2003 Mercedes-Benz E500 Road Test

2003 Mercedes-Benz E-Class Sedan

(5.0L V8 5-speed Automatic)

The E-Class is the signature Mercedes-Benz sedan — attractive, dignified, sturdy and, in a graceful manner, comfortable. Most people won't be able to afford one, but those who can will note the ease with which this car approaches life on the road, completely unruffled by anything the average driver could do to it.

It comes as no surprise, then, that the E-Class is the best-selling luxury car in the over-$45,000 price range and that it was one of our Most Wanted picks. For those who have achieved the requisite financial success, few cars offer a more well-rounded luxury experience. And even fewer carry themselves with such prestige — like it or not, there's no getting around the fact that this car and the prominent three-pointed star affixed to its hood announce your arrival to every passing motorist and pedestrian. Maybe it won't buy you exclusivity in the high-dollar suburbs, but it should get you a tee time at the country club. Don't care about such things? Well then, do your best to blend in.

As you might have read in our "First Drive", the E-Class was fully redesigned for the 2003 model year. Just slightly larger than its predecessor, the new E has sleek, flowing lines — its headlamps having settled back into their eye sockets and its tail having taken on the more shapely characteristics of the C-Class and S-Class (without jeopardizing its generous trunk capacity, now measured at 15.9 cubic feet). Its stouter structure incorporates plenty of aluminum, which allowed Mercedes to boost standard equipment without creating a corpulent Benz — the E320 gained scarcely 10 pounds, while E500s, like our test car, put on only about 60 pounds.

We're usually limited to the luck of the draw with press cars, and this one was lightly optioned by E500 standards. This means we can't tell you about the adaptive cruise control (Distronic), Drive-Dynamic seats, panoramic sunroof or the new DVD-based navigation system (which Mercedes informs us is "not yet available"), but that just gives us more to talk about in a future follow-up test of the 469-horsepower E55 AMG. Even with just a handful of options, our test vehicle cost close to $60,000 — and this for a car without heated seats or a full-size spare tire. Next to this Benz, the Audi A6 4.2, BMW 540i automatic and Jaguar S-Type V8 look like great deals. And if you start looking at the Infiniti M45 and Lexus GS 430, the price difference gets really ugly.

So value — relative to other midsize luxury sedans — probably isn't a motivating factor in an E500 purchase, or even an E320 purchase. But after a week in an E, we understand why so many well-to-do people are willing to pay more to get one.

Our E500 tester beckoned us with an airy two-tone cabin, where supple leather seats and coordinating soft-touch surfaces were complemented by warm wood inlays, chrome piping and gathered sections of leather on the door panels. The attractive analog instrumentation was easy to read (save for the somewhat undersized tachometer), and we noted with pleasure that a large analog clock has been tastefully integrated into the cluster as its own gauge. Like the exterior, the dash employs gentle curves — it looks stylish now and should remain so over several years of ownership.

Only a few of the materials used to construct the cabin weren't befitting of our test vehicle's hefty price tag — we took note of some of the plastic used on the center console, as well as the vents, which seemed a bit too clickety when adjusted. Also, neat freaks will need to carry carpet cleaner in the trunk, as Mercedes designers' efforts to upholster the door seals and door bins border on the extreme — fabric runs around the perimeter of each door threshold, including the bottom where there would ordinarily be a plastic or metal scuff plate, and covers the outside of each bin. As our test car had the Stone interior ensemble, these areas were stained with shoe marks after a week of testing. Build quality on our test car was generally good — our complaints were limited to a fussy glovebox latch and a few minor interior panel misfits.

The standard front seats in the E-Class come with an assortment of power adjustments, save for manual lumbar (a tad disappointing for a car worth almost $60K). We found the driver seat comfortable but not overly supportive; were we actually shopping for an E500, we might consider springing for the optional Multi-Contour or Drive-Dynamic seats. Still, the rather broad, flat shape of these seats coupled with the power tilt and telescoping steering wheel should allow people of a wide range of sizes to find a decent driving position. There are a couple things to watch for, though: 1) According to the specs, the current E-Class offers 2.5 fewer inches of hiproom in the front than the previous generation. So, larger drivers with an old E coming off lease should probably take a test-drive before placing an order. 2) Headroom can be a bit limited with the optional sunroof if you make use of the seat-height adjustment.

