by Sam Moses
Mercedes elegance, Porsche performance in a four-door sedan.
Base Price $69,800
As Tested $71,395
Buyers were standing in line for the C43 AMG when it was introduced two years ago. Based on the Mercedes-Benz C-Class sedan, the C43 AMG was a 4.3-liter V8 supersedan. AMG, the performance house that builds Mercedes' championship-winning sports racing cars, converts only 500 production cars per year, so they don't tend to languish in the showrooms. In fact, they have to order the cars well in advance, then hope they can get one. Last year, super sedan enthusiasts were offered a more exclusive waiting line based on the E-Class sedan.
Meet the AMG-built E55: bigger, more powerful, more expensive, every bit as refined.
The E55 may be part of the Mercedes-Benz E-Class sedans, but its performance clearly separates it from the 221-horsepower V6-powered E320 ($47,100) and 275-horsepower V8-powered E430 ($52,450). (There's also a $47,950 E320 wagon.)
Mercedes sets the E55 AMG price at $69,800, but a gas guzzler tax adds to the bottom line.
If the E55 were intended to be a flat-out hot rod, it would be a sleeper. Is radically understated an oxymoron? The E55's mostly ordinary looks conceal its performance. The only visible differences between this super E and a standard E are its subtle aerodynamically tuned lower body and valance panels, and those race-like low-profile tires, which aren't the least bit subtle. But they're still easy to miss, as the lightweight alloy wheels, a style AMG calls Monoblock, are boring. In our week with the E55, only two or three people complimented the car, and even they were unsure about what exactly had caught their eye. "It just looks different," they said. Maybe it was the smoke wafting off the tires.
Oh, the car does have a small AMG badge or two. For those in the know, that says it all. (If you must know, AMG stands for Aufrecht, Melcher, Grossapach. It's far more important to know that AMG stands for performance.) Specifically, here's what that AMG badge says on the E55: The 5.5-liter engine is based on the new 5.0-liter V8 from the SL500, a sophisticated twin-plug, three-valve sohc design. The increase in displacement comes not from a simple overbore, but from an extended and balanced crankshaft that slightly increases the stroke. The object is smoothness; vibration is further silenced by hand selection of weight-matched sets of connecting rods and pistons. The hollow camshafts are replaced with modular cams that are even lighter, and shaped for horsepower. The valve size is unchanged, but the valve springs are stiffened. A new air filter system rams cooler air down a complex array of elongated tubes to the fuel-injection system. The intake system is quite complex, involving electronically controlled flaps that force the air to travel in varying quantities and speeds through spiraling passages, all in the pursuit of low- and mid-range power. Finally, an exhaust system was designed to complement the new power characteristics. When you look at the sticker price, think of the dynamometer time.
The result of all this engine research is 349 horsepower at 5500 rpm, and a whopping 391 pounds-feet of torque at 3000 rpm. The claimed 0-60 time is 5.4 seconds, with top speed electronically limited to 155 mph.
The transmission to handle this torque comes from the V12 Mercedes models. Naturally (these are Mercedes engineers at work, here) it repeatedly electronically psychoanalyzes you, based on input from your foot. Meaning it shifts either aggressively or leisurely, according to how you dealt with what's behind you, but not how you might want to deal with what's ahead of you. Computers don't have eyes. Not yet, but they're working on it.
AMG is gifted in its ability to find that elusive sweet spot combining superb road-holding with a comfortable ride. The E-Class double-wishbone front, and five-link rear suspension is modified with springs having a 35 percent higher rate than those on the E430. The E55's special Bilstein shocks have trick pistons which tame chassis roll and recognize the differences in bumps, and act accordingly. The stabilizer bars are changed from hollow to solid, and grow from 26 to 29 mm in front, 17 to 20 mm in back. When they say "racing improves the breed," they could be talking about the E55's front brakes.
Two-piston calipers are mated to huge 13.2-inch two-piece rotors which float on steel pins, reducing heat transfer to the hubs, bearings and suspension parts. The vented 11.8-inch rear discs come from the SL600 roadster. The rear wheels are a breathtaking nine inches wide, and the fronts merely eight. Low and fat Michelin 245/40ZR-18 tires are used in front, with 275/35ZR-18s in back.
Like the sheet metal, the cabin is mostly basic E-class, but the changes are significant. The seats are by AMG; heated and high-bolstered, they fit extremely well, and are not nearly so rigid as those in the standard E-Class. Their leather comes in black, black and blue, or black and silver. For visual distinction, there 's black maple trim. The instrument faces are classic and classy in ivory.
