Ballistic AMG Bargain. Why this Noughties E-Class deserves a second chance. Supercharged V8 thunder that hasn’t accelerated out of range – yet: MB E55 AMG W211. Game-changing supersaloon is still available for Monopoly money – but that will soon change. The W211 E55 Kompressor restored Mercedes-Benz to the top of the executive supersaloon class. This Hammer is no horror. Words Nathan Chadwick. Photography Adam Shorrock.
CLEVER MONEY CARS: MERCEDES E55 W211
621 UK cars left
Value now 2019 £12,000
Value in 2024 £18,000
In the long and glorious history of AMG, the Hammer sticks out as one of its finest moments pre-Mercedes-Benz merger. Take one W124 coupé, add massive arches and drop in a 375bhp 6.0-litre V8. Currently, Hammer values are well past £100k and, with RM Sotheby’s Youngtimer upcoming auction at Essen, ’80s and ’90s AMGs are about to enter the auction mainstream. This fever hasn’t trickled down to the ’00s cars. It’s true that the company lost some of its sparkle at the turn of the millennium but, by the W211’s launch, it was getting back to its best. And you’re looking at one of its very best: the E55 Kompressor. Like the Hammer, it has a V8. But this one packs a 469bhp wallop and good cars can cost as little as £10k.
The recipe is simple, but stunningly effective. Take one fairly anonymous mid-size executive saloon, sling in a mighty great engine and dial up the leather and occasionally questionable wood panelling. It’s a Mercedes-Benz AMG staple, but despite such precedents in Affalterbach’s back catalogue, the unveiling of the E55 Kompressor at 2002’s Paris Motor Show came as a bit of a shock. The benchmark 5-Series BMW E39 M5 packed 400bhp, but here was a Mercedes-Benz that delivered 69bhp more, with a monstrous 516lb ft torque figure. At the time, it was the fastest production saloon in the world.
‘THE W211 E55 IS BONKERS FAST, BUT THERE’S MUCH TO ENJOY WITHOUT TROUBLING YOUR DRIVER’S LICENCE’
Not that the E55 shouts about it. The W211 was a pleasing return to a more elegant E-Class design after the gopping W210. There’s a gentle coupé-style swoop to its side profile, while the quad-headlight, stacked grille demanded by Merc precedent was integrated into a forward-looking, smoother aesthetic. It seems coherent in a way that its predecessor and successor aren’t.
‘THE M113 V8 DELIVERS FULL-ON THUMP FROM AS LITTLE AS 2500RPM’
It’s so elegant you might miss the subtle cues that this is something special – the modest boot spoiler and the 18-inch, five-spoke alloys are the mild body additions. There’s no mistaking the baritone growl from the quad exhausts. It’s a grumpy sound – seething rage that’s only just being restrained. Remember when your dad was served a cold steak in a restaurant, but refused to say anything despite veins popping out of the side of his head? Like that, but with added beef.
Beef in the sense of abject force. The headline torque figure was 100 more than an Audi RS6, and nearly 150 more than the then belle of the supersaloon ball, the M5. That’s an astounding figure that keeps the E55 among the supersaloon big leagues even today. Despite tipping the scales at 1760kg, it still manages to have a better power-to-weight ratio than the M5. Stuttgart wins with 266bhp/ton compared to Munich’s ‘mere’ 236. If this is all getting figure-heavy, there’s yet more to come. The E55 surges to 60mph in 4.5 seconds, storming on to 100mph in 10.6 seconds. Then there are the in-gear stats: it comfortably beats the RS6 and M5 in each gear by at least half-a-second, if not more. More telling is its sheer heave past 90mph. With the benefit of turbos and quattro traction, the Audi RS6 will get to 110mph in 5.1 seconds, the M5 in 4.4 (in fourth). The E55? 3.5 seconds. It’s a similar gap from 100-120 and farther on from there. It is a car that hits all the numbers faster than anything else. Some of them are utterly pointless, but still amusing. My favourite is that it’s twice as fast to 150mph than a Jaguar S-Type R. But if you go beyond the numbers, does it make sense in the UK? After all, the times when you’ll be in a position to test those numbers will be fleeting at best – at least until you get a ride to the police station. Put Another way, does the E55 thrill at semi-normal speeds?
Emphatically, yes. At the heart of everything is the mighty M113 V8. Where the RS6 and M5 have four valves per cylinder, the E55 has three, but this is the only area where the engine is deficient. It’s aided and abetted by an IHI supercharger that rarely makes its presence felt aurally, – something the inner eight-year-old me misses, but the 36-year-old rather appreciates.
‘GET PAST 87MPH AND THE WHOLE CAR LOWERS BY 15MM TO REDUCE AIR RESISTANCE’
Nevertheless, it’s a motor of true character, delivering full-on thump from as little as 2500rpm and flying around the rev dial smoothly, linearly and utterly unstoppably. Throttle response is immediate; get anywhere further than half-throttle and that line of cars you’ve been stuck behind for miles is but paint smear on the side of your retinas, a memory bade farewell with a boisterous metallic raspberry from the exhaust.
