Curbside Classic: Mercedes W124 (1985-1996 E-Class) The Best Car Of The Past Thirty Five Years

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(first posted 6/5/2013)    Superlatives make great headlines; backing them up is another story. But is it even necessary, in the case of the W124? What other car designed thirty thirty-five years ago still looks so fresh and contemporary? And whose all-round capabilities even come close? And whose obvious influence on just about every modern car is so widespread?  Need I go on? It’s not really necessary, but maybe there’s a few doubters…

Mercedes W126 1980

During the same 1980-1985 time period during which GM was going through its revolutionary switch to front wheel drive, Mercedes-Benz was also going through something of a revolution of its own. It wasn’t quite on the scale of GM’s, but during this period Mercedes very substantially redefined its cars, for a new era that demanded more efficiency, comfort, amenities and dynamic qualities. This period yielded what many consider some of the best cars ever from Mercedes.

The first was the 1980 W126 S-Class, which was decidedly sleeker, narrower, more aerodynamic and efficient than its rather bulky W116 predecessor. And its amenities were much more to the expectations of American luxury car buyers. But under the skin, it still owed much of its drive train and suspension technology to its predecessor.

MERCEDES BENZ 190-W201--936_8

Two years later, Mercedes unveiled the compact 190 (W201), its first step into the compact market in modern times. This was a huge new step for a conservative company whose products had always been in the upper-middle to premium class. The 190 was a completely new car in every way, except perhaps the transmission. It premiered a new multi-link independent rear suspension that became the gold standard, and widely influential. But the 190 was very compact by modern standards, with limited rear leg room. As such, it was something of a minor dud in the American market. Or perhaps it just challenged the conventional wisdom of what a Mercedes should be to well.

Mercedes 240D W123

The heart of Mercedes’ line (and profits) was of course the golden middle, and the W123 represented the end of a line that went back to…well, it’s hard to say exactly, as each model change was both significant yet decidedly evolutionary. It’s perhaps a particular Germanic quality to espouse new technology while being conservative at the same time. But by the early-mid eighties, the W123 had become a bit of a neo-classic, with all the qualities that Mercedes were famous for–anvil-like structural solidity, high quality materials, unshakable suspensions– as well as being stodgy and not exactly fun to drive, unless it was perhaps to Tierra de la Fuego (and back).

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So there was a lot riding on its successor, the W124. It was clearly a huge change  from the W123 and its lineage; a clean-sheet new car in every almost every way possible, despite the similarity to its predecessor in its basic configuration. Bruno Sacco’s design was a text-book  case of design following function, yet looking very handsome in the process.

The W124 body was given two priorities: reduced weight and improved aerodynamics. That Mercedes was able to shave several hundred pounds out of a car the same size as its predecessor–yet with substantially improved rigidity–alone was a very significant accomplishment. Undoubtedly, the use of modern CAD and high-strength steel helped make that possible.

Mercedes W124 aero

Mercedes put its pioneering experience in aerodynamics to exceptional use on the W124. Its CD of as low as 0.28 was exemplary, especially for a RWD sedan. And its narrow but tall body made no concessions to passenger space, comfort and visibility in the quest of aerodynamic slipperiness.

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The W124’s tall and pinched tail are key aspects to its aerodynamics, and created a template that was soon imitated to one extent or another by most subsequent sedans the world over. Of course, it’s been taken to a much more extreme extent in recent years, but at the time this was a radical change from the status quo.

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The front end was dramatically sleeker than any Benz sedan before it. The aesthetic result perhaps wasn’t quite as successful as its rear end, in part because Mercedes kept the traditional radiator “grille”. Maybe it should have been ditched, but that might have been a step too far for most Mercedes buyers. Eventually, it would, on an increasing number of Mercedes sedans.

Mercedes W124 300e_engine

Under the hood there were more big changes. The all-new M103 SOHC was a huge departure from the past, especially in terms of what Americans had been offered. Most W123s sold here were diesels, the top model being the 300 TD, with the five cylinder turbo-charged diesel. The 280E was available, but its engine had been severely emasculated, and was not very popular. Now the volume W124 was the 300E, with 177 hp from its 3 liter six, not much less than Ford and Chevrolet’s top-tier 5 liter V8s. Mercedes took one leap from glorified taxi cabs to the most dynamic sedan in the world.

