2003 Mercedes-Benz E 320 Avantgarde
2003 Mercedes-Benz E 320 Avantgarde, Click image to enlarge

by Jim Kenzie

Valencia, Spain – Forget flamenco. Forget oranges. The new Valencia is characterized by the “Ciudad de las Artes y las Ceincas”.

If you skipped high school Spanish, that’s “City of Arts and Sciences”. It’s an incredibly modern, if not bizarre, convention centre built in the now-dry bed of the former Rio Turia, in the heart of this ancient city. And it’s the location Mercedes-Benz chose for the International Press Launch of the new E-Class sedan.

Given the sleekness of the compact C-Class and ubermensch S-Class that have come before, you can guess what the new E-Class looks like. Your eyes don’t deceive – it is much sleeker, almost coupe-like in profile. It looks slicker to the wind too, with a drag co-efficient of just 0.26. A plastic underbody tray helps achieve this low (i.e. good) number by reducing parasitic drag.

2003 Mercedes-Benz E-Class

“Four eyes”

It used to be a schoolyard taunt.

As of the March 1993 Geneva Auto Show, it became the new “face” of Mercedes-Benz. That’s when the company showed a hastily-finished concept car called the “Coupe Studie” which featured four oval headlights – a dramatic departure from the massive (and, frankly, ugly) rectangular lights that Mercedes had used for what seemed like decades.

The paint on that concept car was barely dry; Mercedes had heard that Ford was going to launch a car with ovoid lights, and Mercedes couldn’t afford to be seen as copying a lesser brand name. The Ford turned out to be the depressingly ugly Scorpio – Benz needn’t have worried – while the Coupe Studie became the CLK in 1997.

The four-eyed portion of that concept actually became reality in 1995 with the launch of the previous-generation E-Class. They even used the new face in their marketing campaign – “Look at Mercedes with new eyes.” Clever, those Germans.

Variations of ovoid headlights have graced the nose of every new Mercedes since, from the CLK in 1997, the S-Class in 1998, the CL coupe in 1999, the new C-Class and Sport Coupe in 2000, and the SL last fall.

In truth, the new face looked a bit odd on the old car back in 1995, since the rest of the body was upright, plump, a bit stodgy, in true Mercedes fashion. The new E-Class brings it all full-circle, as now the rest of the car looks as fresh and modern as its headlights.

While the new car looks much more graceful, it is in fact a bit larger. Not in overall length, which is identical, but in width and height. Wheelbase is also up, which pulls the wheels closer to the corners. You’d expect this to translate into more interior room – Mercedes used the projected 2005 statistics for the 95th percentile European males as the benchmark for interior dimensions.

But they must have found that the old car met them too, since they haven’t changed materially.

The added volume inside the car has been put to good use, however, mainly in the form of a larger trunk and increased crush space for crash protection. The body is 18 percent stiffer in torsion than the already-impressively rigid predecessor.

Yet weight has been saved by a new sheet steel rolling technique which can achieve different thicknesses in a single component – each portion is only as robust as it minimally needs to be. Aluminum is used for the hood, trunk lid, front fenders, and several underbody components – the first volume-production use of this material by Mercedes-Benz. In addition, high-strength (i.e, light-weight) steels now make up 37 percent of the structure by weight (up from 20). And a one-piece cross-dashboard support beam of magnesium is no less a good idea just because General Motors introduced the same thing in the Buick Park Avenue about four years ago.

2003 Mercedes-Benz E-Class Classic Line
Click image to enlarge

If you haven’t been in a Mercedes “since the revolution” of the current C-Class, then you’re in for a surprise. Instead of sombre black plastic, tan pseudo-leather seats and real wood that’s so highly polished it looks fake, you’ll find high-tech materials, metal accents, white gauges, and enough buttons to fly this thing to the moon. What you won’t see is much carry-over of the dreaded “COMAND” system of minor controls for sound system and HVAC which Mercedes tried to foist off on an unsuspecting public a few years ago. Glad to see I wasn’t the only one…

Perhaps the main interior innovation for the E-Class is the split-folding rear seat back, which increases luggage carrying flexibility. You’ll also get a kick out of the powered centre console – a touch of a button and the panel rises via an electric motor to bring the switches closer to you, and to reveal either a storage bin underneath or, if fitted, a CD changer.

There is also what Mercedes calls a world’s first “dynamic multicontour” seat option, by which various bladders in the driver’s seat inflate or deflate slightly to add more support in cornering, and more comfort when just cruising. It can also be set to a “massage” function. Again, it sounds a lot like what Cadillac has offered in the Seville for a while now, but maybe the automatic adjustment for cornering is new.