Visibility from the cockpit is generally good. There are no serious blind spots and a console-mounted power fold feature for the rear headrests makes it easy to watch your back during highway travel. But one editor disliked the side mirror design, which has each one mounted slightly behind the A-pillar — having to look around the pillars restricted how much she could see to each side. The optional bi-HID headlights ($1,150) should be standard (as they are on the 540i), but credit is certainly due for the large, clear spread of light they toss on the road at night. Further, the automatic function responds quickly to changing light conditions, such that the headlights come on in tunnels. All of the interior controls illuminate when the headlights are on, right down to the open/close dials on each of the vents.

A brief spell in the backseat left the author with the impression that it would be suitable for two average-size adults. The seat is nicely contoured, though it would benefit from a slightly longer seat bottom (for improved thigh support). Further, taller occupants are apt to complain about tight foot room under the front seats. And if you're seated in the center, forget about it: driveline components evidently necessitated a huge hump on the floor. And as we noted in the "First Drive," the quarters aren't overly roomy back here anyway: A scan of the specs revealed an inch less shoulder room and two inches less hiproom compared with the previous E-Class. If your car will have a steady procession of backseat passengers, you'll want to bring them along on your test-drive.

One particularly thoughtful feature included in every E-Class car is soft overhead ambient lighting. Using the trip computer, you can set the two headliner-mounted lighting units to one of six levels. This doesn't take the place of the regular reading lights, rather it frees you and your occupants from riding around in complete darkness at night and provides a more relaxing environment in which to unwind.

The relaxation continues once you're ready to actually drive the E500. For power, you'll enjoy the services of a 5.0-liter SOHC V8 with three valves per cylinder. Output is rated at 302 horsepower at 5,600 rpm and 339 pound-feet of torque from 2,700 to 4,250 rpm — a significant increase over the outgoing E430's 275 hp and 295 lb-ft. Overall, we found this engine perfectly suited for a touring car such as the E500: Power delivery is smooth and refined and there isn't a weakness anywhere across the rev band. Nor is there anything explosive about this V8, so it almost comes as a surprise that it can reach 60 mph in just 5.8 seconds.

An astute five-speed automatic with automanual functionality is standard, and it does a good job of providing quick, smooth shifts. When left in "D," the transmission matches its shift points according to up- and downhill grades and individual driving style. It will upshift for you in the automanual mode, but it does so right at the 6,000-rpm redline under full throttle.

The only thing that bothered us about the E500's powertrain was the touchy throttle. All E-Class cars have an electronically controlled throttle with something Mercedes calls "adaptive accelerator." This means that the throttle valve opens more quickly when the engine management system detects more aggressive use of the accelerator. This is fine. However, when you're puttering along in heavy traffic, the accelerator pedal is overly stiff at the top of its travel and throttle response can be abrupt (sometimes resulting in unwanted surges in traffic). We'd like to see a little more fine-tuning in this area.

The E500's fuel economy rating is a couple miles per gallon off the class leaders at 16 mpg city/23 mpg highway, and since the car can't plead the light truck exemption, it's subject to a gas guzzler tax of $1,000. Well, at least it meets the ULEV standard. We averaged 17.4 mpg during a week of testing. Engine maintenance intervals are dictated by an oil quality sensor and, according to Mercedes, owners can expect to go 10,000 to 20,000 miles between oil changes.

Like the SL500, the E-Class makes use of an electronic braking system whereby a computer evaluates road conditions and steering input and determines how much brake pressure should be applied to each wheel at any given time. Antilock braking and stability control (Mercedes' ESP) are integrated into this system. Besides offering improved performance, electronic braking is supposed to improve driver comfort by removing the pedal pulsation associated with ABS activation and the jolts associated with frequent stops and starts in heavy traffic.

Certainly, this kind of technology is impressive, and based on our 3,800-pound test car's 60-0 stopping distance of 120 feet, effective — especially in panic situations. But we contend that it could use more refinement for everyday driving. During light to moderate braking, the brake pedal doesn't provide the progressive feel expected in a high-end sedan. As a result, drivers are apt to have difficulty modulating the available power, at least in the initial days of ownership. Most people will get used to it, but hopefully in coming years, they won't have to. If you're concerned about what might happen if the electronic braking system's computer freezes, rest assured that there is a backup hydraulic master cylinder on board for emergencies.

