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1986-1995 Mercedes-Benz E-Class (W124)

W1241 Over the past few months, while other commitments have kept me from venting in this venue, my far-flung colleagues have heaped much praise on a succession of flimsy econoboxes. I take comfort in knowing that most of these objects of their misguided car lust have long since been consigned to junkyards, landfill, and recycling plants. I take even more comfort in knowing that a representative sampling of these turkeys have found homes in the garages of borderline fanatical owners, and that those owners gladly spend non-trivial sums to keep the objects of their obsession in what passed for tip-top condition when they were new. To see a “Cadillac” Cimarron in the wild, so to speak, can serve as a reminder of the kind of thinking that led GM to its current state. Similarly, to see a Datsun B210 with an intact body shell, and in any kind of drivable shape at all, serves as proof that rust is no match for a big pile of money.

I wasn't a fan of these sad little vehicles when they were new, and time hasn't caused me to change that opinion. Indeed, I prefer my tin foil to be wrapped around leftover pizza, rather than turned into a car’s body panels. With that in mind, I’d like to heap some well-deserved praise on a car that belongs on any list of the best, and most important, cars ever built. That car is the Mercedes-Benz E-Class of the W124 generation, which was introduced in 1986 and remained in production through 1995. Given the huge success of the model that it replaced, the W124 needed to bring something very special to the table. Fortunately, in those pre-Lexus days “something very special” was nothing more than “business as usual” at Daimler-Benz AG.

<rant>When Lexus hit the scene it seemed as though Daimler-Benz lost the formula. The models developed in the post-Lexus environment overtly skimped on overall quality in order to accommodate ever more complex gadgets and subsystems. And, taking a page from the GM playbook, they used paying customers as the test bed for those gadgets. Rumor has it that, after a couple of decades in the wilderness, the company is back on track. We’ll see. </rant>

The W124 debuted to worldwide acclaim, receiving accolades for its ride, handling, and bank vault solidity. Over the course of its lifetime, the W124 was available as a four-door sedan or wagon, a two-door pillarless hardtop, and a convertible. Worldwide, the W124 was equipped with gas and Diesel engines ranging from 2.0 to 6.0 liters, and between 1989 and 1993 the car could be had with 4Matic all-wheel drive. Through 1993, the model names consisted of a number (roughly indicating engine size) followed by a letter code whose meaning sometimes described the body style, and sometimes didn’t. In 1994 the letter/number position was reversed, and the letter described the position of the platform in the Mercedes-Benz line. So for 1994, the 300E became the E320.

At its introduction in the U.S., the W124 was available only as a gas-powered sedan. In 1987 the W124 lineup was expanded to include a Diesel-powered station wagon, and I was given the use of a brand new one for a week. Here’s what I had to say about that car 22 years ago:

The introduction of a new Mercedes-Benz thrills me all of out proportion to the immediate effect it will have on my life. This is no big trick, because new Mercedes-Benzes have no immediate effect on my life. I am, in fact, as likely to actually buy a new Mercedes-Benz as to carry one across the Alps on my back. So why am I so thrilled each time a new Benz is introduced? Simple: forward planning. I look at every new Mercedes as a future used Mercedes, and I’m a sucker for used Mercedeses.

In fact, I’d rather have a used Mercedes-Benz than a new anything else. My recently acquired 1971 300SEL 3.5, which cost less than a well-equipped Hyundai, is as satisfying a four-door sedan as I have ever driven. It’s got a forest’s worth of burled wood, several cows worth of leather, a wonderful air suspension, and more sheer elegance than Cary Grant and William Powell put together. That it’s also burdened with some truly ancient technology, including king pins and a trick-or-treat automatic transmission, matters not a bit. If you offered to swap me a brand-new Audi 5000 for my 3.5 I’d show you the door.

