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Mercedes-Benz 450 Series

Quality is more than just a state of mind

Road & Track, August 1977

What you've always suspected is true. Many of those people driving in Mercedes-Benz cars are doctors - in fact, nearly one out of every five of the 215 owners responding to our survey of 450 series M-Bs checked that occupation on the questionnaire. And the Engineering Editor quips that the high milage accumulated on the cars (27% with 40,000 miles or more) is a result of all those doctors making house calls. But let's start at the beginning and see what we've learned about the 450SE, SEL, SL and SLC models.

The cars covered in this survey actually began with the 350SL 4.5 introduced to te U.S. in late 1971 as a 1972 model. Daimler-Benz had decided to end the 230/250/280SL series because of the increasinly stringent emission and safety regulations in the U.S. A new car with more weight and less performance was the result, but this is not a new story - many manufacturers were having the same problem in the early Seventies. The 450SLC, SE and SEL followed in 1973.

Of the 215 cars used for this survey, 11 are 1972 models. 90 are 1973s, 60 are 1974s, 42 are 1975s and 12 are 1976s. The most popular model is the SE with 84, followed by the SL with 72, the SEL with 51 and, bringing up the rear, the SLC accounts for only eight. Our cutoff point for acceptable minimum milage is 10,000 miles, so the breakdown for miles driven looks like this: 25% between 10,000 and 20,000; 24% between 20,000 and 30,000; 24% between 30,000 and 40,000; 15% have driven 40,000 to 50,000 miles and 12% have 50,000 miles or more.

Seventy-seven percent of the respondents purchased their Mercedes new, almost identical to our last survey of Mercedes-Benz owners (230/250/280SL, August 1970) which showed 76% were first-time owners of the car. We were not at all surprised to learn that 87% own more than one car, considering the relative affluence necessary to be a Mercedes owner, but it was somewhat surprising that 60% of those who own more than one actually have three of more cars (10% own five or more!).

Because the 450 series cars are quite well equipped as they come from the factory, adding optional equipment is not a big pastime with our respondents, but 40% ordered sunroofs, 19% added optional wheels and 13% selected cruise control.

Why a Mercedes?

Engineering is the most common reason for choosing a Mercedes, with 96% of the owners mentioning that factor. This is closely followed by handling (88%) and then there are four more reasons checked on more than 50% of the surveys; styling 70%, comfort 68%, reliability 67% and ride characteristics 64%. We were pleased to find an honest 7% of the owners who came right out and said ego satisfaction and prestige influenced their choice of a Mercedes. Other more significant numbers in this category include 47% listing performance as a reason for choosing the car and 45% who find the interior space use and efficiency an important criterion.

How the Cars are Used & Maintained

Daily transportation is a function of 92% of the cars in this survey and 64% are also put to good use for vacationing and long trips. Two percent of the cars are used for business only, 4% of the owners mentioned fun and pleasure driving and 3% participate in rallies and slaloms.

Considering the nature of the cars, it's not too surprising that more than half (51%) of the Mercedes 450 series owners describe their driving style as moderate, a percentage exceeded only by the Peugeot 504 (R&T, July 1974) with 56%. An additional 42% say they drive hard and 7% characterize their driving style as very hard. A 450SEL owner from New York perhaps summed it up best when he wrote, "The Mercede-Benz has to be the most enjoyable car in a practical package. In the family we also have an Alfa Romeo GTV and a Lancia Beta coupe... yet only the Mercedes offers the best of all worlds. Sedate when you desire, yet great fun to fling around like a sports car." It's clear that while more than half the owners say they drive moderately, most of them realize their cars have the potential for more spirited driving.

Perhaps because of the sizable investment they have in their cars, Mercedes owners take very good care of them, with 89% stating that they follow of exceed the recommended service schedule, the highest percentage we've recorded for any car. Only 1% say they don't have their cars maintained as they should and 10% checked the heading "mostly".

