2003 Mercedes-Benz E500
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by Greg Wilson

More power and high-tech features, but ride and steering concerns spoil the party


When the Mercedes-Benz E-Class sedan appeared in 1995 with four headlamps (two big ones and two small ones) observers wondered whether anyone would buy such an unusual-looking Mercedes-Benz. Now, just about every Mercedes-Benz has adopted the four headlamp design, including the just-redesigned 2003 E-Class sedan. It now has a more streamlined nose, a wedge-shaped profile, and a new taillight design which looks like those of other Mercedes-Benz models and at least one Ford model I can think of.

The E’s new drag co-efficient of 0.26 is about as slippery as you’ll find for any mid-sized sedan, or for that matter, any kind of car. A quieter cabin and better fuel economy are the main benefits of its lower air drag.

While the base six cylinder engine and rear suspension are carried over relatively unchanged, just about everything else about the 2003 E-Class is new. It has a new and stronger body design, a redesigned interior, a new front suspension design and available air suspension, a new optional V8 engine, a new electronic braking system, more safety features, and more standard and optional interior features. Despite all these changes, the 2003 E-Class is recognizably similar to the previous model and is about the same size give or take an inch.

Currently available as a four-door sedan with rear-wheel-drive, it will soon be offered with Mercedes’ ‘4Matic’ all-wheel-drive as an option, and will also be offered in a roomy wagon body style. Current engine options include a base 224 horsepower 3.2 litre inline six which was carried over with some refinements from the previous 221 horsepower motor; and a new 302 horsepower 5.0 litre V8 engine (borrowed from the S-Class) which replaces the previous 275 horsepower 4.3 litre V8. As well, a new 3.2 litre six cylinder diesel engine will make its debut next year. The high-performance E55 AMG will also be here next year too.


What’s New

2003 Mercedes-Benz E500
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The 2003 E-Class sedan is slightly longer, taller and wider with a one inch longer wheelbase, but it’s not noticeably larger in the passenger compartment – which is OK, since it was already a roomy car. The new trunk is about 4% bigger, and new split folding rear seatbacks (yea!) add cargo-carrying versatility. The new car is about 20 kg heavier (base model) but it would have been more if it hadn’t been for the use of new lightweight high-strength steel panels and aluminum hood, trunklid, front fenders and suspension components.

A new independent double-wishbone front suspension design similar to the S-Class replaces the previous MacPherson struts, while the rear independent five-link design is virtually the same as the previous model’s. As well, the E-Class can now be had with the Airmatic DC suspension, borrowed from the S-Class, which includes air springs that adjust automatically to cornering forces and road surfaces (optional on E320, standard on E500.)

Mercedes-Benz’ Sensotronic Brake Control, an electro-hydraulic braking system first seen in the 2003 SL sports car, is now standard on the E-Class. As well, the 2003 E-Class includes four wheel anti-lock brakes, Brake Assist to help in panic braking, and Electronic Stability Control to help prevent spin-outs.

The interior has a new dash and seat design, and safety features have been upgraded too: there are now eight airbags (two front, two side front, two side rear, two side curtain airbags).


Options are expensive

2003 Mercedes-Benz E500
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The base price of the six cylinder 2003 E320 hasn’t gone up significantly ($69,950 vs $68,350), but the new V8-powered E500 is about $5,000 more than the 2002 E430 ($81,500 vs $76,150). Both come with a standard 5-speed automatic transmission with Touch Shift manual shifting ability.

Standard features on my E500 test car included leather upholstery with heated front seats, burl walnut wood trim, a new four-zone climate control that allows the four outboard occupants to set their own interior temperature preferences; ten-way power front seats; AM/FM/cassette/CD stereo; power tilt and telescoping steering wheel; auto-dimming mirrors; sliding glass moonroof with tilt feature; xenon headlamps with washers; and rain-sensing windshield wipers.

I would have expected a CD changer and folding rear seatbacks to be standard on an over-$80,000 car, but a 6-disc CD changer is a dealer-installed option for $785, and split folding rear seats are a $900 option.

Other options can boost the price of an E500 over $100,000. My test car had the optional ‘Distronic’ cruise control that automatically maintains a safe following distance from the car in front ($3,660); ‘Keyless Go’ which allows the driver to open the door and start the car without reaching for a key ($1,810); Parktronic front and rear obstacle detection system ($1,500), Panorama twin sunroofs ($1,850, and Harmon Kardon sound system ($1,150).

