2003 Mercedes Benz E-Class Road Test

Reading Time: 14 minutes

Category:$50,000 to $60,000 Rear Drive Luxury Sport Sedan
Who should buy this car:A person looking for a world class European luxury sedan that delivers status without compromise.
Comparable cars in this class:Audi A6, BMW 5-Series, Infiniti M45, Jaguar S-Type, Lexus GS,

When I was growing up, I remember hearing stories about my father and his love for cars. My father passed away when I was 18 months old and regrettably, I never got to know him. But every once in a while when I am alone in a car, I imagine that he is sitting in the passenger seat as I put one of the cars I am testing through its paces. One thing’s for sure, he never complains about my taking a corner too fast or slamming on the brakes for apparently no reason. No, he just sits there trying to comprehend the awesome changes the automobile has undergone since the mid ’40s when he was alive.

I pictured my dad with me as I tested the new 2003 Mercedes Benz E320 and tried to visualize his reaction to this car from his 1940’s perspective. Then I realized that this engineering masterpiece could impress even the most jaded car connoisseur of the current millennium and I marveled at just how far automotive technology had come in the last 60 years and how much farther Mercedes Benz had just pushed the state of the art for mid sized sedans.

This year the E-Class comes in two flavors, the E320 sedan and the E500 sedan, which is a replacement for the previous E430 sedan. By the end of 2003, Mercedes will bring the newly redesigned E-Class wagons to join the party along with 4-matic all-wheel drive, not to mention the awesome E55 AMG sedan with its 469 horsepower (say what?!?) supercharged engine.


A decade ago, Mercedes presented an image that was in keeping with a snooty upper-crust gentleman with a stiff collar and monocle, prancing around as if he owned everything he surveyed. Today the image has changed to a sophisticated, but stylish car that still says “you have arrived”, but in a friendlier way.

The styling on this new E-Class is clean and tasteful. All of the styling cues from the previous E-Class are recognizable, but they are smoother and more refined. The look is sleeker than before and the numbers prove this is more than just an illusion with a CD of drag at a very low 0.27 making this one of the most aerodynamic cars on the road.

How did they get this body to look so sleek? It’s as though they took a bar of soap, carved it into an exact replica of the previous E-Class sedan; then washed their hands with it a few times until it took the shape of the beauty in the picture above. After that, all they had to do was tweak the shape of the tail lights and add a character line or two and voila, the 2003E-Class was born.

I spent some wheel time in both the E320 and the E500 and both impressed me in their own right. They are honed from the same mid-size body and share the same interior along with many of the new features. The main difference between the two centers around the engines. The E320 is powered by a 3.2 liter V6 engine that produces 220 horsepower and is capable of propelling the car from a standing start to 60 miles per hour in a quick 7.1 seconds. The E500 comes with a 5.0 liter V8 with 302 horsepower and will do the 0 to 60 blast in a blazing 5.8 seconds. The V6 is as smooth and refined as any I have driven, but when compared to the silky V8, you will understand why some people are willing to shell out the almost $8000 premium to get the E500.

Sitting in the new E-Class, the focal point has to be the swooping dash that follows in the footsteps of the S-Class, making the interior feel more fluid and look less angular.

The instrument cluster still follows the three circle design, but a clock replaces the fuel and temperature gauges which have been converted to small bar-graphs and moved to either side of the main trio of gauges.

There is a small round screen in the center of the speedometer that serves as an information display. This display can be set to show a diverse array of information including: mileage and trip miles, outside temperature, radio settings, navigation information and cruise control settings among other things. Steering wheel controls allow the driver to switch between the various displays, answer the integrated phone or control the sound system.

In the central stack below the sound system is a row of switches that handle a variety of functions including: the power door locks, seat heaters and emergency flasher. This is a typical layout found on other Benz models. What is not typical, and once you discover it, becomes the must showed-off feature of the car, is a small chrome button directly under the flasher triangle. In fact, it looks more like a bit of trim than a button, but when you press it, the entire panel silently motors out and up to expose either a storage compartment or the optional 6-disk CD changer. Waiting 30 seconds or pressing the button again reverses the process causing the panel to glide down and then into the opening to again become a solid part of the dash.

