We all have our guilty pleasures. Mine used to be watching How I Met Your Mother, until I got to season seven and decided it was taking way too long to find out who the hell the mother was. Seriously, I think after seven years, anyone would settle for someone and learn to love them later. This, I believe, is the same reasoning as to why the Toyota Camry tops the sales charts. It's buyers will buy it because of the reviews and reputation, live with it for seven years, and then say it's the best car in the world and they love it because there's no reason to have it for seven years.
And so we come to my automotive guilty pleasure, the W211 E-Class. You know, the car advertised as being the most beautiful Mercedes-Benz at that time (ironic was the testing regiment that the car was supposed to have been subjected to), and it was (at least until the CLS debuted). It also appeared in Men In Black 2, where it belonged to the Will Smith character. Available with a 3.2-liter V-6 (this one had more problems) or a 5.0-liter V8 (since this one was available longer, not as many), it should have underscored Mercedes's reputation for beautiful cars made to a standard.
However, despite being a Mercedes, it had an extraordinarily high number of reported problems. With Mercedes problems already being at a high because of the issues with the W210 (the first E-Class with four headlamps), Mercedes loyalists decided to chalk the problems down as a one time occurrence and bought these cars in droves. Big mistake. Many of them ditched Mercedes cars for the rest of the decade. Some even didn't buy the CLS when it was available at the end of their lease period specifically because of their E-Class experience.
The fun part was in 2007, when I was helping my uncle look at midsize luxury sedans. Every salesman other than the Mercedes salesperson referenced how their business on the BMW 5-Series/Audi A6/Lexus GS/Infiniti M went up purely because of people scared of purchasing another Mercedes because of the rampant problems with them. In fact, the BMW salesman specifically referenced how many people had bought the 5-Series after buying out their E-Class leases because they had grown tired of taking the car to the shop all the time. Needless to say, my uncle didn't get the E-Class, despite it becoming an E350 with the new 7G-TRONIC transmission.
So why do I like it? It mainly has to do with the looks. At the time of its debut, it was fresher look than the E39 5-Series and the styling was very much improved over the W210. But the W211 E-Class became even better-looking when the E60 5-Series, with BMW designer Chris Bangle's "flame-surfacing" design language came out. Then people who once would've easily bought the 5-Series started to give the E-Class a look.
After all, the W211 handled better than the typical Mercedes, yet looked so good. And it had so many new whiz-bang tech options to make it worth the look. Unfortunately, within a month of ownership, all the problems would come out. And there were a lot. For instance, one of my dad's friends owned a 2004 E320. Within six months it was leaking oil onto the garage floor. Lord knows how many times he had to take it to the dealer for electrical issues. By the end of it, he was calling it "a girl's car." Needless to say, I don't think he'll buy Mercedes ever again.
There were many problems. This thread on the MBWorld forums documents every single thing wrong with the car. And there were a lot. From steering controller issues, to brake sensitivity issues, door locks going, and air suspension failing to work. As a result, every thread about early W211s will tell you to avoid any of the cars from 2003-2005. You should, but I know I won't.
That's because when the much-mechanically improved, facelifted versions of the W211 E-Class arrived in 2007, they had a new upright grille and a new front bumper that didn't look as cleanly integrated as the old one did. Additionally, I think they simplified the taillight design too much. Even the wheel designs got boring. Mercedes had ruined a once-beautiful car. My theory is they did it so they could steer E-Class customers or E-Class leasers towards the CLS, with its higher transaction prices and being built just for looks.
In the end, I'd buy one of these on looks alone and the fact they go for a song. Sure, I might have to spend a bundle on maintenance but eventually it'll be fine. A purchase of an early W211 E-Class is similar to the purchase of a classic Alfa Romeo. At some point, you've replaced enough of the parts and done enough work that the car is in better shape than when it first left the factory. That's the type of devotion the W211 E-Class requires. In my view, it's definitely going to be a future classic like the older W110s and W115s from the 1960s and 70s, but with much better looks. You should definitely consider it.