The E-Class in many ways epitomizes the Mercedes-Benz brand, at least in the eyes of many consumers. It's the company's best selling line worldwide and one of the best-selling Mercedes models in the United States.
The E-Class describes a full line of big, roomy sedans that are solid, safe, practical, comfortable, luxurious, and fast. Yet the cost of operating the popular E350, in terms of fuel consumption and maintenance, can be quite reasonable. The E-Class features some of the world's most advanced safety technology. And, what most people think of when they think of Mercedes, the E-Class expresses status in elegant, understated fashion.
Since a frame-up overhaul for model year 2003, the E-Class has expanded steadily, and now includes seven variants: sedans that seat five, wagons that seat seven, V6 engines, V8s or one of the finest diesels offered in the United States, optional weather-busting all-wheel drive and screaming super-performance models from supertuner AMG. Any of these seven models delivers a combination of attributes surpassed by few cars or trucks anywhere.
For 2006, there is a slight change in E-Class nomenclature, thanks to a change in engine size. The E350 sedan and wagon are powered by a new-generation 3.5-liter V6 that produces 20 percent more power than the previous 3.2-liter V6 (used in the E320) with no decrease in fuel mileage. The E350 is the Mercedes' first dual-overhead cam V6 and it generates 268 horsepower, compared to 221 from the 3.2-liter V6 it replaces. Yet, matched to Mercedes' high-tech, seven-speed automatic transmission, the E350 loses nothing in mileage to its less powerful predecessor.
Meanwhile, there is no better example of how far passenger car diesel technology has advanced than the E320 CDI with Mercedes' impressive common-rail direct injection turbodiesel engine.
Also new for 2006 is a supercharged E55 AMG wagon boasting 469 horsepower. Woe is the guy in the sports car who smirks at this stodgy station wagon. It is truly a wolf in sheep's clothing.
The Mercedes E-Class is an icon, a benchmark in its class. It competes in one of the most competitive market segments today as it goes toe-to-toe with outstanding luxury sedans such as the Audi A6, BMW 5 Series and Acura RL.
The E350 sedan ($50,050) is the standard model. The name change reflects its new 3.5-liter V6 engine. It comes standard with the new seven-speed automatic transmission. Standard features include fully automatic dual-zone climate control, 10-way power front seats with leather seating surfaces and position memory, real burl walnut trim, a power tilt and telescoping steering wheel, a nine-speaker stereo, power windows with one-touch express operation both up and down, auto-dimming mirrors and rain-sensing windshield wipers. 4Matic full-time variable all-wheel drive ($2,500) is available. Also available is an Appearance Package ($3,960) that adds sporty lower body cladding and Mercedes' Airmatic computer-controlled air suspension.
The E320 CDI ($51,050) is equipped identically to the E350, but features the common-rail direct injection turbodiesel engine.
The E500 ($58,400) is powered by a 302-hp V8, with more standard equipment than the E350. Upgrades include a four-zone climate control system with separate temperature adjustments for both sides of the cabin, front and rear, and the variable air suspension.
The E350 wagon ($52,300) and E500 wagon ($62,000) are equipped comparably to the respective sedans. The 4Matic all-wheel-drive system comes standard on E500 wagons. A power liftgate and cargo organizer are standard, and the E-Class wagons add something rare among their European counterparts: a folding third seat that increases passenger capacity by two.
Options let buyers equip an E350 with nearly all the upgraded equipment that comes on the E500. There are dozens more options offered on all E-Class models, including radar-controlled Distronic adaptive cruise control, which maintains a set distance from cars ahead; a credit card-sized transmitter called Keyless Go, which allows unlocking the doors and starting the car by touching the door handle and the gear selector; Parktronic obstacle warning, which helps with parking and enhances safety by alerting the driver to objects in front of and behind the car.
The E55 AMG ($81,800) is performance-tuned by Mercedes subsidiary AMG. It's equipped with a supercharged, intercooled V8 producing 469 horsepower, a manually controllable five-speed automatic transmission, bigger tires, wheels and brakes and an aggressively tuned suspension. This hotrod is distinguished by a unique body package, interior trim and AMG markings inside and out. For 2006, Mercedes offers an E55 AMG wagon ($82,600) for the first time.
