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2003 BMW 540i vs. 2003 Mercedes E500

These two cars compete directly. They have almost identical weight, power, price and dimensions. So what's the difference?

I have an entire website devoted to the 540i Sport loaded with intimate details of everything covered below. I've been considering E500 against my 540i since I prefer the color choices and Mercedes' dealer support. This is the only page I have with my observations of the E500.


  Length Turn Circle Lbs Engine Ft-Lbs HP 0-60 1/4 mile MPH Trunk City Hwy
03 BMW 540iA Sport 188.0" 37.4' 3803 32V VVT V8 324 @ 3600 290 @ 5400 6.1 14.39 @ 96.60 155* 11' 17 23
03 E500 190.3" 37.4' 3815 24V V8 339 @ 2.7 - 4.25k 302 @ 5600 5.8     15.3' 16 23
96-98 SL500 177.1" 35.4' 4165 32V VVT V8 347 @ 3900 315 @ 5600 6.2 14.5 @ 99.2 155* 7.9' 16 23

Driving Experience

The difference is in the driving. I tried each one with a sport package. The BMW's sport package is extensive involving not just trim and tires like the E500. The 540i sport adds much lower axle ratios, high stall torque converters, transmissions and a lowered suspension which the E500 doesn't.

This explains much of the difference in feel. Both are quiet, smooth, solid and comfortable. The BMW 540i sport is over the top in being fun-to-drive while the E500 still feels like a normal smooth, powerful car. The E500 rides higher while the 540i is much closer to the road.

The BMW always sounds perfect, except for ever present squeaking from the rubber door seals. The Mercedes lets one hear more odd mechanical sounds as one drives. I prefer the squeaking rubber of the BMW over the less pleasant cheap-sounding arbitrary noises from the E500.


The Mercedes is much lighter than the BMW while parking. The BMW feels better to me. They are similar at speed.


Both have 5 speed automatics and V8 engines.

The E500 offers a little more power and slightly faster track acceleration times. The E500 transmission is slightly slower to kick-down when punched. This, along with the taller gearing of the E500, makes the 540i sport more fun to drive.

It's easy to drive the E500 gently for your passengers' sake. Even a small tap of the accelerator sends the 540i sport flying. It's more difficult to drive gently.

Sport Options

There is a huge difference between the regular 540i and the 540i sport. The sport option includes a ton of high performance mechanical powertrain and suspension tweaks. The regular 540i probably feels very similar to the E500 regular or sport.

The Mercedes sport option is just trim, colors, tires and slightly different suspension.

The E500 sport changes the walnut wood to black wood.

The tires are 245/45VR17s on the Mercedes sport package while the 540i gets racier 235/40R18s on the front and 275/35ZR18s on the rear.

The 540i sport feels like you're glued to the road with solid rubber tires and no suspension, while also being comfortable. The Mercedes feels like a regular car with air in the tires.


The E500 feels like a Dodge. There is a lot of plastic. The E500 glove box is just a glove box, while the 540i's glove box door is damped with a pressurized hydraulic cylinder and includes a free, always ready, self-recharging flashlight!

The HVAC display of the E500 is a vacuum fluorescent display like a Dodge minivan. The 540i's displays are clearer backlit orange and black LCDs visible in any light.

The 540i still feels like a German meisterstück (masterpiece). There's no plastic that feels lifted from a rental car like some of the E500.


The BMW's are almost perfect: black faces with white graphics and pointers.

The Mercedes is trying too hard to look cute. It has short white pointers on white dials with black graphics. You have to look at them to see the black outline of the white pointer against the white face.

The BMW has gauges, while the Mercedes has LCD bar graphs for water temperature and fuel.


The E500 has a bigger trunk and a second secret mini trunk under the main trunk floor.

The 540i has a full size speed-rated spare. I forget; I think the E500 only has a donut. Check me on this.