300SEL4

I feel the same way about my 1976 450SL. At age 11 it is worth more than its original sticker price, which in turn is more than I paid for it a couple of years ago: about the same as Toyota wanted for a full-tilt Supra. Granted, the Supra is faster, quicker, handles better, and uses less fuel. But does that sleek hardtop come off in the summer? No! And will it be as rust- and rattle-free in the mid-1990s as my SL is today? Check out the average 10-year-old Japanese sports car--if you can find one--for the answer to that question.

I’ve even got a soft spot for the old “slash 8" models: the 220s, 230s, and 250s of the late 1960s and early '70s--the Ford Falcons of Mercedes-Benzes. You can buy one today for a couple of grand and with reasonable care it should take you well into the next century.

Fairness requires that I present an opposing point of view, and as it happens, I have one. First: you can keep the Diesels. They’re slow, noisy, and hard to start. And the smoke is embarrassing. And second: the W123 wagon--the 300TD through the 1985 model--could be the most boring vehicle of its type since the first generation International Travelall. That it was burdened with a Diesel engine can only be ascribed to our government’s Draconian CAFE regulations. But regardless of motive, the Series 123 300TD was doubly cursed, and I don’t want one. And here in Scarsdale, where Mercedes-Benzes are fairly thick on the ground, neither does anybody else. 

450SL1

It’s not that nobody in these parts needs a station wagon. (Everyone, everywhere, needs a station wagon; most folks just don’t know it yet.) No, Scarsdale has plenty of station wagons, just about every one of them a Volvo. My guess is that the locals see the 300TD as being about as exciting as yesterday’s yawn. Since station wagons themselves are perceived as being pretty dull, it’s only natural that the less boring ones get the nod. That staid old Volvo finds itself in that position indicates that some of the Turbo’s panache has rubbed off on the lesser models. 

At any rate, unless I miss my guess, the station wagon demographics in Scarsdale are going to change. You see, Mercedes-Benz has a new wagon, and despite its Diesel engine I want one. It’s an all-new wagon, with an all-new engine, and in one fell swoop all of my objections to Diesels and Mercedes wagons have been swept away. The new 300TD is flat out gorgeous. It’s no surprise, these days, for wagons to be better-looking than their sedan counterparts: look at the Volvo 700 and the Audi 5000. But in the case of the Mercedes Benz 300 series the transformation is astonishing. Its body could have been created by a glass blower. We have our share of interesting cars up here, and it takes something special to rate a second look; the 300TD was openly and obviously admired by pedestrians, and by the drivers of some of pretty slick machinery. (A trip through Manhattan, where you could drive nude in a motorized hot tub without attracting much attention, evoked several positive comments from the natives, two of whom insisted upon a demonstration of the headlight washers.) To my mind, you buy the 300 sedan in spite of the way it looks, because it is such a terrific piece of engineering. The wagon, by contrast, can (and in many cases probably will) be bought on looks alone, the engineering being a nice bonus.

But what a bonus. After putting some serious miles on the 300TD I’ve come to the conclusion that it is the car that Cadillac should be (maybe is) trying desperately to build. Let me explain. Cadillacs have, for years and years, been prized for their ability to provide a sense of splendid isolation. Remember that “The Cadillac Hour” ad campaign? Driving home in the Cadillac was portrayed as being second only to a handful of Valiums as a means of calming down after a hard day at the office. And it was true. The tradeoff was control, which under all but the most serene circumstances was something you were likely to be out of. In recent years, Cadillac has done an admirable job in remedying this situation. The current Seville, for instance, handles pretty well, but as far as comfort is concerned you’d be as well off in a Cutlass Ciera. The new Cadillacs have all but forgotten they’re Cadillacs!

The new Benz, by contrast, combines isolation with control in a way that is both uncanny and a bit eerie. The car is exceptionally quiet. At speed on a smooth, straight road, wind and road noise are virtually non-existent, and the only mechanical noise to be heard is the very satisfying muted hum of the engine. So far, very Cadillac-like, no? But in the 300TD a most un-Cadillac thing happens when the road gets rough: the isolation remains! You know that the road is rough, both because you can see it, and due to the almost subliminal signals coming from the suspension, but the car continues to track straight and true, and there’s a not a hint of a squeak or rattle. 