Safety features on all models include active front head restraints, which are new for 2006. In the event of a rear collision exceeding the system's deployment threshold, the front head restraints move forward nearly two inches and upward by more than an inch, helping to support the head and reduce whiplash injuries. Every E-Class car comes standard with eight airbags: dual front airbags, side-impact airbags for front and rear passengers, and head-protection curtains that run the length of the cabin on both sides. The airbag management system employs multiple impact sensors designed to more precisely control the timing and rate of deployment. The system accounts for the weight of a front-seat passenger and controls seatbelt pretensioners according to the force of impact. Active safety features start with anti-skid stability electronics and the latest evolution of ABS.
The current E-Class design introduced many innovations that are not necessarily apparent to the eye. This was the first Mercedes sedan to use aluminum body components extensively, starting with the hood, front fenders, trunk lid, front crossmember and front subframe. Aluminum is lighter and stronger but more expensive than steel. Aluminum amounts to 10 percent of the body's weight. About 37 percent of the total is modern high-strength steel alloys. From the aerodynamic perspective, the E-Class is one of the slipperiest sedans extant. Its 0.27 coefficient of drag is a benchmark for sedans, and helps minimize wind noise and maximize fuel economy.
Before the launch of the gorgeous CLS sedan/coupe, the E-Class was widely considered to be the most successful design among Mercedes' current sedans. The four-headlight theme introduced on the previous-generation E-Class, now the company standard, has been refined in this car. Its front end is lower and its long hood appears to be steeply raked. The E-Class sedan still looks fresh and youthful, yet elegant.
The E-Class wagons will never be mistaken for anything but a wagon. Nonetheless, they are impressively sleek, and some critics find the tear-drop taper of the rear roof more aesthetically pleasing than the trunk deck on the sedans. The wagon's added cargo-passenger flexibility is welcome, and the if E-Class wagons still implies a bit too much stodginess for your taste, there's always the new-for-2006, 469-hp E55 AMG wagon.
The E55 AMG looks meaner than the other E-Class models. With its lower body cladding and huge, 18-inch wheels, the E55 is clearly the raciest and most aggressive-looking E-Class. That said, those body add-ons add slightly more drag, if you can call a 0.28 cd more drag. For those who like the E55 look but not the $80,000-plus price tag, Mercedes offers a couple of body packages that give other E-Class sedans more aggressive tone, including a full AMG sport appearance package. (It might be interesting to have it the other way around, all the AMG performance bits with the standard bodywork.)
The dashboard sweeps from each side and blends into the doors and center console. The wood trim is complemented by splashes of chrome. Plastic panels are generally rich in appearance, thanks to a new soft-touch finishing process. All are sprayed with a polyurethane coating that delivers impressively consistent color.
The instrument cluster uses black script on white gauges with LED lighting, framed by a three-spoke steering wheel. There's a big speedometer in the middle, with a menu-operated display for diagnostics, feature selection, ambient temperature, date and other information in its center. To the left sits a large analog clock, to the right the tachometer. On either end of the cluster are neat bar gauges that resemble thermometers, displaying fuel level and coolant temperature.
A cluster of switches between the visors on the headliner controls cabin lighting and the Tele-Aid SOS call button. The panel also includes a switch to operate the sunroof. HomeLink buttons are located on the bottom of the rearview mirror and can be programmed to control garage doors, house lighting, gates, etc. Redundant controls on the steering wheel hub operate the phone, radio and information display.
A single row of switches at the bottom of the center stack operates door locks, flashers and seat heaters. The main audio, telephone and navigation controls are located in a COMAND module, spread around a 16:9 ratio LCD display screen. The system is a big improvement over Mercedes' previous control center, and while it still requires some learning, it probably takes less time to master than the menu/joystick system in many E-Class competitors.
Mercedes is learning that people who drive cars carry stuff with them. This E-Class has less storage space than some of its competitors, but acres more than any Mercedes did five or 10 years ago. The center console has a funky pop-up cupholder and a large storage bin (two bins if you don't order the telephone package). Storage bins are also located in each door along with map pockets on the front seatbacks.
