Monday, January 12, 2009

Full Drive: 1994 Mercedes-Benz E320 Coupe

Growing up, I’ve always had a love for cars of all sorts and kinds—for example my all-time favorite back in the day was a 1999 GMC Suburban, thanks to the Hollywood action flick Volcano, don’t ask. But of course, I’ve always had a special spot in my heart for those Germans, more specifically das volks from Stuttgart, Mercedes-Benz. So naturally, you can guess at which automobiles I was looking for my first car.

For just about everyone, the one of the biggest and most memorable moments in one’s life is their first car; unless you care so little about cars that you’ve managed some way to avoid suicide from being verbally and physically harassed by your classmates from riding your childhood bicycle with tassels all of your life.

After months of searching and test driving numerous old Mercedes’, mostly W126 420SEL or 560SELs—or the S-Class from the late 1980s for you nomenclature followers— and several BMWs, Infinitis, Lexuses, I stumbled upon this one-owner, very mint condition 1994, black-on-black W124 E320 Coupe’s with only 76k miles on it. So after having it inspected by a specialized Benz mechie, we (being my mother and I) pulled the trigger.

Just to give you some history, the Mercedes E-Class has been the bread and butter model ever since the wedged three-box W114 from the 1960s. As the years progressed to present day with the current W211 (2003-2009) and the 2010 W212 E-Class on the way, the story remains the same. But of course, the E320 Coupe has aged quite a bit since it rolled off its home turf in Sindelfingen, Stuttgart, Germany: fifteen years and four months to be precise. Let’s not forget though that the company to always be the leader in automobile inventions and innovation is Mercedes-Benz, holding the record amount of patents in all of automotive history; so many of which are safety patents that it makes Volvo look like a poser. The W124 in particular was a car that was way ahead of its time, something those Germans tend to do quite often. It was the first car to offer a passenger side front-airbag worldwide, as an example, and has plenty of pedigree following it. But altogether, how do those fifteen years of use stack up to the Teutonic Spartan once built to a “cost-no-object” engineering ideology of durability, build quality, reliability and longevity?

Staring at the slightly road-rashed and swirled paint from the many well-maintained miles and countless brushless car washes it’s been through and to, the body and paint have held up pretty well. Employing a typical three-box design, the E320 Coupe looks much like its sister sedan, only better. While the sedan looks fairly edgy and stodgy at several angles (Porsche-tuned 500E aside with the flared wheel arches), there’s no angle at which the Coupe looks miles better as its proportions are complemented by the sleeker profile of two-less doors. While the Coupe may look aged next to your current BMW 6er or Mercedes CLK with its two-tone under cladding, it’s still a car that’s elegant and classy in its presence as it ages gracefully in the era of the Bangle-butt. Designed to be aerodynamic—being the car to have the lowest drag coefficient of 0.28 for any vehicle at the time—there’s not one bit of the car that faults form following function. The taillights and front corner indicators are rippled to keep dirt and debris build-up from inhibiting their luminescence. Headlight wipers were standard to perform the same function. The passenger side rear-view is squared for better short-distance visibility where as the driver-side is rectangular for better long-distance visibility (coming from a country where you will be penalized for not staying right unless passing).

With a 106.9 in. wheelbase, an overall length of 183.9 in. (both about four inches shorter than the sedan), an overhall height of 54.9 in. (2 inches off of the sedan), and a curb weight of 3525 lbs, it’s size and proportions are just about bang on with the late E46 BMW 3er Coupe (1999-2006), though about 100 lbs heavier.

A quick tug and swing to the driver side door and the long, hefty coupe door glides open; step inside to a properly broken-in yet mint condition leather seat and you’re immediately surrounded by an interior that came from that aforementioned “cost-no-object” solidity with burl walnut wood trim; real I might add versus the faux wood trim that plagues many automobiles of comparable mediocrity. Big leather-wrapped four-spoke steering wheel in front, boxy center console, dash and gauge cluster behind and to the sides. Everything has the solidity and sure-footedness of a brick house, with a solid tank-like thunk following the closing of the door. Besides less-than stellar climate and radio control ergonomics, the same form-following-function design continues on the inside as the interior was designed entirely for driver orientation and for nothing other than the sole practice of driving: the lack of cup holders, driving position, and exterior visibility are several examples of that. There are even dividers between the seats and the center console which keep pocketed items from getting caught, in the most untouchable spots inside a vehicle; just evidence that the engineers in Stuttgart thought about nearly everything. The plastics and materials are all high-grade, and are as high-quality and durable as the car’s original sticker price of $66k suggests. All buttons have a tactile and firm feel so that it was all built to last and withstand daily use. Everything just screams quality, quality, quality, more so than the average infomercial announcer trying to get you to pay that $19.99 for that kitchen appliance that’ll find its way into the basement, labeled “junk.”