A neat touch that shows the attention to detail that has been lavished on this new Benz is that the shifter boot is an extension of the leather covered gearshift knob so that the leather flows from the form fitted knob then drapes down to form the boot.

Sitting behind the wheel, everything seemed organized and easy to decipher. The driver’s seat was quite comfortable and supportive with numerous adjustments to allow any driver to find a comfortable position. As with other Benzs, seat controls are mounted on the door in the shape of the seat. Other standard features include a memory system that will remember the settings for up to three drivers. There is a memory feature for the front passenger seat as well. In addition to the seat controls, the steering wheel was electrically adjustable for height and reach.

Aside from the standard seating features, there are a number of interesting extra-cost options that will add to driver and front passenger comfort including:

Active Ventilated Seats, which use five mini fans in each seat in order to draw cool air from beneath the seats and send it through the perforated leather to keep the driver and front passenger comfortable in hot weather.
Drive-Dynamic Seats, that monitor G-forces produced by spirited driving and rapidly inflate or deflate bladders inside the seat’s side bolsters in order to keep the driver planted behind the wheel. This system also includes a massage function. By pushing a button, the seats will slowly inflate and deflate bladders in the lumbar area in a programmed sequence that continues for five minutes and can be repeated as desired.

Heated Seats and Steering Wheel. This is a great feature for people living in colder parts of the country. The steering wheel heater works on the entire wheel rim on cars with the standard leather wrapped wheel, or on the leather portion of the optional wood and leather wheel.

The rear seat is still a bit Spartan, but reasonably comfortable. On the E320, you can opt for the 4-zoneA/C with individual temperature controls for all outboard passengers. This feature is standard on the E500. Regardless of whether you get the 4-zone A/C system or stick with the standard 2-zone system, all E-Class cars get a pollution sensor that monitors levels of nitrogen oxide and carbon monoxide and automatically switches over to recirculate mode when necessary.

Another option that I really liked was the Panoramic sun roof (a regular tilt and slide sunroof is also available). With this feature, the entire roof is made of glass with the front half able to open and slide over the rear. The fact that it slides over the rear portion of the roof instead of under means that headroom is not reduced the way it is with a conventional sunroof. This option includes a power operated sunshade that rolls up into the section between the front and rear seats so that front and rear seat passengers will be able to look up and see sky through the tinted glass.

If you opt for the Panoramic sun roof, you can then choose a solar powered ventilation system that will keep the interior from turning into an oven when parked in the sun on a hot day. The system includes a series of silicon solar cells mounted under the glass that can power the blower motor. The fan will automatically switch on while the car is parked in order to cool down the interior. This is done without using any energy from the car’s battery.

Hallo lighting in the interior is a nice touch. There are dimly lit lamp panels that surround the front and rear overhead consoles and acts as sort of a night light. The driver has control of the front lamp panel and is able to chose from several levels of illumination or turn it off, while rear passengers have control of the rear unit.

Rich looking burled wood covers the console and stack area along with a strip flowing the width of the instrument panel and continuing into the doors.


The new suspension system for the E was borrowed from the larger S-Class and uses a double wishbone front and multi-link rear design. The E320 comes with conventional coil springs and shocks while the E500 comes equipped with standard AIRmatic DC (Dual Control) Air Suspension System.

I am going to describe my impressions of the E320 with the standard spring setup first since I was more impressed with this system than the fancy electronic system which, due to its sophistication, everyone assumes would be first rate.

While driving the E320, I kept looking for the switches that control the air suspension. This car road and handled so well, I assumed that it had to have the optional system, but no, this was the standard setup! This car seems to pave the road ahead. The road surface I saw through the windshield was not what I felt as I drove over it. Dips, bumps and ripples in the road surface that were apparent on other cars seemed to almost disappear on this one.