The nine-way adjustable front bucket seats are firm enough for good support when driving fast, but not hard on the back when cruising. They grip bodies of various sizes nicely, and there's more than enough adjustment via Mercedes' patented door-mounted seat controls to accommodate just about everyone. The sport seats have enough bolstering to keep a bronze bust in place. But if you don't dive into corners like Stirling Moss, you probably don't need them. They make getting in and out a little more difficult.
Gripes? The outside mirrors are small, no doubt in deference to sharp styling and good aerodynamics, and they limit the driver's field of view. More significant is the cruise control. Mercedes' system is managed with a stalk on the left side of the steering column, above the turn signals. On the new E-Class, the cruise stalk may be even closer to the turn signals than before, and at some point, no matter how long you've driven the car, you are going to hit the cruise control when you intend to turn on the blinker. Mercedes engineers insist that theirs is the most effective cruise-control operation going. We've yet to meet anyone who prefers it.
The E-Class was one of the first cars to feature ambient cabin lighting. These strips of soft, low-level lighting in the headliner remain on during darkness, like a fancy nightlight in the bathroom. It's disconcerting while driving at night, at least initially, because we're used to nothing but the instrument lights. The distraction goes away as you become accustomed, but we're not sure the benefit of being able to see around the cabin outweighs the perceived loss of night vision and focus on the road. Ambient lighting is convenient for passengers who want to be able to see inside the cabin, however.
The back seat has all the comforts you'd want. Separate air vents for both sides, a fan-speed switch and separate temperature adjustments help keep rear passengers comfortable. A 12-volt power point, reading lamps, and a wide, fold-down center armrest with cupholders and divided storage are provided for their convenience. Headrests are provided for all three rear seating positions, and they can be retracted remotely when there's no one riding in back for a greater range of rearward vision.
The trunk is one of the largest in the class, with 15.9 cubic feet of space. The trunk floor is as long as it is wide, with load height just above the bumper.
The E-Class wagon offers 24.4 cubic feet of cargo space behind the second-row seats and 69 cubic feet with all the seats folded down. That's nearly as much volume as the Mercedes M-Class, and with its lower load height, the space in the E-Class wagon is much easier to reach than it is in an SUV. The folding rear seat will accommodate pre-teens without complaint, but adults probably won't like it as more than a novelty.
More important, matched with Mercedes' high-tech seven-speed automatic transmission, the new engine makes the E350 generally more responsive than the 2005 E320. The 3.5-liter V6 has fully variable valve timing, delivering an impressive amount of torque from idle all the way to the redline. The E350 responds much more immediately, with more obvious acceleration, than the old E320, no matter how fast it's already traveling when the driver dips the gas pedal. The new engine is also noticeably smoother, particularly at high rpm. And thanks to the seven-speed transmission, the improved performance comes without a corresponding decrease in fuel mileage.
The diesel-powered E320 CDI is impressive. Its turbocharged inline six-cylinder diesel features all the latest high-tech goodies, including CDI, the common-rail direct injection system, which delivers fuel to the engine at an incredible 23,000 psi, compared to 100-250 psi in a typical gasoline engine. Yet the technology matters far less than the results. Forget everything you know about diesel-powered cars built in the 1970s, '80s or '90s. Slow starting? Not anymore. Like all diesels, the E-Class version still needs electric glow-plugs to heat the combustion chambers before starting. Yet during our week-long evaluation, in early spring in the Midwest when mornings are more than cold enough to leave a coating of dew on the landscape, the E320 CDI never started more slowly than a gasoline engine.
Unpleasant odors? You'll still get that oily diesel smell when you fill the E320 CDI's tank, but once the filler cap is back on and the car is running, you'll notice no unpleasant fumes inside or out of this E-Class. Excessive engine noise? At idle, during warm-up, you'll hear the rapid tick-tick of diesel noise more loudly than anything coming from the gasoline-powered E350's engine. But once the diesel is warm, there's very little difference in the amount of engine noise reaching the cabin compared to other E-Class models. The diesel engine is also surprisingly smooth, and the extra bit of noise comes with some excellent benefits.
