Kent's Sam Northeast and Durham's Dale Benkenstein registered the first centuries of the Championship season.
Northeast's 112 held together an otherwise fragile effort from Rob Key's team after winning the toss in the clash of last season's relegated sides at Chelmsford, where 17-year-old Reece Topley – son of former Essex bowler Don Topley – took a wicket with his third delivery in the first-class game as Kent were all out for 247.
But the Essex batsmen found conditions no more to their liking, sliding to 49 for six with their England duo, Alastair Cook and Ravi Bopara, both falling cheaply to all-rounder Darren Stevens, who ended with five for 14 from 12 overs.
Benkenstein's 118 was the centrepiece of an early show of strength by Durham. Supplemented by fluent half-centuries from Mark Stoneman, Gordon Muchall and Ian Blackwell, Durham claimed maximum batting points.
It was hard work for injury-hit Hampshire but there was encouragement for 19-year-old left-arm spinner Danny Briggs, whose long toil in the sun was rewarded with four wickets.
Glen Chapple took five for 68 as promoted Sussex were bowled out for 243 at Liverpool, where Joe Gatting fell 10 runs short of recording his second first-class century. Ed Joyce scored 84.
Half-centuries for Rory Hamilton-Brown and Gareth Batty helped Second Division favourites Surrey total 322 against Northamptonshire at the Oval, while left-arm spinner Claude Henderson's unbeaten 74 helped Leicestershire recover from 136 for seven to be 231 for nine against Glamorgan.
Will Gidman made 89 on his debut for the Gloucestershire side captained by brother Alex against Derbyshire.