2003 Mercedes-Benz E500 Four Seasons Test

Distant Front View

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.

Driver Side Front Interior View

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

Full Engine View

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.

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