Start with outstanding fuel economy. According to the EPA, the E320 CDI beats its gasoline-powered counterpart by more than 10 miles per gallon for both city and highway driving, estimated at 27 and 37 mpg respectively. Our test suggests that a 10 mpg edge overall is easily achievable in the real word. With predominantly highway travel, the CDI has a range of 600-700 miles per tank, so owners won't have to tolerate the smell of diesel fuel very often. With gasoline topping $2 a gallon, and the mileage advantage of the E320 CDI, the paradigm for the typical American buyer may finally have shifted toward diesel engines.
Why? Because the E320 CDI performs just as well as the gasoline powered E350. Its 201 horsepower is impressive by diesel standards, but that's not the half. This engine produces a whopping 369 pound-feet of torque, more even than the E500 gasoline V8, and it's the twisting power of torque that generates acceleration. Dip the accelerator pedal on the E320 CDI and it jumps, quickly enough to spin the back tires just by jabbing the gas if you switch the traction control off. Before the introduction of the new 3.5-liter gasoline V6, the CDI would leave the standard gasoline-powered E-Class in the dust. Even now, it will run neck and neck with the E350, up to about 90 mph. Moreover, the CDI engine breathes freely enough that it keeps pulling strong up to the transmission's shift points.
Yet there's nothing like the V8-powered E500 for drivers who put a premium on smooth, exhilarating acceleration. This V8 is sweet from idle to the 6000-rpm redline. And the E500 flies. At a stoplight or from 70 mph, there's a deep well of torque underfoot and plenty of acceleration. From the seat of the pants, the E500 feels like the quickest car going among midsize luxury sedans, save the special high-performance models.
The seven-speed automatic transmission improves acceleration, performance and response, but it also enhances fuel efficiency when compared to a more common five-speed automatic. Gear changes are barely noticeable, especially in the higher gears. This transmission allows significantly quicker acceleration for highway passing situations. And it doesn't have to go through every gear: Step on the gas and the transmission will skip down to the appropriate gear, switching from seventh to fifth, for example, and from there directly to third, meaning two downshifts instead of four.
Smooth, serene and quiet: That's the dominant impression at the wheel of any E-Class, unless you have the accelerator floored. There's very little vibration anywhere in the cabin, and almost no wind noise.
E-Class cars corner responsively and provide a smooth, if slightly firm, ride. It's the balance we prefer in luxury sedans. The four-link front suspension is similar to that under the expensive S-Class models, and the five-link rear suspension does a superb job of controlling unwanted wheel movement, which is crucial to handling and ride quality. Bigger, wider wheels and higher-grip performance tires are available that are better for spirited driving on dry pavement than the standard all-season tires.
The Airmatic Dual Control suspension that comes standard on the E500 and is optional on the E350 replaces conventional steel coil springs with air springs. This computer-managed system adjusts the air pressure to the spring at each wheel, based on road conditions or driving style, to slightly soften or firm the ride and to add or decrease body roll (lean) in corners. In combination with electronically adjusted shock absorbers, the air suspension can automatically improve ride quality or handling or optimize the balance of the two, depending on where the car is traveling and whether the driver is cruising or driving quickly. The system works automatically, without switching suspension settings between sport and comfort.
The variable-power steering system provides more boost for easy turning at low speeds, and less for more progressive steering response and feedback at higher speeds. We found the light steering makes maneuvering through crowded parking lots easier and more pleasant. The current E350 feels more agile and responds more precisely than the previous-generation E-Class.
We found the brakes on the E350 to be excellent in terms of performance. This car stops straight, true, and short, with no drama whatsoever, and will do so repeatedly with virtually no brake fade. But we didn't care for them. All of the E-Class cars come with Sensotronic Brake Control, commonly called brake-by-wire. The connection between the brake pedal and reservoir of brake fluid is electronic, not mechanical. The advantage? The electronic system can apply brake force to each wheel independently, helping to keep the car traveling straight and true during panic stops, even on bumpy, uneven roads. It will also keep the brakes on full in an emergency situation, as measured by sensors, even if a driver inadvertently eases off the brake pedal. And if it's raining, the system periodically, lightly, applies the brakes to sweep them dry. Still, the brake-by-wire has its quirks. Several testers found them difficult to modulate in everyday driving, making smooth braking around town a challenge. In short, we don't really like them. The E-Class models have progressively larger brake rotors, depending on the engine's power and corresponding speed potential.
