CARMEL VALLEY, CA — The big S-Class sedan pulls in higher profit margins; the M-Class SUV is pulling in a whole new breed of customers; and the compact C-Class sells higher volumes; but no car is more important to Mercedes-Benz than the mid-range E-Class.
“It's the heart and soul of our franchise,” David Schembri, Mercedes-Benz USA's marketing vice president, says at a press debut of the new and improved 2003 E-Class.
Until the luxury entry-level C-Class started passing it a few years ago with higher sales numbers (thanks to prices as low as $24,950), the E-Class was Mercedes' volume leader in recent history.
The 20-year-old E-Class line has epitomized Mercedes' focus on durability, safety and practicality. It's an industry “benchmark,” says Schembri.
The just-retired generation of the car debuted in 1995. It hit new sales heights during its seven-year run, peaking at 50,214 units in 1999, and representing 25% of Mercedes' sales.
Schembri predits the redone ‘03 version will pass 51,000 units next year in a gloves-off upper luxury segment. “It's grown more in competitors than sales,” he says.
The E-Class is that segment's champion with a 22% market share in ‘02 sales through September. Runners-up and their share of the market are the Lexus LS430 (17%), the BMW 7 Series (13.9%) and the Cadillac Seville (13.8%).
The previous E introduced a unique, dual-headlight “face.” That gave the once-staid German auto maker a fresher, more-adventurous look. But critics panned the car's slab-like profile and plain rear-end. “The old E-Class looks best head-on,” says brand manager Karen Goll.
Meanwhile, some Mercedes aficionados complained of the car's ride and handling. They claimed previously solid steering and suspension had been forsaken for a homogenized version that felt more like a Buick than a Benz.
Mercedes executives quietly admitted these shortcomings as they lauded the new and improved E. The car appears improved in almost every way.
It's longer, taller, and wider, yet looks far more graceful and sleeker. The rear-end is beautifully styled and looks complete, as does the interior, which now features better-looking materials, sweeping, organic curves and smart use of space and buttons.
|Brand||Series||Units 2002||% Share 2002|
|BMW||BMW 7 SERIES||16,296||13.9|
|Mercedes Benz||MERCEDES E CLASS||25,706||22.0|
|Mercedes Benz||MERCEDES S CLASS||14,534||12.4|
|Source: WARD'S AutoInfoBank.|
The new version's strong locked-down-riding-on-rails steering feel is back; the former softness and slop gone.
The E320 base version starts at $46,950. That's $1,500 less than before. The up-market E500 caps off at $54,850. That's $1,000 more than before.
Schembri predicts dealers will lease 45% of E-Classes, typically for 36 months and 15,000 miles a year. No incentives yet, but Schembri notes the market changes fast and often. “We gave it our best shot on the value side,” he says.
Dealers' main concern is that E-Class production meets demand.
“We paid a lot of attention to that,” says Schembri. “We're trying to avoid serious waits.”