Used 2003 Mercedes-Benz E-Class Review

Edmunds expert review

Without messing with the car's traditional strengths, Mercedes has improved the E-Class in the areas of performance and technology.

What's new for 2003

The E-Class sedan is completely redesigned this year. A more elegant body, along with more power for the V8 model and more luxury (including four-zone climate control and an optional massaging driver seat), bring the latest midsize Benz up to date. Last year's E-Class station wagon, however, carries over into 2003 virtually unchanged.

Vehicle overview

Despite a complete redesign, the 2003 Mercedes E-Class isn't remarkably different from the 2002 model. There are, however, improvements to this new model that become evident in certain situations, 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. 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.

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. Thus 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 pedals, which would have made it truly outstanding in this important comfort and safety area.

Other changes that you'll appreciate include two-stage airbags, a brake-by-wire system that shortens stopping distances, improved ventilation controls that completely seal the cabin when hitting the "recirculation" button, head airbags located in the A-pillars, rain-sensing wipers and more powerful headlights.

All of the above is standard, and depending upon how Mercedes-Benz equips the E-Class models sent stateside, several more features will be either standard or optional. These include shape-changing seats that can massage an occupant or hold him in place during spirited driving, the same Keyless-Go entry system first seen on the CL and SL, a panoramic sliding sunroof, a tire-pressure monitoring system and a solar powered auxiliary ventilation system.

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 often has buyers picking Mercedes over the more aggressive BMW products. Inevitably, every redesigned car 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.

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 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. The V8 offers 306 hp at 5,600 rpm and 345 lb-ft of torque between 2,700 and 4,250 rpm.

Mercedes-Benz is likely to hold the line on pricing for the new car, so the 2003 version represents a potentially 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 a dramatic departure from the previous E-Class, the new midsize Benz is definitely a step up on a ladder that's already very high.

Edmunds expert review process

This review was written by a member of Edmunds' editorial team of expert car reviewers. Our team drives every car you can buy. We put the vehicles through rigorous testing, evaluating how they drive and comparing them in detail to their competitors.

We're also regular people like you, so we pay attention to all the different ways people use their cars every day. We want to know if there's enough room for our families and our weekend gear and whether or not our favorite drink fits in the cupholder. Our editors want to help you make the best decision on a car that fits your life.