The E500's suspension components are adapted from those of the S-Class — familiar bits include the fully independent four-link front/five-link rear suspension and an updated version of the AIRmatic DC system. In the E-Class, the AIRmatic computer continually adjusts the air spring and damper rates in an effort to cover a wider range between ride comfort and sporty handling. Although the computer automatically chooses what it considers the optimum settings for any situation based on acceleration and steering angle sensors, the driver can select one of three modes via a button on the center console — comfort, sport I (harder spring and damper settings activate earlier and the body lowers 0.6 inch) and sport II (spring and damper rates are consistently firm and the body kneels another 0.6 inch).

We found that the comfort setting was the way to go during commutes, as it delivers a smooth, absorptive ride. The sport I and II settings offer a noticeably less cushy ride, but sport II works well for spirited drives down coastal highways. The suspension does a nice job of transitioning weight during cornering, and body roll is kept well enough in check to qualify the E500 as one of the sportier luxury touring cars — it's no 540i but it's close to the S-Type.

Unfortunately, the tires are not well suited for a car that purports to offer the best of comfort and sport. The E500's standard 17-inch wheels and Continental tires add to the comfort side (though they tended to whistle on less-than-smooth pavement) but they're no good for serious handling. Grip is limited to begin with, and breakaway happens abruptly if you're pushing the car hard. And, if you happen to have turned off stability control at the time, you'll be surprised by how quickly the back end starts to come around.

Obviously, this kind of behavior cannot be blamed entirely on the tires, and it was something we noted when testing a previous-generation E55 and the current S500. All of these cars have large amounts of torque flowing to their rear wheels, and without the benefit of Mercedes' Active Body Control (ABC) that comes on the CL coupe and SL roadster (and the S-Class line starting in 2001), their suspensions struggle to keep up at the limits. Fortunately, most E500 owners won't push their cars this hard, and if they're smart, they'll leave the ESP button alone. Even so, we're not about to let Mercedes off the hook for putting subpar tires on a nearly $60K car. If you plan to drive your Benz with any measure of enthusiasm, you'll want to get the Sport Package, which swaps out the standard tires for identically sized but stickier rubber, or visit a tire store and pick out a set of Michelin Pilots.

We found the E500's steering rather unremarkable. The rack has a discernable progressive ratio, and it's adequate to the task of threading a twisty two-lane on a Sunday afternoon — at a spirited, rather than a breakneck, pace. Road feel and quickness are good but not great. And the steering feels a bit too heavy in the parking lot. Most buyers won't have any complaints.

While the author thought our E500's controls were more logically arranged and labeled than those of other Benzes (because she was able to master the basics without breaking out the owner's manual), other editors disagreed, including one driver who wrote that they "fail to elicit any sort of familiarity even after several hours behind the wheel."

The buttons and dials for the E500's standard four-zone climate control system (the first of its kind among all midsize luxury sedans) are mounted high in the dash; one editor felt the stereo head unit should have occupied this location. Color-coded temperature buttons and a dedicated "off" button are helpful, but the markings on the dial for fan directional control are confusing. More obscure functions were not always easy to pick out, either. It was only after consulting the manual that we were able activate the passenger-compartment charcoal filter manually and adjust the settings for the rear climate zones. Fortunately, you can just leave the latter responsibility to the backseat occupants, who have access to their own set of temperature and fan speed adjustments on the back of the center console.

E-Class stereo controls offer varying difficulty levels, depending on what you want to do. Our car offered both a single-disc CD player, and concealed behind their own retractable doors, an in-dash six-disc changer and a tape player. After a week of use, we're prepared to certify the changer as the slowest-loading in-dash unit of any current production vehicle. Once her CDs were finally loaded, the author relied on the softly detented (and fully illuminated) steering wheel buttons for seek and volume adjustment, ignoring the head unit until she wanted to change CDs. Even that wasn't so bad, as the numbered buttons in the telephone-style keypad (designed to be compatible with the optional Motorola phone, of course) are large, and their sheer number allows for lots of radio presets.

However, if you want to make tonal adjustments, you've got to navigate the "soft keys" (like at an ATM) surrounding the LCD screen and several editors found the process too difficult to bother with. Obviously, owners would have more time to familiarize themselves with the stereo protocol and might not have these complaints. If you want to know about the performance of our test car's optional 12-speaker Harman Kardon sound system, read our stereo expert's review.