The 540i's trunk lid is as you'd expect from Germany. It's an extravagant multi-lever system damped with two pressurized hydraulic cylinders. This lets the BMW trunk lid lift forward and away from you if you're in a tight space. The Mercedes trunk lid has conventional hinges similar to a Ford Taurus.

Folding Rear Seats

This is an option on both cars. The BMW rear seats lock with the ignition key for security. I'm unsure of the Mercedes rear seats.

It's trivial to get into the trunk if the forces of evil break into your car and the rear seats are unlocked.


The E500 offers the "Keyless Go" option which allows you to lock, unlock, start and stop the car without ever touching or looking at the key. So long as you have the key with you you never need to touch it!

There's no similar option on the 540i. This option is a huge convenience on the E500. I wish every car had this.

On the E500 with the Keyless Go option all you do to unlock your car and open the door is to pull the handle! It knows the key is in your pocket without having to touch (or even find) it. With this option all you need to do to start the car is to press the brake pedal and tap the START button on the shifter. Just tap it and the car cranks itself and starts automatically. Tap it again to stop. To lock the doors all you need to do is press the rubber button on the door handle. You never need to hold or even find your keys so long as they are with you.

If you don't get the Keyless Go option and actually use the key then the BMW's key is superior. The BMW key has a self-charging battery that never needs replacement. The BMW key is better designed so you can identify each button by feel. You'll have to look at the mushier Mercedes key to be sure to hit the right button. The BMW key is solid and clicks confidently when you press any of the buttons.

Valet Parking

The Mercedes key is superior if you want your trunk kept locked while valet parking.

The BMW uses a traditional dedicated valet key. I've never carried the separate valet key. It stays home, and the valets always get my whoile key ring with my real key and keys to everything else.

The Mercedes key ingeniously has two parts which click together and are always with you! The metal master key is attached to your key ring. You use this key to deadbolt your trunk and storage.

The Mercedes electronic remote control clicks over the metal master key. Most Mercedes owners don't even know that there's an unlocking lever near the hole through which their key ring passes. Press this lever and you can slide the plastic electronic remote off the metal master key which stays on your key ring.

This is brilliant: press the unlock lever and only hand the kid the plastic remote control. You keep your key ring with your house and master car key to yourself. Not only is this easy and practical, but you don't look like a paranoid dork fiddling with keys when you hand them over. The valet will never suspect you have $32,500,000 worth of diamonds in the trunk and your unconcerned demeanor won't tempt him to look.

Mercedes has eliminated the valet function from the newest (2005 - 2006) cars. Double check if this is important to you. The newest Mercedes trunks can't deadbolt, even though you still have the clever two-part key.


Both offer glass moonroofs.

The E500 has an optional panorama glass roof not available on the 540. This adds a second rear glass sunroof with an interior cover that can be drawn. Only the front sunroof pops open. This offers the rear seat passengers their own sunroof!

The E500 offers an optional Solar Panel ($925) which uses electricity generated from the sun to run fans to ventilate the car when parked in the hot sun. The BMW doesn't offer this, but the 540i has an extraordinarily powerful air conditioning system which cools down a hot car fast.


The E500 comes in prettier colors than the mostly boring BMW colors.


All BMW 540s come standard with magnificent intelligent continuously self-adjusting xenon low beams. There are no options.

I'm unsure of the base configuration of the E500. There is a bi-xenon option which includes xenon high beams as well as low beams. The 540 only has xenon low beams.


I prefer the driving experience of the 540i. It's more fun if you enjoy going out for a ride for its own sake.

I prefer the dealer and manufacturer care and support of the Mercedes. If there's ever a problem Mercedes is sure to make it right while with BMW you may be hung out to dry on your own.

The Mercedes is probably comfier for passengers or long trips.

If you want to drive for it's own sake (Fahrvergnügen or Freude am Fahren) the 540i wins. If you want a pleasant ownership experience the Mercedes wins.

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