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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.
Big wheels are the rage in automotive design, and Mercedes is not immune to the trend. The 2006 E-Class now comes standard with 17-inch wheels (big by any measure just five years ago). It's a trend we like, from an appearance standpoint, though the stiffer-sidewall tires required for the bigger wheels can in some cases effect ride quality.
The current E-Class design introduced many innovations that are not necessarily apparent to the eye. This was the first Mercedes sedan 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 of the total is modern high-strength steel alloys. From the aerodynamic perspective, the E-Class is one of the slipperiest sedans extant. Its 0.27 coefficient of drag is a benchmark for sedans, and helps minimize wind noise and maximize fuel economy.
Before the launch of the gorgeous CLS sedan/coupe, the E-Class was widely considered 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 its long hood appears to be steeply raked. The E-Class sedan still looks fresh and youthful, yet elegant.
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 trunk deck on the sedans. The wagon's added cargo-passenger flexibility is welcome, and the if E-Class wagons still implies a bit too much stodginess for your taste, there's always the new-for-2006, 469-hp E55 AMG wagon.
The E55 AMG looks meaner than the other E-Class models. With its lower body cladding and huge, 18-inch wheels, the E55 is clearly the raciest and most aggressive-looking E-Class. That said, those body add-ons add slightly more drag, if you can call a 0.28 cd more drag. For those who like the E55 look but not the $80,000-plus price tag, Mercedes offers a couple of body packages that give other E-Class sedans more aggressive tone, including a full AMG sport appearance package. (It might be interesting to have it the other way around, all the AMG performance bits with the standard bodywork.)
We really enjoy the E-Class interior. Like its exterior styling, we consider the E-Class cabin to be some of Mercedes' best design work, with a very successful mix of attributes. The E-Class sedan delivers plenty of passenger space, yet it maintains some level of intimacy. It's luxurious, yet functional, and loaded with features without being excessive. E-Class has all the traditional Mercedes interior cues, starting with standard dark stained burl walnut trim. 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. The wood trim is complemented by splashes of chrome. Plastic panels are generally 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 its 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.
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.
A single row of switches at the bottom of the center stack operates door locks, flashers and seat heaters. The main audio, telephone and navigation controls are located in a COMAND module, spread around a 16:9 ratio LCD display screen. The system is a big improvement over Mercedes' previous control center, and while it still requires some learning, it probably takes less time to master than the menu/joystick system in many E-Class competitors. Mercedes is learning that people who drive cars carry stuff with them. This E-Class has less storage space than some of its competitors, but acres more than any Mercedes did five or 10 years ago. The center console has a funky pop-up cupholder and a large storage bin (two bins if you don't order the telephone package). Storage bins are also located in each door along with 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, you probably don't need them. They make getting in and out a little more difficult.
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.
The E-Class was one of the first cars to feature ambient cabin lighting. These strips of soft, low-level lighting in the headliner
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.
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