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By Jeremy Cato
It was the fall of 1995 and Mercedes-Benz shocked the world. How so? With the styling of the then-reinvented 1996 E320 sedan.
Shocking. The quad-eyed headlights and the pontoon-style fenders jumped out in Jaguar-esque fashion. Yes, the ’96 E-class took the world by storm with its many curvaceous bulges. So many bulges, in fact, you hardly noticed the three-point star on the hood. And then, when they slipped behind the wheel, drivers found a nimbleness that took off into BMW territory.
It was a bold move for Mercedes, a company that for decades had produced solid, safe, slab-sided sedans and station wagons. With a completely new E-class coming down the product pipeline in just a few months (2002 model year), it’s worth looking back at what Mercedes-Benz did with the most important car in its lineup, the mid-size E-class.
Aside from the new shape, the E320 came with a much, much bigger cabin. In fact, the ’96 car inside was almost as spacious as Mercedes’ hugely more expensive S-class sedans of the day. But despite gains in size, the ’96 car was not a ponderous sedan. In fact, the ’96-2001 model is shorter than the current Mazda Millenia, more narrow than the old Dodge Stratus and turns a tighter circle than any old Ford Contour you’ll find on a used car lot.
Inside all used E-class cabins you’ll find the usual splash of burled walnut, chrome and leather. Even though the design is now more than five-years-old, the no-nonsense analog gauges rank among the most clear and crisp in the business. For comfort, the front buckets have always been stuffed with just the right amount of padding. And my goodness, the ’96-and-newer cars even came with cupholders that pop up out of the centre console and ratchet to fit various cupholder sizes.
Mercedes designers also put cupholders in the rear armrest, too. Unbelievable for a company that until the middle of the ’90s had sniffed at the very idea of equipping a car with a cupholder. Among the new toys was a new dual zone climate control system, a power tilt and telescoping steering wheel and infinitely adjustable front power seats (with memory).
For storage, the E-class was designed with loads of storage space in the centre console, a big glove box and generous door pockets. The large trunk of the ’96-2001 car has a flat load floor and a low liftover at the rear.
Driving manners were improved by scrapping the old MacPherson strut front suspension in favour of a control arm layout that did a better job of keeping the wheels on the pavement while also allowing for more refined shock tuning. In addition, progressive-assist rack-and-pinion steering replaced the slow-to-respond recirculating ball arrangement.
An older E-class offers excellent value in a used luxury car. At highway speeds, their Autobahn-style engineering keeps things whisper quiet and delightfully stable, and the suspension soaks up bumps like a sponge.
For power, the ’96 car arrived with a carried-over 217-horsepower inline six-cylinder engine, mated to a four-speed automatic. Disc brakes were engineered all around, with standard anti-lock and traction control. On the safety theme, Mercedes has always equipped this generation of E-class with dual front and door-mounted airbags and an advanced safety cell protecting passengers.
Now, some dates to remember. In the spring of 1996, Mercedes introduced the E420 with a 4.2-litre V8 engine and a five-speed automatic. For ’97, the five-speed was standard on other E-class cars, too including the E300 turbodiesel.
The biggest changes came in 1998. A new E320 station wagon with all-wheel drive arrived; all E320 models got a new 221-horsepower 3.2-litre V6 engine to replace the old inline six; E300 models got a new 174-hp. turbocharged diesel inline six-cylinder; E430 models got a new 275-hp. 4.3-litre V8; and all E-class cars got standard “brake assist” which applies brake pressure in panic stops, ASR traction control, BabySmart child seat recognition and express-up power windows. The new E320 wagon was designed to seat seven, but the third seat was made for two kids.
For ’99, Mercedes introduced a new side-impact head protection system and a limited edition E55 hot rod sedan with a 5.4-litre V8. For 2000, there were some styling tweaks across the line and the automatic transmission added Touch Shift. The Electronic Stability Program anti-skid system arrived, too.
Mercedes dealers do a strong and steady business with their pre-owned cars. The E-class is very popular with buyers looking for exceptional quality, strong performance, top-notch safety features and all the luxury touches. There are very few “bargains” to be found, but these cars are good value nonetheless.
Used vehicle prices vary depending on factors such as general condition, odometer reading, usage history and options fitted. Always have a used vehicle checked by an experienced auto technician before you buy.