Say What You Mean 

Mercedes-Benz’s newest E-Class luxury sedan sets new world-class standards

Mercedes-Benz’s newest E-Class luxury sedan sets new world-class standards

It is very hard to describe something that cannot be seen, touched, heard or even named. In other words, I simply cannot put my finger on that one feature or sensation that makes the new E320 sedan from Mercedes-Benz so powerfully appealing.

There is no denying that the car does appeal in many ways, however, so it must be by a subtle concert of satisfactions that I was being seduced during my stint with a car that represents the cornerstone of Mercedes’ worldwide reputation.

The 2003 E-Class is an example of something good evolving into something better. Whereas certain rival manufacturers in the competitive mid-size luxury category will, from time to time, introduce new models that represent “bold departures” from what they are replacing, the new E320 preserves the sterling qualities of its predecessor and yet manages to refine them.

Take the external appearance, for example. Although subtly streamlined and nuanced, perhaps, with a dynastic resemblance to Mercedes’ flagship S-Class full-size sedans, the new E-Class still disports itself as an elegant coach for the well-heeled. Rivals may appear sportier, flashier, gaudier. This Mercedes, by contrast, is serenely self-confident in its quiet muscularity.

For 2003, the new E-class models consist of the V6-powered E320 and the V8-powered E500. (A new E-Class wagon will debut for 2004.) My recent encounter was with the “Sport” version of the E320, which combined a 3.2-liter single-overhead-cam V6 making 221 horsepower with an optional $3,800 package of body skirts and fascias, 17 in. wheels, leather and burl furnishings and a clever Airmatic Dual Control self-leveling suspension. As-tested, and including more goodies like a sunroof, premium sound system and magic-finger style Drive-Dynamic massaging front seats, this E320 Sport stickered at $56,045.

What can’t be as precisely quantified is the seamless precision of the car’s driving qualities. With 232 ft.-lbs. of maximum torque available over a broad powerband spanning 3,000 to 4,800 rpm, the E320’s V6 responds instantly to inputs from the accelerator. Mercedes’ agile TouchShift automatic transmission provides clutchless control over five forward speeds. When you want to shift manually, the changes are instant and precise. When you can’t be bothered, the automatic shifts are unnoticeable and silky smooth. This car translate a driver’s strict intentions into precise velocities. It does so, moreover, at the pace of zero-to-60 in 7.1 seconds, and for a fuel efficiency of 19 miles-per-gallon/city, 27 miles-per-gallon/highway (albeit using premium fuel).

Inside the E320 Sport is a miniature executive board room for five adults. The black bird’s-eye maple that accompanies the Sport package conspires with charcoal leather upholstery and dark blue-tinted windows to bestow an atmosphere of elegant privacy upon the car’s occupants. Standard climate control is a dual-zone affair, allowing the driver and front passenger to adjust temperatures independently. An optional four-zone system extends this adjustability to rear occupants as well.

Another fascinating option for 2003 is the Panorama sunroof, which differs from the traditional sunroof tested here by doubling the overhead glass area and extending it across the entire span of the roof. Available to accompany this overhead marvel is a solar-powered ventilation system that activates the climate-control blowers when the car is unattended.

I am pleased to see that Mercedes-Benz continues to experiment with its integrated “telematics” system that it dubs COMAND. I cannot yet admit, however, that M-B’s proprietary technique for simultaneously managing audio, navigation, telephone and video electronics is as intuitively easy to operate as certain rivals’ competing systems—notably Acura’s. Just the same, Mercedes’ GPS nav system for the new E-Class is DVD-based, and a separate DVD player in the dash not only plays music CDs but also displays video on a 6.5-in. color monitor—only when the gear selector is in Park, that is.

Perhaps the most refined additions to the E-Class résumé are its two most subtle and invisible ones. And yet their influences are especially powerful, both in terms of driving aesthetics and technological sophistication. The first of these is the fully electronic braking system, borrowed from Mercedes’ SL-Class roadsters. This computerized “brake-by-wire” system automatically regulates braking performance at each wheel as circumstances merit. Much more than an anti-lock system, the E-Class’ electronic braking factors such inputs as a driver’s reaction time and pedal pressure, road conditions and vehicle speed to apportion the safest, most effective braking pressure that each wheel requires at any given moment. It even accomplishes a gentle “limo stop” technique that professional chauffeurs use to eliminate the lurch of a complete stop in typical commuter traffic.

Airmatic Dual Control suspension, optional on the E320, is the other clever advance for 2003. Paired with a computer-controlled Adaptive Damping system, Airmatic substitutes air springs for coils to deliver self-leveling ride control. In other words, depending upon one of four driver-selected suspension modes ranging from comfy soft to racy stiff, Airmatic micro-tunes ride height, spring rates and damping action continuously whenever the car is in motion. The results are dramatic. When switching from the extremes of soft and stiff, vehicle dynamics vary quite considerably; and a driver can fine-tune the suspension to the driving mood of the moment. At another level, however, it is harder to describe the sense of solidity, predictability and self-confidence the Airmatic system engenders. With it, the E320 seems completely unflappable. Nothing surprises it, and there are no distracting jolts or wiggles. It is all smooth sailing, placid and serene.

Evaluating Mercedes-Benz’s new E320 Sport requires so much more than calculating the sum of its parts. It’s said, of course, that if you can’t define a particular word with a simple phrase, you don’t really know what it means. It’s a different story with this new E-Class sedan. If you can’t put your finger on what’s so special about this car, it’s only because you have to experience it before you can understand it.

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