The secondary controls are a mixed lot. As you'd expect at this price, all of the windows offer one-touch operation, however, one editor reported that the buttons were a bit fussy such that it was sometimes hard to actuate the one-touch mode. More annoying is the placement of the cruise control stalk next to the signal/headlight stalk. "As in every other Mercedes I've driven, I continually tripped the cruise control stalk when trying to put on the turn signal, even after several hundred miles behind the wheel," said one driver. "And of course, on the occasion that I actually did want to use the cruise, I accidentally flashed the brights." We would much prefer that the cruise functions be relocated to a stalk on the lower right side of the wheel (as in Lexus vehicles) or the wheel itself.

On the other hand, the trip computer offers a lot of functionality, and even the inexperienced can use the steering wheel buttons to scroll through its menus and set their own preferences for the lights, automatic locking and so on. All information is displayed in the gauge cluster, which helps the driver keep his attention on the road.

In-cabin storage is quite generous for a luxury car. The front and rear door bins are large; the center console offers two felt-lined tiers; and there are under-seat compartments in the front (one of which houses a first aid kit). Still, Mercedes has built another car whose glovebox isn't large enough to accommodate its massive owner's manual. A pair of cupholders pops out of the center console, and despite the rather cheap plastic used to create this contraption, it managed to hold our drinks securely, though not without intruding on the front passenger's personal space. Rear cupholders reside in the fold-down armrest.

Groceries are easy to stow, thanks to the trunk lid that pops up automatically and is lightweight enough to close with one hand. Our test car offered neither a split-folding rear seat nor a ski pass-through, and you can't get either as an option, which seems like an oversight to us, as does the lack of a full-size spare tire.

Should you have reason to doubt the vaultlike structure of your new Benz, the collection of passive restraint features on the standard equipment list will surely allay your fears. Every E-Class comes with six airbags in addition to the federally mandated pair in front — there is a side-impact bag for each outboard occupant and a head curtain bag that spans each side of the car. Pre-tensioning belts are also provided in the outboard positions. A rollover sensor (mounted on the transmission tunnel) is new this year, and if it determines that the car's about to go belly up, the head bags and pre-tensioners snap into action. The '03 E-Class has not yet been crash tested.

We didn't find the E500 to be the perfect luxury car — it's not as fun to drive as a 540i, its controls continue to befuddle us and it's very expensive compared with its peers. Still, it's a pleasure to behold inside and out and it's a powerful, comfortable and (mostly) agile touring car. And we don't doubt for a moment the prestige it holds for Mercedes customers and those who would like to be Mercedes customers. If you've got the money, you won't be disappointed — but don't forget to try out the competition before you dip into retirement savings.

Stereo Evaluation

System Score: 9.0

Components: The optional Harman Kardon Logic 7 sound system in the E500 uses the best of modern technology and good ol' fashioned brute force to build an incredible soundstage. Twelve speakers are found all over the cabin. There's a center channel, tweeters and woofers in every door and a pounding subwoofer in the rear shelf. These are driven by a 420-watt amplifier/sound processor and get marching orders from a complex CD/tape head unit with a color LCD display and steering wheel-mounted controls.

Performance: The amplifier designed by the Lexicon division of Harman International, "converts standard two channel audio sources into a convincing seven-channel surround sound playback matrix." The Matrix? What a cool movie. So, what does that have to do with the stereo system in a Benz? Well, imagine how amazing the sonic trickery is in the Keanu flick, and how that can be achieved with a five-channel home stereo. Now picture a tight cabin filled with 12 premium speakers, seven channels of expanded sound and more power than most folks keep around the house. It's a true 360-degree experience, with no obvious distortion at any reasonable volume.

Cymbals sound very clean and chimes resonate as if they are hanging from the rearview mirror. The midrange sounds realistic and live recordings reveal intricate details such as a singer taking breaths between lines and rustling of papers in the recording studio. The subwoofer is extremely strong without sacrificing sound quality. Unlike some booming systems, bongos and other hand-played drums are allowed to rebound instead of the initial strike masking the rest of the beat.

The only downsides are related to the controls. The volume knob is flat and was very loose in the test vehicle. Adjusting audio functions requires using buttons next to on-screen prompts which can keep the driver's eyes off the road, but there is an additional display under the arc of the speedometer. The only truly annoying quirk is a full-second delay when the steering wheel button is used to change tracks on your CD.

