- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 10, 2004

Because a Mercedes-Benz ML-350 AWD sport ute saved my life during an accident last year, I’m very partial to that vehicle. But Mercedes-Benz has another vehicle that could do just as well in a crash, and equally as well in the snow.

The E500 station wagon with 4Matic (essentially all-wheel drive) really impressed me during our last snowstorm. I put it through the ultimate test over a snow- and ice-crusted alley behind my house. The alley has about a 15-degree pitch on one end and it was from there that I punched the throttle from a standing stop. The E500s straight-line AWD traction control alleviated tire spin and its ESP stability-control system kept the car straight as an arrow as it vigorously ascended the slippery, elevated grade. The wagon displayed unbelievable handling and traction under extremely ice conditions.

A week later I put an AWD Dodge Durango to the same test. The Durango fishtailed and its tires spun somewhat despite its having traction control, albeit a less efficient system than on the E500.

The Mercedes-Benz ESP (Electronic Stability Program) uses sensors to monitor individual wheel speed, steering angle and lateral acceleration. In addition, ESP uses an advanced yaw sensor derived from aircraft technology and one similar to that being used in Lear jets.

When the car becomes unstable and begins to slide or spin, ESP temporarily applies brake pressure at one or more wheels — a maneuver no driver can accomplish — to restore the driver’s intended path of travel. Combining ESP with traction control and AWD gives the E500 sure footing when the going gets tough.

As for ride, it’s luxury sedan-smooth and exceptionally quiet. An air-suspension system is standard on E500s and comes with three firmness settings. The car was also equipped with grippy 17-inch tires and Distronic cruise control, which automatically maintains a set distance between your car and the one in front.

The car sports first-class interior accommodations and is adorned with leather upholstery and wood trim that add to the car’s overall driving/riding comfort. The E500 makes a good alternative to a high-stanced SUV and has almost comparable cargo capacity in a more sedanlike environment.

The care is available with either a 3.2-liter, 221-horsepower V-6 (E320) or 5.0-liter, 302-horsepower V-8. I tested the latter and found it to be extremely powerful and responsive at all rpm ranges. With the V-8, fuel economy is a meager 16 miles per gallon city, 22 highway EPA mpg, or similar to a slew of other V-8-powered SUVs.

The E500 has a multitude of other safety features, making it one of the safest cars on the road. If I’m destined to have another accident, I hope I’m in a Mercedes-Benz. In addition to frontal air bags, it has 6-foot-long, 14-inch-high side curtain airbags that deploy from the ceiling and directly above the side windows for cocoon-type security. The bags even extend across the front and rear windows, giving added protection in the event of a rollover.

Unfortunately, all this safety, stability, utility and posh comfort comes at a premium price. For the E500, the base price is $59,950 nicely equipped. A lot of money, but a lot of high-tech European car for the investment.

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