The E-Class includes the V6-powered E320 sedan and the V8-powered E500 sedan. The E500 comes with a sophisticated new seven-speed automatic transmission. For 2004, Mercedes has introduced the fantastically useful and flexible E-Class wagon, available in E320 and E500 trim.
The new high-performance E55 AMG is the fastest-ever production car from Mercedes, boasting nearly 500 horsepower and a sports suspension. The E55 AMG, with its combination of acceleration, handling, braking and sheer accommodation, is the finest four-door sports car Mercedes-Benz has ever built, a car without cramped spaces, the quirks, the downsides or negatives that so many two-seater, two-door sports cars come with as standard equipment. In this family hauler, you can really haul. Direct competitors include the Audi RS6, the BMW M5, and the Jaguar XJR.
All-wheel drive is available for all 2004 E-Class models, a great feature for winter driving and quite useful in the rain. New appearance packages have been added as well to give the E-Class a sportier look.
The E320 ($47,450) comes with the standard equipment buyers expect in this class, starting with fully automatic dual-zone climate control, a power tilt and telescoping steering wheel, 10-way power front seats, real walnut trim, a 10-speaker stereo, power windows with one-touch express operation up and down, auto-dimming mirrors and rain-sensing windshield wipers.
The E500 ($56,270) has been gaining sales ground on the E320 in recent years. For 2004, the V8's engine displacement has increased from 4.3 liters to 5.0 liters, with an increase of 29 horsepower to 302 at 5600 rpm. Besides more power, the E500 adds new standard equipment, including the industry's first seven-speed automatic transmission, a four-zone climate control system with separate temperature adjustments for both sides of the cabin, front and rear, and the new Airmatic Dual Control suspension.
All the options on E500 are also available on the E320, and there are dozens more offered on both cars. Extras include radar-controlled Distronic adaptive cruise control, which maintains a set distance from cars ahead; Keyless Go, a credit card-sized transmitter which allows unlocking the doors and starting the car by touching the door handle and the gear selector; Parktronic obstacle warning helps with parking and enhances safety by alerting the driver to objects in front of and behind the car. Also available: DVD-based GPS navigation, a in-dash information management system; voice operation for the phone, audio controls and navigation system; ventilated massaging seats; and solar-powered interior ventilation for those hot summer days when the car is parked for long periods. There's even a power trunk closer.
As mentioned, E320 and E500 wagons are now available. Equipped with three rows of seats, the wagon has a power liftgate and a cargo organizer as standard, with a slide-out load floor optional. Roof racks, bike racks, ski racks and cargo boxes abound on the wagon option list. The 4Matic all-wheel-drive system comes on all E500 wagons and is available on the E320.
The E55 AMG ($78,370) was performance-tuned by subsidiary AMG with a supercharged and intercooled V8 producing 493 horsepower, a manually controllable 5-speed automatic transmission, bigger tires, wheels and brakes, and retuned suspension, with appropriate AMG interior and exterior markings, style and badging throughout.
No new Mercedes would be complete without safety advances. E-Class cars come standard with eight airbags (dual front airbags, side bags for front and rear, and head-protection curtains that run the length of the cabin on both sides). The E-Class employs a new (for 2003) airbag management system with more 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 seat belt pretensioners according to the force of impact.
The four-headlight theme introduced on the previous E-Class, now the standard at Mercedes, has been refined in the new car. The new front end is lower and is more steeply raked. The design produces a class-leading 0.27 coefficient of drag (minimizing wind noise and maximizing fuel economy), but the E55 AMG offers slightly more drag, if you can call 0.28 drag, with its extra body add-ons.
The instrument cluster uses black script on white gauges with LED lighting and beautifully crafted real wood trim, and 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 at the center screen. 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, with the HomeLink package located on the bottom of the rearview mirror. Redundant controls on the steering wheel hub operate the phone, radio and information display.
The main audio, telephone and navigation controls are in a new COMAND module with a 16:9 ratio screen proportion. Centered around the new LCD display screen, the system is a big improvement over the previous system. A single row of switches operates door locks, flashers and seat heaters. The console has a funky pop-up cupholder and a large storage bin (two bins if you don't order the telephone package). There are storage bins in each door and map pockets on the front seat backs.
