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1998 Mercedes Benz E420

  • Choosing a car at dealership. Thoughtful grey hair man in formalwear leaning at the car and looking away

Sometimes, the Weather God smiles.

Normally, you'd hope for a nice sunny week to test a $75,000 luxury sedan.

Instead, I got one of Toronto's worst blizzards in recent memory. But it was the perfect opportunity to evaluate Mercedes Benz's new Electronic Stability Program (ESP), a

skid prevention technology that's standard on all the company's V12 engined S and SL class cars, and a $1,500 option on its V8 E, S and SL class models.

My test car was an E420, the new last year E-class sedan with the new this year 4.2-litre V8 engine.

ESP works in concert with the car's antilock brake and traction control systems, but goes a giant step further. Sensors in the car measure lateral acceleration, the rotation of the

steering wheel, and yaw how much the car is rotating about its vertical axis; in other words, how much it is actually turning.

If the car is under steering, meaning the yaw is less than the driver's input at the steering wheel is calling for (think of it as ploughing), the system automatically reduces engine power, if it decides that'll help, and applies the inside rear wheel's brake, to drag the car back on course.

If the E420 is oversteering, i.e. the yaw rate is greater than the steering wheel is demanding (in the vernacular, fishtailing), power is again cut, if applicable, and the outside front brake is applied.

Frankly, this sounds like it would exacerbate the oversteer; you'd think the car would rotate even faster about that wheel's contact patch.

All I can tell you is: it works.

I had little choice but to brave this blizzard, given the hot date I had with Wheels readers at the Toronto auto show that Sunday afternoon. The 401 was a mess.

TRUCK SQUARE DANCE

The ploughs couldn't keep up with the tens of centimetres of snow accumulating. Transport trucks were building up those lovely ruts that snag your wheels and take you wherever the last truck went, whether you want to or not.

The 401 was actually closed at Mississauga Rd. due to a four-truck square dance that took 10 hours to clean up.

By the time I reached the city, the ploughs had been out, but had only begun to make a dent in the damage. At one point, I sailed into a fresh plough spoor that must have been 25 cm deep.

None of this bothered the midsize Merc at all.

When I hit a deep rut, the yellow warning triangle in the instrument panel with the exclamation point in the middle started to flash, the ABS system started pumping whichever brake it had calculated would bail me out, and the car barely wavered

off line.

Slippery roads give a rear-drive car, especially one with 275 horsepower and 295 poundfeet of torque, lots of chance to oversteer. Whenever that was imminent, again that little yellow light would flash, the ABS pumping noises began, and I could sense the invisible hand of ESP slapping the car upside the head, bringing it under control.

Ditto when I piled into a corner too fast, and the front end started to wash out: the flashing light, the subtle noises, and the resumption of the chosen path. This, by the way, took place in a snowy parking lot, with lots of room. Do not attempt at home.

The ESP never felt totally natural, as it wouldn't if your passenger suddenly reached over and grabbed the steering wheel.

Unlike your passenger, however, this system is likely to make the right decisions.

Mercedes's lawyers ensured that the sales brochure for this car is full of disclaimers: that no system can suspend the laws of physics, that you must drive this car with prudence.

They actually have a right to be concerned, because a few kilometres under truly terrible conditions like those I encountered could easily leave you with a sense of overconfidence.

ONE CONCERN

My only concern is that the system can be switched off.

Doing so also disables the engine management component of the traction control (the brake intervention remains active). This is backwards, in my view. You should be able to switch the traction control system off while leaving ESP active.

As noted in last week's diatribe on traction control, I actually got stuck in the E420, trying to climb a slippery hill.

Foot to the floor, rear wheels immobilized by the traction control, engine dying, its meagre remaining output being absorbed by the torque converter. I had to get out of there or an eight-year-old rear-drive Caprice taxi would have slammed into me. He was having no trouble getting up this hill, and I can only imagine how good his tires were. I had to shut off the traction control to allow the car to develop sufficient wheel spin to, literally, make the grade, but was left without ESP.

That apart, I was deeply impressed by how this electronic trickery can provide very nearly the poor traction capability of four-wheel drive with considerably lower weight, complexity and cost. It is bound to become the next technological safety story.

Cadillac already has a similar system called StabiliTrak; BMW and others won't be far behind.

Hmmmmm, almost done and I haven't told you anything about the rest of the E420. It's very much like an E-class sedan with a V8 engine. Hey, big surprise.

The car feels heavier than the six-cylinder E320, more so than its 65 extra kg would suggest. It may have been due to the speed dependent variable assist on the rack and pinion steering.

These systems sometimes have a numbing effect on a car's behavior.

Or it may have been a side effect of the big, torquey engine.

The E420 isn't a great deal faster than the E320: the 0 to 100 km/h times are 7.0 and 7.8 seconds respectively. But it does achieve its performance in a more relaxed fashion, which is not to say that the soon to be dropped inline six is in any way frantic.

Indeed, the main advantage of choosing the V8 over the six is that ESP isn't offered with the smaller motor.

Otherwise, the two E class sisters are the same car, with all its manifold benefits, lots of room, all the mod cons, fine handling, excellent ride, terrific build quality, bank vault

solidity and one serious drawback: I can barely fit behind the wheel.

BOLSTER BLUES

Like all Mercedes Benzes sold in North America, the E class has a massive padded bolster below the steering column, designed to protect your knees in a serious frontal collision.

If you like to sit upright, fairly close to the wheel, as proper driver training suggests as the best stance to maintain control of your car, your knees are already in contact with this

bolster. Hit something, and it's very difficult to imagine how your thigh bones won't end up like pretzels.

Mercedes Benz rightly claims serious bragging rights when it comes to car safety engineering, and I'm sure they wouldn't put these things in if they didn't do some good. But the European spec Benzes do not have them; I can only conclude that

something happens in the U.S. mandated frontal crash test that forces Mercedes's hand.

Too bad. It would be enough to eliminate this car from my personal consideration, not that I can afford a $75,000 car.

If you can, and if you fit, it's hard to imagine a more impressive automobile to spend that money on.

Freelance journalist Jim Kenzie prepared this report based on driving experiences with a vehicle provided by the automaker.

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