(First Posted November 10, 2013) I’ve always had a thing for the understated car – To wit, my Audi S4/S6’s were nothing special to those not in the know, the Saab 9-2X was a visually tamer WRX, and the Buick Regal GS, well, does the general public see a Buick and think “Supercharger”? No. So the 400E makes sense, let me explain…
I’d long been a fan of the W124 chassis since back when I saw my first 300E in high school around 1985. Classically elegant design, but very modern compared to the larger models at the time – but clearly building on the 190’s design language. Built to the standard that used to define Mercedes and offered in the U.S. with 6-cylinder power and, for a while, an optional Diesel engine as well.
Then, in 1992, Mercedes decided to expand the range. The car that got all the press was the 500E – basically a 300E with a 5-liter V8 engine, wider track (and fenders to match), many luxury features (Oh, and a price of $88,000. In 1992. Doh!) However, the 500E was born along with a little brother at the same time, the 400E. If you were willing to take a car that was externally visually identical to the 300E but still had V8 power under the hood, for $60,175 (base price in 1992) this could be yours. Over the next 4 years, 15425 buyers in the U.S. acted on that impulse.
I was perusing Craigslist again and came across this one being advertised by San Francisco Toyota of all places. Asking $9200 the car had a total of only 32,000 miles on it! I called, thinking it might be a typo but they confirmed it. I then ran a CarFax and confirmed that the car was one-owner car from Belmont (the city I worked in) and had been maintained at Autobahn Mercedes, also in Belmont. Clearly this was a car I had to see.
The next day after work I headed up to San Francisco. The car was as described, that is, like new. White with gray interior. Excellent paintwork. Flawless interior. Gleaming chrome highlights. There was no wear on any parts that I could see, the only negative is that it was missing its floormats but the visible carpets were pristine. Everything seemed to work fine and it drove great. I tried to bargain them down, but they were not budging. In the end I got a couple of hundred off but, truth be told, it did not really matter to me, it was unlikely I would find another car in the same condition anytime soon and I had gotten more for the Buick than I thought I would.
Not to sound like a snob, but there really is something special about being behind that large wheel and looking down the hood through the Mercedes hood ornament. The car made me feel special. The car itself felt special for that matter. Solid, like carved from a single piece of iron. Doors that really did close with a thunk and did not have any residual vibration afterward. You slam the door and it shuts into place and that is that.
So what is a 400E and what differentiates is? Well, as mentioned previously, externally it is the twin of the 300E besides the badges and a different wheel design. Inside they all got leather (instead of the still excellent MB-Tex), the wood trim is Burl-Walnut instead of Zebrano (which I actually like better, the Zebrano looks more “real”), automatic climate control (more about that later), dual air bags, and some other goodies.
Engine-wise it sports a 4.2liter 32-valve V8 producing 268hp@5700rpm and 295lb-ft of torque at 3900. Backing this up is a 4speed automatic with the traditional gated shifter that now everyone seems to have imitated. With weight being just over 3800lbs, this was quite a fast car. What is surprising though is how nimble it felt. Once familiar with the car and anticipating its tendency to be a little slow to downshift you could very easily exploit small gaps in traffic. Its party-piece though that I never got tired of was the way it accelerated onto a freeway.
The San Francisco peninsula has several freeway on-ramps that are very long, sometimes taking over a mile to merge with the traffic proper of which I used one all the time. Curving onto the onramp you’d put your foot down and the engine would just start to howl with a glorious noise towards its 6000rpm redline, upshift and do it again. The thing is the rush of power never seemed to stop. Once on the freeway passing power was prodigious. You could hit the throttle at 80 and get pushed back in your seat, then next thing you know, you’re doing well over 100 and at risk of heading to jail…but the car was still pulling as hard as before, you just wanted to see how much longer it would last.
Car and Driver (my 4/92 issue is in front of me) says it is clearly the 500E’s little brother but in many ways almost its equal. If you did not drive the 500E, you would not miss the additional power but the extra $27,000 in your pocket would go a long way towards tempering any remorse. I freely admit that the 500E is something special and would still love to have one but the 400E is a true gem.
I recall that a few years earlier I had seen a 400E at an auction I used to attend and was looking at it, marveling at its condition. Only when I got into the still pristine-looking driver seat did I notice that the example in question had over 200,000 miles on it. Without a question, these cars were built for the long haul and with proper maintenance could last almost indefinitely.