The 10-way adjustable front bucket seats are firm enough for good support when driving fast, but not hard on the back when you're cruising along. The sporty seats grip firmly, and there's more than enough adjustment using Mercedes' door-mounted seat controls to accommodate just about everyone.
Our gripes? The Mercedes cruise control 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. On the other hand, we've met few people who dislike the cruise control to the point that they'd overlook all the strengths of a Mercedes-Benz.
Also, the new E-Class features ambient cabin lighting, the latest trend in interior design. These strips of soft, low-level cabin lighting in the headliner remain on during darkness, like a fancy nightlight in the bathroom. Initially, at least, it's disconcerting while driving at night, because we're used to nothing but the instrument lights. The distraction goes away as you become accustomed, but we're still not convinced of the benefits.
On the plus side, the E-Class now has an indicator that lets the driver know if any of the doors are ajar and, if so, which one.
The back seat has all the comforts you'd want. There are separate air vents for both sides, a fan-speed switch and separate temperature adjustments for rear passengers; a 12-volt power point; reading lamps; a wide, fold-down center armrest with cupholders and divided storage. Headrests are provided for all three rear seating positions, and they can be retracted remotely when there's no one riding in back for greater rear vision. Speaking of which, the outside mirrors are small, limiting the field of view somewhat.
The trunk is one of the largest in the class. With 15.9 cubic feet of space, the E-Class has more cargo volume than the BMW 5 Series, Audi A6, or Lexus GS. It's even larger than the trunk in big S-Class Mercedes. The trunk floor is as long as it is wide, with load height just above the bumper.
Wagons offer 24.4 cubic feet of cargo space behind the seats, nearly 69 cubic feet with the seats folded down. The M-Class, by comparison, offers 81 cubic feet with the seats down.
Performance from the E320 is somewhat disappointing. Its 3.2-liter V6, which produces 221 horsepower and 232 pounds-feet of torque, lacks the responsiveness of the E500. However, the E320 cruises well at high speeds and the V6 is smooth and quiet from idle to the 6000-rpm redline. The E320 can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in 7.1 seconds, according to Mercedes.
The E500 is much more responsive than the E320. Most of this is due to its more powerful engine. The acceleration performance from the E500's V8 is truly impressive. Acceleration-producing torque matters more than horsepower numbers for most drivers, and in this class the E500 is hard to beat. You'll notice when you step on the gas. This V8 is nice and smooth 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 mid-size luxury sedans. Mercedes engineers say it's even quicker than the 500E, a limited-production, purpose-built sports sedan developed with Porsche in the early 1990s and still revered by auto enthusiasts today. Mercedes sticks with its tried and true single-cam, three-valve technology for all of its E-Class cars, which may help explain slightly lower specific output than some competitors (horsepower per liter of displacement). The 5.0-liter engine in the E500 produces 302 horsepower at 5600 rpm, but, more important, it generates 339 pounds-feet of torque that's available from 2700 to 4250 rpm. Translation: quick response whenever you hit the gas. The E500 can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in 5.8 seconds, according to Mercedes.
Engine performance in the E55 AMG is truly impressive, with huge amounts of torque available from idle to over 5000 rpm, and peak torque over 500 foot-pounds. Its 469 horsepower comes partly from a Lysholm screw-type supercharger and intercooler plus the latest in ME 2.8 engine control electronics. No matter where or when you stab the throttle the E55 AMG just flat flies. Mercedes says it will go from 0 to 60 mph in 4.5 seconds and can reach an electronically controlled top speed of 155 mph in a little over half a minute. Yet, like the other E-Class engines, the supercharged V8 is always quiet and smooth from idle to the 6000-rpm redline.
For 2004, E500 sedan and wagon benefit from a new seven-speed automatic, the world's first. It quickens acceleration performance and response yet enhances fuel efficiency when compared to the five-speed automatic, itself a responsive and efficient transmission. Gear changes are barely noticeable, especially in the higher gears. This new 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, two downshifts instead of four.
The five-speed automatic transmission that comes in the E320 and E55 AMG shifts quickly up and down through the gears, though it sometimes seems slow to respond in the E320. 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, both of which are 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 through the gears. 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. The transmission controls will protect the engine by not allowing the driver to select too low a gear for a given road speed, but as soon as the car slows sufficiently, the transmission shifts down. 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.
