So coveted is the Mercedes-Benz E-Class, when you say the phrase “Mercedes-Benz", the car many people envision is the E-Class. Richly deserving of the admiration bestowed upon it, the Mercedes-Benz E-Class is exceptionally reliable, highly robust, and amazingly versatile. While the first “modern” Mercedes-Benz to fall into the mid-size category was offered in 1953, the car boasts a lineage going all the way back to the 1930s. In other words, the E-Class is one of the most enduring models ever, from a company known for building timeless automobiles.
Remarkably, while primarily considered a mid-sized luxury car here in North America, in many parts of the world E-Class automobiles serve as taxis, limousines, police cars and ambulances. Displaying a different sort of versatility here on these shores, the E-Class can be had as a luxury sedan, a graceful luxury coupe, an economical diesel powered luxury car, an all-wheel drive luxury sedan, or as a red-hot high performance luxury car.
Officially adopting the nomenclature E-Class for the first time in 1986, in reference to the car’s position in the Mercedes-Benz sedan lineup (C-Class, E-Class, S-Class), as of this writing, there have been four generations of E-Class offered — starting with the 300E of 1986. While Mercedes-Benz has offered the car in coupe, convertible, wagon and sedan bodies over the years, this article will focus specifically on the sedan iterations.
Mercedes-Benz E-Class: 1986 – 1995
Still to be found on the road in fairly plentiful numbers today, the W124 E-Class cars were good performers, offered a nice array of luxury features, and as is typical for Mercedes, offered in a number of different variants over its model run. At launch, the car was available as the 300E featuring a 177-horsepower inline six-cylinder engine and the 300D with a turbocharged inline six-cylinder diesel engine producing 148 horsepower and 201 ft.-lbs. of torque. Both engines fed four-speed automatic transmissions as standard equipment.
One of the most technologically advanced cars of its time, the first generation 300E offered features like a single windshield wiper designed to sweep across the windscreen in a modified “U” pattern to enable it to reach the far corners of the glass. Standard features included a driver-side front airbag, antilock brakes, central power locking, power windows, headlamp washers, and an alarm system. A flat underbody tray improved the airflow beneath the car to clean up its aerodynamics, and as a result, the 1986 Mercedes-Benz E-Class had the lowest rolling resistance of any car in its category.
In 1987, Mercedes introduced a 158-horsepower 2.6-liter inline six for the E-Class cars. The diesel engine was dropped and a five-speed manual transmission was offered as an option in 1988 for the gasoline powered cars. (And was promptly dropped a year later in 1989 due to lack of buyer interest.)
For 1990, Mercedes brought the diesel back to the U.S. market, having figured out how to run them more cleanly. The 2.6-liter gasoline engine resided in a car with a 300E 2.6 badge on its trunklid, rather than 260E. All-wheel drive was offered for the first time in the E-Class lineup in 1990.
When Mercedes-Benz decided to do a deal with Porsche to create the 500E for model year 1992, the 322-horsepower V8 sedan became one of the fastest four-door cars on the road. Offered until 1994, Porsche reworked the engine, designed the suspension system, and built the (now legendary) 500E. Another V-8 was installed in the E-Class for the first time in 1992 — the 268-horsepower, 4.2-liter V-8 earned the car a 400E nomenclature. For ’93, the 300E 2.6 models got a 2.8-liter six and the 3.0-liter engines were upgraded to 3.2 liters and 217 horsepower.
During the model run of this generation of E-Class automobiles, Mercedes rearranged its model designation nomenclature across the board for all of its passenger cars. Starting in 1994, the 300E became the E300, the 420E became the E420 and the 500E became the E500. All-wheel drive was dropped for ’94, but a new diesel arrived called the E300D. Unlike its predecessor, this diesel was normally aspirated rather than turbocharged and made 134 horsepower. For MY95, the only change to the E line was the elimination of the limited production E500.
Mercedes-Benz E-Class: 1996 – 2002
Distinctive for their adoption of the four elliptically shaped headlights worn by Mercedes-Benz E-Class cars to this day, the 1996 W210 Mercedes-Benz E-Class was something of a sensation when it arrived. Larger and more spacious, the body and many of the features of the W210 cars were all new, though their engines and suspension systems were carried over from the W124 versions of the E-Class.
The 217-horsepower 3.2-liter inline six, and the 134-horsepower 3.0-liter diesel reported for duty wearing a new suit. Arriving a bit later in ’96, the 4.2-liter V-8, freshly upgraded to 275 horsepower, was mated to a five-speed automatic transmission. The six-cylinder cars got five-speed automatics in 1997.