The same thing happens when you need to turn. Without telegraphing any harshness into the interior, the 300TD’s suspension provides the feedback that permits precise control of the car’s position, regardless of road surface. This is a car that doesn’t fight you. It doesn’t even reveal that the suspension is working hard, which means that the driver doesn’t have to! 

The only clue to the 300TD’s lack of spark plugs comes when accelerating from rest. The engine’s torque curve is virtually flat between 2000 and 4000 RPM, but that initial run from idle to 2K, before the turbocharger gets into the act, can be tense if you’re used to the more direct response of a conventional engine. It’s not that the 300TD’s overall acceleration from rest is terribly slow; zero-to-60 is perfectly satisfactory. It’s zero-to-10 that can ups the pucker factor by an order of magnitude. That caveat aside, the new engine is terrific, with plenty of mid-range punch for passing, and a top end that makes for relaxed high speed cruising. Speaking of top end, this is one Diesel that really has one. I backed off at an indicated 100 and there was plenty left, so Mercedes’ claim of 123 mph is probably realistic. As important, I think, is the fact that the engine sounds good. Unlike most Diesels, which sound as though they’re working hard even when they aren’t, the 300’s in-line six hums contentedly at any speed. 

Returning for a moment to the Cadillac analogy, let’s look at the amenities. Expensive cars, regardless of their strictly mechanical credentials, should be equipped with all sorts of doodads designed to cosset and coddle their occupants, and those doodads should work well and without fuss. The 300TD’s seats and headrests, for instance, adjust electrically via door-mounted seat-shaped controls. You move the part of the control that corresponds with the part of the seat you want to adjust. Associated with the seat controls are a pair of buttons which automatically recall two favored seating positions, along with that of the electrically-operated telescoping steering wheel. That’s clever, but even better is the fact that all adjustments takes place silently; the last time I adjusted a Seville’s seats, it sounded like a 727’s landing gear being raised. 

While we’re on the subject of seats, the 300TD is available with “MB-Tex” or, for a ton of money, real leather. In years past, the choice could be made solely on a financial basis, because MB-Tex was pretty dismal stuff. No more: the wonderful world of vinyl has evolved to the extent that MB-Tex, 1987 style, is as close to the real stuff as you’re going to see. Close enough, in fact, that you could describe it as leather without being called a liar more than one in ten times. Regardless of covering, the 300TD’s front seats are a fine place in which to spend time. True to Mercedes tradition, they’re firm, but in all the right places. Because the seats have so little "give" they keep your muscles from having to make constant adjustments in order to keep you in position. This, in turn, virtually eliminates the fatigue that is inevitable after several hours on plush, but non-supportive, seats.

Is there anything bad to say about the 300TD? Absolutely: it’s got a digital outside temperature gauge, the sensor for which is mounted in a place that insures a wrong reading. In fact, the owner’s manual points this out. It does, however, read in Fahrenheit, so even though it’s wrong, it’s wrong in a number that has some meaning. The climate control, by contrast, is calibrated in Centigrade, which has nothing to do with temperature as we know it. When I was too cold I turned the dial to a higher number, and vice versa; but to me, 20 and 22 are temperatures I want to escape from, not encourage.

Beyond that, the 300TD combines more virtues in a single vehicle than any other that I’ve encountered. It handles like a sports sedan, rides like a luxury car, sips, rather than gulps fuel, and packs like a U-Haul. Its structural integrity is awesome, and if my experience is typical should remain so for years and years to come. 

The big question is whether the 300TD -- or any car -- can be worth $42 grand. The answer, of course, depends upon who is doing the asking. But if you want the best sedan in the world, and need a station wagon, there’s no other choice. I can’t wait for them to appear in the classified ads!

OK, that's what I had to say in 1987. And sure enough,in 1998 I bought a nearly-mint 1988 300TE, which was the gas version of the car described above. A decade old, and with more than 100K on the clock, it was as tight, smooth, and silent as the brand-new 300TD I drove in 1987. Now, 11 years on, I’m once again thinking that a W124, maybe even one of the convertibles, deserves pride of place in my garage.

