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The Mercedes-Benz E-Class delivers a combination of attributes surpassed by few cars or trucks anywhere. This sedan is luxurious, comfortable and fast, yet the cost of operating it, measured by fuel consumption and anticipated maintenance, is reasonable. The E-Class can be both sporty and practical. It employs some of the world's most advanced safety technology. It's relatively roomy inside, but it's also exceptionally maneuverable and not at all bulky, and it can be equipped with weather-busting all-wheel-drive. It expresses status in elegant, understated fashion.
It's no surprise that, still fresh from a thorough redesign, the E-Class has reasserted itself as one of the best-selling Mercedes models in the United States. It's the company's best selling line worldwide.
The E-Class revamp for model year 2003 was complete, including chassis, exterior styling, interior and engines. Mercedes introduced loads of new E-Class technology to go with athletic new looks and much sharper, sportier driving dynamics. The all-new E-Class sedans were more spirited than ever, but every inch a Mercedes-Benz.
For 2004, Mercedes expanded the lineup with two E-Class wagons that seat seven and offer exceptional versatility when hauling cargo and people. All-wheel drive, called 4Matic, was made available for sedans and wagons. And the mighty E55 AMG sports sedan was launched. Boasting 469 horsepower, with an amazing combination of lightning acceleration, handling, braking and luxurious accommodation, the E55 is one of the finest, and fastest, four-door sporting cars Mercedes-Benz has ever built.
The E-Class line expands further in 2005 with the new E320 CDI, powered by a high-tech direct-injection turbodiesel engine. Though popular in Europe, this is Mercedes' first diesel-powered sedan for the United States in eight years. We think it may be the best diesel car ever sold here. With diesel fuel selling for 20 percent less than gasoline in many markets, not to mention the E320 CDI's outstanding performance and 700-mile fill-up range, Mercedes' timing might be spot-on.
The E-Class is one of the most compelling cars in one of the most competitive market segments. The mid-size luxury sedan category includes more than a dozen solid choices and some of the finest cars in the world, including standards such as the Audi A6 and BMW 5 Series. The E-Class will go toe-to-toe with any of them, and offers buyers more choices than most.
The E-Class is considered by many to be the most successful design among Mercedes' current sedans. The four-headlight theme introduced on the previous-generation E-Class, now the company standard, has been refined in this car. Its front end is lower and is more steeply raked. An E-Class sedan has the look of a coupe. It looks fresh and youthful yet elegant.
The design presents a class-leading 0.27 coefficient of drag, helping minimize wind noise and maximize fuel economy.
With its lower body cladding and huge, 18-inch spoked wheels, the E55 AMG is clearly the raciest and most aggressive-looking E-Class. That said, those body add-ons add slightly more drag, if you can call 0.28 more drag.
The E-Class wagons will never be mistaken for anything but a wagon. Nonetheless, they are impressively sleek, and some critics find the tear-drop taper of the rear roof more aesthetically pleasing than the truck deck on the sedans.
Though it looks sportier, the 2005 Mercedes-Benz E-Class is slightly larger than the pre-2003 models. It's about an inch longer in wheelbase and overall length and a half-inch taller in overall height than the 2002 model. It's a bit heavier (by 50 to 150 pounds, depending on model), but comes with improved crash protection and more standard equipment. The E-Class is the first Mercedes to use aluminum body components extensively, starting with the hood, front fenders, trunk lid, front crossmember and front subframe. Aluminum is lighter and stronger but more expensive than steel. Aluminum amounts to 10 percent of the body's weight. About 37 percent is high-strength steel, almost twice as much as before, which is stronger but more expensive than regular steel.
The E-Class has all the traditional Mercedes interior cues, updated with some fresh features. It's conservative in some respects, daring in others, and impressively executed throughout.
The dashboard sweeps from each side and blends into the doors and center console. Nicely crafted wood trim is complemented by splashes of chrome. Plastic panels are rich in appearance, thanks to a new soft-touch finishing process. All are sprayed with a polyurethane coating that delivers impressively consistent color.
The instrument cluster uses black script on white gauges with LED lighting, framed by a three-spoke steering wheel. There's a big speedometer in the middle, with a menu-operated display for diagnostics, feature selection, ambient temperature, date and other information in the center. To the left sits a large analog clock, to the right the tachometer. On either end of the cluster are neat bar gauges that resemble thermometers, displaying fuel level and coolant temperature. An indicator with an icon of the car lets the driver know if any of the doors are ajar and, if so, which one, a welcome upgrade from the previous-generation cars.
A cluster of switches between the visors on the headliner controls cabin lighting and the Tele-Aid SOS call button. The panel also includes a switch to operate the sunroof. HomeLink buttons are located on the bottom of the rearview mirror and can be programmed to control garage doors, house lighting, gates, etc. Redundant controls on the steering wheel hub operate the phone, radio and information display.
The main audio, telephone and navigation controls are located in a new COMAND module, spread around a 16:9 ratio LCD display screen. The system is a big improvement over Mercedes' previous control center, but still requires some learning to master. A single row of switches operates door locks, flashers and seat heaters.
The center console has a funky pop-up cupholder and a large storage bin (two bins if you don't order the telephone package). There are storage bins in each door, and map pockets on the front seatbacks.
The nine-way adjustable front bucket seats are firm enough for good support when driving fast, but not hard on the back when cruising. They grip bodies of various sizes nicely, and there's more than enough adjustment via Mercedes' patented door-mounted seat controls to accommodate just about everyone. The sport seats have enough bolstering to keep a bronze bust in place. But if you don't dive into corners like Stirling Moss, then you probably don't need them because they make getting in and out a little more difficult.
