2008 Mercedes-Benz E-Class

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2003 Mercedes-Benz E-Class

This 2003 review is representative of model years 2003 to 2009.
By Dan Jedlicka of MSN Autos
Rating: 7

Bottom Line:

Technically complex bread-and-butter sedan feels very "Americanized."
Pros:
  • Nicely revamped
  • Very fast with V8
  • Major safety items
Cons:
  • Electronic braking system action
  • Reliability glitches
  • Soft feel

The revamped 2003 Mercedes-Benz E-Class sedans have a slicker, coupe-like look but a softer feel that should make them appealing to more luxury car buyers—at least in this country.

The rear-drive E-Class still has Mercedes' traditional rock-solid construction, but the precise power steering is light and the ride is on the soft side.

There are new front and rear suspensions. And the top-line E500 model has a "Airmatic" air suspension—a first for this line—that's optional for the entry E320 model.

But, while handling is good, it doesn't encourage spirited driving—even when the suspension is put in the "sport" mode, which causes the ride to become jittery. An optional Sport Package is offered for both trims for slightly sharper handling, but why pay extra for sharper handling with such expensive cars?

The Way It Was
When engineers, and not marketing folks, dominated Mercedes, steering was heavier, the seats were firmer, the ride was less soft and more noise was allowed in the interior as part of the "driving experience." Still, Mercedes models were more comfortable on long, fast drives than American luxury cars.

Many traditional Cadillac and Lincoln owners couldn't understand the appeal of a Mercedes sedan, beyond its prestigious nameplate, but some bought one—if only to impress neighbors and associates.

Then the big, fast, posh Lexus sedan arrived about 1990 and drew many upscale car buyers with its softer, quieter Americanized design—not to mention its lower price. Even once-troubled Audi quickly found it got higher sales with more American-style models.

The first new E-Class sedans (other versions eventually will follow) are the $46,950 E320, which has a carryover 3.2-liter V6 with 221 horsepower, and the $54,850 E500, which is motivated by a 5-liter 302-horsepower V8. The E500 replaces the E430, which had a 4.3-liter 275-horsepower V8.

The E320 is plenty fast for most folks, and the E500 is a rocket, with effortless merging and passing abilities. This engine feels as if it should be rated at, say, 350 horsepower.

Both smooth engines work with a responsive 5-speed automatic transmission.

Reliability Glitches
But the new E-Class trims are technically complex—perhaps too complex. For example, while I never found reliability to be an issue with a Mercedes, the E320 I tested refused to start for no apparent reason after being parked overnight and had to be towed to a Mercedes dealer.

And the E500 model's transmission got stuck in the "neutral" position while I was trying to shift from automatic to manual-shift mode. The car entered the transmission's "drive" position only after I stopped. Such a thing never happened to me in any type car with an automatic transmission with a manual shift feature.

Electronic Brake System Flaws
Then there's the brake system. The new E-Class offers the first large-scale use of electronic braking, which is said to allow faster, more sure-footed response—especially in emergencies. But this system utilizes a brake pedal that doesn't have the linear action found with most regular brake systems. And the brakes "grabbed" several times and caused the tires to chirp when the car was being slowed down at a slightly faster-than-normal rate.

On the plus side, the 2003 E-Class has an upscale interior that doesn't have the mediocre materials that have crept into some Mercedes vehicles, as the automaker has expanded its number of trims and increased production.

The E-Class is slotted between Mercedes' entry C-Class and top-line S-Class. The E-Class is Mercedes' bread-and-butter model throughout the world, but Mercedes is clearly aiming for younger buyers by giving the latest version sleeker styling.

Still, while the new E-Class more closely resembles the larger, sporty looking S-Class sedan, it resembles its predecessor because conservative Mercedes believes in styling continuity. The 2003 E-Class is only slightly larger than the 2002 model because it's sold globally in markets with narrow streets. In contrast, Japanese rivals design cars specifically for the U.S. driving and road conditions.

Peculiar Gauge Layout
The E-Class sweeping dashboard looks suitably dramatic for a foreign luxury car sold in America. But it's odd to find an analog clock immediately to the left of the speedometer and a clock-size tachometer directly to the right of the speedometer. Most cars have a same-size speedometer and tachometer next to each other, with a smaller clock near the center of the dashboard.

The result? I often found myself staring at the clock when I wanted a quick reading of the speedometer or tachometer.

Also, the square information screen that occupies the center of the speedometer's dial should be put elsewhere.

Other controls are nicely positioned, but the dual-stage pop-up console cupholder is an exercise in overengineering and looks as if it could easily be damaged. Why not keep things simple?

Generally Roomy Cockpit
The nicely shaped outside door handles are easily grasped for quick entry, and there is decent room for four tall adults—although legroom gets rather tight behind a tall driver who moves his or her seat back a lot. The center of the back seat is too hard for comfort.

The trunk is large and has a conveniently low, wide opening—just the design needed for, say, quick luggage withdrawals at airport terminals. The manual trunk hinges move in enclosed areas so they don't damage luggage. But they really should be replaced with smoother hydraulic struts.

Lots of Safety Items
There is a lot of comfort and convenience equipment and plenty of safety features. They include more high-strength steel and larger crumple zones at the front for better energy absorption in an accident. There's also a new type of rollover sensor that can signal the central control module to deploy the side curtain bags and safety belt tensioners when it detects this type of accident.

An antiskid-traction control system enhances stability. And an optional Distronic adaptive cruise control system can automatically maintain a preset distance behind a vehicle in front with the help of a radar sensor.

Optional seats cool, heat, massage and adjust support in response to driving conditions. Now that's a feature old-line Cadillac and Lincoln buyers would appreciate.

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BB06 - 4/18/2014 10:29:57 PM