I know it’s not a Porsche, but Mercedes and Porsche collaborated on building the performance version of the W124 because Mercedes didn’t have the capacity/desire/interest to do it in their factory. If you knew that already, congratulations, you’re the type of person who my wife would never let me invite around to dinner for fear of terminal boredom. If, beyond that, you already knew that it also had a Porsche model number and that the model number was 2758, congratulations, you’re the type of person I would never want to get caught on a long haul flight next to.
I could digress further into the history of the car, but a thoroughly interesting and informative article on the car and its development has already been featured on these pages and you’d do well to peruse it at your leisure.
(Full disclosure, I wanted to drive this car so much I moved some other garage flotsam out of the way, put the key in the door, unlocked it, started the engine and drove away. If you followed me on Instagram you would have seen me driving it yesterday. None of you follow me on Instagram, but it seemed like a delightfully self-indulgent thing to write and all the cool kids are doing it.)
Cursory inspection by someone who isn’t the type of person my wife would call ‘boring’ would reveal the car to be a typical example of mid-eighties Teutonic pragmatism. Straight lines, workmanlike details and very little in the way of artistic flair, you could even call it bland. There are details to take in, the frankly enormous windscreen wiper, the conversely tiny headlight wipers, the ribbed (settle down at the back) rear lights. If instead you are the type of person who gets all bothered when people don’t say the ‘uh’ at the end of Porsche and you can recall factory colour codes better than family birthdays then you’re in for a treat, for closer examination reveals numerous details which differentiate the 500 from its more pedestrian brethren. The front and rear wings are considerably wider than the standard car’s, it’s lower and the bumpers are subtly different. If you look at the contemporary uber saloons from other German manufacturers both the BMW M5 and the Opel Omega Lotus announced their presence with a bit more panache. The Opel basically came up to you and punched you on the chin. The Mercedes on the other hand doesn’t scream about the massive V8 lurking underneath, you have to look twice, remove the badging and most people won’t be able to tell the difference. I like that.
THUNK! Ah yes, the fabled Mercedes door shut noise, it’s enough to make automotive hacks weep into their bowl of analogy bisque, bank vault, tank-like, as solid and Teutonic as Helmut Kohl’s glasses, blah blah blah, but it does sound reassuringly expensive. This particular example is adorned almost entirely in black cow, save for a slathering of wood in an attractive shade of ‘what the bloody hell were they thinking?’ around the HVAC controls, center console, dash centerline and door tops.
Despite this slightly gauche addition the interior is a rather excellent place to be, quiet, incredibly comfortable and blessed with an airy brightness that only the pre-invasive crash test A-pillars can provide. You can spend hours upon hours covering vast distances in blissful, perfectly climate-controlled comfort and emerge at your destination fresh as a daisy. The only slight blemishes are the unrelenting blackness of the thing and that godforsaken wood.
Glorious. Now don’t get me wrong, we’re talking about quite a heavy car with interstellar gearing and a four speed torque converter (more on that later), despite that you can still see 60 in a hair over 6 seconds if you set the transmission to set off in first instead of its default second. Standing starts however are not what this car is about; it’s the in-gear acceleration which gets your attention. Compared to today’s offerings it’s not going to set the world on fire, but it has its moments.
Imagine yourself travelling along on the highway at the locally mandated speed limit of 130km/h when some horrible SUV like an Audi Q7 or BMW X5 perches itself four microns from your bumper (as they often do around these parts), you are faced with two options. Option one: a light pressure from your right foot, the transmission doesn’t even kick down and you’re wafted up to a speed which will require a stern talking to from the constabulary and the removal of several hundred euros from your wallet as well as a few points from your license, no fuss, no noise, just lots of speed. Option two: pedal hits the floor, the car shifts back into third and you find yourself in a different area code at a speed which will result in a custodial sentence and divorce, the only difference to option one being a distant rumble from the engine and a satisfying shove in the back, like an airliner taking off. This is what the 500E is designed to do, it might not kill from the lights, but it buries on the move.
Taking into account the size and weight of this thing (1700kgs) the braking performance is extremely impressive, and it needs to be. This particular car is aided in its deceleration because it was sent to AMG to have the entire braking system from contemporary the S600 fitted (later E500s featured these brakes as standard, but the 500Es did not). They do a great job of pulling you up when that diesel Fiat Punto pulls into the overtaking lane without indicating. You can stand the car on its nose over and over again and the brakes don’t tire. I wouldn’t want to test them on a track day, but then I don’t think any sane human would.
Dignified, this is the very definition of grand touring when it comes to ride. This thing just floats over every imperfection imaginable. Italian roads are notoriously horrendous and the 500E barely even notices the multitude of potholes, ruts and pointy expansion joints. The car is definitely a product of its time, when fast didn’t necessarily have to mean bone-jarring and is all the better for it.
