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Mercedes-Benz E-class Estate review (2002 onwards)
Engine: 200K: 4-cyl supercharged petrol; 270 CDI: 5-cyl in-line common rail diesel; 320: V6 petrol
Fuel type: Petrol / Diesel
Transmission: 5-speed automatic
Date of test: May 2003
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What is it?
A classic large, luxurious estate car. The new E-class estate, on sale from June 2003, is a development of the latest E-class saloon that went on sale in 2002. It's the latest evolution of a model that first appeared 26 years ago and has become a definitive Mercedes product. Recently, the pre-eminence of the estate as the obvious choice for those needing versatile and comfortable large car has been challenged by newer options from the SUV and MPV stable, but the traditional large estate remains an effective and popular option. Mercedes' trump card in this sector is a reputation for making cars that are hard-wearing and practical as well as smart, comfortable and luxurious.
Where does it fit?
This is the larger of Mercedes' estate options - you can also buy the smaller C-class in this bodyshape. There are larger Mercedes models, but no larger estates. Direct, 'premium' brand competitors include the BMW 5-series, Audi A6, Saab 9-5 and Volvo V70. Less costly, and less prestigious, rivals include the Vauxhall Omega, while there are slightly smaller options from many other carmakers, including the new Honda Accord. Other possible alternatives for family use are large MPVs, such as the Renault Espace, Toyota Previa or VW Sharan. However, if you need lots of space, don't assume that MPVs are more versatile. Estates can offer more dedicated luggage space and there is even a seven-seat option in the E-class.
Is it for you?
This is a large, aspirational, luxurious car with a very strong image and a price to match. If you are on a tight budget it won't suit. It will, however, last well, be reliable and have strong resale values. It's easy to drive, practical and comfortable, with lots of space for luggage, front and rear passengers, and countless clever and helpful features that make life easier and safer. What the Mercedes is not, is an exciting, adrenalin-inducing car. If you want exhilaration, look elsewhere. That's not a criticism: it's a highly refined and sophisticated product, offering robust, dependable performance, designed to make your hours behind the wheel pass smoothly and easily, rather than challengingly.
What does it do well?
The E-class is built to an exacting quality standard, and a higher one than the smaller C-class. Performance is strong, seats are large and comfortable, head, knee and legroom are generous, cabin comfort levels exemplary. The styling is attractive and the specification levels are, on the whole, high. There is a lot of usable space in the boot, and standard self-levelling rear suspension should ensure that handling is minimally affected by load carrying. Where the E-class really scores strongly, though, is in its thoroughness. Attention to detail is paramount in luxury cars, and the E-class is full of clever, but not gimmicky, gadgets that make life easier for the user. To list just some examples: you don't need to slam the tailgate - push it to, and an electric motor takes over to pull it shut. The flexible load area cover is motorised too, sealing when you close the boot and lifting out of your way again when you open it - making for one less hassle when your hands are full. Open the tailgate, and you can stop it partway open - so there's no danger of knocking it against a low garage or car park roof. We'd recommend the ingenious load bar luggage retention system which for £160 is a clever kit of telescopic bars, nets and straps that can be locked in virtually any position to stop items in the boot sliding about. The 'Sensotronic Brake Control' (effectively a 'brake-by-wire' system under which the brakes are controlled electronically) allows you to set a 'Hold' function that keeps the car from rolling forward when you're waiting at traffic lights, or in heavy traffic. 'Intelligent' cruise control on some models helps keep you a safe distance from traffic ahead by adjusting speed as needed. Particularly ingenious is the extending load floor option (around £600) - this motorised system moves the boot floor out of the rear of the car by about 6 inches, helping avoid back-damaging stooping to put awkward items into the boot.
What doesn't it do well?
Nothing serious. The 5-cylinder 270CDI diesel engine is not as smooth or refined as you might expect at this price level - it's not exactly noisy, but you remain aware that it's a diesel at all times, and economy isn't all that impressive for a diesel (around 27mpg on our test route, compared to a reasonable 24mpg for the 200K petrol engine). There's nothing wrong with its performance, though. All the engines can get a bit raucous when pushed - but it's rarely that you'll need to do this. As far as the petrol line-up is concerned, it may be a touch slower off the mark, but the supercharged 4-cylinder 200K unit is so powerful and flexible, that we wondered whether the step up to the 240 or 320 engines would be justified. Some drivers might find that the complex stalk controls may take a little getting used to - but this is simply a matter of familiarisation. If you want to make your E-class a 7-seater with the optional extra rear-facing seats, you'll find they are only suitable for children - less than 4'11' and 8 stone - and use up all the boot space. On the plus side, your little ones are fully protected by the crumple zone and have three-point seat belts and headrests.
What's it like to live with?
A pleasure. Its many fine qualities will make it a relaxing and enjoyable companion. Mercedes dealers have a good reputation for customer service, and the cars for reliability and longevity. The clever features outlined above will help make for an easy life, and the E-class also benefits, of course, from more 'usual' labour-saving features like rain-sensing wipers, extra 12v power outlets, ABS with Brake Assist, an external temperature gauge, alloy wheels (now standard on all models) cruise control, headlamp beams that turn slightly with the steering to look around corners, split-folding (and, notably, removable) rear seats, and variable service intervals (the car will tell you when it's ready for a service, which could be up to 20,000 miles apart). The car's anticipated five-star Euro-NCAP crash test rating and features like the user-configured speed limiter, which ensures you stay within speed limits, do a lot for peace-of-mind, while the car's high comfort levels mean that journeys are less tiring.
Would we buy it?
Very possibly. Though it's expensive, the E-class benefits from excellent residual values and high specification levels, so it's a reasonable investment, while its immense competency helps justify the initial outlay with benefits in peace of mind, ease of use, and comfort. To maximise your car's residual value, look at higher specification models and be sure to take metallic paint and the automatic gearbox. As ever, we would encourage you to consider whether you really need all the capabilities that the E-class has. Cars a size below have advanced by leaps and bounds in recent years and offer a surprising degree of quality, flexibility and spaciousness. Less high-class alternatives with smaller prices are worth a look - but probably won't match the E-class for longevity or user satisfaction. If you need a workhorse estate of pedigree, you won't go far wrong here. There are good reasons the E-class has been the benchmark quality estate for so many years, and this fine new model lives up to them.
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