W124ragtop

Given that the last one built is now 14 years old, you might be inclined to warn me that this could be a risky proposition. By way of reply, I commend your attention to these four videos, which document the attempt by British TV’s Fifth Gear to destroy one. (And remember, if you see it on TV, it has to be true.)

--David Drucker




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The Mercedes 300E is one of my all-time Mercedes and one of my all-time favorite cars. It's gorgeous, smooth, and immaculately built. I would own one in any configuration, but of course the wagon has special appeal.

"Oh no, she can't be dead she's my little honey"... yeah right, that's why I beat her with a baseball bat and tried to drown her. Who is this chick? Joan Crawford reincarnate?

Am I the only one who finds the "destroy the old car" formula a little tired and annoying? Dumb things that damage perfectly good used cars are... dumb! It's hard not to just cringe. The concept isn't even remotely creative anymore. The excuse that TopGear did it just doesn't hold up.

Wanna prove how durable an old MB is? Put it on a rally course, drive it in the Paris-Dakar. Give it some thing better than a dumb, obvious, and ignominious end.

Ok today's rant is now done.

The MB is a great car. That wagon was a great car until those morons got their hands on it. Great article David.

(I did notice that the monster truck in the 5th Gear episode was running on alcohol :)

David, what a great (and still accurate) portrayal of the car then and now. What publication did you write that for at the time? Obviously it wasn't for a blog :)

I think the W124 is great. I test drove a 1994 E320 a couple years ago with 160,000 on it and it was just as solid, squeek, and rattle-free as it was when new. Lots of creamy inline-6 torque, too (I think Benz lost the plot when the 6's sprouted V-shapes).
After the drive, it earned my highest recommendation: suitable for my mom, who was looking for a car at the time. She later went with a newer C320 but I know she was impressed with the W124 as well.

For me however, I want the ultimate W124: the E500/500E. Sure, it's overcomplex and overkill, but it is the ulimate expression of this series. I chose it as 1/2 of my $25,000 challenge here on Car Lust months ago.

A Mercedes from back when "Mercedes" meant "built like a German-engineered bank vault." I love it.

I agree with Mochi Mochi to some extent, that Merc was too good to trash like that. I couldn't help but think that somebody out there--maybe a couple of modest means with three or four kids to cart around--could have bought it and got another 50,000 miles of use out of it. Heck, if I could find a 300E sedan with a manual transmission (were they ever sold with those?) in that condition at that price, I'd be tempted to buy it. Even if the Fifth Gear producers insisted on trashing the car, a realistic crash test would have been much more informative than running it over with a monster truck.

...when top gear trashed their hilux, it was clever, informative, entertaining, and made a good point; when fifth gear did this, it was derivative, vacuous, wasteful, and bore little relationship to real-world use...

...james may's trans-african expedition was a far better tribute to old mercedes build quality...

If Mercedes-Benz could still command the prices they were seeing in the 1980s and early 1990s, quality could be maintained much more easily. At the time Lexus and Infiniti were introduced, the base price of a 1990 300E was about $46,000 or nearly $75,000 in today's dollars. A 1990 300E 4Matic was about $53,000 or over $86,000 in today's dollars. Compare that to the $53,000 today's E350 / E350 4Matic retail for.

Unfortunately (for MB), competition from brands like Lexus no doubt forced MB to rush product and cut corners in ways they didn't need to in the past. At one time, Mercedes-Benz could command at, near or even above full MSRP. Today and for many years now, discounts, notable dealer incentives, etc. are common.

"Shawn: What publication did you write that for at the time? Obviously it wasn't for a blog."

I had the car in connection with another project for Automobile, and submitted the two pieces together, this one on spec. They passed on it.

"Peter the...: Heck, if I could find a 300E sedan with a manual transmission (were they ever sold with those?)"

Off the top of my head, in the U.S. you could get a five-speed in '86, but not thereafter.