However, even though this was a $66k luxury car, don’t expect to find options like radar-guided cruise control, suspension adjustment, navigation, even a trip computer (though a very rare option in Europe only). Single-zone automatic climate control is standard along with an exterior temperature gauge, and optional heated front seats, all uncommon in mainstream automobiles at the time…but that’s basically it. This particular Coupe back in the day was optioned with the Bose premium sound system, which paired up with the standard Becker 1492 head unit sounds crystal clear with no distortion and proper balance of highs, mids and lows.

Passenger compartment space is plentiful for two people, but just adequate for four people as the back seat has no middle hump, which is instead replaced by a center console and storage box by Mercedes Coupe tradition. Proper move though since the car is not very space efficient in interior design. Adults would have no trouble going for some medium trips to the in-laws for the holidays, as long as the front occupants are no taller than six feet. But of course in the 1990s, you were either a freak of nature or an NBA player if you were taller than the latter. Trunk capacity is a reasonable 14.4 sq. ft., a little more than a square foot shorter than the current E-Class.

The therapeutic leather seats are very supportive with lots of lumbar support, though thigh support could be a shade better. Comfort is no issue with these seats as this car is designed for long-distance travelling on the Autobahn. Rear seats are equally as comfortable but with the better thigh support needed up front. Why didn’t they just swap the seats or just give the front an equal treatment? Regardless, although they may not offer the same sporty support as the La-Z-Boys offered in BMWs, they still are plenty adequate without sacrificing any long distance comfort.

Inserting the skeleton-like laser-cut key into the tumbler, and firing up the car only brings a slight shutter to the car as the engine warms up at a high idle just above 1k RPM. I could’ve sworn I started the darn thing…but before tumbling the key once more, a quick glance at the tachometer to see the car was running relaxed my emotions. Even at its current mileage of 117k miles, the car is still as refined as its Germanic build quality suggests (oh how I would’ve loved to have driven and owned this car brand new). The 3.2-Liter, 3,199cc, 195 cu. in. displacement dual overhead camshaft Inline-6 with four valves per cylinder, dubbed M104.992, settles down to quiet, operating temperature 600 RPM idle. Step outside and all you hear is a slight hiss from the fuel pump and the whoosh of the vacuum produced from the primary viscous fan cooling the engine.

Putting the at-the-time normal, four-speed automatic into drive, and mashing the pedal, the 3.2L six produced 217bhp at 5,500 RPM and about 229 lb-ft of torque at 3,750. From a standstill, the second iteration of the world’s first traction control system (optional on all but the 500E, where it was standard) avoids wheel spin as you ride a wave of torque all the way to the engine’s top speed of 6400 RPM. With a stopwatch in hand and a fellow mate riding shotgun, naught-to-60 was clocked in at a very respectable 8.29 seconds, just a hundredth of a second off of the official factory time of 8.3 seconds. Though with that flat torque curve, it feels far faster than its numbers suggest. A true testimony to the precision engineering that has paid off by keeping the car still very fresh in its operation.

Overtaking is nothing but a breeze with all that torque available so quickly. Gear changes are sports car-like quick, and smooth. Programmed with electronic overdrive so it could reach the highest gear possible as soon as possible for fuel economy and winter start purposes, just either give the pedal ¾ for a next-gear downshift, mash the pedal and hit the kick-down switch for the lowest possible downshift, and be ready to feel the pull and see the horizon catapult towards you. You can even manage the gears yourself by pulling down the shift gate to “3” or “2” but be sure to observe your speed as the speedometer is specifically labeled with each gears’ top speed so as to avoid over revving the engine. Make no mistake, while you won’t have a chance in winning stoplight drags with the latest and greatest AMG models, the E320 is a very powerful car. Be careful because you can easily find yourself doing speeds screaming immediate jailtime. "Wow 110 MPH? I could've sworn we were doing only 80, officer!"

The ratios are set just about perfectly as all four gears take full advantage of the engine’s power band. Although obsolete with only four gears, back in the day this setup and combination is just about as perfect as H2 and O because of how versatile it is in nearly every situation; even today its combination is very hard to flummox. Power delivery is never interrupted from a downshift or upshift, all the way to the car’s limited top speed of 134 MPH. An extra gear would have been nicer but 5-speeds were still in the development stage for the most part. And response via throttle input can be a little dimwitted, but of no major concern if you know how to position the pedal and/or use the shift gate.

