepers and the tight stuff better than any Mercedes I can remember. Even the sportiest Mercs of old seemed to be cars that tolerated the corners and preferred to be powered from one to the next. This Benz dances through curves BMW-style. It really is a performance car now." Sherman also drew a bead on the

E500's personality shift: "No longer a cruiser, the new E is a charger, with aggressively tuned responses, ample adhesion, and glorious power reserves."

Ah, those glorious power reserves. They come courtesy of Mercedes' 5.0-liter V-8, which the company has been dispatching into one car line after another. Wherever it appears, the all-aluminum SOHC V-8 is as welcome as a busload of scantily clad babes at a frat house. The 24-valve 5.0-liter gets the party started with 302 hp and 339 lb-ft of torque, enough energy to blast the E500 from a standstill to 60 mph in 5.5 seconds. As well mannered as it is muscular, the SOHC V-8 is an inveterate smoothie, yet it also emits a throaty growl when opened up. Mercedes-Benz's five-speed automatic is the perfect emissary for this engine, with its polished shifts and unfailing logic. Its preeminent position is bolstered by its TouchShift manual control, which remains a far better solution than separate shift gates, steering-wheel-mounted buttons, or paddles.

Front Dashboard View

The subject of controls brings up an increasingly problematic area among high-end luxury cars, with more and more functions to control, leading to ever more complex interfaces, leading to rising blood pressures. Compared with its competitors, our E500 was blessedly straightforward, although it probably benefited from not having the optional navigation system, and it certainly benefited from its many months of sharing our test-car signout board with our long-term BMW 7-series.

Also enhancing its ease of use was the E-class's excellent outward visibility, thanks to the low cowl and slim pillars, both of which unfortunately are fast becoming rarities. When we directed our gaze inward, most of us found lots to like in the interior's design, which was described as "spot-on" and

"leagues better" than that of the new BMW 5-series. Gillies alone found the cabin materials "still a bit low-rent in some places," however. The seating comfort of the optional multicontour seats ($755) was generally praised, although several people did bemoan the absence of seat heaters in a car that cost $61,380.

Instead of seat heaters, our car's options list included a sunroof, a CD changer, premium sound, a tire-pressure monitoring system (more trouble than it was worth), a split-folding rear seat (yes, this costs $100 extra), and the Sport package. The latter consists of bi-xenon headlamps with washers, LED brake lights, black wood trim, sculpted side skirts and rear apron, blue tinted glass, and seventeen-inch sport wheels. The Sport package may not have added much to the E500's sportiness, but it certainly added to the car's visual appeal. This logbook comment, written in the first days of the car's year with us, was never challenged: "You have to love the way this car looks-understated, elegant, what a Benz should be."

"What a Benz should be" actually describes the E500 overall. The issues with electronics were minor gripes in an otherwise great car.

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