2003 Mercedes-Benz E320 First Drive

2003 Mercedes-Benz E-Class Sedan

(6.2L V8 7-speed Automatic)

When you're as great at what you do as Mercedes-Benz is at building luxury cars, one of the toughest jobs you face is surprising the buying public with just how tremendous of a car you've built. So the response to the 2003 E-Class sedan is, not surprisingly, ''Of course it's a fabulous car. It's a Mercedes-Benz E-Class. What else would it be but fabulous?'' This means it's one of the best sedans in the world for $40,000 to $60,000, and you could make a case that it might be the best sedan in the world for that money, though BMW 5 Series owners would think you mad.

What the 2003 model is not is a big step up from the 2002 model in the same way that that model was not a huge leap from the E-Class it replaced back in 1996. Drive this car every day on a high-speed thoroughfare or down any city street and the things you'll notice will seem clever and appealing, but not revolutionary. There are, however, improvements to this new model that become evident in certain situations that don't arise every day, and these upgrades certainly make the car better than its predecessor, even if they aren't abundantly clear to the average user.

Exterior styling has not changed significantly, nor has the overall occupant package. Mercedes-Benz endorses the principle of ''stylistic timelessness,'' which means the company picks a design that it thinks won't age and stands by it for a long time. The four-eyes face first appeared as a reality on the 1996 E-Class. Since then, seven other Mercedes models have adopted this family trait. People who like change won't care for this, but owners of the current E-Class will be delighted that their cars won't suddenly look dated, as is the case when most other brands undertake a model redesign.

As for the occupants, they were well served by the previous model in terms of space, and they're slightly better served by the new model. Though Mercedes kept the sedan's overall length the same, it stretched the wheelbase and widened the car about an inch. The extra shoulder room is obvious, but none of the extra space between the wheels turns up in the cabin. Instead, there's a considerably larger trunk and a front end better suited to surviving a severe impact.

Even with a modest increase to interior volume, larger front-seat occupants will feel more comfortable because Mercedes used a larger human (what the car industry calls the 95th-percentile male) as a model for cabin design. So the seats have more fore/aft travel, and the steering wheel tilts and telescopes to a greater degree. As a result, it's one of the most commodious cabins on the market.

The Germans also catered to smaller drivers by taking the 5th-percentile woman (essentially the smallest body size) and designing the cabin to fit that demographic, too. Unfortunately, the company did not include adjustable foot pedals, which would have made it truly outstanding in this important comfort and safety area.

Other changes that you'll appreciate every day in every new E-Class would include the following:

  • front seats that take the weight of a passenger into consideration when deploying the two-stage airbags
  • engine characteristics that adapt to the driver's style by reading gas pedal activity
  • a brake-by-wire system that uses fewer components and makes stopping distances shorter in an emergency
  • a circuit that closes the windows, sunroof and exterior vents when you push the air-recirculation button, ideal for use in tunnels and other oxygen-deprived zones
  • airbags that pop out of the A-pillar to reduce head injuries
  • automatic headlights and rain-sensing wipers
  • high-performance headlight bulbs that last the life of the vehicle.

All of the above is standard. Depending upon how Mercedes-Benz equips the E-Class models sent stateside, the following items may be standard or optional:

  • dynamic seats that change shape to hold the occupant depending upon the current actions of the car and massage the lower back on request
  • a Keyless-Go entry system that tells the car to open when you're near and allows the engine to start with the push of a button, rather than the crank of a key
  • other extravagances like a panoramic sliding sunroof, a tire pressure-monitoring kit, solar-powered auxiliary ventilation and active seat ventilation.

This is, after all, a luxury car that services the demands of people who like to be treated well. Depending upon how much money you're willing to spend, you can be treated from quite well to extremely well to excessively well.

If you make dynamic demands on any version of the new E-Class, it will respond better than the old model. Mercedes has worked technologies into this version as standard or optional gear that keep it more stable under duress, without losing the highway cruiser comfort that has people picking Mercedes over the more aggressive BMW products. Inevitably, every successor has a stiffer chassis and body than the model it replaces, which translates into a more stable vehicle with improved ride quality. Mercedes replaced the old E's double-wishbone suspension design with a four-link setup, and this allowed the company to add ABC (Active Body Control) to the 2003 E-Class options list. An active suspension system that transformed the Mercedes S-Class and CL into serious handlers when it appeared in 2000, ABC offers a remarkable combination of relaxed ride quality and confident handling. With or without ABC, the new E-Class points and responds better when being hustled down a twisty road than any of its predecessors.

As for the new models being quicker, the answer is yes and no. The E320 keeps the same 3.2-liter V6, but the V8 model changes designations from E430 to E500 to reflect the move from a 4.3- to a 5.0-liter displacement. The V6 has 224 hp at 5,600 rpm and 237 lb-ft of torque between 3,000 and 4,800 rpm. For the V8, that means 306 hp at 5,600 rpm and 345 lb-ft of torque between 2,700 and 4,250 rpm.

But regardless of engine choice and equipment levels, any of the new E-Class models will be a pleasure to drive. It's also true that Mercedes-Benz is likely to hold the line of pricing for the new car, so the 2003 version represents a better value than the old one, given the superior handling, improved acceleration with V8 models, superior crash protection and the increased standard features list.

So, although it isn't as dramatic an improvement over the previous E-Class as that one was over its predecessor, the new midsize Benz is definitely a step up on a ladder that's already very high.

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