Many people think the defining element of a high-end car is a V8 engine or even better, a V12 engine.
But some of the most iconic high-end cars, models like the Mercedes SL of the ’50s, for instance, were powered by in-line sixes. They had two fewer cylinders but were smoother and much classier.
Unfortunately, a 300 SL is a million-dollar car today.
Luckily, there’s a new Mercedes that costs a fraction as much and equipped with the same kind of engine.
Plus, several fewer things.
What It Is
The E53 is the high-performance version of Mercedes’ mid-sized E-Class sedan/coupe/convertible.
Whether you go with the four-door or two-door (or without a roof), you’ll get a specially tuned 3.0-liter in-line six-cylinder engine unique to the AMG models that produces 429 horsepower. An electrically driven “kompressor enhances the E53″— plus a mechanical turbocharger to enhance low-speed performance. There’s also a 48-volt high-torque starter/generator bolted to the flywheel that powers all the formerly belt-driven accessories, such as the air conditioning compressor and water pump.
This eliminates parasitic drag on the engine as well as the need ever to replace a drive belt.
It also eliminates the lag of ASS (More on this below).
All E53 AMGs, whether they have two or four doors, come standard with a high-performance version of Mercedes’ 4Matic all-wheel-drive, too.
Prices start at $73,800 for the sedan, $74,950 for the coupe, and $81,650 for the convertible.
Who needs coffee in the morning when you have Emotion Start?
This is a new-for-2020 standard feature that wakes up the exhaust sound (via electrically-opening baffles in the exhaust pipes) by pushing a button on the center console. Let your neighbors know you’re up.
LED-backlit doorsills have also been made standard, and there are two new steering wheel designs to choose from.
- Nothing else sounds like a straight-six or is as smooth as one.
- Much more affordable than a 300 SL Gullwing.
- Partially electric — but without the limitations.
What’s Not So Good
- No rear-wheel-drive option, no matter which body style you choose.
- Servicing the 48 Volt EQ system will likely cost more than replacing drive belts.
- Afterthought 12V powerpoint.
Under The Hood
The 3.0-liter in-line six-cylinder engine defines all E53s they’re powered by, which replaces the standard 2.0-liter four-cylinder (or optional 3.0 liter V6) that come in non-AMG E-Class sedans/coupes and convertibles.
It produces 429 horsepower (as opposed to the V6’s 362 hp). It features an electrically-spooled “kompressor” that produces immediate boost — because there’s no lag waiting for exhaust gasses to build up sufficient pressure to spool-up the mechanical turbo. It’s a neat solution to turbo lag, which has been dramatically dialed down but not eliminated from cars that are just mechanically boosted.
A mechanically driven supercharger also eliminates lag but with lots of drag. They produce lots of power, but they take lots of power to produce it — including when you’re not using it. That’s why superchargers have largely fallen out of favor. But an electrically-driven “kompressor” doesn’t draw horsepower when it isn’t producing it. This is why it’s likely we’ll see more of this in the future (Volvo uses this set-up, too, in some of its latest models).
The in-line six’s output may not seem all that much higher than the output of the V6 that’s optional in the non-AMG versions, but it works out to more-than-advertised because the power made by the in-line engines is used entirely for propelling the E53 — not the E53 and its accessories.
These are all driven in the AMG’d E by the EQ Boost 48 volt starter/generator bolted to the engine’s flywheel. Which also delivers practically instantaneous engine restarts, significantly reducing the noticeable transitions between stop/start cycling in traffic that otherwise come with ASS.
A performance-calibrated version of Mercedes’ nine-speed automatic — with AMG-specific driver-selectable modes — is standard in all E53s, along with a torque-vectoring/heavier-duty version of Mercedes’ 4Matic all-wheel-drive system.
Though ferociously quick — zero to 60 in 4.3 seconds — the E53 has a modest thirst: 21 city, 28 highway.
This is slightly better than the regular E350’s 22 city — and only slightly below the E350’s 30 MPG highway.
And the non-AMG E350 doesn’t get to 60 in 4.3 seconds.
It’s just a shame that Mercedes hides the E53’s beautiful engine under a hideously ugly plastic cover. This is almost a criminal act.
On The Road
The in-line six that is the heart of the E53 will remind you of Patrick Swayze’s bouncer character in the movie Road House. It’s nice until the time it’s not nice.
At idle, you’ll have trouble telling whether it’s on. It’s smoother than warm butter. Is this a performance car? It’s quieter than a luxury car.
Until it isn’t.
