There was a time, particularly in the 1970s and 1980s, that Mercedes-Benz was producing some of the best cars the world had ever seen, meticulously engineered and crafted to the highest degree. During this time, the German automaker earned the flattering reputation for “over-engineering” its cars, a by-product of its perfectionist no expense and effort spared approach. But the mid-1990s through mid-2000s saw a noticeable lapse in this reputation, with visible cost-cutting and subsequently, diminished quality and reliability. While several factors contributed to this, this change in ways was largely the consequence of Mercedes’ most ambitious new car yet, the W140 series S-Class (1991-1999).
Introduced in 1991 as a 1992 model, the W140 S-Class was by all means an engineering and technological marvel. Yet in many lights, the W140 is also seen as a car of over-excess and the point when Mercedes-Benz “jumped the shark”. A car deemed too large, too expensive, and too inefficient, the W140’s development ran considerably over time and budget, and resulting sales were far lower than Mercedes-Benz’s targets. Following the W140’s grueling development, it became clear that Mercedes could no longer afford to carry out operations in this way, and the bean counters made sure of this.
Moreover, for all its astronomical development costs and considerable development time (beginning in 1981), the W140 was not as reliable as its predecessor. W140’s were laden with a far greater number of finicky electronic and technology features, some of which were not perfected as they were rushed into production at the eleventh hour, resulting in their proneness to premature failure. Another adverse effect of Mercedes’ most expensive ever new car development program, was that this great expense was passed on to the consumer. Retail prices for the new S-Class were increased by some 25 percent over their W126 predecessors in order to make up for this outpour of resources. Price sensitivity to this was even prevalent among the typically upper echelon buyers of the S-Class, and sales in markets such as the U.S. were resultantly lower. There were even reports of Mercedes dealers offering discounts on S-Class models, something previously unheard of.
Intentionally designed to look vast and imposing, styling of this new S-Class only exaggerated the car’s excess, which proved a major detriment to its acceptance in European markets. Looking like an upsized W124 in many ways, the W140’s design broke little new ground. Styling certainly did have its strong points, mainly in the front, where an aerodynamic fascia was highlighted by large wraparound headlights and an untraditional recessed grille, originally intended only for V12 models, but ultimately implemented across the board very late into development.
While the W140 was certainly impressive looking, its overall blockiness didn’t emit the same kind of grace and elegance of its immediate predecessor (W126) or successor (W220). More so, from some angles its slab-sided styling gave it a somewhat clumsy and awkwardly tall appearance. Even its lead designer, Bruno Sacco, stated in a 2009 interview that he was unhappy with design, feeling it was 4 inches too tall. This look was particularly true from the rear and side views, where smallish wheels and tall side glass tended to give the car a top-heavy stance.
The W140 was by all means a big car, and it certainly looked it. As late as 1987, height and width were further increased for more interior volume. In the end, over its W126 predecessor, width was up three inches, height two inches, and depending on model, length was up by approximately four inches. More alarmingly was that the W140 gained considerable weight over its predecessor. Once again, this varied by model, but the W140 was typically 700-800 pounds heavier than comparable engine models of the W126. For example, curb weight for a 1991 300 SE (W126) was 3,745 pounds whereas for the 1992 300 SE (W140) it was up to 4,520 pounds. Curb weight for the long-wheelbase only V12-powered 600SEL/S600 came in at over 5,000 pounds. This featured 1995 long-wheelbase S320’s listed curb weight is a still very hefty 4,610 pounds.
What these high weights translated to, of course, was dismal fuel economy that was on par with many pickup trucks and SUVs. A new 5-speed automatic (in all six-cylinders from the start of production; V8 and V12 models beginning in 1996) helped offset the thirst for fuel, an in fact, most new S-Classes posted fuel economy numbers equal to or even slightly better than their predecessors. Yet fuel economy was still nothing praiseworthy, especially when a V8 Lexus LS averaged 25 percent better fuel economy than a six-cylinder S-Class.
In any event, most people who could afford the S-Class’s sticker price and gas guzzler tax probably didn’t care that it averaged in the low teens around town, and the low gas prices of the 1990s likely made American S-Class buyers’ attitudes towards fuel efficiency even more laissez faire. In other markets where gas wasn’t quite as cheap however, the S-Class’ bulk and thirst for fuel played a larger negative, in some cases drawing considerable backlash. Mid-cycle tweaks to the car’s fascias and lower bodyside moldings were aimed at making the car look smaller, but predictably did little to downplay the W140’s big boned-ness.
