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