Car reviews - Mercedes-Benz - E-class - E320 Elegance sedan
Extra interior space, extra performance, increased efficiency, high-tech options, comfort, ergonomics, switchgear, ride quality, composure, shift quality, overall balance
Room for improvement
Extra weight, price of high-tech options, foot-operated park brake, price
3 Oct 2004
By TIM BRITTEN
MERCEDES-BENZ has a solid run of brilliant E-class models. From the moment the E-class tag was applied in mid 1980s, the car has set the pace for others competing in this mid-size luxury market domain.
The latest version of the E-class came in late 2002. It’s a case of observing the rules set by previous versions, and carefully updating everything so that it remains a pre-eminent choice for luxury class buyers.
The suspension, and drivetrain, are essentially developments of what went before, with the exception of the S-class style air suspension now offered at the top of the range.
The body is an E-class interpretation of the underlying elements of C-class and S-class Benz models, retaining the same four-eyed front-end that characterized the previous version.
The car is wider and taller, and runs on a slightly extended wheelbase, but the overall length remains the same. The reasonably hefty E-class would be even moreso if the bonnet and boot hadn’t been fashioned from aluminium.
Powerplants range from a supercharged four and 2.6 and 3.2-litre V6s through a 2.7-litre, five-cylinder turbo-diesel to two V8s – a 225kW 5.0-litre and the supercharged 5.5-litre, 350kW version used in the E55 AMG.
The mid-placed model, the E320 V6, is probably the quintessential E-class because it presents the most balanced view. It’s not a massive powerhouse like the E500 or E55 AMG, but it has power and smoothness enough to maintain the dignity of the marque, while not stooping to the workhorse connotations of the diesel E270, or the lower-budget implications of the E240.
The 3.2-litre engine is actually not far away from a replacement by a decidedly more high-tech V6 offering improved efficiency and greater power and torque outputs but, in the meantime, it does a more than competent job.
Its 165kW and 300Nm ensure competitiveness with BMW’s new 5 Series in terms of acceleration and fuel economy, despite the fact it’s a heavier car, while interior dimensions, even though they are improved, have now been surpassed by the car from Bavaria.
This doesn’t mean the E-class lacks anything in terms of passenger space or luggage capacity though it’s still very accommodating for passengers, with genuine stretch-out space in front and rear as well as decent headroom – provided you don’t option the glass sunroof.
New, optional features that appear in the E-class include things like ventilated front seats, Distronic cruise control that matches road speed with the vehicle in front, an automatically contouring seat that adjusts to the prevailing driving situation, a climate system that can be set to deliver different conditions to each of the four basic seat positions, and automatic tyre pressure monitoring.
The E320 Elegance tested here came with standard DVD player, satellite-navigation, memory seats for both driver and front passenger, and the slightly more sophisticated (than E240 or E270 models) speed-dependent power steering.
It’s items like these that partly explain the added cost of choosing an E-class over a similar BMW 5 Series – but only partly. Even adding the $6500 satellite-navigation that is optional on the 530i, BMW is still way ahead in value compared with the $122,500 E320 Mercedes-Benz Elegance.
More than $12,000 ahead in fact, which is significant even at this end of the market.
But the E-Class is appropriately presented inside, with discreet touches of genuine wood trim, full-leather upholstery and a generally nice restraint about the form and function of controls and instruments. There’s no confusing iDrive or hard-to-find buttons or switches here.
In fact, the cruise control system, with its very visible steering column stalk, is still among the best. Only the foot-operated park brake lets the team down.
The E-class is still a peerless cruiser, either around town or on the open road, where its almost magical combination of beautifully damped suspension, stable, predictable handling and ready engine response imbue it with an essence that is unmistakably Mercedes.
Rolls Royce might eschew waftability as the ultimate desirable trait in a luxury car but, in a Mercedes-Benz, on-road composure is an equally appealing characteristic.
The E-class doesn’t have the sharp precision of a BMW 5 Series in terms of handling, but it has a suspension system that is able to transform ugly road surfaces into something almost attractive.
Essentially an evolution of the impressive all-independent system that underpinned the first E-class, it combines longish vertical travel, precise wheel location and well-chosen spring and damper rates to achieve what is still among the best combinations of ride and handling available, full stop.
The 18-valve, 3.2-litre V6 does the job too. It is as economical as a BMW 530i, and not ridiculously behind in terms of outright acceleration despite the heavier body and the five, rather than six-speed automatic transmission.
It performs quietly and smoothly, without the almost-manic high-revving behaviour of some of its peers. Its 165kW peak comes at just 5600rpm compared with, say, Jaguar’s 3.0-litre S-Type that requires 6800rpm to produce its 179kW.
And the five-speed transmission, helped along by a sideways-shifting sequential function, is smooth and unobtrusive to work with, even if it lets the driver know it is really the boss when it comes to deciding on upshift points.
The Benz is helped in all-round flexibility by strong engine torque, with the maximum 315Nm coming in at 3000rpm. Looking at the Jaguar engine again, its 300Nm is creditable given the smaller capacity, but it must be spun to 4100rpm to achieve it.
The E-class isn’t too tardy on retardation either, with what the company describes as Sensotronic electronically controlled braking. This is essentially brake-by-wire, and comprises a high-pressure accumulator that essentially takes the place of a regular vacuum booster to apportion pressure, via instructions from a central microprocessor, to where it's most effective.
This is a sort of high-tech version of the electronic brake-force distribution systems now found in many cars, and is backed up by the also common brake assist which boosts braking pressure in emergencies. And, of course, there is also four-channel ABS.
The E-Class retains its lofty position as a representation of the very best car designers can achieve, with an almost exquisite balance of all the qualities that go into the making of a luxury car.
It’s kind of nice to see Mercedes continuing to up the ante with every new release – and equally nice to see BMW stepping in and matching, or out-matching it.
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