The E-Class cars offer the cornering of a sports sedan along with smooth, though firm, ride comfort. The four-link front suspension is similar to that of the expensive S-Class sedans, and its five-link rear suspension does a superb job of controlling unwanted wheel movement, a key to good handling and ride. The E320 we drove had ordinary all-season blackwall tires on it, but the suspension works well with these tires and the owner can opt up for bigger tires and alloy wheels from Mercedes-Benz or from the aftermarket if a little more grip is desired.
A new version of the air suspension from the S-Class, called Airmatic Dual Control, comes standard on the E500 and is available as an option on the E320 ($1,575), and replaces conventional steel coil springs with air springs. This computer-managed system adds more or less air pressure to the spring at each wheel, based on road conditions or driving style, to slightly soften or firm the ride and add or decrease body roll (the left or right lean when the car turns). In combination with electronically adjusted shock absorbers, the air suspension can automatically improve ride quality or handling characteristics, or optimize the balance of the two, depending on where the car is traveling and whether the driver is dawdling or going quickly. The system works automatically, without switching suspension settings between sport and comfort.
The Mercedes E-Class has quick steering compared with other cars in this class. The variable power-steering system works well, with more boost for easy turning at low speeds, and less for more progressive steering response and feedback at higher speeds. The light steering makes maneuvering through crowded parking lots easier and more pleasant. Overall, this latest generation E320 is far more pleasant to drive than the old E320, which itself was a good car. The new E-Class cars feel agile, light on their feet. They respond more precisely, more like a BMW.
The E55 AMG supersedan has a different suspension and different ABS and ESP settings in its software, deliberately changed to allow the driver to push the car to higher limits before electronic intervention takes place.
The E-Class cars have excellent brakes from a performance and safety standpoint. At least one tester found them a difficult to modulate in everyday driving, however, making smooth braking around town a challenge. The E-Class features Sensotronic Brake Control, commonly called brake-by-wire. The connection between the brake pedal and reservoir of brake fluid is electronic, not mechanical or hydraulic. 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 driver eases off the brake pedal, a common mistake. And if it's raining, the system periodically, lightly, applies the brakes to sweep them dry. Each of the three models has progressively larger brake rotors. The brakes on the E320 are excellent in terms of performance. With about 56 percent of its 3990 pounds on the nose and 44 percent of the weight on the rear tires, this car stops like a race car in street conditions, straight, true, and short, with no drama whatsoever, and will do so through a whole day of passionate driving.
Our choice in this model line is the E500 for its responsiveness and overall balance.
Model as tested
Mercedes-Benz E 320 sedan ($48,170)
4 years/50,000 miles
Gas guzzler tax:
Price as tested
Options as tested
special paint, $655; Airmatic Dual Control suspension ($1,575); four-zone climate control ($550); heated front seats and steering wheel ($875)
Model Line Overview
Mercedes-Benz E320 ($48,170); E500 ($56,270), E55 AMG ($78,370); E320 wagon ($50,670; E500 wagon 4MATIC ($60,670)
Safety equipment (standard)
antilock brakes (ABS); Electronic Stability Program (ESP), traction control; seatbelt pretensioners; dual-stage front airbags, front and rear occupant side airbags; side curtain airbags
Safety equipment (optional)
3.2-liter sohc 18-valve V6
five-speed automatic with Touch Shift manual operation
Specifications as Tested
automatic dual-zone climate control, charcoal leather seating inserts, power tilt and telescoping steering wheel, power windows with express up and down, auto-dimming mirrors, rain-sensing windshield wipers, 10-way power driver and passenger seats, cruise control, walnut trim and 10-speaker stereo
Engine & Transmission
3.2-liter sohc 18-valve V6
Horsepower (hp @ rpm)
221 @ 5700
EPA fuel economy, city/hwy
Torque (lb.-ft. @ rpm)
independent five link, variable damping shock absorbers and stabilizer bar
independent with upper and lower control arms, variable damping shock absorbers and stabilizer bar
independent five link, variable damping shock absorbers and stabilizer bar
Head/hip/leg room, middle
Head/hip/leg room, front
Head/hip/leg room, rear