Mercedes-Benz dealer service appears to be comparable to that of other German car dealers, at least in the eyes of the owners, as a combined total of 65% rate the service excellent (32%) or good (33%). The combined total falls into line with earlier surveys for BMW, Porsche and Volkswagen owners. Eighteen percent of the Mercedes owners find the dealer service only fair and 17% rate it poor. As with all makes, Mercedes owners have a widely divergent opinions about their dealers, ranging from glowing praise ("The dealer has been unbelievably helpful") to bitter vituperation ("... dealers are phonies, cut throats and liars when it comes to parts, service or sales." - expletives deleted).

One of the new categories we've added to the questionnaire deals with rating the price of parts and, because it's only recently that we have begun to ask the question, we don't have much comparative data as yet. Nevertheless, Mercedes owners clearly feel parts are expensive: 83% said so, (Our Fiat X1/9 owner survey in the May 1977 issue showed that only 49% of those owners rated parts as expensive.) While there were a few people who found the availability of parts a problem, more than two-thirds of the owners (68%) rated this category either good or very good and 21% said it was fair.

Best & Worst Features

Thirty percent or more of the Mercedes owners agreed on eight best features of the cars: workmanship (69%), fun to drive (61%), handling (57%), ride characteristics (40%), reliability (36%), performance (34%), quiet (31%) and efficient interior layout and use of space (30%). A very impressive list by any standard. The owners' comments show a marked enthusiasm for the cars. A southern California actor/writer/journalist wrote, "I can think of no way the car could be improved. It is as close to being perfect as any machine can be." A reader from Vancouver told us it's undoubtedly the best car in the world, that he's owned four Mercedes and, "It's a true pity all the people who appreciate this type of car cannot afford one." An engineer from Tennessee wrote, "Fifth Mercedes-Benz I have owned - in my opinion there is no better automobile" and an Indiana doctor claims, "This car is absolutely SUPER!!"

The other side of the coin, worth features, does not reveal anything like the unanimity of the best features. Thirty-six percent of the owners listed poor gas milage, 11% checked reliability, 10% cited lack of performance and 9% said the noise level was a worst feature. From there, the percentages drop off considerably, with 6% mentioning lack of room, 5% who didn't like the expense of maintenance, 4% unhappy with dealer service and 3% saying the poor finish is a worst feature. It surprised us that only 2% listed price in this category, but perhaps that's the sort of thing that separates the Mercedes-Benz owner from the rest of us.

The denigrating comments were as strong as the praise given above: a southern Californian 450SL owner wrote, "There are so many areas that need improving it's hard to know where to start. Sun visors that stay put, glovebox light that doesn't go dead, a good U.S. battery, better disc brake pads, better quality leather, better driveability, better gas mileage." On the other side of the country, a Baltimore, Maryland, doctor opined, "The service is terrible, car very unreliable and ride too hard." And a San Francisco auto dealer wrote to tell us of the many small parts that break constantly, which he finds inconceivable on a $20,000 car.

Problem Areas

For the more than 30 models we have surveyed in this series, the average number of problem areas shared by more than 5% of the owners is 12. Our previous Mercedes survey of the 230/250/280SL cars (August 1970) is still the leader with only three problem areas common to 5% or more of the cars. Unfortunately, the 450 series does not come close to matching the reliability and durability of the earlier Mercedes survey result. We tabulated nine problem areas reported by at least 5% of the respondents, with three of those nine shared by 10% or more. Of course, the total of nine is still below the average, but we were surprised there were that many, probably because of the exemplary result in the earlier Mercedes survey.

The most common complaint, shared by 29% of the survey takers, deal with brake pads wearing out prematurely and having to be replaced at anywhere from 6000 to 10,000 miles. The reason for the softness of the pads is attributable to a Department of Transportation regulation governing the maximum allowable brake pedal pressure without boost (in case of a failure in the power assist). To meet that requirement, Daimler-Benz installs softer pads than are used in Europe. A spokesman for Mercedes-Benz of North America informed us that an improved (longer wearing) pad was put into service in 1976 and that the pads have been further improved since that time.

