NAPA, California—Oh dear. It used to be an easy, low-effort process picking your next leather-wrapped, supercar-quick four-door bruiser. For a long while, you shopped only between BMW, Mercedes, and occasionally Audi, and there were only one or two options from each to compare. At the end of the day, you probably bought an E55 AMG or an E39 M5 and felt spoiled for choice.
In the 2000s, the likes of Cadillac and Lexus began their assaults. Over time, the Germans strengthened their bulwark performance arms with weaponized SUVs, coupes, roadsters, crossovers, hatches, wagons, supercars, four-door “coupes,” and convertibles. In 2019, picking your favorite flavor of high-speed sled requires some major homework.
Mercedes-AMG isn’t making things easier, considering Affalterbach’s model portfolio now packs a gut-busting number of models. The new “53” variants are the newest kids on AMG’s block, adding another five distinct offerings to the mix (six if you count the E53 wagon that remains forbidden fruit for us Yanks). Normally, we’d need plenty of time and travel to test all of these fresh variants. However, Mercedes gave us a crack at three of the new E-class 53 models—sedan, coupe, cabriolet—all in one day near Napa, California. (We also drove the CLS53, which we’ll cover in a separate report.)
Like all great AMG products, the key to understanding the new 53 model family lies under the hood. Regardless of door count, seating arrangement, or roof configuration, each 53 packs the same M256 3.0-liter turbocharged inline-six engine. For longtime fans of the tri-pointed star, this is big news, considering there hasn’t been a straight-sixer in the Mercedes family since 1997.
It’s a traditional layout, but it’s anything but conventional. The M256 arrives exclusively with a complex and cutting-edge 48-volt hybrid-assist system Mercedes calls EQ Boost, juiced through a 0.9-kWh lithium-ion battery. Its power is primarily routed to the electric motor sandwiched between the engine and transmission that acts as both a hybrid alternator and starter motor, along with contributing 21 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque to the wheels. A single twin-scroll turbocharger works in tandem with an electrically driven compressor for a trick twin-charging system, returning a strong combined 429 horsepower and 384 lb-ft of torque.
We spent most of our time blasting around the rain-drenched hills surrounding Napa in the four-door E53. This replaces the short-lived Mercedes-AMG E43, on sale for just two model years. Power and performance aren’t drastically different; the E43’s single-turbo 3.0-liter V-6 spit out 396 horses and 384 lb-ft of torque, returning a zero-to-60 time of 4.6 seconds. The zappy M256 in the E53 drops that sprint to 4.4 seconds while sharing the E43’s 9G-Tronic nine-speed automatic transmission and 4Matic+ all-wheel-drive system.
It also shares the E43’s curiously low 130-mph top speed, an electronic cap that falls short of the the big-dog, 188-mph 603-hp E63 S, in an effort to meet the speed ratings of the standard all-season tire. Mercedes bills the E53 as a full-on AMG, but it’s chasing an entirely different customer base than the one snapping up the range-topping, V-8–powered “63” models. Case in point: The M256 isn’t built according to AMG’s famed “one man, one engine” philosophy, instead being assembled on a regular line like the majority of Mercedes’ powertrains.
Line the 53 up next to the 63 S and it’s softer, quieter, and more relaxed. Whereas you’re limited to Eco, Comfort, Sport, and Sport+ modes in the E53, the E63 S can be toggled into “Race” mode with corresponding rear-biased “Drift” mode to boot. In other words, weekend warriors and autobahn crushers would be better off saving their pennies for the V-8 and giving the 53 series a pass.
A Better Daily?
But here’s a secret the fiercest speed brokers probably won’t want to hear: What the E53 lacks in lap times it makes up for in unrivaled day-to-day usability, being much more livable than the firm-riding 63 S. Despite being down on go-fast hardware compared to the 63, it’s still fitted with some serious tech, including AMG Ride Control+, which offers three distinct levels of suspension aggression. Keep it soft in Comfort, and you couldn’t tell the difference in civility between an E450. In addition, waft around in Eco mode and you can expect around 21 mpg in town and 28 mpg on the highway, a noticeable jump over the E63 S’s 15/23 city/highway ratings.
Resist the temptation of the exhaust button, and you won’t hear much of anything at all, aside from the excellent optional Burmester sound system. Remember, this is still a top-level E-class and it’s fitted as such. Most of the examples we drove were loaded and rang in at just under six figures, and they all felt every bit that pricey inside. The fits, finishes, and material choices are peerless, as is usually the case for modern Mercedes.
When you do feel the urge to cause a ruckus, pop it into Sport or Sport+ and hit the back roads. Out in the rolling, verdant countryside dripping with rain runoff, the E53 was at home, with all 384 lb-ft available from a low, low 1,800 rpm. The 3.0-liter howls with a tonality we thought went extinct when forced induction began its proliferation, the sound reaching its crescendo as you eke out the last few horsepower at the power peak of 6,100 rpm. This tall power curve can be a little, well, peaky, but the EQ Boost does its best to fill in the gaps with maximum torque online through 5,800 rpm.
As we sloshed through flooded sweepers and swung wide to avoid gaping potholes, the standard all-wheel drive proved handy. If you’re as brick-footed as we are and give it too much prod on a wet road, the traction control and 4Matic+ system route power and cut acceleration before you have a chance to pirouette, and then feed it back to you in spoonfuls as traction is quickly regained. Once you’re moving, it doesn’t steer or brake as sharply as the E63 S or even the smaller C43, but it’s balanced in a way those two are not being lighter in the nose than the E63 and longer of wheelbase than the C43.
Branches on Its Own Branch
Better still, it comes in three distinct flavors. We focused on the E53 four-door sedan, but we also drove the E53 coupe and E53 cabriolet, all three packing identical powertrains, interiors, and dynamics. The long and shapely coupe makes for one of the best long-distance tourers available for under $100,000, offering a 4.3-second zero-to-60-mph sprint that bests the sedan and droptop by 0.1 second. You cannot buy a coupe version of any E63, so there’s no two-seat AMG between the E53 and the $170,000 S63 coupe.
The same applies for the cabriolet, itself a masterclass of noise isolation and engineering. The weather never quite let up long enough to enjoy it with the fabric roof down, but we remain impressed with how far droptops have come in terms of structural rigidity and refinement. Of all the 53 variants, we’d reckon this is the least likely to see twisty road, but those who do cane it will get sounds and acceleration befitting of the AMG badge out back.
This is an intriguing branch on the AMG family tree. It’s arguably one of the most complex and intricately engineered vehicles to ever wear the tri-pointed star, and its available well below the six-figure mark. Provided you’re judicious with the extras, of course. As mentioned, the majority of the test fleet we had access to fell between $90,000 and $111,000, despite starting prices of $73,545 for the sedan, $74,695 for the coupe, and $81,345 for the cabriolet.
But however you spec your E53, you’re definitely getting your money’s worth.
2019 Mercedes-AMG E53 Specifications
|PRICE||sedan, $73,545; coupe, $74,695; cabriolet, $81,345|
|ENGINE||3.0L DOHC 24-valve turbocharged and supercharged inline-6; 429 hp @ 6,100 rpm, 384 lb-ft @ 1,800 rpm|
|LAYOUT||4-door, 4- or 5-passenger, front-engine, AWD sedan, coupe, or convertible|
|L x W x H||190.0–195.2 x 73.2 x 56.2–57.0 in|
|WEIGHT||4,350–4,500 lb (est)|
|0–60 MPH||4.3–4.4 seconds (mfr)|
|TOP SPEED||130 mph (mfr)|