Right now, I can't think of a reason why anyone wouldn’t love this motorcar. It’s a handsome, balanced looking car. It is really pretty quick for a generous-sized German sedan, at 6.8 seconds to 60 mph (quicker than the gasoline E 320). It has bags of torque. It handles beautifully, with a nice combination of steering, suspension, and road feel. It has a commodious, attractive, and comfortable interior. It has a huge trunk. And it gets great fuel mileage, even if you flog it hard (more on this below).
But it’s a diesel, you say, a diesel, how can anyone love a diesel? Isn’t that a contradiction in terms? Aren’t diesels practical, economical, stolid, unemotional, ahem, unpleasant? Not hardly, not any more.
Let’s do diesel first. And by the way, diesel is diesel because of Rudolph Diesel (1858–1913) who thought up the compression-ignition system.
This new model year 2005 E320 CDI (for common-rail direct injection) is the first such entry since Mercedes-Benz quit diesels here in 1999. In that interim period of time, it was a quiet but fertile one for key diesel technology, including the development of common-rail diesels. In common-rail direct diesel injection, the common “rail,” essentially a pipe that looks kind of like a simplified flute, is under constant pumped pressure, at upwards of 20,000 psi, and very precise injectors fed by it squirt fuel directly into the combustion chambers, where there are no spark plugs necessary, owing to the exceptional compression of air and fuel in diesels. The holy grail in high-pressure common-rail diesel direct injection is rapidity, precision, and controllability of injection “events,” so combustion chamber phenomena can be very precisely modulated and controlled. CDI reduces combustion noise as well as creating smooth and complete combustion, with lowered NOX emissions.
Given the move forward with CDI and the coming of superior, low-sulfur fuels to the U.S. later in the decade, diesels may be poised for rapid growth here. Once both are in place, there will no longer be any reason not to drive a diesel — no more smoke or smell, no more rattling or crunching noises associated with diesel engines. The only thing that would signal “diesel” — the only thing — is more low-end torque than you are used to. That, and maybe the fact that you can go from L.A. to San Francisco and back again on a single tank of fuel.
2005 Mercedes-Benz E Class
Beyond the engine
The E320 CDI is perhaps an E-Class first, and a diesel second. So that’s the diesel part. Now the rest of the story.
The engine in question is a turbocharged, 24-valve, in-line six-cylinder powerplant, which produces totally invisible exhaust, not even an occasional little puff when starting, and is pleasantly throaty and smooth even under very heavy passing acceleration. There is a very slight hesitation as the turbo spools up when you set your foot to go around that dumptruck before the upcoming next corner, but both torque and acceleration are impressive. Being a diesel, the engine pieces and parts are simplified considerably, and the new ingredient is the six solenoid-activated injector valves.
The gearbox is the standard-issue Mercedes five-speed automatic which can be manually shifted if desired, without changing gate, and this transmission is unremarkable except for being remarkably good, and very intelligent in the way it picks up on the driver’s ideas and manages from there. You can count the speeds on the way up, but barely — it’s a very smooth transmission.
This car gives you a lot of sense of contact with the road, and of the surface of the road, in an in-control way, not an unpleasant one. This comes to you as a matter of under-foot feel, and through the steering wheel, which has a nice, live feel. Suspension is comfortably compliant but firmly poised, so handling at any speed isn’t just competent and confident, it’s a lot of fun. Not all Mercedes-Benz cars are that way, this one is.
The exterior styling of the E320 in its present iteration is balanced and aggressive, and very appealing, and the colors we saw (Granite Grey, Pewter, Desert Silver, and Brilliant Silver) equally appealing, even if universally grey. Visibility also benefits from a relatively low cowl height and beltline, a hood that slopes rapidly away, and side mirrors that are also low as a result of physical styling. Interior styling, colors, and materials are beautifully complementary, with a number of coordinated choices, and the layout of controls and instrument panel is very logical without being literal. The car’s interior looks and feels bigger inside than the car’s appearance from the outside would suggest.
The E320 has an easy tilt-and-telescope steering wheel along with ten-way adjustable seats (and three memory positions), and the seats are very comfortable. If this car has a flaw, it might be the shortness of seats from butt to back of calf, but the seating is very comfortably fabricated and suspended, which befits a mile-devouring Mercedes, just about ideally suited to long drives and touring. There is a remarkable choice of additional seat options, too.
More fuel, more time
To demonstrate the E320 CDI’s benefits, Mercedes rigged up a demo run for journalists to see which teams of paired-up drivers could get the best mileage and use the least fuel — on a measured 106-mile stretch back to San Antonio from a lunch break, with fuel use to be measured with utmost precision by fuel measurement professionals at the end.
I was driving with the redoubtable Denise McCluggage, an honor and a pleasure in itself, and the first thing we did was have a strategy conference. It took us no more than eleven seconds of conference time to agree and conclude that we wanted to finish dead last, and by a significant margin, we hoped.
As Denise said it best at the awards ceremony when asked about our strategy (I was driving), “I nagged Bill,” she said, “and we got home as quickly as we could, and the hell with the fuel usage.” Nobody could have said it better: “You can get more fuel, but you can’t get more time.” So, applying the concepts of economics to the specific topic of relevant economy, she concluded, “we won.”
And finishing dead last in fuel economy, we still managed 30 mpg. Average “fleet” mileage was 38 mpg, with a range from ours, 30 mpg, all the way up to 47, and ten cars of twelve (sorry, Mercedes) above the average.
It ought to be mentioned that the E320 CDI will initially be available in 45 states, with New York, California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Vermont slated to get the car in MY 2007 — when low-sulfur fuel is readily available.