Best Feature: Wraparound sound.

Worst Feature: Quirky controls.

Conclusion: A magnificent optional sound system that will please fans of Bjork, Bartok and everyone in-between. — Trevor Reed

Second Opinions

Editor in Chief Karl Brauer says:
We all know that cars are getting better every year, and that the difference in ownership experience between a mainstream brand and premium brand has all but disappeared. But the truly amazing aspect of new cars is the lack of variation even within an automaker's lineup.

The all-new E-Class is a perfect example of this phenomenon. Hop from a 2003 C-Class to a 2003 E-Class, and the difference of $20,000 in starting MSRP is obvious in everything from interior materials to driving experience. But hop from a new E-Class into a 2003 S-Class, and things get a little blurry as to why you're spending the extra $25K. I suspect you could blindfold an individual and drive them around in both cars (an E- and S-Class) for a day without them knowing the difference (though explaining what you're doing to every traffic cop you see would likely get old). Certainly there are weaknesses to the E-Class interior (flimsy power window buttons, less-than-simple climate controls) but these same issues exist in the S-Class, and if you're going to drive one of two vehicles with interior design flaws, wouldn't you rather save $25,000?

Truth be told, Mercedes has continued to refine its COMAND system, and I've gotten used to the interface after driving so many Mercedes products in recent years. The result? I managed to program radio stations, adjust the tonal qualities of the music and modify the audio system display within minutes of starting our E500 test car, and without ever referring to the owner's manual. I'm not ready to call COMAND simple, but after driving the new BMW 7 Series last fall, I refuse to call it complex or difficult to master.

Obviously the S-Class will continue to sell, but I'm going to have trouble understanding why.

Senior Road Test Editor Ed Hellwig says:
The new E-Class makes it painfully obvious that Mercedes has yet to grasp the art of intuitive ergonomics. While the seat controls remain some of the best in the business, the rest of the E's secondary functions are blended together into a confusing mass of buttons and switches that fail to elicit any sort of familiarity even after a few hours behind the wheel. The climate controls are high, while the stereo controls are low, and the steering wheel buttons lack any obvious labeling for quick reference.

These minor design issues aside, the E500 is a luxury sedan of the highest order. Smooth, strong and stable, it projects the kind of rock-solid feel and comfort you would expect from a car in this price range. The interior is plush, the seats soft and shapely and its performance leaves little to be desired. Those looking for a sedan that will tempt them to take the long the way home might be a little disappointed, as the E is still more of a cruiser than a corner carver, but in all other areas this is a luxury sedan with few equals.

Consumer Commentary

"I bought mine with the Sport Package. I like it so much with the interior design as well as the exterior design. I am only 33, if it was last year I would have got a BMW 540 instead. However, there is no way you could compare the 540 with this new E500! We are only to see more people at my age getting the new E-Class! Favorite features: the Keyless-Go system really makes me feel this is something special with my new E500. I am keeping my car key in my pocket all the time. Suggested improvements: I have no complaint with the performance of the brakes, otherwise I would have got in an accident last month when I was driving on the freeway. However, I cannot brake so smooth when I am driving around 30-50 miles an hour." — STEVENC, Jan. 5, 2003

"I have read the reviews and can't believe that no one has commented on how small the new E500 is. I had previously owned an E320 and loved it. The car is supposedly an inch bigger everywhere, but the trunk and backseat are so small that I could not use it to take customers in. I just traded this car for an S430. Favorite features: The quality and finish are excellent. It is very sporty but the engine almost seems overpowered for the car. Lots of gadgets and fairly easy to use. Suggested improvements: Mercedes is going to lose some loyal E customers who really need to use the backseats in this car. The car is small and a gas guzzler. Instead of calling it an E-Series they should call it the 5 Series!! — smherlin, Jan. 7, 2003

"I have been driving the new E-Class three months. Very nice car. Firm yet luxurious ride. The E320 has plenty of horses for me but some BMW converts may opt for the 500.The new exterior styling in nearly perfect. I really love it. That Charcoal Gray interior is tough to beat. Favorite features: Exterior styling, HK sound system, sleek rims, front grill and dash layout. Suggested improvements: Too much plastic — I need to have two plastic knobs replaced that simply broke apart. Rear seat could be bigger." — MBnewbie, Jan. 17, 2003

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