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The 2006 Mercedes-Benz E-Class features a more powerful standard engine, the one that comes on the most popular model. This new V6 is a welcome improvement, but it really does not change the basic character of what was already a fine automobile.
The E-Class in many ways epitomizes the Mercedes-Benz brand, at least in the eyes of many consumers. It's the company's best selling line worldwide and one of the best-selling Mercedes models in the United States.
The E-Class describes a full line of big, roomy sedans that are solid, safe, practical, comfortable, luxurious, and fast. Yet the cost of operating the popular E350, in terms of fuel consumption and maintenance, can be quite reasonable. The E-Class features some of the world's most advanced safety technology. And, what most people think of when they think of Mercedes, the E-Class expresses status in elegant, understated fashion.
Since a frame-up overhaul for model year 2003, the E-Class has expanded steadily, and now includes seven variants: sedans that seat five, wagons that seat seven, V6 engines, V8s or one of the finest diesels offered in the United States, optional weather-busting all-wheel drive and screaming super-performance models from supertuner AMG. Any of these seven models delivers a combination of attributes surpassed by few cars or trucks anywhere.
For 2006, there is a slight change in E-Class nomenclature, thanks to a change in engine size. The E350 sedan and wagon are powered by a new-generation 3.5-liter V6 that produces 20 percent more power than the previous 3.2-liter V6 (used in the E320) with no decrease in fuel mileage. The E350 is the Mercedes' first dual-overhead cam V6 and it generates 268 horsepower, compared to 221 from the 3.2-liter V6 it replaces. Yet, matched to Mercedes' high-tech, seven-speed automatic transmission, the E350 loses nothing in mileage to its less powerful predecessor.
Meanwhile, there is no better example of how far passenger car diesel technology has advanced than the E320 CDI with Mercedes' impressive common-rail direct injection turbodiesel engine.
Also new for 2006 is a supercharged E55 AMG wagon boasting 469 horsepower. Woe is the guy in the sports car who smirks at this stodgy station wagon. It is truly a wolf in sheep's clothing.
The Mercedes E-Class is an icon, a benchmark in its class. It competes in one of the most competitive market segments today as it goes toe-to-toe with outstanding luxury sedans such as the Audi A6, BMW 5 Series and Acura RL.
The E350 sedan ($50,050) is the standard model. The name change reflects its new 3.5-liter V6 engine. It comes standard with the new seven-speed automatic transmission. Standard features include fully automatic dual-zone climate control, 10-way power front seats with leather seating surfaces and position memory, real burl walnut trim, a power tilt and telescoping steering wheel, a nine-speaker stereo, power windows with one-touch express operation both up and down, auto-dimming mirrors and rain-sensing windshield wipers. 4Matic full-time variable all-wheel drive ($2,500) is available. Also available is an Appearance Package ($3,960) that adds sporty lower body cladding and Mercedes' Airmatic computer-controlled air suspension.
The E320 CDI ($51,050) is equipped identically to the E350, but features the common-rail direct injection turbodiesel engine.
The E500 ($58,400) is powered by a 302-hp V8, with more standard equipment than the E350. Upgrades include a four-zone climate control system with separate temperature adjustments for both sides of the cabin, front and rear, and the variable air suspension.
The E350 wagon ($52,300) and E500 wagon ($62,000) are equipped comparably to the respective sedans. The 4Matic all-wheel-drive system comes standard on E500 wagons. A power liftgate and cargo organizer are standard, and the E-Class wagons add something rare among their European counterparts: a folding third seat that increases passenger capacity by two.
Options let buyers equip an E350 with nearly all the upgraded equipment that comes on the E500. There are dozens more options offered on all E-Class models, including radar-controlled Distronic adaptive cruise control, which maintains a set distance from cars ahead; a credit card-sized transmitter called Keyless Go, which allows unlocking the doors and starting the car by touching the door handle and the gear selector; Parktronic obstacle warning, which helps with parking and enhances safety by alerting the driver to objects in front of and behind the car.
The E55 AMG ($81,800) is performance-tuned by Mercedes subsidiary AMG. It's equipped with a supercharged, intercooled V8 producing 469 horsepower, a manually controllable five-speed automatic transmission, bigger tires, wheels and brakes and an aggressively tuned suspension. This hotrod is distinguished by a unique body package, interior trim and AMG markings inside and out. For 2006, Mercedes offers an E55 AMG wagon ($82,600) for the first time.
Safety features on all models include active front head restraints, which are new for 2006. In the event of a rear collision exceeding the system's deployment threshold, the front head restraints move forward nearly two inches and upward by more than an inch, helping to support the head and reduce whiplash injuries. Every E-Class car comes standard with eight airbags: dual front airbags, side-impact airbags for front and rear passengers, and head-protection curtains that run the length of the cabin on both sides. The airbag management system employs multiple impact sensors designed to more precisely control the timing and rate of deployment. The system accounts for the weight of a front-seat passenger and controls seatbelt pretensioners according to the force of impact. Active safety features start with anti-skid stability electronics and the latest evolution of ABS.
The new V6 engine that comes on the 2006 Mercedes-Benz E350 addresses one of our primary gripes: disappointing performance from the standard engine. The new engine is slightly larger (3.5 liters vs. 3.2), and it's the first Mercedes V6 with dual overhead cams and four valves per cylinder. The 3.5 liter V6 generates 268 horsepower (20 percent more than the 3.2) and helps trim fully half a second from the E350's 0-60 mph times.
More important, matched with Mercedes' high-tech seven-speed automatic transmission, the new engine makes the E350 generally more responsive than the 2005 E320. The 3.5-liter V6 has fully variable valve timing, delivering an impressive amount of torque from idle all the way to the redline. The E350 responds much more immediately, with more obvious acceleration, than the old E320, no matter how fast it's already traveling when the driver dips the gas pedal. The new engine is also noticeably smoother, particularly at high rpm. And thanks to the seven-speed transmission, the improved performance comes without a corresponding decrease in fuel mileage.
The diesel-powered E320 CDI is impressive. Its turbocharged inline six-cylinder diesel 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 a 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.
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 E350'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 outstanding fuel economy. According to the EPA, the E320 CDI beats its gasoline-powered counterpart by more than 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. With gasoline topping $2 a gallon, and the mileage advantage of the E320 CDI, the paradigm for the typical American buyer may finally have shifted toward diesel engines.
Why? Because the E320 CDI performs just as well as the gasoline powered E350. Its 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. Before the introduction of the new 3.5-liter gasoline V6, the CDI would leave the standard gasoline-powered E-Class in the dust. Even now, it will run neck and neck with the E350, up to about 90 mph. Moreover, the CDI engine breathes freely enough that it keeps pulling strong up to the tr
The Mercedes-Benz E-Class offers a wider range of choices than ever before. All have the attributes that have long made the E-Class a benchmark among luxury cars. Every model delivers a combination of safety, luxury, practicality, performance, status, and cost of operation that's difficult match. This remains an iconic car in a market segment crowded with good cars.
NewCarTestDrive.com editor Mitch McCullough reported from Los Angeles, with J.P. Vettraino and Jim McCraw reporting from Detroit.