Oh dear, this is where things start to fall to pieces. The 500E was designed to compete with the contemporary M5 and Lotus Omega, but it was never really in the same league when it came to handling. Back before active this and selectable that, the only way you were going to stop 1.7 metric tons of car getting a bit wallowy in the corners was to set it up good and stiff, and that goes against the grand touring ethos of the 500E. Don’t get me wrong, we’re not into Citroen levels of body roll, but it’s not exactly a Mini either. However like I said, that’s not what this car is about, if you turn off the ASR (another extra fitted during its sojourn at AMG) you can get it sideways and hustle it through corners, but it takes a braver man than me and a sideways 500E takes up about as much real estate as a bus and you will get into trouble with oncoming traffic. The steering is quite surprising; you would expect a barge like this to have fairly inert steering. That’s not the case; it’s delightfully weighty, precise and feels brilliant. It’s appreciably heavier than the contemporary 300SL I had to move out of the way to get to the 500E, while some of this is no doubt due to the extra weight, I get the feeling that Mercedes left in a degree of heft because, you know, it’s a 1.7 ton V8 and you should feel it. I did give it a crap score based on absolute handling considerations, but for what it was designed to do, it’s perfectly good.
Bearing in mind that more than 20 years have passed since this car rolled off the production line it’s quite well-equipped, as well it should be because at the time of registration it was one of the most expensive cars in the Mercedes line up. Dual-zone climate control, electric and heated seats, Becker Mexico cassette player (which was subsequently replaced with a newer Mexico CD unit), cruise control, rear headrests which disappear back into the parcel shelf at the touch of a button and an electric roll-up blind for the rear window, which, being a child, I like playing with at traffic lights.
Everything you need to keep you comfortable for a long journey is present and correct. This car also has a very particular option selected, as you can see, the space normally occupied by the rev counter is taken up by a small LCD display with lots of very angry German capital letters around it.
This is the 500E’s trip computer, controlled by eight buttons on the center console this thing is complicated enough to warrant a separate instruction manual.
I for one don’t know what DURSCHSCHNITT or BIS TANK LEER mean, but I’m pretty sure it shows you your range and various other clever things I couldn’t care less about, but it does look cool.
Once again, this isn’t a really something that this car is renowned for, silent rapid progress is what you really want from a car like this. If you slam the (strangely enormous and ridiculously long-travel) accelerator to the floor you do get a nice V8 rumble emanating from somewhere several feet in front of you. It’s a great sound, somewhere between the cultured roar of a European engine and the slightly more entertaining rumble of an American one. This car’s sound is aided by the removal of the catalytic converters (surplus to Italian emissions requirements at the time of registration). The car would sound utterly brilliant with an open exhaust, but it would go against the whole stealth bomber ethos of the 500E, it definitely had one in the past, judging by the small cutout present in the rear bumper.
When purchased it represented incredible value, because it was acquired for a sum of money which in Tavarish logic would have barely gotten you a base model Fiat Panda. However these cars have become increasingly valuable and decent examples with a fully stamped service book with mileages not into the worrying ranges of six figures are starting to command some serious money. A recent search of cars local to me netted one single solitary example under €20000 and it was on Eastern European license plates, had racked up interstellar mileage and had that ‘just washed the blood off the back seat’ look about itself. Something half way decent requires an investment of at least 28 grand, and that’s getting on to be some serious (Porsche 911 type serious) money. Then there’s the issue of running costs, the car recently developed an annoying fault which required a thorough exam with Mercedes-Benz diagnostic equipment, the charge for a replacement Lambda sensor was scrotum-shriveling. Amongst the many invoices in the service history is one from AMG in Affalterbach (who takes their Mercedes to AMG for a service?) for a fluid change, installation of a couple of extras and a suspension and brake overhaul, the number at the bottom of the (four page!) invoice was bigger than what I paid for the entire car! It also happens to like a drop or seven of fuel. The most miserly driving known to human kind will get you 10kms/liter (you do the maths to convert that to mpg, I can’t be bothered), but if you get creative with the happy pedal, you’re into the dangerous levels of single figure per liter, fortunately the fuel tank is cavernous and you’ll probably grow roots while you wait to fill it with the arthritic pumps in most Italian fuel stations, from reserve 50 euros doesn’t even get the needle to the half way mark.
The Mercedes 500E is an amazing car. It manages to be inconspicuous but blindingly quick when necessary. However the speed itself is not the main draw, it’s the unruffled Teutonic calm with which it achieves the speed and the total serenity felt on the inside while you’re making progress. A few years ago I decided to take my then girlfriend, now wife to Monte Carlo for Valentine’s Day. We departed Florence, more than 400km away at 4pm with no expectation of making the hotel before dinner, we actually arrived with ample time for a shower and a drink, completely relaxed, refreshed and having only stopped once to top up the tank. On the same journey on the way back I encountered a favourable stretch of empty highway, placed my foot on the floor and left it there, having nearly doubled the national speed limit I glanced over at the passenger seat and my girlfriend was still asleep. That’s the level of isolation you can achieve in this car. Unfortunately I was using her GPS at the time and when she next used it, the numbers on the ‘previous journey’ page made for an interesting conversation.
Engine: 4973cc DOHC per bank, 32-valve V8
Power & Torque: 322bhp at 5700rpm, 480nm (354lb/ft) at 3900rpm
Transmission: 4-speed automatic (some of you have just vomited)
Drivetrain: Front-engine, rear wheel drive
Weight: 1710kg (3770lb)
MSRP: I cannot express through the power of words how little I can be bothered finding out what this cost in the US when it was new in 1991. In Italy it was the equivalent of a Ferrari 348tb, which explains the rarity, Mercedes claims that in 1991 a grand total of twelve, yes twelve 500Es were registered in Italy.
Normal caveats about forgetfulness, spelling and wanting to set fire to my man-grapes for liking an automatic transmission apply.