Our gripes? The outside mirrors are small, no doubt in deference to sharp styling and good aerodynamics, and they limit the driver's field of view. More significant is the cruise control. Mercedes' system is managed with a stalk on the left side of the steering column, above the turn signals. On the new E-Class, the cruise stalk may be even closer to the turn signals than before, and at some point, no matter how long you've driven the car, you are going to hit the cruise control when you intend to turn on the blinker. Mercedes engineers insist that theirs is the most effective cruise-control operation going. We've yet to meet anyone who prefers it. On the other hand, we've met few people who dislike the cruise control to the point that they'd overlook all the strengths of a Mercedes-Benz to avoid having to use it.
Also, the new E-Class features ambient cabin lighting, the latest trend in interior design. These strips of soft, low-level cabin lighting in the headliner remain on during darkness, like a fancy nightlight in the bathroom. It's disconcerting while driving at night, at least initially, because we're used to nothing but the instrument lights. The distraction goes away as you become accustomed, but we're not sure the benefit of being able to see around the cabin outweighs t
Our first impression behind the wheel of a Mercedes E-Class is that it's smooth, serene and quiet. There's very little vibration anywhere in the cabin, and almost no wind noise. Even the high-performance E55 AMG is so quiet that the driver forgets just how powerful and fast it is until the throttle is opened up.
Performance from the E320 is somewhat disappointing. Its 3.2-liter V6, which produces 221 horsepower and 232 pound-feet of torque, lacks the responsiveness of the other E-Class engines, including the new E320 CDI diesel. Nonetheless, the E320 cruises well at high speeds and the V6 is smooth and quiet. It can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in 7.1 seconds, according to Mercedes, and that's more than adequate in the most hectic traffic situations.
New for 2005, the E320 CDI is flat impressive. It's turbocharged inline six-cylinder diesel engine features all the latest high-tech goodies, including CDI, the common-rail direct injection system, which delivers fuel to the engine at an incredible 23,000 psi, compared to 100-250 psi in the typical gasoline engine. Yet the technology matters far less than the results. Forget everything you know about diesel-powered cars built in the 1970s, '80s or '90s. Slow starting? Not anymore. Like all diesels, the E-Class version still needs electric glow-plugs to heat the combustion chambers before starting. Yet during our week-long evaluation, in early spring in the Midwest when mornings are more than cold enough to leave a coating of dew on the landscape, the E320 CDI never started more slowly than a gasoline engine. Indeed, we never saw the glow-plug indicator light. Certainly it might take longer to start in the dead of winter, but we can't imagine that it will require more than a second or two.
Unpleasant odors? You'll still get that oily diesel smell when you fill the E320 CDI's tank, but once the filler cap is back on and the car is running, you'll notice no unpleasant fumes inside or out of this E-Class. Excessive engine noise? At idle, during warm-up, you'll hear the rapid tick-tick of diesel noise more loudly than anything coming from the gasoline-powered E320's engine. But once the diesel is warm, there's very little difference in the amount of engine noise reaching the cabin compared to other E-Class models. The diesel engine is also surprisingly smooth, and the extra bit of noise comes with some excellent benefits.
Start with better acceleration. The E320 CDI's 201 horsepower is impressive by diesel standards, but that's not the half. This engine produces a whopping 369 pound-feet of torque, more even than the E500 gasoline V8, and it's the twisting power of torque that generates acceleration. Dip the accelerator pedal on the E320 CDI and it jumps, quickly enough to spin the back tires just by jabbing the gas, if you switch the traction control off. The CDI will leave the gasoline-powered E320 in its dust, up to about 90 mph. Moreover, the CDI engine breathes freely enough that it keeps pulling strong up to the transmission's shift points.
And that gutsy acceleration comes with outstanding fuel economy. According to the EPA, the E320 CDI beats its gasoline-powered counterpart by nearly 10 miles per gallon for both city and highway driving, estimated at 27 and 37 mpg respectively. Our test suggests that a 10 mpg edge overall is easily achievable in the real word. With predominantly highway travel, the CDI has a range of 600-700 miles per tank, so owners won't have to tolerate the smell of diesel fuel very often.
European engineers have wondered for decades why American drivers haven't taken to diesel-powered cars in greater numbers. The answer is simple: Compared to Europe, gasoline in the United States has usually been relatively cheap, and the economy advantage of a diesel has never been worth the trade-off. With the E320 CDI, we see no reason to choose the gasoline-powered E320, except
The Mercedes-Benz E-Class has always been a benchmark among luxury cars. It's a fine car in a competitive class, with a combination of safety, luxury, practicality, sportiness, status, and cost of operation that's difficult match.
For 2005, the E-Class offers a wide range of choices, from a frugal, excellent-performing diesel engine to well-behaved, utilitarian station wagons to the ultra high-performance E55 AMG. All-wheel-drive is available with a choice of engines in both sedans and wagons. And the E500 has an industry-leading seven-speed automatic transmission.
Our choice in this model line is the screaming E55 AMG, as long as someone else picks up the $80,000 tab. For our money, we'd buy the $55,045 E500 for its responsiveness and overall balance; the 5.0-liter engine really wakes this car up. The new E320 CDI diesel is the most frugal and, given the times, perhaps the best choice; we'd choose the diesel hands down over the similarly priced, gasoline-powered E320.
J.P. Vettraino and Jim McCraw contributed to this report from Detroit.
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