Dial-up the Sport program and select active exhaust. Punch it, and the electric “kompressor” launches the 4,300 lbs. Benz as if it were an electric car but accompanied by an aria that not even Caruso could conjure.
Each upshift of the nine-speed tranny is punctuated by an afterburner-like eruption of sonic concussion from the four exhaust tips. These create a shockwave reverb to mark your passing, but only if you so desire.
If you prefer a reversion to the sounds of silence, select Comfort and electric car quiet replaces the mechanical music — without the functional gimps of an electric car. This is a performance car that has Ludicrous Speed without the recharge timeout. Drive as fast as you like, and you can still go as far as you like.
The 48 Volt EQ system also practically eliminates the unpleasant awareness of the engine turning itself off and back on whenever the car stops moving, courtesy of automated stop/start. ASS is a “feature” now standard in almost all new vehicles that has been added to the mix as a way to increase MPG stats and decrease exhaust emissions (a not-running engine emits zero emissions). But most of these systems subject the car’s driver and occupants to noticeably repetitive stop/start cycling and noticeable sound and vibration. It’s almost as much fun as living next to a busy railroad and having trains roll by your house, shaking the ground multiple times every day.
The 48V system also prevents something else.
Unlike other new cars that have stop/start, when the Benz’s engine stops, the accessories — like the AC — do not. The compressor is driven electrically, so you don’t get sweaty for the sake of saving a little bit of gas.
And one more thing.
There’s no delay when you push on the gas. The engine restarts so quickly you’ll never know it was off. This solves the problems of ASS at a price, of course, of much expense. But the E53 operates at an altitude above the concerns that otherwise apply.
The E53 is not a small car, yet it corners like one while retaining the ride of a larger (and very luxurious) one. The tires are staggered-size (245/40s up front, 275/35s in the rear) and ultra-thin-sidewall, which you’d think would result in intimate familiarity with every undulation of the road.
It isn’t so. This thing comforts you as much as it excites you, as you like. And it’s not only the ride or the engine. It’s also the seats, which support and massage.
If there’s a gripe to be leveled, it’s that it’s almost too civilized. This car would be even better if Benz offered a rear-drive version. Then you could let off a little smoke as a way to let off some steam. And let the tail hang out as you poke a few holes in the atmosphere.
At The Curb
The classic Gullwing of the ’50s came only with two “wings” (doors) and just two seats. It was a beautifully impractical car.
The E53 is a beautifully practical car.
Even the coupe has back seats, and they’re remarkably practical for a car this beautiful–once you’re in them, at least.
Getting in back, though, takes some gymnastics because the car is low (it sits 4.3 inches off the pavement) and because the front seats need to slide forward first. But once you are back there, there are 34.1 inches of legroom, which is substantially more legroom than in the backseats of something about the same overall size, like a Ford Mustang coupe (which has only 29 inches).
And you can always go for more access by selecting the sedan without sacrificing any performance.
You’ll also get more trunk — 13.1 cubic feet vs. 10.1 for the coupe/convertible.
Many new cars have LED backlighting. Few execute it as deftly as Mercedes. Even the air vents effuse a cozy glow in practically any hue of the rainbow. Combine that with almost-infinitely adjusting seats—massaging infinitely adjustable seats—and Mercedes’ exceptional Burmester surround-sound audio and you have a car that’s as pleasant to take a slow drive in as a fast lap.
Part of the AMG package is a Track Pace app. It displays more than just the usual 0-60/quarter mile and G-force data. It also overlays your route around the track and shows you the best line to take as you lap. You can literally watch yourself race and become a better driver on race day and the street.
Well, there is one other thing. One of the few not-so-great things about this car—it’s the 12V powerpoint.
If you can find it.
Mercedes mounts it almost out-of-sight and nearly out-of-reach deep down on the passenger’s side of the driveshaft tunnel. If you don’t know where to look, you’ll have trouble finding it and may not even realize there is one. Maybe Benz decided that 12V power points are the so-early 2000s—doesn’t everyone use USB power points now?
Not everyone and not for everything. Radar detectors, for instance, are still generally powered by 12V, not USB. And in a car like this, you’ll want to plug your detector in.
The good news is, you still can. The bad news is, it’s not easy. And once you have, the cord dangles awkwardly, which is unseemly in a car otherwise so classy.
The Bottom Line
1955 was a long time ago. Luckily, Mercedes hasn’t forgotten.
*** Photo courtesy of Caricos
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The Eric Peters Car Review is sponsored by the NMA Foundation, a 501c3 nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting your interests as a motorist and citizen through the multi-faceted approach of research, education, and litigation. The Foundation is able to offer this assistance through tax-deductible contributions.