The measure of good car design should perhaps be how well a car looks when parked in the most unflattering location and under the most unflattering lighting. Such a test can only be conducted in an underground parking lot. Well, the W124-series coupe aces it.
I’ll confess something, though: I only recently came to appreciate the design of the W124. Perhaps it’s because I’m a child of the 1990s and I initially became acquainted with the car when it was at the very end of its life, but I always found it rather starchy in appearance.
Had I been born in, say, 1980, I might have developed a very different perspective and appreciated the W124 for being both modern and aerodynamic in appearance and yet recognizably a Mercedes. Ok, so I’m still not really sold on the imposing Mercedes-Benz grilles of the 1980s but I can appreciate the neatly integrated rear window, the clean lines, and the prestigious appearance of the W124. It’s elegant, it looks expensive, and its interior is one of the finest of its time. Funnily enough, I find the wagon to be the most alluring. Something about the design says so authoritatively, “Rich people drive me”, more so than any other wagon that comes to mind.
Mazda sure had a thing for pretty compacts with very small V6s. North Americans will be familiar with the MX-3 but those of us in the Asia-Pacific region and Europe were triply blessed.
There was the Mazda Xedos 6 compact executive sedan (bottom right), also known as the Mazda Eunos 500, which was available with the MX-3’s 1.8 V6 as well as a 2.0 V6. Mazda also offered the 2.0 V6 in the related Lantis, varyingly sold as the 323F and 323 Astina, which was available in both a gorgeous hardtop sedan body (bottom left) and a wedgy hatchback (top).
Perhaps because of the availability of the slinky 323 Astina here in Australia, I didn’t pay much attention to the less practical Mazda Eunos 30X, as the MX-3 was known. Eunos was a quasi-sub brand here in Australia, sold out of the same showrooms as regular Mazdas and largely overlapping with the regular range. Mazda’s planned Amati luxury brand had been aborted but the 500 and 800 (aka the Mazda Millenia) had been developed for it so they had to go somewhere, and therefore Mazda made a half-hearted effort at establishing the Eunos marque here. Interestingly, the MX-3 was lumped in with them here in Australia but didn’t receive the “Xedos” nameplate in Europe as the 500 and 800 had.
Speaking of strange regional names, the first-generation Honda/Acura Integra was sold here in two guises under two different brands: the three-door hatchback was known as the Honda Integra, while the five-door was sold as the Rover 416i. This helped reduce overlap in the local Honda lineup which was already brimming with a multitude of desirable compacts. Actually, it would have made more sense if the Integra had been the five-door as the Civic, Prelude and Accord weren’t available in such a body style.
Fat chance finding a 416i around, though, as Rovers – even the fake ones – sold poorly here in the 1980s. Integras are rare enough and sadly this is the only first-generation model I’ve seen in years. Even worse, every time I’ve seen it, it has either been night time or the car was in a parking lot.
The Rover 416i may have been merely masquerading as a British car but the Jaguar XJ was the real deal. The Series III of 1979 was a rather extensive visual refresh and yet it didn’t dilute the lithe proportions and elegant lines of the XJ.
While there were new, larger bumpers for the Series III refresh, the basic shape of the rear was retained. They even did a different take on the “glaring” taillights that creeped me out as a child.
Jaguar continued to recycle the same design cues of the XJ well into the 21st century. While I liked the previous-generation XJ and its heritage-inspired styling, it lacked the slinkiness that had made past XJs like the Series III so alluring and so different from their rivals.
Yes, the real test of a car’s visual appeal must be how good it looks in unflattering lighting. The Series III XJ passes with flying colors.
Curbside Classic: Mercedes W124 (1985-1996 E-Class) The Best Car Of The Past Thirty Years