As maintenance and repair goes, not much was needed and for what was, quality German OEM supplier parts were (and are) readily available at all sorts of inexpensive internet sites. I recall that one day the car began to run very sluggish and was significantly down on power. I tracked it to the dual distributors, one of which had a visible crack, so I ordered two and replaced them. They are located in a weird position (I thought) facing forward on the front of the engine but replacing them was straightforward. For good measure I also replaced the spark plugs and the leads since if nothing else they were probably fairly old.
Another time (and this is no fault of the car of course) we were driving on the freeway and saw something small spinning through the air towards us. Before we had time to even register the item beyond noticing it we heard a very large bang, obviously there had been an impact, but it was not obvious what had happened. After a few seconds I realized that the passenger mirror was no longer attached to the door so we pulled over. Turns out it was dangling by its power cord and the back was shattered as was the mirror face.
My best guess was that it was some sort of metal bar or a wrench that fell off a truck heading the other way and came over the divider. A very scary incident, it easily could have come through the windshield. However, half an hour of Ebay time and I was able to find another mirror painted the correct color for a reasonable sum which I installed the next week.
Those missing floormats were easy to replace with new factory items and I also ordered another key since mine only came with one for some reason. The costs for both items were very reasonable for what I’d consider an expensive car.
I also replaced the standard 15” rims and tires for a set of 16” pseudo-AMG rims from a newer model E-class. At the time I really liked the look, nowadays I would either stay stock as the standard items look great or go whole hog with a set of classic thick-spoke AMG alloys and lower the body a bit. My pictures show both wheel styles so you can compare.
The early 90’s were a bit of a transition time for the E-class – 1992 was the first year for the lower side cladding. Other than that the body was the same as before. However in 1994 the front end changed slightly to incorporate a bodycolor frame around the grille (mine was bolted to the leading edge of the hood), the rear taillights got smoke-color turn signals and the 300E became the E320, the 400E became the E420 and the 500E became the E500 without any changes to the engines for the V8 models.
I loved the inside of the car. The seats were so solid and constructed with actual springs inside, they just feel different than the foam-stuffed seats you get nowadays in everything. Small quirks abounded – The button on the dash that when you hit it, the rear headrests slammed back onto the parcel shelf (so you could see better when reversing). Putting them back up required doing it manually, no button.
The passenger side mirror was power operated. However the driver’s side? Manual! I guess they figured you are sitting right there, just extend your hand and move the little wand…I loved that in that class of car, such an anachronism.
The other thing I liked was the climate control. Mercedes for many years used these large thumb wheels. When you had the system in “auto”, instead of nowadays in the average car where you have to stab the button 25 times to go from low to high or vice versa, you’d just hit the wheel quickly and dial it around. What was nice is that it also controlled the fan speed, so if it was blowing too hard, you just turned the temp a bit closer to ambient and it would blow softer (or the other way around). Very nice and probably my favorite “automatic” system ever. (I generally can’t stand automatic climate control and usually just set them to manual, I much prefer manual controls from the get-go)…
Lastly, one of the things that Mercedes did was that no matter which version you go, you did not get a bunch of blanks for options that you did not get. There are dozens of variations of center console panels, no button meant that you did not get a cutout for it. Nice but no doubt expensive.
When I got the car in 2005 we were still living in Lafayette with my 42-mile each way commute. Within a year we ended up moving to Belmont where I worked, trading for a 2-mile commute. The car barely got warm but also due to the short drives revealed its real V8 thirst, usually averaging around 11mpg around town (High teens to very low twenties on the highway). Even though gas prices were sky high, the reality is that I did not have to drive very much, so blaming that would be a bit of a cop-out.
However, coupled with the fact that while most would consider it a largish car, the back seat was surprisingly snug, our second child was on the way and fitting a car seat base with a rear-facing car seat was a challenge. But the reality is that I was always looking in many different directions so the car’s time had come, no matter how good it was.
I ended up selling it to someone who had one years before and regretted selling it. It had around 70,000 miles on it when I sold it for $7,700 and represents one of the better purchases I made. The new owner (like me) felt he could not do better or find a better one easily so he quickly paid me and left. It was quite the car and made a definite impression on me. And no, they do NOT build them how they used to. Not Mercedes anyway.