It corners well, too – up to a point. The steering lacks feel (it may accelerate just 0.2 of a second slower to 60mph than a Ferrari 360 Modena, but this is a Mercedes-Benz, after all) and is fingertip-light most of the time. Start to ask more serious questions and the steering firms up. It’ll never provide the granular satisfaction of an M5, but you’ll soon build up a rapport with it.
Or so you might think. For such a big car, you’d expect some degree of body roll, but unless you’re being an abject idiot in the suspension’s firmest setting, the E55 is totally neutral. That’s great, but it’s easy to be caught out on tighter corners. Yes, there really is a 5.4-litre V8 in front of you and, yes, you are mortal.
But such cornering aplomb is beyond its remit. This is a supersaloon and though it’ll tail slide (if it’s damp, even with the ESP on), the truth is that it’s an open rear diff anyway. It’s simply not the same kind of car as the sideways brigade’s hero, the M5. The E55 is far more focused on its primary job: demolishing straight lines quicker than a coke-addled celebrity.
Much like that addiction, stopping is more of a problem. This is the era before the regular deployment of carbon ceramic brakes and, once unleashed, the E55’s appetite for revs and speed isn’t easy to put back in the box. Pedal feel is almost as remote as the steering, and the brakes aren’t quite as effective as you might hope.
Such hooliganism is only a facet of a supersaloon’s remit. It also needs to cosset. The E55 does this well, thanks to Airmatic air-sprung, semi-active suspension. It’s a lot less prone to problems than the ABC system fitted to the R230 SL, but no less clever. Get past 87mph and the whole car lowers by 15mm to reduce air resistance. Inside, the bespoke seats are infinitely electrically adjustable, and our car even has a massage function. The rest of the interior is a mixed bag – the steering wheel suits the car’s laid back nature, and the wood trim is pleasing to the eye. The parts-bin ventilation controls are less so, and feel as if they’re about to fall off. The manual gear shift buttons are hardly the last word in haptic delight either. Mounted behind the steering wheel, they’re ideally placed but lack the pleasing feel of the paddles on the E63. It’s a system designed for immediate (well, almost) downshifts for overtaking thrust and, in that sense, it works well. It does feel like you’re pressing a button on a microwave, though.
The gearbox is a conventional torque-converter five-speed automatic. The 5G-Tronic Speedshift technology was pretty old hat when the car was launched, but the newer 7G-Tronic simply couldn’t cope with the monstrous torque. It isn’t the quickest to react, but never feels wrong for the car or half-asleep, like some Jaguars). At least the extra few milliseconds over a more modern gearbox allows you time to really consider whether your next assault on the horizon is truly wise.
Despite minor gripes, the E55 nails the supersaloon brief. It might not have the high-revving, manual gearbox combo that makes the M5 so enthralling to so many, but that’s not really the essence of what a supersaloon needs to be. The E55 is all about long-range comfort, ballistic in-gear thrust and everyday subtlety.
But what about the E63 W211, this car’s replacement? Though on the face of it a similar proposition, its character is very different. We love the E63 at MC, but the E55 deserves praise for being more of an old-school AMG product that harks back to the pre-merger cars, a time when ultimate thrust was married to exquisite luxury.
The E63 is more of an aggressive E60 M5 rival. Ideally you’d have both, and shares in a petroleum conglomerate. What about its big-league rivals? The M5 is without doubt more of a pure driver’s car – it has a manual gearbox and is a more engaging drive on twisty roads. It doesn’t quite have the same hyper-speed comfort focus as the E55, and comparisons with the Alpina B10 V8 E39 are more appropriate, but even there the E55 outdoes the Buchloe machine on power and torque by a considerable margin. The same applies to the Jaguar XJR.
The Audi RS6 comes closest to matching the eye-scorching pace, thanks to turbos and four-wheel drive, but that has an even singular straight-line focus, with cornering feel and entertainment somewhat of an afterthought. It’s also less of a comfy, refined place to be, thanks to the E55’s active damping and air suspension. The E55, then, represents a high watermark in the supersaloon arena. It’s a car that’s more than just the sum of its performance figures. Don’t believe me? You’ll understand the first time you put the Hammer down.
The Modern Classics view
While its true that most modern cars are as quick – if not quicker than – the E55, that’s missing the point. The W211 E55, despite its luxury, feels far more raw and visceral than other modern supersaloons, which only show a hint of naughtiness long past the national speed limit. The E55 is bonkers fast, but there’s also much to enjoy without troubling the sanctity of your driver’s licence.
It’s a historic, watershed moment in the supersaloon evolution, a true gamechanger. That alone should make it very collectable in the future, but there are other factors at play. Finding good, low-mileage and un-messed with examples is already very hard, and will only get more difficult with time, pushing values north.