Mercedes W124 fast

Mercedes’ first priority may have been improved efficiency, but the other benefit from the aerodynamics and new engine was speed. The 300E had a solid 140 mph (225 km/h) top speed, which made it the fastest regular production four-door sedan in the world at the time (unless someone can prove me otherwise). And it did that with utter composure; 140 had never seemed so relatively uneventful.

And it wasn’t a slouch in acceleration either: 0-60 was recorded by various magazines between 7.6 and 8.5 seconds, excellent for the time.  Yes, a Camry V6 would blow it away today, but this all has to be seen in the context of its time, when America was just awakening from its Malaise slumber (or bad dream). Even today, a 300E’s performance envelope is still very contemporary; never mind the later E320, E400 and E500 models.

Mercedes W124 -AMG-Hammer

If those weren’t fast enough, AMG released the legendary Hammer in 1986, with a 32 valve version of the 5.6 L Mercedes V8. With a top speed of 190 mph, it quickly took the fastest-sedan mantle and kept it for some time.

Mercedes w124 crash test

If you’re going to drive fast, its nice to know one is doing it in the safest sedan of the time too. The W124 had ABS braking for its superb four-wheel discs. Its safety features were well ahead of the times, with one of the first SRS air bags (steering wheel), a belt-tensioning system, and the most advanced crumple zone and and safety cell of the times.

Mercedes W124 rear susp

The Mercedes multi-link rear suspension alone qualifies it for the honor I’m bestowing on it: It was a revelation as well as a revolution. Up to this point, the typical semi-trailing arm IRS was inevitable far from perfect, too much camber change and other limitations resulting most typically a tendency to bring on oversteer in critical situations, especially in trailing throttle curves, never mind with the brakes on hard . BMWs were classic representatives of this habit; it wasn’t nearly as treacherous as the old swing axles, but it could be surprising and tricky in the hands of the un-initiated.

Mercedes’ jumble of links controlled the rear wheels almost perfectly, like no other IRS had ever done before, under any and all circumstances. It was the W124’s uncanny ability to keep its rear wheels planted at the rear, no matter how rough the road, tight the curve, accelerating, or braking–or all of the above simultaneously–that most impressed me (and others) about its abilities.

Mercedes W124 desert

I often found myself (sought out, actually) on very rough, winding back-country roads in the remote hills, deserts and mountains of California, and the ability of my 300E to stay composed and collected was utterly unlike any car available at the time, and a giant leap ahead of the rest. It engendered a sense of profound security, as well as superiority. Yes’ I knew I was driving a car like none other at the time. And yes, it’s colored my feelings for it; now and then. Back to the facts…

Mercedes W124 seat controller

There were so many other ergonomic touches that made high speed driving safer, like the seat controllers in the door (two memory buttons not shown on this one). Utterly brilliant, and totally intuitive: one could instantly feel with the fingers how to move the seat cushion, back and headrest in the desired direction without any fumbling or trial and error; something quite important at speed.

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The W124’s interior certainly wasn’t “clubby” like a Jaguar, or bordello-plush like American broughams. It exuded the Northern European aesthetic sensibility that may have seemed stark to Americans at the time, but clearly represented the direction most interiors would soon take–goodbye bordello-red crushed velours.

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 Taste is subjective, and the W124’s cabin may not to be everyone’s liking, but it certainly doesn’t look as dated as most cars from 1985 or so, by a long stretch. Or do I have to show examples of that to prove it? I think not.

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I can’t resist showing this, though, as it really does very graphically illustrate the difference in design philosophy at the time between Mercedes and GM. We’ve covered the issues that resulted in the 1985 Cadillac, but the results are graphic. And these are fairly accurate in proportion: the DeVille was ten inches longer than the W124. And yes, I’m cheating by showing a Coupe DeVille, but that’s what I have at hand, and its roof line is the same as the sedan’s.

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Of course any resemblance of Cadillac’s next new sedan– the 1992 Seville –to the W124 is strictly a figment of my warped, GM-hating imagination. GM would never stoop so low to be influenced by Mercedes, right? Oh, well; too little, too late anyway.

Yes, the W124 was Mercedes’ biggest breakthrough car in the US ever, coinciding with the years of the biggest collapse of Cadillac’s market share. I don’t have sales stats available, but the W124 sold very well, considering its lofty pricing ($75+ k, adjusted).  And they seem to still be everywhere; here, at least. The high-class Cockroaches of the Road™.

