Vintage Reviews: 1992 Mercedes-Benz 600SEL, 500SEL And 400SE – Landing With A Heavy Thud

“More.”  The word can be a double-edged sword.  “Extra” can easily become “excess.”  That certainly was the case with Mercedes-Benz’s W140 S-Class.  In 1991, the automotive press set out to chronicle the benefits of the newest, biggest Benz, but there was no avoiding the elephant in the room.

Noted automotive Journalist Georg Kacher provided a sneak peek of the new 600SEL in the June 1991 issue of Automobile Magazine.  Right out of the gate, Kacher focused on the supersized dimensions of the new S-Class—no matter how superior the quality or driving dynamics, the sheer bulk of the car dominated first impressions.

With deflections that would do a smarmy politician proud, Juergen Hubbert, Head of Mercedes-Benz AG Passenger Car Division, tried to justify the relevancy of the big beast in an environmentally conscious era: “never mind the size, it feels smaller than it is!  And it’s fully recyclable!”  Uh huh.  Note also the talk, some 26 years ago, of Mercedes-Benz developments in EVs and solar powered charging stations…..

It’s interesting to see the top-of-the-line 600SEL interior finished with the cloth trim.  U.S.-bound S-Class models came standard with the leather interior.

The 12-cylinder 600SEL was ultimately seen as rather hard to justify, unless spending the most money possible on an S-Class was the objective.  With dismal fuel economy and less well balanced than a 500SEL, the $125,000 ($229,597 adjusted) 600SEL was the the “too much” pinnacle of the “too much” W140 S-Class range.

And that automotive overkill came at a treacherous time for Mercedes, as the aggressively-priced Japanese luxury upstarts were making significant inroads in the U.S. market, and many luxury buyers were seeking more rational expressions of luxury.

The white exterior color of the 500SEL test car evaluated by Road & Track certainly highlighted the large size and slab sides of the W140.

Though Bruno Sacco oversaw enough masterpieces to firmly cement his spot in the pantheon of the world’s great automotive designers, the blandly gigantic W140 was not one of his best efforts.  However, it did at least come across as unmistakably Mercedes-Benz, especially inside, with a beautifully crafted, very businesslike and extremely comfortable interior.  In today’s world of convoluted digital screens and overabundant driver distractions, the W140 S-Class interior was an oasis of simplicity and logical ergonomics, even if it was seen as vexingly complicated by automotive testers back in 1991.

The 500SEL may have been a better value than the 600SEL, but it was still a shockingly expensive car.  The base price was $93,500 ($171,739 adjusted), and that was before mandatory taxes, including the luxury tax at $6,350 ($11,664 adjusted) and the gas-guzzler tax at $1,500 ($2,755 adjusted).  At least it was an exceedingly competent, sophisticated and well-built machine, suitable for an elite clientele.

To best define the new S-Class, Car and Driver used pop-cultural references by defining the car as appropriate for the then-hit TV show “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” hosted by Robin Leach (who just passed away a few weeks ago).  Just like the locales and individuals chronicled in the show, the W140 S-Class embodied conspicuous consumption.

But that gluttony was hard to swallow for many people.  There were other luxury sedan choices that offered far better performance, or better value, or both.  The biggest Benz may have been impressive as a monolith, but it was hard to love.

To put the new 400SE in perspective, Car and Driver compiled a comparison with the flagship, V12-powered BMW 750iL.  The E32 7 Series, though already entering its 6th model year on the market, still managed to beat the newest S-Class in the eyes of C&D’s editors.

Though Car and Driver reviewed one of the less expensive S-Class models, the price was still eye-popping: with options and taxes, the 400SE test car was still estimated to cost $90,995 ($167,138 adjusted).  Even with that price tag, the Mercedes failed to earn top rankings in any category relative to competitors (except for price—the Benz cost the most!).

Representing overkill in size, weight and cost, the W140 hit the ground with a thud, never earning the following enjoyed by the preceding W126 S-Class range.  Issues like the tires flat-spotting on cars that were sitting for a week or two did nothing to burnish the W140’s reputation—this was simply a pig of a car—a decadent, luxurious swine to be sure, but porcine nonetheless.

Seeing the W140 that Brendan chronicled last week as a $100 trade-in simply brings it home: this was not a Mercedes-Benz for the ages.  And that brutal truth was apparent from launch.