The thick, leather-wrapped steering wheel is simply the best for feeling and maneuvering the car over the road. It can be made to fit perfectly, with power tilt and telescope functions. The leather padding on the dash is without sharp angles. The cruise-control lever is standard Mercedes, very easy to use because it's like a turn-signal stalk, which also makes it too easy to bump and set by accident. As with all Mercedes, operation of some of the switchgear is far from intuitive. Presumably, an owner will read his manual and figure it out. But that may not be a safe presumption. Like an expensive VCR that gets used as a clock (until the first time there's a power failure, after which it's used as a tiny blinking reminder that midnight rules), some owners may drive their $70,000 car for years without ever fully knowing how to operate, say, the climate control system.
It is a safe presumption that anyone with 70 grand to spend on a car will want all the trimming. So every available E-class option is included, except all-wheel drive, and the portable cell phone and CD changer. Among other things, the E55 sports a power sunroof, Bose sound system, high-intensity headlights with washers, security system with anti-start lockout, a tiny AC-fed cooler in the console, and an electric sunscreen in the backlight. Safety-wise, the standard Mercedes benefits include steel cabin reinforcement with front and rear crumple zones, front airbags (with passenger-side BabySmart sensors), front-door side airbags, and airbag curtains spanning the pillars. Fourteen inches tall and two inches thick, these curtains drop from the ceiling as head protection against window glass. Introduced in '99, Mercedes is first with this feature.
You could drive this car forever. On the freeway you might get bored but you'll never get tired or sore, and on the curvy back roads you'll never be able to go fast enough, limited by skill as well as law. The car simply accelerates and handles better than any non-professional race driver can punch it or steer it.
With most cars, the reviewer tries to define the car's limits. With the E55, the important thing for you to know is that you must set your own. For starters, it would take a great deal of effort to spin it out. The E55 comes with Mercedes' Electronic Stability Program (ESP), which catches and corrects understeer or oversteer by applying the brakes to one of the wheels (outside front corrects oversteer, inside rear corrects understeer). Think safety on slick roads. We tested it on some smooth dirt logging roads, and it is magic.
Mostly, the E55 is about kick-in-the-pants acceleration. A ticket magnet, because it's so smooth; speed often isn't premeditated, it's just appears on the gauge. Unfortunately, even the exhaust won't inform you. You have to hammer the throttle to hear its mere throaty rumble. The E55 speaks softly as it carries its big stick.
We may have been generally sardonic about mind-reading transmissions in the Walkaround, but we never felt this one. When you're hard on the throttle the upshifts are expectedly and wonderfully snappy, and when you're casual they're undetectable. The five-speed automatic doesn't have separate manual shifting linkage, but the lever neatly slides up and down between 2, 3 and 4. Five is overdrive, over a notch, and 1 requires an over-and-down movement. There is a winter mode, which starts the car in second gear.
The traction control system tames any wheel spin by applying the brakes; if that's not enough the throttle is reduced. If you find an open straight road and decide to play drag racer and upshift manually, it won't let you get away with anything silly. At 6000 rpm, 500 past the power peak, the rev limiter whacks you like a nun with a ruler. It retards the timing before it cuts the spark, in order to "soften the attack of spark interrupt," says Mercedes, but the attack remains pretty convincing. There were two things we never adjusted to during our week in the E55. The throttle has a hair trigger, so, for example in fast-food drive-thru lines, you have to think eggshells under your foot if you don't want to take off. The other thing was dartiness over certain freeway terrain, which may have come from the big tires. The car seemed to leap sideways at both ends - not a lot, but enough to get our attention. By the same token, it moved between lanes as if the front wheels were mind readers. The steering wheel takes a hint and delivers you precisely to your destination. Dead-on every time, never a correction necessary.
Now comes the dazzling part. Country roads. We have a 100-mile loop in our favorite remote county in Washington, and the E55 totally erased the ripples and bumps that almost always find imperfections in other cars' suspensions. And the faster the car travels, the better the suspension works. It hits a dip and takes a set. And around corners, the E55 hugs the road so well you simply have to give up any notion of challenge, and back off when reason prevails. Given the racing quality of the brakes, it shouldn't need to be said that they work. And like a racing car, the feel to the pedal is firm. The suspension geometry helps prevent front-end dive during braking. There is also Brake Assist, another mind-reading computer function which takes over brake boost based on how aggressively you hit the brakes. The computer says, You want panic? You got it.
The Mercedes E55 is a superbly engineered stealth supercar, whose potential for speed lies way beyond need. But even at half potential, its performance and safety features are worth the effort.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.