Other options available on the E500 include climate-controlled front seats ($1,780), power-operated sun blinds for the rear window ($720) and rear side windows ($470); heated steering wheel ($450), leather/wood steering wheel ($1,150), mutlicontoured front seats ($640 ea.), special Nappa leather upholstery ($1,130), ski sack pass-through ($290), Tele-Aid emergency calling system ($340), tire pressure monitoring system ($930), and a ‘Sport Package’ ($2,500).

As tested, my E500 test car came to $91,470 plus Freight.


Interior impressions

Many improvements have been made to the E-Class sedan’s interior, including a new, brighter gauge cluster that is easier to read – the cluster now includes a large central speedo, a smaller analogue clock on the left, and a tachometer to the right. The fuel gauge and coolant gauges are now vertical bar graph displays.

The E-Class also has better seats – the leather-upholstered seats in my car seemed to grab me from all sides, and proved comfortable on long journeys. Like other Mercedes-Benz cars, the E500 has a seat-like power seat adjuster on the driver and passenger doors which allows fore-aft, height, tilt, rake and even headrest adjustment – however the lumbar adjustment is a manual dial on the side of the seatback. The E500 seats have unique storage compartments on the front edge of the seat cushion.

A power tilt/telescoping steering column allows the driver to position the steering wheel perfectly in relation to the instruments and seat height.

Overhead are new ‘soft’ lights that illuminate at night providing a warm glow for the interior without distracting from the driver’s outward visibility. As well, my car had the optional ‘Panorama’ dual moonroofs which provided extra illumination during the daytime. The front moonroof tilts up and slides back, but the rear one is fixed. Both have electrically controlled sunshades to block out the sunlight when it’s too bright.

The centre control panel has separate controls for driver and passenger temperature and ventilation functions, and the rear seat passengers have another two controls for their separate temperature adjustments. A bright white digital display shows temperature and fan speed.

Below the heater is an AM/FM/CD/cassette stereo – the cassette is hidden under a moving panel which is opened by pressing a button. An easy-to-read colour screen shows what’s going on with the radio, tape player and CD player, but it’s not a touch screen. Buttons beside the screen correspond to functions on the screen – it took me a while to figure it out, however I never did figure out where the Fast-Forward control for the tape player was. The volume control is a dial but everything else is pushbutton operated – thankfully, they’re well-marked, but I wondered why the preset buttons for radio stations are on the right side of the centre console instead of the left.

Just below the radio are the seat heaters, and E500 driver and front passengers now have three heat settings to choose from which heat both the cushion and backrest. There’s also a button to lower the three rear head restraints to improve driver visibility, but rear passengers have to raise them manually when they get in – which they usually forget to do. The console also contains a button to turn off the front passenger airbag in case small children or babies are seated there.

The obligatory cupholders are just behind the shift lever, and in true Mercedes fashion, they are an engineering marvel. Press a button, and a hidden cupholder rises up and moves over to the right leaving a space for another cupholder below it. A unique feature is a slide-out drawer on the passenger side of the dashboard. Between the front seats is a dual level armrest and storage bin which has an unusual clam-shell opening – I didn’t like it.

The rear seats have plenty of legroom but headroom is only adequate because of the rear moonroof. The rear seat is wide enough for two adults comfortably or three adults snugly. I found the seat cushions comfortable but the backrests a bit stiff. A centre folding armrest includes two pop-out cupholders, and a storage tray. Rear passengers not only have separate temperature controls, they have air vents on the console and side pillars to quickly warm up the rear compartment.


Driving impressions

2003 Mercedes-Benz E500
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The E500’s new 5.0 litre SOHC 24 valve V8 engine, which is also used in the CL500, S500 and SL500 models, pumps out 302 horsepower at 5,600 rpm and 339 lb.-ft. of torque from 2,700-4,250 rpm. That a substantial increase over the 275 horsepower @ 5750 rpm and 295 lb/ft @ 3000 rpm offered by the previous 4.3 litre V8.

Acceleration from a standing start is immediate and intense – even with ESP engaged, it’s possible to chirp the rear tires as you pull away, and acceleration to 100 km/h is in the seven second range by my estimate. The E500’s electronic throttle with “adaptive accelerator” (which adapts the swiftness of acceleration to your foot-stomping style), feels somewhat stiffer than a standard gas pedal but there’s no lag in performance from the 302 horsepower single overhead cam, three-valve-per-cylinder, twin-sparkplug V8 engine. The 5-speed automatic transmission shifts quickly and effortlessly, and adapts to changes in road grade, delaying upshifts on ascents for climbing power and quickening downshifts on descents for engine braking.

