Follow-Up Test: 2003 Mercedes-Benz E55 AMG
Kicked in the Gut
By Brian Moody
Date posted: 11-11-2003
There's something about a Mercedes-Benz that other cars simply can't match in the minds of most automotive consumers. Those of us who drive different cars for a living know that Mercedes doesn't have a corner on the true luxury market the way it once did, but its name recognition alone speaks volumes to how this company has carefully guarded its products, name and heritage. And the E-Class is a success story that drives that point home.
Completely redesigned for 2003, the E-Class' V8 grew from 4.3 liters to 5.0 liters and offers more than 300 horsepower. In our Full Test, we called the E-Class Mercedes' "signature car" and named it as one of our Most Wanted picks in the "over $45,000" category. That being said, the E55 seems to fly directly in the face of such a car and offers a no-holds-barred performance sedan that's been completely reworked, reimagined and redefined by Mercedes' in-house performance division, AMG.
AMG has been tweaking Mercedes-Benz cars for years; in fact, the outgoing AMG version of the E-Class sold about 12,000 units between 1997 and 2001. Even with those low numbers, that still makes the car the most successful AMG model in the company's 35-year history. The point is simply this; AMG cars are very rare, very special and very expensive machines that cater mainly to those who must have a hot rod with Mercedes' special brand of Teutonic perfection. The AMG engine is meticulously hand built using a system where only one engineer builds the entire engine. After each engineer is done with his respective motor, a special badge bearing the builder's signature is placed on the supercharger module as a sort of seal of approval. It's that kind of attention to detail that makes the E55 work so well.
The normal 5.0-liter V8 engine is pumped up to 5.5 liters and supercharged. Other enhancements include a stiffened crankcase, a balanced and more durable crankshaft, forged connecting rods, modified cam timing to keep valves open longer, modified cylinder heads with larger ports and a highly modified oil supply system that includes oil cooling for the pistons, a sump and a more efficient pump. The result of all this shoptalk is a very powerful V8 with a redline of 6,100 rpm. In addition to the engine modifications, the E55 sports a more open exhaust system for improved breathing. It's somewhat odd to fire up a fully decked-out E-Class and hear a beautifully controlled burble coming from the rear. The exhaust note is not intrusive but rather a reassuring reminder of the 469-hp beast that lies beneath the sculpted hood. Oh, and if you're looking at the specs page or a Mercedes sales brochure, that's not a typo â€” the E55 AMG delivers a stout 516 pound-feet of torque.
With all this technology and German craftsmanship, you'd expect a certain level of performance but this is overkill. Stab the accelerator and the car rockets forward with such thrust it frightens small children and puppies. Even from a dead stop, the E55 surges forward with such urgency, such abandon that you have to resist the temptation to let your foot off the gas. Then again there's that other half of your brain (you know, the half that likes fast bikes, troubled women and megasize roller coasters) that keeps yelling, "Faster! Faster!" As the car hits third gear, there is a definite kicked-in-the-gut feeling as its rpm and speed climb so quickly the speedometer looks like the second hand on a wall clock. As the speed builds, so does the mechanical symphony. The worked motor growls and the exhaust snarls with real race-car enthusiasm. "This is a street car?" I found myself asking â€” then, as it became obvious that the mighty engine would continue to pull hard in all gears regardless of speed, the only word I could get out was "Awesome." Too bad the 1980s watered down that word to the point that it has become meaningless because this car is truly awe-inspiring.
"But what about the rest of the car?" you might be asking. My first inclination is to say, "Who cares?" But while the E55 is primarily an impressive performance car, it does offer Mercedes-Benz luxury as well. The dash on our test car was adorned in black maple trim. There's chrome trim and a white-faced instrument panel that contrasts nicely with the dark dash and seats but the overall effect is somewhat stern. The lack of color inside and tight suspension combined with an aggressive exhaust note once again pushed my wife to comment, "This is a boy's car." Darn right, and if you don't like it you can walk home and drive your Camry to the restaurant â€” I'll meet you there. Well, OK, I really said, "We're really not in the market for an $80,000 car, so your Camry will be with us for awhile." Still, the E55 AMG gives you so much of that fast-lane, hammer-down, macho muscle-car feeling it's easy to get carried away. The E55 can be less of a boy's car by simply adjusting the suspension. The firmest setting really tightens the car up and allows less body roll, but also delivers a somewhat more punishing highway ride. In full comfort mode, the Benz is still firm but exhibits more civility for around town and everyday commuting, but firm is still the order of the day. If you're looking for luxury above all else, better go with the normal E-Class or a Lexus, the AMG version is for those who want to do some real driving without sacrificing a backseat. If that describes your needs, better stick with the pointed star as Lexus does not offer performance versions of its cars.
One of the really great things about this car is that it looks, for the most part, like your garden-variety E-Class. Only the wheels, chrome exhaust tips and mild body accents tip the average motorist off to the fact that this is a pure performance sedan. Oh sure, there are plenty of automotive enthusiasts out there who can instantly spot the mesh covering for the front intakes and the lowered stance of the car, but the E55 does have a rather "normal" appearance overall. How is this good? Well, when unsuspecting fools in old Lexus SC400s with gold trim pull up next to you in traffic, it's amusing to see the puzzled look on their faces when you effortlessly put three car lengths between your car and theirs, apex the on-ramp and disappear as they struggle with their soft-riding and bloated executive secretary's car. While it's not fully a "sleeper," the E55 does offer a nice compromise between a performance sedan and an elegant car that won't look silly at the country club.
There's no question the E55 AMG is a serious machine that offers whip-smart styling and performance. However, the car is not without its shortcomings. The E55's ride can be a bit busy even with the adjustable suspension in the comfort mode â€” this will surely turn some people off. Like the rest of the E-Class, the E55 does not offer a folding rear seat or trunk area pass-through. That's disappointing considering the price. Which brings us to the third low mark â€” a $76,000 base price means $80,000-plus is only a few checked options boxes away. Of course the competition ain't cheap either. The Audi RS 6's MSRP comes in at about $82,000 while the BMW M5 comes in at about $5,000 less. The Jaguar S-Type R has an MSRP around $15,000 lessthan the E55. The Audi is the only one of the bunch that offers all-wheel drive and both the M5 and S-Type R have far less horsepower. But where are the Americans? Don't forget the upcoming Cadillac CTS V-Series which should offer Corvette Z06 horsepower numbers, a six-speed manual and the CTS' handling.
The bottom line is that the E55 AMG is a stellar performance car, but AMG and BMW's M cars are no longer in a class of their own. Jaguar's R series cars and the Audi S6 and RS 6, not to mention the CTS V-Series, offer similar performance (although executed much differently) and style. If you're a bargain shopper (which seems unlikely in this class), the Jag will appeal to you. However, if you've got the means and the quiet confidence that will allow you to drive a car that offers little outward evidence of the power that lies beneath, then the E55 AMG fits the bill perfectly.