For all its inadequacies, the W140 S-Class did introduce a plethora of new technologies and features, many of them Mercedes and industry firsts. Among many novel features included chlorofluorocarbon-free air conditioning, double insulated side window glass, power-folding side mirrors, power-folding rear headrests, power rear sunshade, 12-way power front seats including adjustable seat cushion length, four-zone climate control, pneumatic-assisted soft-close doors, side airbags, high-intensity discharge headlights, and rain sensing windshield wipers. The S-Class also featured rear-parking assist, initially in the form of two antennas that rose out of the corner of the trunk. In 1996, this was replaced by Mercedes’ more advanced Parktronic, which used sonar-based sensors mounted to the bumper.
Like the exterior, interiors also did not break new ground in design and familiarity, but were nonetheless a very elegant, comfortable place to spend time with several types of upholstery and wood veneers based on engine model. In North America, lower models featured standard leather and striped Zebrano wood trim while 500 and above models featured upgraded Napa leather seating surfaces and burl walnut wood trim. More upholstery choices such as velour were available in other markets.
In terms of powertrain, the W140 S-Class offered American buyers the choice of five, dual overhead cam, 4-valve per cylinder engines: four gasoline in six, eight, and twelve cylinder form and one inline-six diesel. Starting at the bottom, and generally considered somewhat underpowered for the car’s weight, was a 3.2 liter inline-6 making 228 horsepower and 229 pound-feet torque. A 3.5 liter diesel was also initially offered, making 150 horsepower and 310 pound-feet torque. Moving up were a pair of V8s that were better-suited power plants: a 4.2 liter making 275 horsepower and 295 pound-feet torque and a 5.0 liter making 315 horsepower and 345 pound feet torque.
The flagship of the standard S-Class engine lineup was the 6.0 liter V12 found in 600 SEL/S 600 models, making 389 horsepower and 420 pound-feet of torque. This engine was not part of the original plan, but once news got out the BMW was putting a V12 in the redesigned 1987 7-Series, Mercedes ditched plans for their 5.6L V8 top engine, and scrambled to develop a V12, substantially increasing costs and pushing the W140’s release date back by some two years. AMG models received their own larger V12s, and a smaller 3.0 liter diesel was sold in other markets.
Furthermore, for all its bulk, handling was generally praised as being fairly nimble for such a large, heavy car. The W140 used a four-wheel independent suspension consisting of double-wishbone front and 5-multilink rear, along with speed-sensitive steering to heighten the S-Class’s handling. A number of additional features were introduced for V8 and V12 models, such as electronic stability control, an adaptive dampening system, self-leveling suspension, and an advanced anti-lock braking system that could deliver more stopping power to the rear wheels. Zero-to-sixty times for the V8 and V12 models are unimpressive by today’s standards, but for their time, low-7s for the S500 and 6.5 seconds for the S600 were respectable.
In the end, the W140 S-Class was still indeed a very impressive car. But right from the start, it was clear that Mercedes had miscalculated the market with a car that was too big, too expensive, and too inefficient. Conceived during a decade of frivolousness, when people were becoming richer and wanted to flaunt their newfound wealth, a panzer-like symbol of excess was something the world no longer wanted by the time the W140 S-Class finally went on sale in 1991. Although not a flop in terms of sales, the W140 failed to achieve the acceptance and iconic status of the W126, and its sales numbers did not reach Mercedes’ targets, with annual sales figures less than 75 percent of its W126 predecessor. Given its lower sales and higher development costs, the W140 never made M-B the kind of profit its predecessor did either.
Mercedes-Benz replaced the W140 in 1999 with the new W220 series S-Class, a car that while improved in many ways, was soon left with a tarnished image due to some common quality and reliability issues early on. Regardless of these issues, Mercedes did succeed in addressing some of the W140’s biggest flaws by creating a lighter and leaner flagship that took substantially less time and money to develop. Unfortunately, with the W220 and subsequent models developed in the immediate years following the W140’s launch, cost cutting went just a little too far, damaging Mercedes-Benz’s reputation somewhat permanently in the eyes of many. The W140 has since come to symbolize the end of this “No Expense Spared, Over-Engineered” era at Mercedes-Benz.