Historically, the force that has made Mercedes-Benz automobiles so celebrated over their 100-plus-year history has not been luxury or styling or value; it's been engineering.But Mercedes-Benz seems to have been let down by its engineers lately. These days, advanced automotive engineering takes the form of increasingly brainy electronics and proliferating computer controls. These advanced electronics, however, have brought more heartache than hosannas to the three-pointed star. Electronic glitches have tarnished the brand's quality reputation, despite the fact that its cars are more capable than ever.
In our first drives of the new E-class, for instance, it certainly impressed us-much more than its predecessor. The V-8-powered version, the E500, was particularly seductive. But we approached our full-year test with some trepidation. Would the E's appeal last, or would problems with overly complex electronics overwhelm the driving experience?
Besides issues of reliability, there's also the sense of remoteness and artificiality that computers and electronics can create. The E500 certainly puts a lot of circuits between the driver and the car's mechanicals, what with its electronic braking system (SBC), variable-effort power steering, and three-position selectable spring rates for the air suspension. These areas did provoke some grumbling among our test drivers. Ultimately, however, the electronics were neither troublesome enough nor intrusive enough to overshadow the car's innate goodness.
We should tackle the reliability question first, because it's easily settled. During the course of 36,059 miles, we had a seat sensor go bad, which caused the SRS (airbag) warning light to come on; we had the stereo quit because of a software problem; and we had to replace a tire-pressure sensor. Not automotive perfection but hardly crippling.
The original-equipment tires didn't exactly blow us away with their longevity. Two of the original Continental ContiTouringContacts wore out at 21,000 miles, and the other two were vibrating, so we wanted to have them balanced. Continental couldn't find any matching ContiTouringContacts, so we took four new SportContact 2s instead.
Our E500 also was part of Mercedes-Benz's biggest-ever recall, for its electronic braking system. The problem involved the failure of the electronic function, leaving the car dependent on standard hydraulic brake action. The fix is a software upgrade. We never experienced any braking irregularities-unless you count the logbook comments of the people who simply found the brakes difficult to operate smoothly.
This was the biggest criticism of the car in its early days. "It's a shame that this car's newest technology, electronic brakes, should mar an otherwise world-class dynamic package," wrote one tester. "I don't know about anyone else, but I find it nearly impossible to achieve a smooth, fast stop.
The last ten percent of pedal travel is very difficult to modulate." He was not alone: "I cannot get the car to brake smoothly all the way to a stop," came one response. Another concurred: "The electronic brakes seem to be trying to read your mind rather than your foot." But this difficulty was not universal. Executive editor Mark Gillies, senior editor Joe DeMatio, and technical editor Don Sherman all professed to have no problem
with the brakes. After a time, even some of the early complainers got used to them. And the high-tech brakes certainly were effective, stopping the car from 70 mph in 181 feet in our tests. But perhaps the final word on the brakes comes from Mercedes-Benz itself, which, after putting them on the E-class and the SL, has allowed that it will not be fitting them to the upcoming new S-class.
Variable-effort power steering is hardly the same degree of exotic technology, but the tuning of the E500's boost nonetheless drew some attention. Turn quickly into a corner, particularly at higher speeds, and you feel the steering assist change abruptly; it's not very fluid. That said, this car goes down the road with a precision and solidity that were once E-class hallmarks but had disappeared from the previous model, a situation about which we complained bitterly. The brand's previous U.S. PR manager told us that when the current car was being developed, the engineers reread our Four Seasons test of the last
E-class and tried to address our criticisms. He may have been just blowing smoke up our butts, but all we know is that what was lost now is found.
The final bit of technology that left us unsatisfied was the three-position selectable firmness for the Airmatic air-spring suspension (standard on the V-8 E-class and optional on the E320). We generally find that although such solutions claim to be all things to all people, they are in fact a cop-out for a development team that couldn't engineer-or couldn't agree upon-a single setting that balances both ride and handling.
Gillies elaborates: "In standard mode, the ride is good on the highway and in town, but too floaty in corners. Switch to sport, and the ride becomes way too firm. The intermediate mode sacrifices ride quality while offering little additional body control." Rather than search for the setting that's Just Right, most of us acclimated by choosing the one that's Just Right Now, cruising in the comfort mode most of the time (particularly on Michigan's truck-pummeled pavement) and switching to the firm setting for high-energy corner carving. Having to switch back and forth is not the most elegant solution, but it works.
When switched on, the E500 works exceptionally well, in fact. Contributing photographer Glenn Paulina piloted our E500 for several thousand miles in and around Death Valley, and this longtime BMW guy (currently a 5-series owner) came away very impressed with the E500's moves. "The E500 handles both the sweepers and the tight stuff better than any Mercedes I can remember. Even the sportiest Mercs of old seemed to be cars that tolerated the corners and preferred to be powered from one to the next. This Benz dances through curves BMW-style. It really is a performance car now." Sherman also drew a bead on the
E500's personality shift: "No longer a cruiser, the new E is a charger, with aggressively tuned responses, ample adhesion, and glorious power reserves."
Ah, those glorious power reserves. They come courtesy of Mercedes' 5.0-liter V-8, which the company has been dispatching into one car line after another. Wherever it appears, the all-aluminum SOHC V-8 is as welcome as a busload of scantily clad babes at a frat house. The 24-valve 5.0-liter gets the party started with 302 hp and 339 lb-ft of torque, enough energy to blast the E500 from a standstill to 60 mph in 5.5 seconds. As well mannered as it is muscular, the SOHC V-8 is an inveterate smoothie, yet it also emits a throaty growl when opened up. Mercedes-Benz's five-speed automatic is the perfect emissary for this engine, with its polished shifts and unfailing logic. Its preeminent position is bolstered by its TouchShift manual control, which remains a far better solution than separate shift gates, steering-wheel-mounted buttons, or paddles.
The subject of controls brings up an increasingly problematic area among high-end luxury cars, with more and more functions to control, leading to ever more complex interfaces, leading to rising blood pressures. Compared with its competitors, our E500 was blessedly straightforward, although it probably benefited from not having the optional navigation system, and it certainly benefited from its many months of sharing our test-car signout board with our long-term BMW 7-series.
Also enhancing its ease of use was the E-class's excellent outward visibility, thanks to the low cowl and slim pillars, both of which unfortunately are fast becoming rarities. When we directed our gaze inward, most of us found lots to like in the interior's design, which was described as "spot-on" and
"leagues better" than that of the new BMW 5-series. Gillies alone found the cabin materials "still a bit low-rent in some places," however. The seating comfort of the optional multicontour seats ($755) was generally praised, although several people did bemoan the absence of seat heaters in a car that cost $61,380.
Instead of seat heaters, our car's options list included a sunroof, a CD changer, premium sound, a tire-pressure monitoring system (more trouble than it was worth), a split-folding rear seat (yes, this costs $100 extra), and the Sport package. The latter consists of bi-xenon headlamps with washers, LED brake lights, black wood trim, sculpted side skirts and rear apron, blue tinted glass, and seventeen-inch sport wheels. The Sport package may not have added much to the E500's sportiness, but it certainly added to the car's visual appeal. This logbook comment, written in the first days of the car's year with us, was never challenged: "You have to love the way this car looks-understated, elegant, what a Benz should be."
"What a Benz should be" actually describes the E500 overall. The issues with electronics were minor gripes in an otherwise great car.