A manual transmission isn’t offered, but if you want to shift yourself, the automatic transmission includes Mercedes’ ‘Touch Shift’ manual function. The Mercedes shifter is tapped left to shift down and right to shift up, unlike most manu-matic systems which have fore-aft shifters. Though I prefer fore-aft, I found that I got used to the left-right shifting without much difficulty. I found that manual downshifts happened quicker than upshifts, with some upshifts seeming to drag on a bit.

On the freeway, the E500 cruises quietly and effortlessly. At 100 km/h, the engine does only 1,900 rpm, and at 120 km/h it’s just 2,300 rpm. The E500’s fuel consumption of 14.5 litres per 100 km (20 mpg) in the city and 9.4 litres per 100 km (30 mpg) is about 10% worse than the E430 – which had about 10% less horsepower – but it’s still pretty good for a 1730 kilogram sedan with over 300 horsepower.


Concerns about suspension and steering

2003 Mercedes-Benz E500
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The E500 has a dual character when it comes to ride quality. On the freeway and paved secondary roads, the ride is smooth, stable, comfortable and eerily quiet. This is a car you can drive across the country in blissful comfort. But on roads with cracked pavement, potholes, steel expansion joints, and heaving pavement, the new front suspension does a poor job of absorbing sudden jolts. Bumps like these would be noticeable in a 540i or an A6 4.2, but they are jarring in the E500. My car had the Airmatic DC suspension with air springs (standard on E500, optional on E320), and perhaps these were at fault – or perhaps it was the low-profile Continental Conti Touring Contact 245/45R-17 inch tires – or a combination of both.

I tried the E500’s three cockpit-adjustable air shock and spring settings (Adaptive Damping System) for ride comparison and found the Sporty 1 and Sporty 2 settings stiffened the ride and improved handling, but made little difference to the poor front-end absorption. Curiously, the E500’s independent rear Airmatic suspension seemed to absorb bumps better.

On the plus side, the new 500 has higher handling limits, improved straight-line stability, and quicker turn-in response than the previous E-Class. As well, the Airmatic suspension also includes a higher ride setting which raises the car about 25 mm (below 80 km/h) – this is designed for deep snow, or rough uneven dirt roads.

I also had some concerns with the E500’s standard rack-and-pinion steering with speed-sensitive power assist. At rest, and while moving at speeds below 10 km/h the steering requires very little effort. But between 10 and 40 km/h, it feels stiffer than it does above 40 km/h. Each time I braked and turned into a typical 90 degree street corner, (which is usually taken at about 20 – 30 km/h), the steering felt stiffer than it was at higher speeds. I repeated this maneouver many times, and always came out with the same results. On the freeway however, steering effort and responsiveness was just right. And the E500’s turning circle of 11.4 metres (37 feet) is reasonable for a big car.

At night, I found the E500’s Xenon gas discharge headlamps to provide expansive, bright, clear forward visibility – these are some of the brightest headlamps I’ve ever encountered.


Keyless Go means never having to fumble

Of all the fancy options on my test car, I liked the Keyless Go feature best. With the key fob in your pocket or purse, you can unlock and open the driver’s door, start and stop the engine, and lock the driver’s door again without ever handling the key. Radio frequencies from your key fob permit the driver’s door to be locked and unlocked simply by pressing a button on the door handle. Likewise, the driver can press a button on the shift lever to start or stop the engine. I liked this feature because I didn’t have to fumble around in my pocket looking for my keys. The only problem I had was, after starting the car, I inadvertantly re-pressed the button on the shift lever to move it in to Drive, thereby turning off the engine by mistake.


Distronic cruise control has limitations

Mercedes-Benz’ new adaptive cruise control system, ‘Distronic’, sends a narrow radar beam straight ahead to the car travelling in front of you, and depending on your speed and distance from the vehicle, automatically slows your car if you get too close. The system retards the throttle and applies up to 20% of the car’s braking power, but don’t expect it to stop you completely if the car in front of you suddenly slams on the brakes – you have to do that yourself.

In the instrument cluster, the E500 driver is presented with a graphic that shows the distance between the E500 and the car in front. At a preset distance which varies with speed (between 25 and 50 metres at 100 km/h), the system will automatically slow the car down. If you get really close, an audible warning buzzer will sound. The driver can manually adjust the minimum following distance from about two seconds to one second, but I preferred the maximum distance.

