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 less cylinders but were smoother than a Bill Clinton interview – and much more classy.
Unfortunately, a 300 SL is a million dollar car today.
Luckily, there’s a new Mercedes that costs a fraction as much – equipped with the same kind of engine.
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, enhanced by an electrically driven “kompressor” – 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 to ever 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.
They won’t need coffee, either.
LED-backlit doorsills have also been made standard and there are two new AMG-specific steering wheel designs to pick 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 bodystyle you opt for.
Servicing the 48 Volt EQ system will likely cost you – or the next owner – more than replacing drive belts.
Afterthought 12V power point.
All E53s are defined by the 3.0 liter in-line six cylinder engine they’re powered by. It 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 – more than twice as much as the Gullwing’s in-line six. Which didn’t features an electrically-spooled “kompressor,” as the new six does.
It produces no-waiting-for-it boost – because there’s no waiting for exhaust gasses to build up sufficient pressure to spool-up the mechanical turbo (which takes over once you’re rolling). It’s a neat solution to turbo lag, which has been greatly dialed down but not eliminated from cars that are just mechanically boosted.
A mechanically driven supercharger also eliminates lag but with lots of drag. Blowers – as their known colloquially – 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. Which 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 inline six’s output may not seem all that much higher than the output of the 362 hp V6 that’s optional in the non-AMG versions of the E-Class. But it works out to more-than-advertised because the power made by the in-line engine 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 re-starts, greatly reducing the noticeable transitions between stop/start cycling in traffic that otherwise come with ASS – the automated stop/start “feature” the E and practically every new car now comes saddled with.
More on that in a moment.
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 V6’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 in-line engine under a hideously ugly plastic cover. This is almost a criminal act.
Like putting a Fear Mask over the Mona Lisa.
On The Road
The inline 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 it’s time to not be nice.
At idle, you’ll have trouble telling whether it’s running. It’s smoother-running 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 ludicrous timeout.
Drive as fast as you like and you can still go as far as you like.
Without long waits in between.
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 ASS – which 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 – and shake 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 start. The engine resurrects itself so quickly you’ll never know it was off. This solves the problems of ASS – at the price, of course, of much expense. Probably not for the original owner – who will likely not own the car long enough for a non-warranty-covered issue to arise. But somewhere down the line, someone’s going to pay. And, of course, the first owner pays too – in the form of a higher price.
But the E53 operates at an altitude above the concerns that otherwise apply.
The E53 is basically a GT. It is a fairly big – and very heavy car. It rides like the larger/heavier car it is – in spite of riding on staggered-size (245/40s up front, 275/35s in the rear) and ultra-thin-sidewall ultra-performance tires – 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 a real swinger – literally – 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.
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 there takes some gymnastics – because the car sits low (just 4.3 inches off the pavement) and because the front seats need to be slid forward first. But once you are back there, there’s 34.1 inches of legroom – substantially more legroom than in the backseats of something about the same overall size, like a Ford Mustang coupe (which has only 29 inches).
Or a new Camaro, which has even less.
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.
Which will also make you a much better driver on the street.
Well, there is one other thing. One of the few not-so-great things about this car. It’s the 12V power point.
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 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.
Well, there you have it. The one thing that’s not-quite-right about this car.
The Bottom Line
1955 was a long time ago. Luckily, Mercedes hasn’t forgotten.
. . .
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I used to love Mercedes Banz cars. My first was a turbo 5 cylinder 300SD in 1984. After that a 500 SEL and an S500. One day at the dealership for a just 100 miles out of warranty service (!) the mechanic took me aside and whispered “NEVER buy or keep a Mercedes out of warranty. The customer is their proving ground”. That stuck with me! Although I now drive F250s and no longer can afford S class MBs were I to become financially successful enough to justify writing a $150K check for the new S class MBs I’d get one in warranty.
Wow, pretty impressive car, and a better write up! But $74K to start? Whew, I can buy a LOT of coffee for those fiat dollars, plus a house and land in the right place. But, since you can’t take it with you, and the world is crashing and burning, what the heck, right? Smoke ’em if you got ’em.
Something in the back of my lizard brain is tickling… I think that a couple of decades ago, someone (Toyota?) experimented with an ASS system that used the whole flywheel as a high-RPM starter, which was almost instant.
I’m also surprised you didn’t slam the 4matic for its lack of a manual transmission option. 😉
I can’t remember the last time Mercedes offered a manual transmission . . . in anything! And I’ve been doing this since the mid -1990s!
I don’t slam them for it, though, as MB was never say BMW. I do slam them for dropping manuals.
190E 2.3-16 Cosworth, from at least the second half of the ’80s and maybe into the ’90s a bit. It’s known for the dogleg first in its 5-speed.
’05 W203 C230K was available with a manual.
Ah yes! Fifteen years ago; seem like yesterday, doesn’t it?
A choice of TWO steering wheels. That says a lot!
“It’s just a shame that Mercedes hides the E53’s beautiful in-line engine under a hideously ugly plastic cover. This is almost a criminal act.”
My reaction exactly to the first, underhood photo near the top of the article — and before reading this passage.
One thing that makes classic cars classic is their adherence to the aesthetic dictum that form follows function. Open the hood, and you’ll have no trouble discerning the cylinder configuration, the type of valve train, the fuel feed and intake manifold, the exhaust routing, and the presence or absence of boost, accessories and the like.
When it comes to plastic pancakes the size of a soccer field, who are they for? Non-mechanically-inclined toffs will never even open the hood themselves. For service techs, it’s just another piece of crap in the way, which adds previous minutes to the turnaround time.
Might as well stick to a Miata … lightweight, manual trans, ASS-free. Sad to think that such vehicles are almost no longer made, though the supply of vintage ones may last till our rheumy old eyes no longer can see the open road.