Carz, the best comment I've heard on the W124 makes that very point. Jamie Kitman calls it "the last Mercedes-Benz built to a standard, rather than a price."

I remember a commercial for one of these from back in the day. A bunch of suits are driving from Frankfurt-Main airport back to Sindelfingen (a suburb of Boeblingen, which in turn is a short drive from Stuttgart) on the Autobahn at about Warp 9. The two in the back seat were talking about the ride, the quiet cabin, and so on, when one asked the other when they'd be at their destination. The other folded his hands behind his head and said, "oh, in about thirty minutes," in a way that suggested that they were going at least 130 MPH, yet were as cool and collected as Captain Picard on the Starship Enterprise. Yep, they were pretty smug, with some justification, back then.

Well, I have one of these, a 1991 300E with 180,000 miles. Runs great, nice highway car. Yes, if things break they are expensive, but then the replacement part is good for another 20 years!

Actually, I believe the W140 is considered the last of the great Mercedes. I'm thinking of getting a '98 CL500 (the old S-class Coupe). Rumor is that Mercedes lost money on every one they sold.

Simon, my take is that the W140 was, mechanically, built to traditional standards, but the electronic subsystems were hugely problematic. A friend had two of them (successive 3-year leases) and they were in the shop constantly. And I'd do some serious research on the coupes before writing a check. My recollection is that they were considerably more problematic than the sedans. I know that there were some buy-backs, but the details escape me.

David - Thanks for the info. I know the W220 was pretty much rubbish, but I hadn't known about the earlier problems. Hmm...not sure what to get then, need to replace the 300E at some point.

I had to stop watching the Fifth Gear clips when she started whacking at the Mercedes with a hammer. Needless to say, I strongly wished I knew how to curse in German, beyond a few pet colloquialisms that I've picked up here and there.

Don't trash the W123 too badly. If you're into veggie oil-powered wagons, it's definitely the way to go.

Well, viewed from a vantage point some 22 years further out I'm inclined to be much kinder to the W123, including the wagon. In its first year ('77) I convinced my father-in-law to jettison his '75 Seville in favor of a new 280E. He was astonished at how much better the suspension was at coping with Brooklyn's roads, and drove a Mercedes for the rest of his life. These days I wouldn't turn my back on a clean '85 300CD.

@CarZ - at those prices, the choice of Lexus vs. Mercedes-Benz is more one of personal taste than anything else. It's the difference between Brooks Brothers and Hugo Boss, neither of which is affordable to the average Joe. M-B could have easily kept on charging what they were charging for what their customers want and think they can't get with Lexus. But they went in with Chrysler instead, which was a big mistake.

Interesting article! I've always loved this generation of Benzes more than anything earlier or later; especially the AMG Hammer. Simply elegant, well built, classy, and from what I can gather, exceedingly reliable. You make an excellent point about Lexus/Infiniti/Acura starting to put pressure on the germans, causing them to rush to production and cut costs. I had never thought of that.

Incidentally, I just picked up a 95 Audi S6, which is based on the S4, which is based on the Audi 100, a car that debuted in 1991, which itself was based on an even earlier chassis. Until a few weeks ago, I had always liked german cars, but thought I would never own one. After doing my homework, I discovered the same thing that David here pointed out: Early to mid 90s German cars were generally pretty damn reliable.

Steaming - I agree about the Chrysler merger/acquisition. However, I don't feel that MB could have continued to sell at the prices they had been seeing. The "wealthy" are more price sensitive than some may think. When Lexus rolled into town offering their flagship LS400 for $35,000 it made the mid-range 300E a much tougher sell at over $10,000 more. Increasing MB discounts and dealer incentives soon followed and eventually even sticker prices were lowered. These forced price cuts unfortunately had an impact on quality.

Rob, congrats on the S6, which I understand is a seriously wonderful -- not to mention rare -- car.

