IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Mercedes re-introduces diesel to U.S.

Mercedes re-enters the U.S. diesel market with an E320 CDI sedan that's fast, quiet and cleaner than older diesels.
The 2005 Mercedes-Benz E320 CDI looks and sounds like its non-diesel peers. Only a CDI badge on the trunk lid identifies it as a diesel.PRNewsPhoto file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Imagine driving from New Orleans to Nashville, or Charlotte to Indianapolis, or going roundtrip from Dallas to Little Rock, on a single tank of fuel in a mid-size Mercedes-Benz luxury sedan.

It doesn’t take extraordinary effort in the new 2005 Mercedes E320 CDI sedan.

This new model, the first Mercedes diesel vehicle in the United States since 1999, is rated at 27 miles a gallon in city driving and 37 mpg on the highway.

This rating is, respectively, 42 and 37 percent higher than the 19/27 mpg rating of the comparable gasoline-powered Mercedes E320.

Thus, drivers of this newest Mercedes should be able to travel well over 600 combined city/highway miles before stopping to fill the 21.1-gallon tank.

No clatter, just torque
What’s just as impressive is how quiet and powerful this 201-horsepower, six-cylinder diesel engine is.

Turning on the test car brought none of the expected diesel engine clatter we’re all accustomed to hearing from diesel powerplants, and I scarcely had to touch the accelerator to begin to tap the engine’s awesome, 369 foot-pounds of torque.

Note this is way more than the 232 foot-pounds of torque that’s in the E320 with 221-horsepower, gasoline-powered six cylinder.

Starting manufacturer’s suggested retail price, including destination charge, is $49,795 for the E320 CDI.

This compares with the $48,795 starting price for the 2004 gasoline-powered E320. Volkswagen’s, new-to-the-U.S., diesel-powered Passat sedan starts much lower at $23,635. The Passat TDI uses a four-cylinder diesel capable of 134 horses and 247 foot-pounds of torque at 1,900 rpm.

Note that neither the E320 CDI nor the diesel Passat can be sold in Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts, California and New York because of pollution regulations.

Mercedes officials said, however, they expect to begin sales of the E320 CDI in those states in 2006, after new federal regulations limiting the sulfur content in diesel fuel go into effect and help the car meet these states’ stricter requirements.

Aside from the “CDI” badging, there is little on the outside that tells consumers that the new Mercedes is a diesel. CDI stands for common-rail direct injection diesel, a technology that Mercedes has been using in Europe for years.

A common rail, or line, delivers fuel at a constant, incredibly high pressure— 23,000 psi — to all engine fuel injectors simultaneously.

More efficient, less emission
In the meantime, the electronically controlled injection system puts the fuel directly into the cylinders. The electronics help vary injection timing and the quantity of diesel fuel based on power demands of the driver and emission control.

The direct rail and electronic fuel injection combination also eliminates much of the diesel racket associated with old-style diesel engines.

Additionally, it helps reduce emissions and diesel exhaust smells and gives the E320 CDI its palpable low-end torque.

The engine is turbocharged to add a performance orientation to the power delivery, and so this sizable, regular-looking Mercedes sedan can zip from 0 to 60 miles an hour in 6.8 seconds, which is 0.3 second faster than the naturally aspirated, six-cylinder, gasoline-powered E320 sedan.

As you’d expect in a diesel, the torque comes on at very low engine rpm — 1,800 rpm — so drivers feel as if there’s virtually no waiting before this relatively heavy and solid-feeling car rushes forward.

It feels surprisingly sporty, yet controlled. I had my back pressed into the seatback plenty of times while driving this car. Also, I never lacked for power to zip into traffic, pass on two-lane roads and accelerate and merge onto freeways.

There is only one transmission — a five-speed automatic with a shift-it-yourself feature that doesn’t require a driver to use a clutch pedal.

I kept trying to hear the diesel at work, but the interior of the CDI model seemed as quiet as it is for a regular E320.

Even when I stopped the car, got out and went to the front, after running the test car hard, I didn’t hear a big diesel engine ruckus.

At the back of the car, I didn’t smell strong diesel odors, either.

Mercedes didn’t change the already capable handling and ride of the E-Class when it added the new powerplant.

The car’s suspension and steering continue to allow for spirited driving on mountain roads as well as comfortable in-town travel. Front and rear seats continue with a good amount of room for up to five passengers.

Trunk space remains at 15.9 cubic feet, but the fuel tank has grown by a half gallon in the CDI.

The heavier diesel engine adds to the weight of this car, from 3,635 pounds for a gasoline E320 to 3,835 pounds for a CDI model.

Luxury amenities abound, as they do in all E-Class cars, including standard leather-surfaced seats and wood accent trim, dual, automatic climate control, surround sound audio system, 10-way power front seats, and power windows, door locks and mirrors. Safety features include the Tele Aid emergency notification system and frontal, side and curtain airbags.

Europe, U.S. and 1980s
Because of fuel prices that have been consistently much higher in Europe than in the United States, Europeans have been buying increasing numbers of fuel-efficient diesel vehicles, pushing diesel market share to more than 40 percent in some countries.

In the States, however, diesels remain a tiny share of the market, and Mercedes officials project a conservative 3,000 annual sales of the E320 CDI initially.

Many buyers are expected to be familiar with previous Mercedes diesels, because upwards of 75 percent of Mercedes sales in the United States in the 1980s were diesel vehicles. The company estimates that more than half the diesel-powered Mercedes cars sold in this country are still on the roads.

Such durability is a key reason why consumers buy diesels.

Mercedes said it expects some 70 percent of the buyers of the E320 CDI to be men, with average age of 57 and median household income of $131,000. Most will be college-educated, and the automaker said they’re likely to be people who like “things that stand the test of time.”

Mercedes invented the first diesel-powered car in 1936.

Consumer Reports does not list a reliability rating for the new diesel Mercedes, but the gasoline-powered E-Class has predicted reliability of worse than average.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has no crash test results for the Mercedes E-Class, with or without the diesel, and there have been no safety recalls of the new E320 CDI.