Road impressions

Mercedes-Benz 280E

IT IS INTERESTING that Mercedes-Benz have introduced the classic twin-cam inclinedvalve engine for some of their latest models. The 280E has this new 2.8-litre fuel-injection power unit in the smaller of the saloon bodyshells. It thus provides a very high performance in what is a compact car for Daimler-Benz, who have never in recent times catered for the lower end of the family-car scale. This will be appreciated by many customers for the best-engineered cars in the World, for we have known prospective purchasers of Mercedes Cars who have been put off by their large size and who have bought a BMW instead. Now they are assured of a relatively compact car from the great German Company, but one of extremely respectable performance, that is, if they are prepared to spend almost £4,000, which is what the 280E costs in Britain. Apparently many people are, and they are so busy at Brentford these days that offices have encroached into what were formerly the showrooms.

Naturally, as I had not driven a Mercedes of any kind for a year, I was disappointed that the car I took away for the Christmas break was not one of the very latest S-class, Dr. Rudi Uhenhaut's last piece of automotive expertise for his Company. These new models, which have only just come to Britain, will also use the twin-cam 2,8-litre engine I found myself sitting behind, and they have a new front suspension and trailingarm rear independent suspension, whereas the 280E with the smaller body shell, the wheelbase 16 1/2 in. shorter and the overall length 10.8 in. less, retains the low-pivot swing-axle coil-spring back-end with which Mercedes combatted undesirable oversteer a considerable time ago. The ride is good, only mildly lively at times, but there are noticeable thumps after the back-end has coped with the bigger bumps. The 280E, if somewhat out-dated by the very latest Stuttgart standards, has the merit of somewhat better acceleration than that available from the 2.8-litre engine in the bigger car and it is, in fact, a very fast car indeed, being capable of 120 m.p.h. in automatic-transmission form. The recommended speeds in the indirects, marked on the speedometer (inconsistently in respect of 1st), are: 24, 52 and 88 m.p.h.

The test car was a yellow saloon. A yellow Rolls-Royce is bad enough, but a yellow Mercedes however, this is one of the new with-it Mercedes colours and does ensure that you are easily seen in conditions of poor visibility. The very useful door-locking system, whereby if the driver's door is locked from without all the other doors and the boot lock automatically, was incorporated. But the car lacked electric window-lifts and a sliding roof, in a list price of £3,995.10.

Otherwise this Mercedes-Benz is a most beautifully contrived car. It differs little from previous models I have described in detail in these pages, perhaps because there is very little that could be improved and Mercedes do not alter their cars merely for the sake of change. Ahead, the respected three pointed star rides as serenely as ever. The bonnet is noticeably short, giving excellent vision, although the screen pillars and openable 1/4-windows are somewhat thick. The driving seat is hard but very acceptable, with a knob on the inside edge for accurate squab adjustments. Interior stowage is not quite so well-contrived as on a BMW, for there is no screen shelf, only a shallow well behind the gear lever and a cubby only on the passenger's side, which does not lock. There are pockets in the doors. The boot has the spare wheel upright on the o/s and its rather tinny lid will not spring up on its own, so that embarrassment is caused if one arrives back at the car with arms full of parcels—maybe they should not have given it to me for test just prior to Christmas!

How petty, you will say, and my defence must be that a Mercedes-Benz, any Mercedes-Benz, is so well laid out generally that the minor short-comings are more than usually noticeable. The facia has a 145-m.p.h. speedometer and a combined heat/fuel level/ oil-pressure dial incorporating the warning lights, divided by a smaller Vdo clock. The r.h. stalk is of multi-purpose pattern, even to a tiny tumbler to control the two speeds of the screen wipers—which Ford were pleased to copy, a Mercedes spokesman said. The screen washers are foot-operated, with further wiper control. There is rheostat-control of facia lighting and the heater quadrants and gearselector positions are illuminated when the side lamps are lit. The heater is augmented by a three-speed fan, quiet until the faster settings are used. The ignition-key is angled so that reaching slightly round the steering wheel for it with the left-hand is facilitated. The lamps are selected by the typical, very convenient, MB finger-and-thumb switch, which pulls out for the spot-lamps, and the action of the controls, the sober black interior decor, even the feel of the ride, all reminded me immediately of past Mercedes good qualities.

The headlamps had rather too-converging beams to be fully suited to the car's high cruising pace but when dipped they had an excellent spread. The Daimler-Benz fourspeed automatic gearbox is one of the best of its kind. It is controlled by a centre lever with an ingenious gate, for the P, R, N, D, S and I, permutations. The gate is of plastic these days, instead of being of brushed nylon. The "holds" permit extreme acceleration and control, the engine remaining in 1st and 2nd if L is selected; rather surprisingly no tachometer is fitted. However, the new twin-cam engine with electronic fuel injection and transistorised ignition runs to 6,500 r.p.m. without anxiety, which is 500 r.p.m. above its peak speed, when 136 KW are developed, or 185 b.h.p. (DIN) in terms of pre-EEC power assessment. This, in the 9 ft. 3 in.-wheelbase 3,195 lb. 200E means a better than 0-60 m.p.h. in ten seconds pick-up.

It is all achieved with excellent rood grip and quiet running, apart from some power hum. The wheels take the wider-rim, radialply 14 in. Continental tyres, of the size used on the bigger Mercedes. They did not seem to have all that much adhesion on mud but when one of them punctured I found the jack to function effectively. There is a reserve fuel range, indicated by a warning light of 41 miles under normal driving—it might not go so far at Motorway speeds. The warning comes on and stays there; not flickering at first as it does on most other cars. Fuel consumption of 9-octane petrol from the 9.5-to-1 c.r. engine worked out at 19.9 m.p.g. The fuel filler is beneath a spring-leaded flap on the back panel, to the right of the number plate, which confused one filling-station attendant. Sump oil was scorned in a mileage of 900.

There is thereafter nothing but praise I can accord this small but quick Mercedes-Benz. It is very dignified, apart from the colour. It behaves impeccably. All the detail is so nicely done—little levers to cut off flow front the air-vents at the facia extremities, little pull-out interior door handles, knobs to shut tight the quarter-windows, brakes which at first feel too sensitive but on longer acquaintance are found to be delightfully light and progressive but extremely powerful. The power steering, at just over 3 1/4 turns, lock-to lock, is among the best of its kind. I was rather surprised to find, however, that with Daimler-Benz so concerned with safety, warning lights are not used on the edges of the doors. The handbrake is rather odd, too—a pull-out one on the fads, for the right-hand, with a vigorous fly-off action, although it works well enough. The all-disc brakes have been enlarged and given bigger master cylinders for the more powerful 280E and alloy wheels and a four or five-speed manual gearbox are optional extras. The 280E is, indeed, every inch a Mercedes.—W. B.