Driving down a dirt road strewn with craters revealed a car that was as solid as any other Mercedes, but the surprising thing was the compliant suspension that soaked up the lunar-like surface as though it were a paved road with just a few ripples in the surface.

As I approached a railroad crossing that I knew to be quite unsettling for most cars, I decided to see how the E320 would handle it at speed. My friend who was riding with me and also knew this road, saw what I was about to do, braced himself and yelled “Airborn!”, only to be amazed by how little the ride was disturbed by the event.

When I got into the E500 the following week, my thoughts went to “how much better than the E320 can this one be?” Well, for the average driver that isn’t interested in “cowboying” the car I can tell you, not much. First of all, the E500 uses 17 inch low profile performance tires instead of the less aggressive 16 inch all-season rubber on the E320. This caused a slightly harsher ride that was not quite compensated for by the more sophisticated air suspension. So if you are a conservative driver who is not interested in all-out maximum performance, you may be happier with the ride on the E320.

But if it’s performance you want, the E500 delivers in abundance. On winding back roads, you can’t do much better even with an all-out sports car. The steering is rock-steady and provides the driver with a very connected feel of the road. But when the mood is for relaxed cruising, this system will not disappoint. This is a classic case of being able to “have your cake and eat it too”.


The 3.2 liter V6 engine in the E320 is the same engine used in the previous E320. It is a SOHC (Single Overhead Cam) engine with three valves and two spark plugs per cylinder that produces 221 horsepower at 5,700 rpm and 232 lb-ft of torque from 3,000 through 4,800 rpm. The new-for-2003 E500 is powered by the venerable 5.0 liter 302 horsepower V8 that also powers the S500 and SL500. Both are $90,000+ cars that are known for their smoothness and performance (and the E500 is lighter than either of them). You would be hard pressed to find a more refined engine than this 5 liter V8.

3.2 Liter V6
5.0 Liter V8

Both E-Class engines share drive-by-wire throttle control where the gas pedal is connected to a sensor that sends the throttle position and movement to the computer instead of controlling the throttle directly by a cable as in most other cars. The computer then tells the throttle plate how much and how quickly to open. Because of this, the computer will adapt to individual driving styles by offering snappy throttle response to aggressive driving and smooth response to leisurely cruising. Both the E320 and E500 felt alive and eager to please.

One nice feature of these engines is the Mercedes Benz Flexible Service System (FSS) where a special oil quality sensor continually monitors the amount and type of contaminants in the oil and determines when the oil should be changed. With this system, oil change intervals can be anywhere from 10,000 to 20,000 miles instead of the traditional 5,000 to 7,500 miles A digital display lets the driver know how much longer the car can go before the oil needs to be changed. This same sensor keeps track of oil level and will warn you if the oil is low.


Transmission duties are handled by a five speed automatic with Touch Shift which allows the driver to manually shift through all five gears or just leave it in drive for fully automatic operation. A nice feature about this transmission is that it is intuitive. Drive aggressively and the transmission will hold the current gear as you slow down, perhaps to set up for a corner. This gives you engine braking as though you were driving a standard shift. In more relaxed driving, when you let up on the gas, the car will just coast as though it were in neutral. This is the behavior that the average driver would expect. This transmission tries to be all things to all people and pretty much succeeds.


The brake system on the E-Class is the first use of “Brake by Wire” on a large-scale production vehicle. Before the E-Class, this system was only available on the also-new two passenger 2003 SL500 sports car. What Brake-by-Wire means is that there is no direct connection between the brake pedal and the actual brakes at each wheel. Instead, when you step on the brake pedal, a pressure sensor sends a signal to the computer which processes the pressure as well as the speed that the pedal is moving and the time it took the driver to move from the gas to the brake. The computer then determines how much braking to apply to each wheel individually. The result is a car that stops as good as anything on the road.