In 1998, Mercedes-Benz dropped straight six engines in favor of more compact V-6 designs. Thus, if you really want an E-Class with a straight six, you’ll have to find one built in 1997 or earlier. All-wheel drive returned as an option in ’98 as well. A sport package was also introduced for the E420 in model year 1998 — perhaps in an attempt to recapture a bit of the magic lost when the E500 was discontinued in ‘94. Featuring 17-inch tires and wheels, along with foglights and a few aero bits, the car was actually foreshadowing the appearance of the E55 AMG in 1999.
Both fast and aggressive looking — posed as it was on 18-inch tires and wheels — the 1999 Mercedes-Benz E55 AMG boasted 349 horsepower from a hand-assembled V-8 engine. One of the first Mercedes cars to truly benefit from Daimler-Benz bringing the activities of the former aftermarket tuning organization AMG in house, the 1999 E55 AMG was the fastest Mercedes sedan ever when it was introduced. It was also the most expensive.
In other news, the displacement of the 4.2-liter V-8 was enlarged to 4.3 liters for 1999, gaining the car the E430 nomenclature — although power output remained unchanged. For model year 2000, the diesel didn’t make the trip across the Atlantic, however a manual shift feature for the five-speed automatic did and was labeled “Touch Shift".
Mercedes-Benz E-Class: 2003 – 2009
Beautifully attired in sleek new sheetmetal, the 2003 Mercedes-Benz W211 E-Class cars were a strong step forward for Mercedes in terms of styling. These models were introduced with two available engines, a 221-horsepower gasoline fired V6 displacing 3.2-liters and a 5.0-liter, 302-horsepower V8.
An interesting bit of trivia; the 2003 was the first Mercedes-Benz E-Class car to have a pair of windshield wipers since Mercedes adopted the mono-wiper system for the 1985 E-Class. Other technical highlights included electronically controlled brakes, and an adaptive suspension system, capable of adjusting spring and damper rates on the fly to optimize ride quality and handling. Four-zone climate control assured the comfort of each seating position, and Drive Dynamic seats selectively firmed up the appropriate side bolster in each of the front seats to provide additional support during cornering maneuvers.
The AMG team made its presence felt again late in 2003, with a 469-horsepower supercharged version of the 5.5-liter V8 originally introduced to the E-Class back in 1999. In 2007, the supercharged engine was dropped in favor of a larger displacement 507-horsepower, 6.3-liter normally aspirated V8.
The 2004 model year saw the re-introduction of all-wheel drive and 2005 marked the return of diesel power to the E-Class lineup. However, it was not offered in California, Maine, Massachusetts, New York and Vermont initially. The introduction of low-sulfur diesel fuel for the U.S. market finally enabled Mercedes to fit the engine with its “BlueTEC” clean burning technology and eventually offer diesels all across the USA by 2009.
For 2006, the 3.2-liter engine was supplanted by a 3.5-liter V6, producing 268 horsepower. The 302-horsepower, five-liter V8 was upgraded to a 5.5-liter unit boasting an impressive 382 horsepower and 391 ft-lbs of torque. If you’ve been reading carefully, you’ll note the “standard” V8 in the Mercedes-Benz E550 of 2007, made more power than the “high performance” engine mounted in the E55 AMG of 1999.
Mercedes-Benz E-Class: 2010 - Current Model
The Mercedes-Benz E-Class bristles with modern safety technology, flaunting features such as blind spot monitoring, lane keeping assist, a night vision monitor, and the ability to brake itself to lessen the severity of a frontal impact — if it senses the driver is not going to do so. Four engines are currently offered to power the car; a 268-horsepowr 3.5-liter V-6 (E350); a 210-horsepower diesel V=6 (E350 BlueTEC); a 382-horsepower V-8 (E550); and the almighty 518-horsepower, 6.3 liter AMG designed and assembled V-8 (E63 AMG).
Mercedes-Benz E-Class: Summary
Easily one of the most versatile car lines on the road, the Mercedes-Benz E-Class is largely responsible for the rousing success Mercedes-Benz enjoys around the world. While the S-Class, SL-Class and SLS sports cars may get the spotlight, it is sales of the E-Class keeping the company’s lights on and doors open.
Designed and built to endure a vast array of driving and environmental conditions all over the world, the taxicab heritage of the E-Class may come as a shock to under-informed Americans. But this is also what makes it so durable. The cars are built to last, which makes them an excellent choice on the secondary market. Properly cared for (and it’s not an inexpensive proposition by any means) a Mercedes-Benz E-Class can easily be the last car you’ll ever have to buy.
However, that praise does come with an important caveat; maintenance and parts for these cars are costly. This makes it an absolute imperative to make sure any used E-Class you’re considering has been properly maintained. A pre-purchase inspection by a trusted professional mechanic, while key to any used car purchase, is especially important in this case because when things go very wrong with these cars, it is very costly to repair them.