With all AMGs up and coming in the auction market, the omens are good for the E55. Right now, this has to represent a proper performance bargain. Just don’t be hammered by everyone else getting in before you.
THANKS MotortrAid, where this car is for sale (motortraid. co.uk).
MERCEDES-BENZ E55 (W211)
Engine 5439cc, 8-cyl, SOHC
Transmission RWD, 5-speed auto
Max Power 469bhp @ 6100rpm
Max Torque 516lb-ft @ 2650rpm
Top speed 155mph (limited)
Economy 22mpg (ha!)
If a saloon doesn’t flick your switch, an estate version is available.
The view most M5 owners will have to get used to.
Stylish in places not everywhere. Note the lack of body roll – and Nathan was trying. A version of this ended up in the McLaren SLR. The last elegant E-Class? Note the lack of body roll – and Nathan was trying. Stylish in places not everywhere. Note the lack of body roll – and Nathan was trying. Stylish in places not everywhere.
DEALER VIEW MONZA MOTORHOUSE
We spoke with Asim Khalid of Monza Motorhouse (monzamotorhouse.co.uk). ‘W211 E55s are already starting to appreciate in value, especially the estate and the seven-seat version, as not many were made,’ he says. ‘Black and colours from the Designo range are particularly popular. However, good low-mileage cars in any colour will always sell very quickly.’ Mirroring trends in the Japanese scene for similarly aged cars, modded cars are lacking allure. ‘Standard cars are holding more value than modified cars,’ Asim says. ‘You’re looking at £10k to £14k at the moment, but I believe that’ll rise to the mid- to late-teens in five years.’
THE FINER POINTS
1 Post-2005 cars got a speedo that went up to 200mph, even if the car was limited to 155mph. Limiters are there to be removed, however… Modified examples have topped the magic double-ton.
2 Robust five-speed auto is a traditional slushbox, which suits the car’s character.
3 Brake discs measure a Joddrell Bank-troubling 360mm, but even this is still not quite enough for the car. Aftermarket brake discs are available and are highly recommended.
4 From an era when this meant more than the trim option on a mid-spec diesel.
5 Calipers come from Brembo in four-pot piston flavour.
6 The deeply comfortable seats are infinitely adjustable – even the headrest is electric. This car was fitted with massage seats, although asking them for a happy ending doesn’t really translate into German.
7 More than just an exhaust, it’s a baritone musical instrument that upsets rural types more easily and quicker than an illegal rave. Which would probably be quieter, anyway.
NEED TO KNOW
We spoke to Steve Dickens From Milton Keynes-based marque specialist Autoclass MK (auto-class.co.uk) about what to look out for when buying an W211 E55. ‘Contrary to what you might believe about Stuttgart creations post-millennium, the E55 andW211 E-Class are very reliable. ‘The E55 engine and gearbox are bulletproof as long as they’ve been serviced,’ says Steve. ‘The electronics are pretty reliable too, though early cars are susceptible to problems.’ Look for a healthy pile of receipts.
‘The common problem with all E-Classes, not just the E55, is wear in the front suspension arms and balljoints, leading to play,’ says Steve. ‘Listen out for knocking on the test-drive or budget £300 a side for balljoints and arms.’
‘The Sensotronic braking system’s pump can fail, which brings on a dash light,’ says Steve. ‘It says “service brake”, and people tend to think it’s just the pads, but it’s not.’ You’re looking at a £1800 bill to replace the pump. This isn’t an E55 issue; all W211s suffer. ‘It wasn’t originally a service item,’ Steve adds. ‘They tend to go after ten years.’
What about worries over Merc corrosion? ‘They don’t really rust, as they were well galvanised,’ says Steve. However, with oldest cars well out of their corrosion protection guarantee, a few cars have demonstrated issues. ‘The rear wheelarches are most susceptible.’ If the heating and air conditioning system has issues, it’s due to the Duovalve system playing up. ‘There’s an electric motor controlling the temperature and it can seize,’ says Steve. ‘It’s located under the bonnet, near the fusebox, and is pretty well buried. Budget £300 to replace it.’ The seat bolsters are prone to wear and tear, but it’s more important to check that the electric seat controls work, as they’re expensive to fix.
WHAT TO PAY
I BOUGHT ONE PATRICK MAITLAND
Patrick’s love of the W211 E55 Kompressor came from his dad. ‘He was buying an A-Class for mum and there was an E55 in the Mercedes-Benz showroom.
I knew then that I had to have one,’ he says. Patrick’s owned three E55s. ‘I modified the first two. The engine and gearbox are very strong, and tuning parts, such as the smaller supercharger belt pulley and radiator, simply bolt straight in. Mine were around 600bhp, but they’ve been known to go higher.’
He has no plans to modify his current one. ‘The temptation’s always there – a limited-slip diff always leads to other bits!’ Other than modifying, Patrick’s not had to spend on anything other than routine servicing.