Mercedes E-Class 2004 review

You could be forgiven for thinking the firm had more or less given up on updating its cars...But then came the E-Class

It's already an accomplished all-rounder, but the addition of the new petrol V6 makes the E350 a serious contender in this sector, and is a credible alternative to the excellent diesel options in the range. The Sport pack improves the handling without harming the ride quality, which will increase its appeal among keen drivers.

While that may be the case with soon-to-be replaced models such as the M-Class, the German manufacturer has never been one to rest on its laurels - as the mid-range E-Class saloon and estate now prove.

Mercedes is raising the game of its worldwide favourite to take on the latest-generation BMW 5-Series and hugely improved Audi A6. As a result, there's a brand new engine option, as well as revised power-steering and a vastly improved gearbox.

First seen in the SLK 350, the new 3.5-litre V6 petrol unit replaces the 3.2. On sale in the UK now, it is the first of a new generation of Mercedes petrol and diesel powerplants, and is expected to account for nearly half of all E-Classes sold next year. The company has also hinted that the technology underpinning the new engine will debut on V8 and V12 units, improving their economy and efficiency.

A number of innovations on this engine help to make it lighter, as well as more powerful and fuel-efficient, than the outgoing version. A variable camshaft boosts torque at idling speeds and assists power delivery at the top of the rev range, while a clever intake system enhances fuel economy.

Coupled to the 7G-Tronic seven-speed automatic transmission, the new E350 makes light work of most conditions. Although we have previously criticised the system, it works well in the E-Class. At cruising speeds, the V6 is virtually silent, the gearbox readily moving into the top ratio to allow high speeds at low revs.

Yet, when overtaking, the transmission shifts smoothly into a lower ratio and the car surges forward without any fuss. A manual shift option provides even greater control and swift progress is easy, although reaching the downshift button on the back of the steering wheel can be a stretch.

The fresh drivetrain package goes hand-in-hand with the latest E-Class's broader range of abilities. The combination of smooth engine and gearbox with the compliant suspension make the E350 ideal for long-distance trips, as it soaks up poor surfaces with ease.

Press harder through the bends, and the E-Class is secure and stable. However, there's a Sports pack option - which includes bigger wheels and brakes, sharper steering and firmer suspension - for those who want a more aggressive drive.

Much of the improvement can be accredited to the uprated steering, which provides greater feedback and more precision than its predecessor. For urban driving, the system remains light, yet it increases its firmness as speed builds, ensuring that it suits the widest possible range of situations.

Our test car, the biggest estate in its class, was nimble over our winding test route. And that is no mean feat when you consider the load-lugger's size. The E350 feels luxurious and relaxing inside, too. Comfortable seats offer generous legroom front and rear, making this a great family express with 1,950 litres of load space.

There are plenty of options, although choosing the right switch from the vast number of dashboard buttons can be time-consuming. Still, the cabin is solidly constructed and certainly capable of coping with the trials of everyday use.

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