2003 Mercedes-Benz AWD Line

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2003 Mercedes-Benz E320 by John Pearley Huffman (12/9/2002)



MONTREAL, Quebec -- There are those who will tell you that, with all the modern traction control and yaw control systems available for rear-drive cars and station wagons, you really don’t need to pay extra for all-wheel drive. And that may be okay for drivers in about 40 of our 50 states, but in New England and along the Northern Tier, those states that border Canada, all-wheel drive looms larger every year.

Mercedes-Benz, already locked in a war of giants with BMW for sales leadership in luxury cars, has decided to at least make its 4Matic all-wheel-drive system available to as many customers as possible, adding it this spring to the option list for the S500 luxury sedan, the C240 sedan, and wagon and C320 sedan and wagon, bringing their total to 32 AWD vehicles by autumn of this year.

Previously, the 4Matic system was only available in E320 and E430 sedans and wagons, achieving an astounding 66 percent penetration last year. Mercedes-Benz cited statistics showing that all-wheel-drive luxury cars went from seven to 10 percent AWD penetration worldwide from 1999 to 2002, and that, in the C segment, from four to nine percent in the same period, increases of 43 percent and 125 percent, respectively, in three years.

4Matic branches out

The Mercedes-Benz all-wheel-drive system is a variant of the computer-controlled 4Matic ETS pioneered on the M-Class SUV. It uses the ABS systems’ disc brakes to control wheelspin whenever and wherever it happens, instead of relying on more complex, heavier and more expensive locking differentials.

The system uses open differentials and is geared to distribute 60 percent of engine torque to the rear wheels, and 40 percent to the front wheels (the M-Class SUV uses a two-speed transfer case with a low range, a split of 48/52, and has special off-road programs in its electronic controls; the top-line G-Class SUV uses a 50/50 torque split and three locking differentials).

Mercedes-Benz says the updated 4Matic ETS system will keep the car going in snow, ice, mud, or rain even if only one of the four tires has traction, without the cost and weight penalties. It will be priced at $1800 for the C-Class, and $2900 for the S-Class, the price difference due to the extra complexity of combining the front half of the drive system with the more complex S-Class front suspension system. It will be added to the new E-Class sedan and even newer E-Class wagon, in E320 and E500 forms, in a few months, at a price somewhere between the two.

Drive to the front wheels is taken off the rear end of the automatic transmission on the right side, where a driveshaft delivers torque to the front differential tucked under the right side of the engine, whether the C-Class 2.6-liter V-6 or the S500’s 5.0-liter V-8. It’s a full-time system with no switches, buttons or low range, and it works in continuous concert with the ABS braking and ESP stability systems to keep the car on its intended path.

Mercedes-Benz vice-president of marketing Dave Schembri said at the introductory test-drive program here that new orders for the C-Class are already running 50 percent with 4Matic, and more than 30 percent for the bigger, heavier and vastly more expensive S500, even though the national advertising campaign hasn’t started yet, with penetration as high as 80 percent for the S-Class in Snow Belt states. He said buyers of the new E-Class sedan and wagon are expected to go for 4Matic at a 35-40 percent rate.

Testing and future models

A brief test drive of both the S500 4Matic and E240 wagon 4Matic in extremely cold and icy conditions on roads north of Montreal in –22˚ F. weather and high winds proved the system’s merits for us, working silently and transparently on almost every surface we encountered, with an occasional bit of side slip followed by a quick recovery and return to a straight path. Although it was so cold the windshield washer fluid froze to the glass, the 4Matic system worked as advertised with both the big-power heavyweight S500 and the $34,000 wagon.

Will Mercedes-Benz go across the board in the next few years, adding 4Matic ETS to the SL roadster, the CL coupe, the new SLK roadster and the CLK hardtop coupe and cabriolet? They said their research shows that these buyers don’t ask for it very often, but….

In other Mercedes-Benz all-wheel-drive news, the company announced that the ML320 will be replaced this year by a new ML350, with a 3.5-liter V-6 replacing the 3.2, adding 17 horsepower and 21 pound-feet of torque while meeting California ULEV emissions standards. A new Inspiration Edition of the M-Class will be tarted up with special interior and exterior trim, leather sports seats, dark poplar wood trim, 17-inch six-spoke alloy wheels, a painted grille, power seats, privacy glass, and metallic paint. The package will be $2540 on the new ML350, and $1200 on the ML500, which already carries some items as standard equipment. TheCarConnection will have an in-depth look at the new E-Class wagon in a couple of weeks, so stay tuned.

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