2002 Mercedes-Benz E-Class
MSRP
$48,450 - $71,350
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2002 Mercedes-Benz E-Class Expert Review:New Car Test Drive

Luxurious and practical.

Introduction

The Mercedes-Benz E-Class is the company's most popular line. If you had to pick one model that symbolizes the image of Mercedes-Benz, it would be the E-Class. It says Mercedes in the way most people understand. 

The E-Class introduced the trend toward oval headlamps. It's big, square but sleek, smooth, silent and powerful. It's built like a tank with a light touch, and comes out elegant. It's a masculine car where women feel at home. And in areas such as engine design and management, chassis, drivetrain, aerodynamics, safety and computer technology, Mercedes-Benz leads the automotive engineering world. 

E-Class offers three engine choices in sedan and wagon body styles. 

With an all-new E-Class coming for 2003, Mercedes-Benz is offering special packages designed to provide buyers with greater value: The E320 Special Edition sedan features new 17-inch wheels, Black Birdseye Maple trim, full leather upholstery, sunroof, rain sensing wipers, premium audio system all wrapped in Black metallic or Quartz Silver metallic paint, a value of $3,000 all at no extra charge. The E430 Special Edition sedan adds Xenon headlamps and heated headlamp washers, a value of over $3,500 also at no extra charge. 

Lineup

Three E-Class models are available:

E320 sedan ($48,450) and wagon ($49,650) come with a smooth and highly sophisticated 3.2-liter V6 rated at 221 horsepower. 

E430 sedan ($53,850) is equipped with the standard highly sophisticated 4.3-liter, 275-horsepower V8. 

E55 AMG ($71,350) boasts a whopping 349 horsepower from its 5.5-liter V8 hand-built by world-renowned tuner AMG. 

E320 4MATIC ($51,300) and E430 4MATIC ($56,700) come with an all-wheel-drive system, which transfers power to the appropriate wheels when one or more wheels slip for enhanced safety on slippery7 surfaces. 

A special option for $1050 is Parktronic, which uses sound waves to locate obstacles near the front or rear bumpers. A warning beep increases in speed until contact. It's useful in parking, of course; but more importantly, it would see an object behind the car that might be under your line of sight, such as a child. 

The list of state-of-the-art features goes on for so long that it can be hard to escape Mercedes' big-brother-like electronic protective wing. A dedicated cellular link called Tele Aid provides 24-hour contact for emergency aid, general information or roadside assistance-each with a separate button on the dash. Automatic Collision Notification engages the emergency function (SOS) if an air bag deploys. Automatic Alarm Notification alerts Mercedes-Benz to contact you if the antitheft alarm is set off. Tele Aid also includes stolen vehicle tracking, and remote keyless unlocking service, should you lock the keys in the car. The first year's annual fee of $225 is included in the base price. 

Walkaround

Its oval headlamps grabbed attention when the E-Class was first introduced. Now they've become familiar and there's nothing you see walking around the E-Class that you haven't seen many times before. It no longer grabs your attention. It's a Mercedes sedan. 

The sculpted and contoured front air dam, side skirts, and rear valence wrap the E-Class body in sleek aggressiveness, and the Halogen front fog lamps add a distinctive finishing touch. 

You look out over the hood and can't see the fenders because they slope away so artfully, lending to the excellent 0.29 Cd aerodynamics. All you see is the big tri-star hood ornament, which may impress you with your own stature. 

Outside mirrors are heated, and the left-side and rearview mirror dim automatically. The right-side mirror tilts down when the car is in reverse, for better rearward visibility. The huge and famous single-sweep windshield wiper has a heated washer nozzle so it won't freeze. The remote locking SmartKey system has built-in electronic protection against transmitter cloning; the windows and sunroof can be opened by the remote. 

Interior

The leather interior of the E-Class is stately and dignified. The leather is of excellent quality. Burl walnut trim adorns doors, dash, console and shift gate. Steering wheel and shift knob are trimmed in leather. Velour is used for floor carpeting and floor mats. 

Rear seats offer enormous comfort, legroom and ease of entry. The E-Class is one car that is truly about passengers. 

The main differences between the models has to do with powertrains. Standard equipment on all E-Class models includes 10-way power front seats and head restraints, a power tilt and telescoping steering column, a multifunction steering wheel, memory seating including mirrors and steering wheel position, an integrated garage door opener, and eight-speaker Bose sound system with optional CD changer. 

Much effort has gone into making the cabin climate comfortable. There are dual temperature and airflow controls, an electrostatic dust filter and activated charcoal filter with smog sensor, and rear-cabin air vents. In cold weather, the climate control can recirculate warm air through the interior for up to 30 minutes while the car is parked, drawing on very small amount of coolant. Bunches of interior lights provide illumination, from visor vanities to maplights to door handles. Pockets, compartments and cupholders abound. 

The switchgear can be confusing, however. Studying the owner's manual is a good idea because not much is intuitive. The sound and command systems include about 30 buttons the size of a Chiclet or smaller, and the only immediately identifiable one is the PWR button. The abbreviations or icons on many of the buttons are so small you have to take your concentration off the road to read them. 

No less than eight airbags are provided as passive safety measures. Besides two front airbags and a side-impact airbag for each door, curtain airbags drop out of the headliner on each side, measuring 72 inches long by 14 tall by 2 thick. 