Thanks David! They only imported 300 S6 Wagons into the states, so it is definitely rare, and a complete joy to drive. I was just doing some more research, and I found this:

http://autos.msn.com/research/userreviews/reviewlist.aspx?modelid=96

Backs up exactly what you are saying with the Benz. The mid 80s-mid 80s german cars were engineered fantastically well... it was the cost cutting that occured in the mid 90s that caused all the major reliability problems.

Anyone else think that since about 1998, Mercedes have been built down to a price?
I love my CLK, but some of the interior materials are a bit on the cheap side...but still better than most new American cars.
My beloved Mustang II of my college years had better carpet.

My dream sedan is a mid to late 90s S-Class...I don't know the model number, but it's the big one that has antenna-like guides poop out of the rear fenders as a parking aid. Even the German press thought it went a bit too far in terms of size and price. That, I fear, was the last quality Benz.

Good points, Mr. Drucker. Here's to the vault-like quality of the Sacco Benzes.

I am motoring on a budget and bought a 6th hand pre-owned MB W124 E200. Yessiree that's SIXTH hand. I am his 7th owner. Poor thing had more than 350,000km on the odometer, and is 19 yr old (I am advised in car terms that's equal to 95 yrs in a human!). I bought it at about 1.5% of its original when-new ticket price, invested another roughly equivalent sum doing up the transmission, gear box, miscellaneous engine-part fixes and replacements etc and it now runs like new. My mechanic claims the nearly perfect paint-job is original and I do not doubt him - he looks new after a $100 polish-job. Its not for no reason that the British motoring press nicknamed the W124 the Brick Shithouse or Der Bunker - its built as sturdily as one! B-)

Friends, you should drop everything do you do and buy a copy of ''Autopia - Cars & Culture'' (Ed. Peter Woller & Joe Kerr), available off Amazon.Com

When the W124 first came out, my next door neighbor bought a 300E sedan. He was replacing a 6000STE incidentally. At first the Mercedes did nothing but dazzle its new owner. It was so quiet at idle that you had to look at the tach to be sure that it had started. It was vault like in so many ways. My neighbor remarked that in its own way, the Pontiac represented at least as great of an engineering fete as the 300E: he was astounded at the way that every system of the 6000STE failed within an oil change of the warranty expiring.

I drove the 300E quite a bit. It was a bit like time travel in 1988. That car was so smooth, powerful, and resolved that it showed me flaws in everything else that I'd previously been oblivious to. I worked at my neighbors fitness store, and I would take the deposits to the bank with the 300E, racing and beating any challengers on the way. The pretty little blond teller at the drive through never said anything about the car until one day when I showed up in my old diesel. Then she asked, "where is your pretty Mercedes?" I told her it was in the shop and this was my spare. I thought the 300E was a magnificent car, but his turned out to be a lemon.

The Mercedes didn't wait for the warranty to run out, which was good. He saw the bills, and Mercedes spent thousands keeping his car running, replacing much of it, including the steering rack of all things. He was ready to pull the plug and buy a Lexus, as the prospect of a post-warranty Mercedes was a terrifying, five figures a year prospect, to judge by what it was costing Mercedes. He relented and bought another W124, a V8 E420. It turned out to be a good car, and so he drives Mercedes to this day. He bought his wife a late model 560SL at about the same time. One day, the 560SL was gone and he had a new 500SL in the driveway. I was very much into the MB cult at this time, driving a 240D. I told him that he now had the best Mercedes products that there would ever be, as the new ones coming out were cheaped out crud powered with modular SOHC 3-valve 90-degree V6 engines that would be an insult to most minivans. It turns out that when he bought his wife the new SL, he'd ordered himself a new V6 320E 4-matic. Whoops. We haven't really talked cars since then.

W124... magic digits to myself

My Dad owned a 1990 facelifted 260E (in the USA it would be a 300E 2.6) from 2004 to 2008. It was a Sportline chassis with manual gearbox, and it had no leather or A/C from factory. I've hardly ever seen, drove or ridden in a car with better roadholding and ride quality, it had the handling of a sportscar and the solidity of a Leopard tank. The 2001 E320 that came next was a disappointment - soft suspension, heavy weight, deep roll...

~Nautilus

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