The cornerstone of the Mercedes-Benz sedan line just got bigger, curvier, and has a better-looking interior and rear end. And, thanks to some significant steering and suspension changes, it also delivers more of the bank-vault-on-wheels driving experience that once was one of Mercedes' most defining characteristics.

In a nutshell, the new-generation '03 Mercedes E-Class eliminates the shortcomings of its slightly compromised predecessor, and puts back a little of the Mercedes character that the previous model lacked — a crucial task for the car that defines the brand more than any other in the Mercedes lineup.

The big S-Class sedan has higher profit margins, and the M-Class SUV is pulling in a new breed of customers, but the mid-range E-Class still is Mercedes' global volume leader. It accounts for 25% of worldwide passenger vehicle sales and has long been “the heart and soul of our franchise,” says David C. Schembri, executive vice president-marketing for Mercedes-Benz USA Inc.

Against tough competition from BMW AG's 5-Series and Lexus and Jaguar models, the previous E-Class, introduced in 1995 as a '96 model, was a huge success on most fronts: It reached new sales heights in the U.S. (50,214 in 1999 vs. 24,915 in 1995), and its unique, dual-headlight “face” was the first to give the formerly staid auto maker a more adventurous look.

Despite its sales success, critics picked at the car for having a blocky, slab-sided appearance, rear-end styling that was too plain and an interior that was overly angular and looked a little cheap.

Mercedes purists also complained that the car's famously solid ride and steering feel had been compromised: The steering effort was too light and there was so much suspension travel that it sometimes felt more like a Buick than a Benz. And there were fears the car was becoming too generic.

Mercedes officials admitted these shortcomings and said they have been addressed with the newest E-Class, which started arriving at U.S. dealerships in late August. They are predicting a record 51,000 sales for the first full model year.

Base versions of the E320 will be priced at $46,950, some $1,500 less than the '02 model, while the E500, powered by a more powerful V-8 engine, will be priced at $54,850, $1,000 more than the '02 E430.

The E320 is powered by Mercedes' standard 221-hp 3.2L V-6, which produces 232 lb.-ft. (315 Nm) of torque. The E500 gets a 5L version of the previous 4.3L V-8, which now produces a hefty 302 hp and 339 lb.-ft. (460 Nm) of torque.

Both engines are teamed with an adaptive 5-speed automatic transmission with a feature that allows manual shifting.

Mercedes brags that the E320 weighs 50 lbs. (23 kg) less than its predecessor, and the E500 weighs only about 100 lbs. (45 kg) more than the outgoing E430 sedan.

Extensive use of lightweight materials, especially aluminum, for the car's skin and body structure helped minimize weight gains. Aluminum accounts for about 10% of the car's curb weight, which ranges from 3,635 to 3,815 lbs. (1,649 to 1,730 kg) depending on engine size and equipment levels. About 360 lbs. (163 kg) of aluminum makes it the most aluminum-intensive high-volume Mercedes ever built. A typical North American-built light vehicle contains about 274 lbs. (124 kg) of aluminum, says a recent study by Ducker Research Co.

A spokesman says the $1,500 lower base price was achieved through manufacturing efficiencies and by offering only “leather seating surfaces” instead of full leather upholstery on the base model.

Even though it's longer, taller and wider than its predecessor (wheelbase and length were both increased by 0.9 ins./2.3 cm) and height and width were increased by a half inch (1.3 cm), it looks smaller and far more graceful than the bulky older model.

The slab-sided look has been replaced by a wedge-like profile, the rear is nicely styled and looks complete, and the interior now features better-looking materials, sweeping, organic curves and smart, economical use of space and buttons.

The E-Class's strong on-center steering feel is back, and the former softness is gone. The body's torsional rigidity has been increased by about 18%, but the credit for the E-Class's improved handling probably goes to a new 4-link front suspension and quicker rack-and-pinion steering coupled with larger-section tires. Not rocket science, but both purists and newcomers to the brand should appreciate the changes.

SPECIFICATIONS

2003 Mercedes-Benz E500
Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear-wheel drive, 5-passenger 4-door sedan
Engine: 5L (4,966 cc) SOHC V-8 aluminum block/aluminum heads
Power (SAE net): 302 hp @ 5,600 rpm
Torque: 339 lb.-ft. (460 Nm) @ 2,700-4,250 rpm
Compression ratio: 10:1
Bore X stroke (mm): 97 × 84
Transmission: 5-speed automatic
Wheelbase: 112.4 ins. (285 cm)
Overall length: 190.3 ins. (483 cm)
Overall width: 71.3 ins. (181 cm)
Overall height: 57 ins. (145 cm)
Curb weight: 3,815 lbs. (1,731 kg)
Market competition: Audi A6; BMW 5-Series; Cadillac STS; Infiniti M45; Lexus GS430