This new Electronic Brake System can react faster and more intelligently by regulating pressure on individual wheels in order to keep the car on the exact course that the driver is steering toward while stopping in the shortest time possible. If the system detects that the driver’s foot has moved from the gas to the brake very quickly, the system assumes that there may be an impending emergency and readies itself by applying additional pressure to move the brake pads lightly against the discs, skimming them. This action clears any moisture off the rotors and reduces reaction time for the pads to actually stop the car. On the highway, pre-loading the brakes in this manner helps to reduce stopping distance by about three percent.

In normal driving, the system can detect when there is excessive moisture in the air and move the pads closer to the discs in order to keep the system dry and ready. There is a backup master cylinder should the system experience problems, but with the amount of engineering that Mercedes invested in the reliability of this system, my guess is that they never expect this backup system to be used in the real world.

Brake pedal feel is slightly artificial, but provides powerful stops from any speed this car can attain. The slightly detached pedal feel is only noticeable if you pay close attention to it, but it was easy to get used to and after the time with these cars was up, I regretted having to go back to driving cars with conventional brakes.


The E Class is by no means an inexpensive car with a starting price just below $50 large. One look at the build quality and the list of standard features shows that you certainly get your money’s worth, but the real indication that this is no ordinary car comes when you take a gander at the options list.

Most of the features that are standard on the E500 are available at extra cost on the E320 including the AIRmatic Air Suspension System and the Four Zone Climate Control. Options for both models include:


It would have been something to see how my dad, who considered the Chrysler Airflowstate-of-the-art, would have reacted as he tried to comprehend computers and the immense power and handling capabilities that, to him, would seem to defy the laws of physics (not to mention him trying to understand how German and Japanese cars can be held in such high regard given the period that he lived through). As for me, I just keep looking for interesting roads to explore, pondering a way I can stretch my finances in order to afford one of these beauties for myself.

How would I improve this car?

How does the E-Class fit your driving style?

Conservative drivers will experience total control and have a feeling of security that can be matched by few other sedans, at any price. You will find yourself making excuses to go out and drive somewhere.

Sporty drivers will love the direct steering and great throttle response. Power is effortless and the brakes are superb, enticing this type of driver to take the back roads whenever possible.

Fast drivers should opt for the Sport Package with Air Suspension which includes higher performance tires. If money is no object, you should wait for the 469-hp, 5.5-liter supercharged and intercooled V8 Kompressor powered E55 AMG. I’ll be green with envy.


Engine Type3.2 liter Aluminum 90-degree V6 Engine5.0 liter Aluminum 90-degree V8 Engine
Aluminum, Chain-driven single overhead camshaft per cylinder bank, twin sparkplug, three valves per cylinder
Horsepower221 @ 5,600 RPM302 @ 5,600 RPM
Torque232 @ 3,000 RPM339 @ 2,700 RPM
Fuel RecommendedPremium 91 Octane Unleaded.
TransmissionFive Speed Electronic Automatic with driver-adaptive shift logic & Touch Shift manual control
TiresP225/55R16 all season tiresP245/45HR17 performance tires
Overall Length190.3″
Turning Diameter37.4 ft Curb to Curb
Curb Weight3,635 lbs.3,815 lbs.
Fuel Tank20.6 Gals.
Miles Per GallonEPA city 20, hwy 28.EPA city 17, hwy 24.
Acceleration 0 to 607.1 Seconds5.8 Seconds
Base Sticker Price$47,670.00 + $720 destination charge$55,570.00 + $720 destination charge

Standard Equipment
Mercedes Benz E320 Rear Wheel Drive Sedan

Mercedes Benz E500 Rear Wheel Drive Sedan Adds:

Major Available Options

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Charles Ofria

Automotive Expert

Charles Ofria was an automotive journalist who was active in the automotive industry for over 40 years. During the '70s, he was owner-operator of Ofria Automotive, a thriving auto repair shop in Brooklyn, NY. During that time he became involved with auto mechanic training when he set up courses to help prepare mechanics to take the then new A.S.E. (Automotive Service Excellence) mechanic certification exams.

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