The second most common complaint deals with premature tire wear and failure, mentioned by 14% of the owners. The vast majority of these complaints were from owners whose cars were equipped with Phoenix fabric-belted radial tires which Mercedes stopped using in early 1975. Most of the others were from owners who found Dunlop tires unacceptable on 1972 and 1973 cars, but Dunlop made some design changes in 1974 to alleviate the problem. Today, Mercedes-Benz recommends either Michelin XVS or Dunlop SP Sport D/1 tires 205/70HR-14 size) for the models in this survey.

The third category listed as a problem area by 10% of the owners is a bit more difficult to narrowly define. It concerns failure of various electrical motors - those that operate the power windows, windshield wipers and radio antenna primarily. In the under 10% category, 9% of the owners complained of exhaust system problems, mostly muffler and tailpipe assemblies that wore out too quickly and cracked exhaust manifolds. There were four different problem areas mentioned by 6% of the owners: body parts (arm rests that fell off, instrument panels that kept popping out of place, etc), instrument failures (speedometers, tachometers, clocks and guages) and air conditioning system problems (most often compressor failure), including one unfortunate Canadian who was driving through Phoenix, Arizona, when the temperature was well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit and his air conditioner packed it in! The last of the 6% problem areas was the autoatic door locking system. An even 5% of the Mercedes owners surveyed complained of steering problems, almost all of them related to leaks in the power-assist reservoir.

In a year-to-year breakdown, we were not able to identify any significant correlation of model year and problem areas. The tire difficulties of premature wear and failure seem to be less frequent with the 1976 models but the data is inconclusive because of the small number of 1976 models with sufficient mileage to be included in the survey. None of the nine problem areas, by the way, is considered by us to be a reliability area that would make the car unsafe or impossible to drive.


The Mercedes owners who responded to our questionnaire represent an interesting group of people. As we mentioned at the outset, doctors are the single largest group with 19%, followed by salesmen (14%), management personnel (12%), engineers (9%) and attorneys (6%). And the football fans on our staff were delighted to see that one of the all-time great defensive linemen of the Minnesota Vkings responded to our survey (not surprisingly, he found the dealer service excellent, but then who in his right mind would hassle him?).

Our age breakdown shows Mercedes owners to be older than the average for our surveys, with 51% 40 years of age or more. Geographically, the western U.S. accounted for 25% of the total participating in the survey (California alone has 18% of the total!), followed by the north central states with 18%, the north east with 13%, south east 12%, south central 9%, mid-Atlantic states 6% and the balance coming from the central states, Alaska, Hawaii, Canada (6%) and overseas.

A majority (77%) of Mercedes-Benz 450 series owners are sufficiently pleased with their cars that they would purchase another. Twelve percent say they would not and the bulk of those people feel the price has simply put the car out of their reach. A number of respondents mentioned that they had paid $10,000 to $14,000 for their cars, but now that comparable models were priced at $20,000 or more, they just could not or would not pay that. An additional 11% of the owners were undecided, citing the price factor or reliability or maintenance costs as the prime reasons for their indecision.

Itt's clear from our tabulation of the survey results that the Mercedes-Benz 450 series cars are well appreciated by more than three-quarters of their owners. There is not the same level of marque loyalty as with some cars such as Porsche (95% would buy another), Alfa Romeo (94%) or even the economical Honda Civic (94%). Frankly, we are not surprised at the 77% number of those who would buy again, because our intuition tells us there are those who are not that committed to the car itself but rather to the image it enables them to project on the world.

But, for the true Mercedes lover, there is nothing like it. Two of our readers summed it up best. An Oakland, California, man wrote, "I've had three Corvettes, one Porsche, six Corvairs, a Lincoln and various other cars, but this car is the best I've ever owned. Now i don't want any other make except Mercedes-Benz." And a New Orleans, Louisiana, man describes it this way: "The best all-round city car in the world - fast, quiet, smooth - and there's nothing better on long trips either!" Finally, we just can't resist mentioning the student in Philadelphia who loves his 450SE and whose only complaint is that when he uses the car for dating, the girls expect expensive dates.