Handling is just as equally as impressive. With a modified MacPherson strut up front with coils springs separate from the shock absorbers and a fully independent five-way multilink rear suspension (only employed by Ferrari and professional race cars at the time) from the earlier developed W201 190E, father to the current C-Class, the suspension was very ahead of its time as many mainstream automobiles haven’t utilized these suspension designs until the late 1990s and even still don’t utilize such designs entirely.

With a near-50/50 weight distribution, 53/47 front and rear to be exact, and the modern suspension setup handling is very balanced and neutral with understeer and oversteer both kept in check, making for very confident turn-in with the rear following nicely. Only if you purposely plow the car heavily into a corner will you result in understeer (but that’s basically the story with anything on wheels). Otherwise the car is pretty nimble for its cumbersome weight. Settle down on the highway and the car trucks down straight and true like a bat out of hell.

The recirculating ball type steering, although on the slower side with 3.0 turns lock-to-lock, is accurate and adequate for point and shoot steering. It’s very well weighted, has linear and natural progression as well as plenty of feedback. Although the steering may not offer the same amount of road feel as a BMW or Honda tiller, enthusiasts won’t be upset having this car as a daily duty.

Ride quality is superb with the Mercedes-traditional firm-yet-compliant tuning. Bumps are absorbed very well but without the wallowing of say, a barge from Cadillac. A well-tuned stiff chassis, long suspension travel and low spring rates allow for mid-corner composure perfection. Hit any bump or imperfection of any nature while corner carving and it’ll be absorbed instantaneously without upsetting the chassis. In any case of driving you can always feel and read every move the car makes, every grab and slip all four tires make. There's so much driver feedback that you'd think that BMW or Porsche got their hands on the design. The only gripe that should be mentioned here is a considerable amount of body roll at which to make you and your passengers and their contents upset if you decide to quicken the pace. Otherwise handling is poised, predictable, balanced and neutral all while making long-distance cruises a breeze. A fabulous blend of the best of both worlds.

It’s very difficult to express how nearly perfect the W124 is because it does nearly everything perfectly. It handles well, rides great, has plenty of power, is well built, reliable. Although it could use one more gear, thicker anti-roll bars, it’s hard to find a fault in a car engineered by the guys who were the best in the business. Even over fifteen years later, the car is still as fresh as its engineers intended it to be. It’s no wonder that the W124 is the benchmark and has been critically acclaimed to be the best modern mid-sized luxury sedan ever produced.

~Chris Chin


  1. You forgot to mention the fantastic turning circle on this car.

  2. Fantastic review! I like the premise of reviewing cars years and years after their initial debut; hindsight IS 20/20. I am picking this very car up in two weeks. Can't wait to enjoy it with my honey!

  3. Excellent review! I have a '94 E320 Coupe with the 5 Speed Auto, having driven is an excellent option but rather rare I'm told.

    Cheers Richard (NZ)

  4. Great article,I have the 95 E320 Sportline coupe and there is no other car Id rather own. "There are two types of people in this world, those that drive cars, and those that drive Mercedes Benz."

    J. Charles Johnson
    Phoenix, Az

  5. I enjoyed reading your review. My W124 coupe is identical to yours, in year and color. I purchased mine in 2006 with 95k miles. Over the past 5+ years, I have enjoyed owning it so much, I hope to buy a 1995 E320 cabriolet and keep them both.

    I have owned four MBs since 1995. Two for the wife...two for me. The coupe has been the most enjoyable vehicle of them all. It also has been the most expensive to maintain. As I'm sure you're aware, the W124 has been plagued with several problems. The most notable being the wiring harness ($700). In addition, there are the throttle actuator (dealer - $2,000/eBay - $350) and the head gasket ($2,500). While I have truly enjoyed my coupe, there have been times I would have sold the car if I hadn't been unable to fix it myself. Also, I'm fortunate to have a top mechanic from the South's top dealership work on my car, on the side. This has saved thousands.

    In addition, the car oversteers on wet surfaces unless you have ASR. Over the years, there have been too many times the car has spun out when I was simply turning a corner. For the past two years, I've had W rated tires on the car. This has solved 99% of the problem. Although I wish I had ASR (for my teenage son more than me), I can manage without it. I learned to drive in Buffalo in the '70, long before traction control. As a result, I instinctively know how to correct for this problem.

    Despite the short-comings, I do truly love the car. If I can find a matching convertible, I'll be set for the long haul.