The E-Class wagons give up almost nothing to the sedans in performance, fuel economy or handling dynamics. They simply add an element of versatility the sedans can't match, and they are quite handsome to boot.
The 2006 E55 AMG operates on another plane entirely, with 469 horsepower and gobs of torque available from idle to 5000 rpm, peaking at more than 500 pound-feet. The power comes courtesy of an intercooled Lysholm screw-type supercharger and advanced engine control electronics. No matter where or when you stab the throttle, the E55 rockets ahead. Mercedes says it will go from 0 to 60 mph in 4.5 seconds, reaching an electronically controlled top speed of 155 mph in half a minute. And now you can get this kind of performance in a station wagon. This year Mercedes offers the E55 as a wagon for the first time. Does it still qualify as a soccer mom's car if it can go toe-to-toe with a Porsche 911?
The five-speed automatic in the E55 AMG shifts quickly up or down in most situations. It doesn't hunt back and forth for the right gear, even in hilly terrain, and it rarely shifts unless the driver changes the angle of the gas pedal, which is good. When the driver prefers, an auto-manual shift mechanism allows a high level of control over gear selection. Toggling the shifter left or right, the transmission shifts quickly up and down at the driver's discretion. The system will hold the selected gear indefinitely just below the 6000-rpm redline, but it won't let you bump the engine off its rev-limiter without shifting up a gear. Should the mood strike, a driver can run through the gears or challenge a curving stretch of road almost as if it was a fully manual transmission. Most of the time, however, we simply put it in Drive. Even the high-performance E55 AMG is so quiet that the driver forgets just how powerful and fast it is until the throttle is opened up.
NewCarTestDrive.com editor Mitch McCullough reported from Los Angeles, with J.P. Vettraino and Jim McCraw reporting from Detroit.
Model as tested
Mercedes-Benz E350 sedan ($50,050)
4 years/50,000 miles
Gas guzzler tax:
Price as tested
Options as tested
4MATIC all-wheel drive ($2,500); pewter metallic paint with charcoal leather seat inserts ($680); Appearance Package includes active bi-xenon headlights, sculpted side skirts, black birdseye interior trim and Airmatic air-spring suspension ($3,960); Sunroof Package with power glass sunroof, power rear glass shade and rear side window blinds ($1,550); heated front seats ($680); 420-watt harmon/kardin sound system with six CD changer ($970)
Model Line Overview
Mercedes-Benz E350 ($50,050); E320 CDI ($51,050); E350 wagon ($52,300); E500 ($58,400); E500 wagon ($62,000); E55 AMG ($81,800); E55 AMG wagon ($82,600)
Safety equipment (standard)
antilock brakes (ABS); Electronic Stability Program (ESP), traction control; seatbelt pretensioners; dual-stage front airbags, front and rear side-impact airbags, front and rear curtain-style head-protection airbags; active head restraints
Safety equipment (optional)
3.5-liter dohc 24-valve V6
Specifications as Tested
automatic dual-zone climate control, power tilt and telescoping steering wheel with multifunction controls, power windows with express up and down, auto-dimming mirrors, rain-sensing windshield wipers, 10-way power driver and passenger seats with leather inserts and three-position memory, cruise control, walnut trim, nine-speaker stereo, Tele-aid emergency communication system
Engine & Transmission
3.5-liter dohc 24-valve V6
Horsepower (hp @ rpm)
268 @ 6000
EPA fuel economy, city/hwy
Torque (lb.-ft. @ rpm)
independent, five link with air springs and variable-rate shock absorbers and stabilizer bar
independent, with upper and lower control arms, air springs and variable-rate shock absorbers
independent, five link with air springs and variable-rate shock absorbers and stabilizer bar
Head/hip/leg room, middle
Head/hip/leg room, front
Head/hip/leg room, rear