2003 Mercedes-Benz E55 AMG First Drive

2003 Mercedes-Benz E-Class Sedan

(5.5L V8 Supercharger 5-speed Automatic)

The fact that the 2003 E55 AMG is one of the fastest Mercedes ever built is enough to get most enthusiasts' attention, but just to make sure that it didn't get lost in the current crowd of European super sedans, Mercedes also made it one of the sharpest handling, shortest stopping and arguably best-looking four-door sedans ever to wear the three-pointed star.

With its stroked and supercharged V8, racecar-sized brake rotors and beautifully finished interior and exterior, the E55 has all the ingredients necessary to stake its claim as one of the world's most sought-after sedans. There are, however, several vehicles that offer equally impressive credentials, so the way in which all of the E55's additional equipment comes together is ultimately the true measure of its desirability and capability.

After a day behind the wheel that included narrow country roads, wide-open highways and a few searing laps on a high-speed road course, we can say with little hesitation that the E55 is indeed a complete package. Whether you're after an ideal companion for snaking through your favorite back-road getaway or you just like the idea of an everyday driver that can outrun nearly every other car on the road, the E55 has few equals.

Based on the recently redesigned E-Class sedan, the E55 is the result of extensive modification by AMG, Mercedes' in-house tuning division. Started in 1967 by a pair of Daimler engineers, AMG is now wholly owned by Mercedes and is responsible for some of the most potent production cars of the last decade. Its handiwork now graces the entire Mercedes lineup, but the E55 is the highest volume model of the range.

Transformation of an E500 into an E55 begins with the engine. The standard 5.0-liter V8 is replaced by a hand-built 5.5-liter version that uses a longer piston stroke to increase displacement and a supercharger to force-feed air into the higher-capacity cylinders. These key improvements, along with further enhancements like an air-to-water intercooler to reduce the temperature of the incoming air and a quicker electronic throttle control for more precise fuel metering, all come together to produce a truly staggering amount of power.

Rated at 469 horsepower and 516 pound-feet of torque, the E55's V8 is one of the most powerful production engines ever offered in the U.S. Mercedes claims a 0-to-60-mph time of just 4.5 seconds — we're talking Ferrari territory here. Acceleration under full throttle is immediate and relentless. Lay into it at highway speeds and the car leaps forward as if it were just getting started. The chrome-tipped dual exhaust system resonates with deep mechanical sounds that are a constant reminder to both friend and foe that this is no ordinary E-Class.

The never-ending stream of power is put to the ground via an AMG-fortified five-speed automatic transmission complete with three driver-selectable shift modes: standard, sport or manual. The standard and sport modes provide shifts in traditional fashion with the sport mode serving up a more aggressive shift program. Manual mode allows for driver-controlled shifts through one of two methods: moving the shifter side to side within its gate or actuation of the steering wheel-mounted shift buttons.

In typical driving situations, either one of the standard automatic modes delivers acceptably quick and precise shifts that will satisfy all but the most die-hard enthusiasts. Sport mode, in particular, mimics all the typical gear changes you would want in high-performance situations, rendering the manual mode almost unnecessary. Using the shift buttons does give you nearly as much control as a true manual, but there's still no substitute for the real thing in our book.

With the issue of straight-line speed properly addressed, AMG turned its attention toward the equally important issue of maintaining control of its nearly two-ton creation. The suspension utilizes a performance-oriented version of the AIRmatic air suspension that's optional on the E500. Three driver-selectable settings vary both the spring rate and the damping settings to provide either comfort or one of two sport modes. Regardless of which setting you choose, you can count on a stiff but comfortable ride. The softest setting filters out sharp impacts while the two sport modes tend to allow a few more jolts through. Consider it a small price to pay for a sedan that can thread a road course as fast as most sports cars.

Additional mechanical refinements include a quicker steering ratio than the previous E55 and an industrial-strength brake system fortified with Mercedes' electrohydraulic actuation system. This advanced system uses a computer signal in place of a physical connection to apply the brakes, thus allowing for improved integration with the vehicle's electronic stability control system as well as quicker reaction to pedal application.

The 2003 SL roadster was the first Mercedes model to get this new system, and although we marveled at its ability to return incredibly short stops, we also disliked the occasionally touchy engagement at lower speeds. We experienced occasional bouts of jerky applications in the E55, but it could have just as easily been the sheer power of its massive rotors and calipers taking us by surprise.

Whether we were pushing the car to its limits on a fast road course or careening down a winding mountain road, the E55 rarely failed in its goal of ultimate performance. Despite its substantial weight, the car has the grip and the balance to maintain its speed through the turns, and the brakes are equally capable of bringing it all to a stop without fading. These traits, combined with the near limitless power on hand, almost make you forget that you're driving a sedan that will be just as comfortable making a quick trip to the grocery store.

All is not perfect, however, as we found the steering a bit overboosted for our tastes, with a jiggly on-center feel that never seems quite right. Even the wheel itself feels a little bigger than it should be and it lacks the meaty feel that we loved so much in the previous E55 and C32 AMG sedans.

We have no such reservations about the E55's interior and exterior styling. Subtle enhancements to the exterior include revised front and rear fascias, extended rocker panels and gorgeous dual-spoke 18-inch wheels. Interior upgrades include dark bird's eye maple trim and napa leather upholstery.

All E55s come standard with 10-way power-adjustable sport seats that have to be some of the most comfortable we've ever experienced. Four inflatable air bladders offer infinitely adjustable thigh and lateral support that allows you to find just the right amount of support, regardless of body type. Combined with the three-stage seat heaters and optional ventilation, these seats can't be beat.

The rest of the interior is standard E-Class, which means plenty of high-quality materials and an elegant if not completely intuitive control setup. We're still not fond of seeing a clock taking up so much space in the gauge cluster, and the bar graph fuel and temperature meters look downright silly. This is one of the few areas where the AMG version is compromised by the design of the standard model.

Such criticisms are a bit trivial, however, as they detract little from the overall driving experience. The fact that the tachometer is too small and has no redline will be the furthest thought from your mind when you're behind the wheel. When it came to the journalists on hand for the test-drive, most thoughts centered on how they could somehow get their hands on one for longer than a day. It's that good.

Anyone lucky enough to accomplish that goal will, no doubt, be as thoroughly impressed as we were. This is a car that blurs the lines between luxury sedan and sports car like few other four-doors on the road. Its ability to effortlessly summon triple-digit speeds while retaining all the poise you would expect in a Mercedes is nothing short of phenomenal, and the fact that it remains equally as amiable around town makes it all the more impressive. Hard-core enthusiasts might consider its lack of a manual transmission a roadblock to super sedan supremacy, but then again, 469 horsepower does have a way of changing your mind in a hurry.

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