Mercedes is highlighting its new diesel engine technology at the International launch of the new E-Class, but of course, the ludicrous and counterproductive emissions laws in California effectively eliminate these torquey, fuel-efficient power plants from our consideration. So we’ll settle for a pair of very nice gasoline engines, the well-known 3.2 litre 224 horsepower V6, massaged from the previous-generation car, and the mighty 5.0 litre 306-horse V8, borrowed from the S-Class.

2003 Mercedes-Benz E 500 Avantgarde
2003 Mercedes-Benz E 500 Avantgarde
Click image to enlarge

A six-speed manual transmission is standard world-wide; it also offers a unique “Sequentronic” option which allows either fully-automatic or nudge-it-yourself clutchless shifting. But North America will stay with a fully automatic E-Class line-up, a five-speeder now with torque converter lock-up capability on all five ratios for improved fuel consumption.

The front suspension is an all-new multi-link design, with a two-piece lower A-arm rather like that of the Infiniti G35. The rear is the essentially the same five-link design used by Mercedes on just about every new model since the 190 back in 1983 – even Mercedes hasn’t been able to come up with a better overall layout. Fine-tuning of course has been applied, and most of the components, front and rear, are aluminum.

An air suspension system called AIRMATIC DC, lifted from the S-Class, is offered on the E-Class as well. Variable diaphragm air volumes can be called up instantaneously by the suspension computer, to change spring rates in dynamic cornering situations; combined with adaptive shock damper settings, this is as close to true active suspension as you’re likely to encounter.

2003 Mercedes-Benz E 320 Avantgarde
2003 Mercedes-Benz E 320 Avantgarde
Click image to enlarge

Perhaps the major chassis news is the adoption of the Sensotronic Brake Control system from the new-last-fall SL sports car. This is brake-by-wire – the computer measures how hard and how quickly the driver applies the brake pedal. It then determines what degree of grip is available at each wheel, and using pressure generated by an electric pump and stored in an accumulator, applies just as much brake force as needed to each wheel to bring the car to a safe, quick stop – even in a hard corner. Its “Softstop” feature even knows when you’re rolling to a stop in city traffic, and relaxes the pressure ever so slightly just at the last moment, to eliminate that ‘jolt’ – just like any good driver would do. Sure, this isn’t the first fully hydraulic brake system (Citroen DS 21, anybody?). But it surely is the most sophisticated.

Huge four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, Electronic Brake Force Distribution, Brake Assist, Dynamic Stability Control, and power variable-ratio, variable-effort rack and pinion steering complete the impressive chassis specifications.

2003 Mercedes-Benz E 320 Avantgarde
2003 Mercedes-Benz E 320 Avantgarde
Click image to enlarge

A 200 km sprint through the rolling hills south of Valencia gave me just the briefest of chances to try out this car. My steed was a 320, destined to be our market’s best-seller.

My initial impression on the road was one of immense confidence. Although I didn’t have an S-Class available for back-to-back testing, I’d say the new E-Class is the best-handling Mercedes sedan yet. Not as ponderous as the S-Class – especially in the eight-tenths scale world that is Europe – but more substantial-feeling than the C-Class. We didn’t have the Airmatic suspension, but it’s hard to see how ride quality could be much better than it is.

The engine is strong and torquey, although the V8 will surely be better. The transmission was smooth enough on up-shifts, but there was the occasional bobble on a downshift. And when switching from Reverse to Drive – in a gentle fashion, I must say – there was an odd back-and-forth surge that went through about three cycles before it settled down. This was repeatable; whether it was just our car we couldn’t say, but it’s something that really should be looked at.

2003 Mercedes-Benz E 320 Avantgarde
2003 Mercedes-Benz E 320 Avantgarde
Click image to enlarge

The brakes feel very powerful, but I can’t say the SoftStop did the job as well as a careful driver would.

The seats are very supportive – more lateral coddling than you’d expect in a luxury car, but still impressively comfortable. The trim materials are typical of the new Mercedes – OK, but Audi still has nothing to worry about.

It is getting harder and harder for car makers to truly improve the breed – cars are almost getting too good. Still, Mercedes has made progress here, especially in ride comfort, interior features and safety. And I’ve barely begun to scratch the surface of the minor technical goodies available on this car, and I’m way over my space limit as it is.

At the moment, we have only seen the sedan, which will be in Canadian showrooms this September. The next-generation CLK coupe, which will be more E-Class and less C-Class-based than the previous car, will debut around the same time, as will AMG high-performance versions of both.

Prices haven’t been set yet, but don’t expect much in the way of changes from the current line-up.

In about a year, cabriolet, wagon and 4Matic four-wheel drive versions of sedan and wagon will join the parade. With its style, engineering, safety and peerless image, the E-Class looks set for another seven-year run at the top of the world’s luxury car sales charts.

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