On the freeway, I found the Distronic system works as advertised. The E500 slows smoothly when approaching a slower car and automatically speeds up again if the car moves into another lane or exits the freeway. But the system does have some limitations. For example, it won’t detect a car travelling in the next lane, or a car or motorcycle travelling on one side of the lane ahead of you. It also might not detect a car that suddenly swerves in to your lane until it is too late. As well, the Distronic system will automatically disengage below 40 km/h.

The Distronic system will not function if the ESP system is turned off – the reason for this is that if the car automatically accelerates on an icy road while in the Distronic mode, it could lose control without the intervention of the Electronic Stability Control. In fact, Mercedes-Benz E500 manual recommends that Distronic not be used on snowy or icy roads, or in heavy rain, fog, or sleet.

Even under ideal situations, there is a certain amount of faith needed to keep your foot off the brake pedal as you rapidly approach a slower car ahead of you.


Sensotronic braking

Mercedes-Benz Sensotronic Brake Control, an electronic braking system first seen in the 2003 SL sports car, is now standard on the E-Class. In brief, the force the driver applies to the electronic brake pedal is measured by a computer which tells a hydraulic pump to send brake force to each individual wheel as required. This provides more braking control and stability. The Sensotronic system even ‘softens’ braking force when rolling to a stop to prevent lurching. As well, the 2003 E-Class includes four wheel anti-lock brakes, Brake Assist to help in panic braking, and Electronic Stability Control to help prevent spin-outs.

While the E500’s braking power is awesome, the feel of the brake pedal is different to standard systems – kind of heavy and numb at first with somewhat unexpected power as you press harder. I’m not sure whether I liked it or not, but with all the automatic braking and sensing devices it includes, I’m sure braking distances and dynamic control have been improved. Independent braking tests by the Automobile Journalists Associaton of Canada show a 100 km/h to 0 braking distance of just 39 metres (128 feet).


Competitor overview

Competitors for the E500 include the Audi A6 4.2 ($71,175), BMW 540i ($77,400), Jaguar XJ8 ($82,850), Infiniti M45 ($62,000) and Lexus GS430 ($68,800). Obviously, its Japanese competitors are significantly cheaper, although some may argue that an E500 is closer to an Infiniti Q45 or Lexus LS430 in specifications. The E500 is roomier than the A6, 540i, M45, GS430, and the current XJ8, particularly in the rear seat, but the new 2004 Jaguar XJ8 may be roomier. Only the M45 has more horsepower, but most are in the 300 hp range. The E500’s handling is now approaching BMW standards, but its ride isn’t. The Audi and BMW offer a true manual transmission in addition to an automatic transmission. The E500 has more high-tech gadgets, such as adaptive cruise control and Keyless Go, but the E500 gets expensive when options are added on.


Verdict

With its powerful, smooth 302 horsepower V8 engine and 5 speed automatic transmission, roomy and quiet interior, and availability of high-tech safety and comfort features, the 2003 Mercedes-Benz E500 is an impressive luxury automobile. Still, I had some concerns about its electronically-controlled mechanical features, such as the air suspension and speed-sensitive steering.

Technical Data:

Base price $81,500
Options Distronic ($3,660), Parktronic ($1,500), Panorama sunroof ($1,850, Harmon Kardon sound system ($1,150), Keyless Go ($1,810)
Price as tested $91,470
Type 4-door, 5-passenger mid-size luxury sedan
Layout longitudinal front engine/rear-wheel-drive
Engine 5.0 litre V8, SOHC, 24 valves
Horsepower 302 @ 5600 rpm
Torque 339 lb-ft 2700 rpm – 4250 rpm
Fuel Premium unleaded
Transmission 5-speed automatic Touchshift
Tires 245/45R-17 inch 95H performance
Curb weight 1730 kg (3814 lb.)
Wheelbase 2854 mm (112.4 in.)
Length 4833 mm (190.2 in.)
Width 1810 mm (71.3 in.)
Height 1449 mm (57.0 in.)
Trunk space 450 litres (15.9 cu. ft.)
Fuel consumption City: 14.5 l/100 km (20 mpg)
  Hwy: 9.4 l/100 km (30 mpg)
Basic warranty 4 yrs/80,000 kms
Major components 5 yrs/120,000 kms
Wear & tear coverage 2 yrs/40,000 kms

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