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is airmatic suspension a problem?

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signifer's picture
Ashburn, VA
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Hi,

As our search for a car continues, we have found a 2005 E500 with the airmatic suspension. Is this an area of concern, i.e., do they tend to fail or are incredibly costly to repair? I'm trying to figure out if it is better to go this way or just get a regular E350...

Thanks,
Richard

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lkchris's picture
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Re: is airmatic suspension a problem?

"Incredibly" in Mercedes-speak means more than $2500.

You might get by for less.

The system isn't as "reliable" as just steel springs, but then again it's better in so many ways, so you pay for that.

At least that's what "they" say (e.g. Mercedes Enthusiast magazine, which more than once has characterized it as "must have"). I've personally never had the opportunity to experience the same chassis with and without. Our W211 doesn't and our GL does, but obviously that's difficult to compare.

As I've noted here before, the key to reliability can't be simply doing without.

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Bela's picture
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Re: is airmatic suspension a problem?

I purposely bought the '03 E500 with airmatic, because I wanted the adjustability. It's very comfortable at the normal setting, and it is progressively more solid as you up the settings. So when you favor serious handling above comfort, you have it at your fingertips. So far the system has been reliable, so I can't complain. I don't know where the unreliability would be–in the shocks or the pump or the control system. And the $2500 figure seems like a WAG when a component isn't even specified.

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signifer's picture
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Re: is airmatic suspension a problem?

Thanks.

Part of my concern is that my wife will drive this and I don't want the system to strand her anywhere and part is cost to repair. As I understand it, if the system fails the car can't be driven.

Let me try to give a better idea of what I'm getting at.

We have a 1990 300E. The evaporator on the a/c went and it cost about $2500 to fix. This is a common occurrence in the model/year, so I consider it a costly, unreliable design flaw. (So far the new one is fine.)

Also, the engine is known to have head gasket problems. So far we have had 3 go bad; all were replaced by a dealer. This also is something I consider a design flaw that is expensive (and annoying). However, neither problem causes my wife to get stranded, the car can be driven to get her home (and then on to be repaired).

While I realize that if the airmatic fails it will cost more to repair than a normal suspension, I'm trying to get an idea of how likely that is to happen (do they die every few years, do they last for 20 years, or do they seem bulletproof and it's rare that they die at all) and when they go bad does it tend to involve lots of expensive parts or just a couple. There appear to be slightly expensive shocks, somewhat expensive bellows, and an expensive pump involved, as well as a relay. If it is the relay that tends to fail, that's an easy-to-live-with problem (I can keep a spare in the car) but if the failures tend to be something that requires all the other parts to be replaced that's a lot more likely to strand her (and cost more).

Thanks again for the replies.

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lkchris's picture
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Re: is airmatic suspension a problem?

signifer;159854 wrote:
I consider it a costly, unreliable design flaw.

You need a different understanding of automobiles.

The car is 19 years old.

That's good life for airconditioning components and excellent life for M103/4 head gaskets.

Most cars--including most Mercedes--that old aren't even on the road any more. Many of the remaining Mercedes that age aren't really performing as they did when new, either.

Since there aren't any 19-year-old W211s yet, it's difficult to tell the life of Airmatic, but there have been some failures. Most, of course, fixed under warranty.

Regarding failures, if it were a fairly regular occurrence, there would likely be DTBs (dealer technical bulletins) on the topic. I regularly review existing DTBs, but since I don't have Airmatic I haven't given it much thought. A one-day/$18 subscription to STARTEKINFO will provide access to all service information. See http://www.startekinfo.com

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signifer's picture
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Re: is airmatic suspension a problem?

Just a bit of clarification:

I don't expect cars to never fail or require no maintenance; I do try to maintain them well. One of the things I like about Mercedes is that the manufacturer supplies parts for older cars so you can keep them maintained. But some cars tend to have problems either due to design flaws or production problems.

Our 300E seems to blow the head gasket about every 6 years; this seems excessive to me. I've certainly never had a car act that way before and I do tend to keep cars a minimum of 10 years, even my FIAT went 15 years without blowing a head gasket.
The evaporator died about about 12 years; this is another problem I have never had in a car before and refrigerators seem to be able to go far longer than this and not leak. The a/c compressor died too, but since it moves I wasn't surprised. Having to replace suspension parts due to wear doesn't bother me either.

BTW: we also have a 1987 190E that hasn't had any of these problems. That's not to say that things haven't worn out or needed to be fixed but it does seem to be better built.

Thanks for the StarTek tip. I keep forgetting about it. I'll look there for information. I also appreciate your other help as well.

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Re: is airmatic suspension a problem?

I have a 2005 E500 with Airmatic suspension with almost 89K miles on the odometer. I had one Airmatic failure under warranty. There was a problem with the cable for the pump at the left front corner of the car. I believe that the cable had to be lengthened. As I recall the pump failed in the "on" mode. So the car was not disabled but I did drive it home for 300 miles with a visit workshop message on the instrument panel.

I see that there are now after market solutions to replace the W220 S-Class Airmatic systems with a more conventional setup. I suspect that these conversion kits will also become available for the W211 chassis. I don't doubt that the Airmatic system is better than the conversion kit, but, at the point where the Airmatic repair exceeds the value of the car, I would definitely consider the conversion kit which is probably less expensive than a single strut on the W211.

It seems to me that the W211 Airmatic components should be able to be refurbished. But then again, maybe there are not enough W211s with Airmatic to make this feasible.

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Re: is airmatic suspension a problem?

Ours has an airmatic suspension - and when I had it scanned last week, there were no faults with it.

However, I had a catastrophic brake failure this am... Thankfully, those components now have a 10 year, unlimited warranty.

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Re: is airmatic suspension a problem?

signifer;159884 wrote:
Just a bit of clarification:

. . . .Our 300E seems to blow the head gasket about every 6 years . . .

Signifier:

Your observation about the M104 headgasket is correct, despite the unwillingness of some people to acknowledge it. These engines can go through a headgasket, on average, about 60k miles, and that is unacceptably short for any reasonably well made car. That's not to say it happens all the time, but the prevalence of failure is too high to conclude that it is anything other than a defect, plain and simple. It is the main reason why I would advise anyone looking at an M104 powered Mercedes to steer clear if the cost bothers them or they are incapable of handling the repair themselves. The dirty little secret is that while many enthusiasts bemoaned the demise of the Mercedes straight sixes about a decade ago, the new v-6s, both the three and more recent four valve designs, are far superior in every respect.

As far as airmatic goes, my understanding is that overhaul is a once every 80k to 100k mile proposition, but that the system can fail sooner, and it is more expensive to repair. My advice to you, fwiw, would be to drive an E500 or E550 with the system, and then drive an E without it and see if you really appreciate the difference in the seat of your pants, so to speak. Then, do some research on EPC, or talk to some local MBCA affiliated shops to see what the common repair items are and, generally speaking, what those items cost to fix. Then make a judgment for yourself. One option to consider, to lessen the chance of problems, and I suspect you've thought of this already, is to buy a CPO car and then extend the warranty through MBUSA for the maximum term possible. I think it's an additional three years, but double check that. For a few thousand dollars, it's probably reasonable insurance against airmatic and other potential costly failures, if you are that concerned. And given the weak economy right now, you probably have substantial leverage to negotiate yourself a good deal on all counts.

Hth, and good luck.

Raymond Lombardo
Greater Washington Section

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Re: is airmatic suspension a problem?

Often a collision or modification like lowering will affect the service life. Bad Mercedes are typically the result of bad owners, pennypichers or hack-jobbers. It has always been my biggest regret that someone would get a bad car.
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