The Command System features a screen on the console, which when you fire the Benz up, displays: 'Warning Do not become distracted from traffic by use of Command!' as if that would make any difference. The system uses a GPS to locate the car and navigate you with voice commands. The message center can display not only navigational instructions, but more information than you might ever feel a need for, including the number of miles to next maintenance service based on actual driving conditions and oil quality. The optional cellular telephone can also be operated from the Command panel. 

The E-Class wagons provide a three-point seatbelt for each of the seven seating positions. With the standard third seat row folded, there's nearly 44 cubic feet of cargo space. With the middle and rear seat rows folded, the space expands to a cavernous 83 cubic feet, more than any other luxury wagon. Room is not sacrificed to carry the standard full-size spare tire, either. 

The wagon's middle seat row features a 60/40 split, and the cushions fold forward or can be removed. Removing the right side cushion and folding the front passenger seat forward creates a flat load surface nearly 10 feet long, yet the E-Class wagon is just about a half-inch longer than the E-Class sedan. 

Operating the wagon's tailgate is made easy with fully enclosed gas-pressure springs and a power-assisted closing feature. The rear load height is conveniently low at just 22 inches. The standard aluminum roof rails offer sturdy support for the optional roof rack system, which can accommodate a variety of objects, including bicycles, skis or a cargo carrier. For added convenience, the rear cargo area features an integrated retractable cargo net and luggage cover, twin retractable cupholders and a 12-volt power outlet. 

Driving Impression

The E-Class cars are so smooth and powerful you'll be going 80 mph before you realize. That's good, of course. Designed for the Autobahn, the best acceleration begins at legal limits. This dignified sedan feels most impressive after it's already in outlaw territory. The engine is barely loping at 65 mph. The engine benefits from a broad, flat torque curve, which means it accelerates smoothly, linearly, powerfully. 

Combine that with a five-speed transmission that shifts imperceptibly, and you feel as if you're sort of quietly and effortlessly slung along in this car. 

Under the hood there's a 21st century engine, with electronic management of fuel and spark for efficiency only imagined in days of yore, such as 25 mpg on the highway-with Autobahn performance. There are two spark plugs per cylinder, with 100,000-mile service intervals. 

More tangible innovations standard on the E-Class include:

Brake Assist, which reads your mind during a panic stop and applies full braking force faster than your foot can or will, even if you make the mistake of relaxing pressure from the pedal because you feel the anti-lock brakes pulsing;

ESP, which corrects a slide before a driver might even detect it, by selectively pulsing the brakes to individual wheels;

ASR traction control, which applies the brake to a wheel spinning under acceleration, and cuts spark to the engine if necessary;

Over the last half-dozen years Mercedes has greatly refined the handling of its sedans. The E-Class cars are quite nimble, and light in response. Their handling makes them feel smaller than they are, yet the presence makes them feel bigger than they are. That's no mean feat, and takes masterful engineering. The rack-and-pinion steering is speed-sensitive, and includes a hydraulic damper. 

The suspension is slanted toward the soft side so it dampens expansion strips and other unwanted road irregularities, but it never feels so soft that it leaves the driver feeling unconnected to the road. The quality of the ride is consistent with the quality of the rest of the car. This isn't a car meant to be tossed through the curves, but the potential is there. 

For driving enthusiasts, there is the E55 AMG. And E430 offers a Sport Package, which includes five-spoke 17-inch alloy wheels bearing low-profile W-rated tires. 

The automatic transmission features Touch Shift, which allows the driver to play, by shifting the manually with a nudge of the lever to the left or right. There's also a Winter mode, which starts the car moving in second gear (including a special second reverse gear) to help improve takeoff on slippery surfaces. 

The transmission's upshifts under acceleration are so smooth they are nearly imperceptible. However, it is possible to confuse the driver adaptive control system, a computer that shifts according to your style. Your style may need to change from moment to moment, and you can change your mind more quickly than the transmission. If, for example, you accelerate and then have to back off for a sudden new event, at lower speeds, the transmission will actually lurch trying to keep up with what it mistakenly thinks is your plan. The Mercedes engineer would say, 'Ah yes, but you should drive more smoothly.' Tell that to the traffic. 

4MATIC, the optional all-wheel-drive system available for E320 sedan and wagon and E430 sedan, begins with a 35/65 front-to-rear power distribution. Whenever a wheel begins to lose traction and slip, the system applies braking to that wheel. An E-class can pull away without slipping even if three wheels are on ice or snow. If it's all four wheels, the ASR traction control will juggle the spark and braking until the car inches away. It's a great system for the snow belt. 4MATIC's electronic sophistication allows it to be mechanically simple and more effective by exploiting mechanical forces that other systems resist. Mercedes engineers believe it's the future of all-wheel-drive. 

Summary

The Mercedes-Benz E-Class is superbly engineered, dignified and sensible. Its style comes more from its statement than its looks. For all its talents, it is understated. 

The engineering is brilliant and invisible. The emphasis is on comfort, luxury and safety, not necessarily in that order, but nothing is given away in performance. 

Model Lineup

E320 ($48,450); E320 4MATIC ($51,300); E430 ($53,850); E430 4MATIC ($56,700); E55 AMG ($71,350); E320 wagon ($49,250); E320 wagon 4MATIC ($52,100). 

Assembled In

Bremen, Germany. 

Options As Tested

Special Edition package (no charge) includes new 17-inch wheels, Black Birdseye Maple trim, full leather upholstery, sunroof, rain sensing wipers, premium audio system, Black metallic or Quartz Silver metallic paint. 

Model Tested

E320 ($48,450). 

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