Mercedes -W124-Taxi

Now, that’s not to say it was perfect; especially so at the start. Mercedes must have anticipated the immense challenge of maintaining the W123’s legendary build quality, because it withheld the W124 from America in its first year. A very good call, it turns out. Taxi drivers in Germany were in a minor uproar over niggling quality issues with first-year W124s. I don’t remember exactly what they were, but then they were a bit spoiled by the W123’s decade-long run, which resulted in impeccable quality.

And although Mercedes scrambled to address all of them and keep the taxi drivers happy, there were still a few issues in the early models that came to the US. My ’86 had one recall for a front suspension part, if I remember correctly. And like so many of the early 300Es, it developed a sudden thirst for oil that was caused by leaking valve guides. That was readily fixed by MBZ under an extended warranty program, as it was quite common until the material was changed on that part a couple of years into production.

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But other than that, I have no recollection of any repairs–other than routine maintenance– over six years and 140,000 (very hard) miles. And at the end, it still felt every bit as tight and solid as the day I picked it up.

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I neglected to mention the other engines available in the W124. Of course in other parts of the world, that started very modestly, with the four cylinder 200, in either gas or diesel versions. But in the US, the lowliest W124 was the 300E 2.6 (also badged 260E later), a somewhat de-contented version with the smaller 2.6 liter six to lower its price a bit.

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Although there was a huge switch in priority from diesels to gas versions in the US with the W124, it was available as a diesel too, and a very impressive one for the times. The 300 D Turbo had the smooth new six-cylinder engine, which was the most powerful of its kind anywhere at the time, and made the the 300D Turbo the world’s fastest diesel sedan (IIRC some 130 mph, or close to it).  It did have some issues with its particulate trap filter that MBZ fixed under a recall.

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It was later replaced by the 250D Turbo, a five cylinder version of the same family, and with a better balance of performance and economy. It is particularly sought after now among the MBZ diesel crowd.

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Tha version is readily identifiable by its front fender vents. Their purpose? I’m trying hard to remember. They must have been functional, given Mercedes. Someone here will know.

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And a few years later, the 400E came along, with its creamy-smooth 4.2 L V8. It wasn’t so much about drastic increases in performance, but about refined and luxurious forward thrust. Undoubtedly, the Lexus LS 400 had a lot to do with its existence, which rather played havoc on Mercedes’ whole strategy and pricing. But that’s a story for another time.

Mercedes W124 500e

The same year, Mercedes also unleashed the über-W124, the 500E, whose development and assembly very much involved Porsche. Its bulging fenders hinted at its capabilities, and the 5.0 L V8 gave it blistering performance and a governed top speed of 160 mph. No; I haven’t found one here recently. They became almost instant classics, with only some 10,000 built over its five year run.

I’ve skipped over all the engine variants, as the list is very long. But the book ends are the 72 hp 200D, and 326 hp 500E; quite the spread. But even the weakest of them couldn’t mask the intrinsic abilities of this platform.  It might take a while to get up to speed, but a lowly 200D was still happiest on the open autobahn, and could hit some 100 mph or so.

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There were of course other body variants as well. The sleek CE coupe sat on a shortened wheelbase. The Sentra in front of it is just one of so many examples of how the W124’s tail soon appeared everywhere, with the distinctive trapezoidal tail lights, an angled trunk lid dropping down between them, and high-mounted license plate on the lid.

Mercedes W124 cabrio

The coupe begot the Cabriolet, which continued in production for some years after the W124 sedans and wagon were succeeded by the blobby W210.

 Mercedes W124 wagon

And last but not least, one of nicest wagon designs ever: the T version. If I’d gotten one instead of the sedan, I might still have it, given what a superb dose of practicality it injected in the W124’s other fine qualities. And if I ran across a really nice one now, it might break my long W124 dry spell. They say you can’t go back, especially some thirty years, but the W124 wagon makes a compelling argument against it.

Maybe this is a good place to stop, because the W124 story is endlessly long, literally. I fully expect them to be on the streets thirty years from now. And then maybe I’ll take up the story again–if I’m still around–and I can argue how the W124 was the best car of the last sixty years. That might not be all too hard.

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