I’m a pretty devoted BMW driver and I love the E39 530i that I’ve driven for almost four years. But at 21 years old and 340,000km on the odometer, it was developing some minor if annoying issues like doors and windows not opening and closing properly. Given that I also would probably need new tires soon, I decided to go looking for an alternative instead of pumping money into the BMW.
Alas, the choice is quite limited. For tax reasons it needed to be a car of at least 15 years old, and I don’t know whether it is due to the Covid-induced shortages and increased prices on the used market, and it definitely felt like there were less offerings than when I last shopped for a car four years ago. I wanted something equivalent to the E39. Unfortunately, it’s successor (BMW code E60) was not an option, as I 1) don’t like the looks, and 2) it has a reputation of being unreliable, especially when it comes to electronics.
I considered the 3 series (E90), but ran into several issues as well: most of the cars offered here are 318s, and I wasn’t willing to lose that much power. The only really option would be the 325i, and while there were some available, they often had either very high mileage or were quite expensive. I took a look at a few and also realized how relatively small these are on the inside compared to a 5 series or E-class. Not being an Audi guy I also considered a VW Passat, but once again failed to find something that tickled my fancy.
So the only true alternative appeared to be an E-class of the W211 generation.
Models and options
The W211 was sold in three trim levels. Classic was the base model, but essential things like cruise control and air conditioning were stock. The Elegance added nicer interior trim and lighting, and chrome accents on the outside. The same holds for the Avantgarde, which also added Xenon lights and a lowered, sportier suspension. The three configs also differ in wood trim.
There were many, many options and I suggest taking a look at a period price list to get an impression. The COMAND radio/navigation system is quite common, as is some sort of phone preparation in a car that was aimed towards businessmen. Most options are different trim/interior options. Functionally there’s things like the Distronic adaptive cruise control, four-zone climate control, sun roof, and sport suspension, but there’s nothing here that I would consider absolutely necessary.
The W211 received a facelift (MOPF = Modellpflege) in mid-2006. Externally these can be identified by a new lower front valance with oval fog lights, different mirrors, an antenna mounted on the roof instead of the rear window, and different rear lights. In the interior a new steering wheel is the giveaway. Technically the most important difference is the removal of the SBC brake.
The big elephant in the room with regard to the pre-facelift W211 is the SBC brake. SBC stands for servotronic brake control. It’s an electro-hydraulic brake system, essentially a brake-by-wire system where the hydraulic pressure is not created by a conventional master brake cylinder, but by a pump. Advantages are better individual modulation of all four brakes (for things like ESP and ABS), the ability for one-pedal driving, and slightly applying the brakes in regular intervals to clean the disks (especially in the case of rain) without the brake pedal reacting.
The downside: This system did not turn out to be as reliable as one would wish. There where to major recalls to replace the existing SBC unit with a redesigned one, and Mercedes designed to completely eliminate it from the E-class (the SL and Maybach retained it) with the facelift. This leads me to believe that the SBC was removed from the E-class not for liability reasons, but for cost. On a low-volume model like the SL the warranty costs would be lower than the costs of a redesign.
Each SBC unit has a code on top stating its version. The A005 is the first one that is considered reliable, walk away if the car you’re looking at has an earlier version. The one that is currently installed as replacement is the A009. With the versions starting with the A005, sudden failure if very unlikely. If the SBC fails, there’s still a fallback circuit that will allow you to brake, but since there’s no power brakes then the required pedal pressure is much higher. The SBC brakes now include a counter that at some point triggers a warning measure that the SBC unit should be replaced. There are hacks to reset the counter, by all means don’t do as this increases the chance of sudden failure. A new system from Mercedes will set you back about €2,000, but there are still cases being reported of Mercedes covering all costs. Full revision is also an option and significantly cheaper.
To sum it up, yes, preference should be given to a post-facelift model. But if you see a pre-facelift in good condition and an interesting spec, with at least the A005 SBC, take the cost for SBC revision or replacement into account during negotiations and go for it.
The E240 that is common for early W211s has a reputation of being slow and thirsty. The M271 four-cylinders are infamous for stretched timing chains. I’d also stay away from the CGI direct-injected gas engines. Diesels aren’t of interest to me. I’d recommend one of the later V6s such as the E280 and E350. While these do of course have variable valve timing and a variable inlet, they are less complicated than the BMW engines of the time (with their Valvetronic system) and are port injected instead of direct injected. Balance shafts make them run very smoothly. I’d not recommend the V8 for a daily driver, but if you want to have fun and don’t mind the fuel bill, go for it. There’s an E55 AMG, too.
A six-speed manual was standard, but most cars have an automatic gearbox – either a five-speed or seven-speed gearbox.
Rust, a major issue on the predecessor (W210) is not a real issue on the W211. The Air Ride suspension is known to be troublesome, stay away from cars equipped so. The normal suspension isn’t immune to wear either, with especially the front wishbones being an issue – those with BMW experience will feel right at home here. 😉
While BMW claims that their automatic transmissions don’t require oil changes (they do), Mercedes is smarter about this and require oil changes every 60,000 km. So make sure that the car has had regular maintenance, including the transmission oil changes. I’d stay away from cars with gaps in their service history.
I looked for cars built between 2006 and 2008, with less than 300,000 km on the odometer and a V6 engine. It also needed to be from a dealer as I wanted to trade in the BMW. The choice was very limited. I took a look at a facelift E280 Classic, but the paint was pretty bad and the upholstery covered in stains. The same dealer also had an older Avantgarde in Tealit blue, but this one had the 200K engine. I also saw a facelift Avantgarde E280, but this one had already done 290,000 km and the dealer was on vacation. By far the best option was a black E280 Elegance. While registered in early 2007, this was a pre-facelift model with 230,000 km on the odometer. The paint and interior looked really good, and it drove well, too. Since the price was considerably lower than that of the post-facelift options, with enough of a price difference to cover possible SBC issues, I decided to take the gamble and buy it.
It’s an E280 in Obsidian black (which is a true black, without a green or blue hue like the other metallic black options) with Sierra Grey leather interior. The car was registered in March 2007, which is close to 9 months after production of the pre-facelift model stopped. I don’t know what this car did in the meantime, I assume that is was a showroom model or something similar. It did not come with a data card so I don’t have all of the option codes, but it has the COMAND navigation system, Linguatronic, Parktronic, and of course the 7-speed automatic transmission. It was always kept in a garage and hence looks really good for its age. The wheels need some work – luckily they’re not the ugly 13-hole design that came standard on the Elegance, but much nicer double-spoke wheels.