The big car base line

Mercedes 560SEC

If there is one marque closely identified with the life-style of a contemporary Grand Prix driver, it must be Mercedes-Benz. Over the last few years you have been able to measure the aspirations of budding F1 aces as they climb the ladder to fame and fortune by noting which model they drive. The not-so-rich opt for 2.3-litre 190 16-valve saloons, while the established stars and team owners go for the big coupes. Latest in the mouth-watering range for those who’ve really made it is the 560SEC, retailing in the UK at £52,185, but available to the racing fraternity at a 15 per cent discount on ex-factory price. A fact, which if you are of a cynical bent, underlines why most Grand Prix drivers extol the virtues of the Daimler-Benz AG products rather than those from Coventry or Munich . . .

Of course, Mercedes-Benz knows precisely what it’s up to. The overall excellence and refinement of its products are of such established quality that a PR exercise of this nature can really be regarded as the icing on the marketing cake. Although it cannot do any harm at all to see leading international sportsmen identified closely with its products, the sort of discerning buyers who intend investing large sums of money in Mercedes-Benz motor cars are hardly likely to be impressed by the fact that Nelson Piquet or Nigel Mansell own one as well.

Topping off the recently revised S-class range, Mercedes-Benz has added two new top-of-the-range models, the long wheelbase 560SEL saloon and the similar capacity SEC coupe. This means that the stylish and very commodious two-door coupe is now available with three differing engine sizes, a 420SEC and a 500SEC available as slightly lower priced alternatives to the flagship of the range.

It is Mercedes’ avowed intention that these 5.6-litre V8 projectiles should provide the very ultimate in up-market prestige motoring, appealing to the sort of customers whose standards of taste and discernment previously led the to the 300SEL, 6.3 and 450SEL 6.9-litre models over the past two decades.

Heart of the 560SEC is the well-proven light alloy V8 from the 500 series, the bore of which remains unchanged at 96.5mm while the stroke has been increased from 85mm to 94.8mm. To enhance the engine’s freerunning characteristics, the crankshaft now has eight counter-weights instead of six. With its multi-functional ignition and mixture formation system, the 5547cc unit produces a healthy 300 bhp (DIN) at 5000 rpm, sufficient to propel the coupes aerodynamically superb profile at over a genuine 140 mph.

Small wonder the GP aces find it such a relaxing and tranquil high-speed hedge against inflation! Incidentally, colleague J .W. recently raised the question as to why, according to a recent M-B press release, only Michele Alboreto and Nelson Piquet out of all the Mercedes-mounted aces opted for the 500SEL saloon version. When I mentioned it to the Ferrari team leader, he grinned sheepishly and said he rather preferred its lines. Most of his rivals opted tor what they regarded as the coupes more pleasing aesthetics. The last word came from Niki Lauda, the Ibiza-based triple World Champion-turned-Boeing 737 captain remarking, “I have the four-door saloon because I’m an old man with a family. Too old for these sporting cars . . .”

As you slip in behind the wheel of the 560SEC you are immediately conscious that this is the mixture as before, but refined so efficiently and unobtrusively as to leave the occupants blissfully unaware that anything is really different. And I emphasise the word blissfully.

My first reminder of the car’s wide-ranging appeal came when considering the driving position. Its range is quite remarkable. I am the best part of 6ft 2in in height, but the range of adjustment encompasses a rearmost position from which I found it impossible to even touch the accelerator pedal, let alone press it!

Make no mistake, although this is a two-door coupe, it has plenty of room for four people and all their luggage. However, from a personal point of view, no matter how much I juggled the door-mounted electrically operated driver’s seat adjustment (pre-programmable in two positions!) I cannot really recall being totally comfortable behind the wheel. Whilst allowing the old M-B adage that the seats feel supportive and accommodating after 2,000 miles at a crack, I still could have done with the squab being a couple of inches or so longer. I really did want more support under my knees; a small point, perhaps, but when you’re laying out over £52,000 on a motor car you’re also buying the privilege of making such observations.

Surveying the instruments from behind that evocative — yet always, in my view, too large — steering wheel, there is no concession to the passage of time. Stylistic alterations to the instrumentation certainly form no part of the Mercedes-Benz credo. It is always welcomingly familiar ground for the driver.

The fascia has a classic appeal. Dominating the scene is the 170 mph/280 kph speedometer flanked on the right by the rev counter (red-lined at 6,000 rpm) and a small clock. On the left of the speedometer is another circular dial, segments of which provide gauges for fuel contents, oil pressure, water temperature and the “econometer”. Below this binnacle is a battery of warning lights covering most of the auxiliary controls, bulb failures etc. The central console contains a superb Becker Mexico radio/stereo system while the sophisticated and reliable air conditioning system includes separate controls for each footwell in addition to six vents at various points across the walnut-trimmed fascia.

Aside from the electrically adjustable seats, there are other aids to calm living incorporated into the 560SEC’s basic internal specification. The arm which obligingly extends to “offer” you the seat belt, like some sort of mechanical valet, retreats unobtrusively if you decline to accept its offer within a fixed time. As has been said before, this is classic Germanic logic; give the occupants an opportunity to do the right thing, but don’t insist. If they are daft enough not to take it, it’s their endorsed licence, not M-B’s . . .

For those who revel in Jaguar standards of internal luxury, the Mercedes’ interior may provide food for thought. Although our test car had leather seats, this served to contrast rather starkly with the wide expanse of plastic atop the fascia. Whilst extremely comfortable and practical, I always find the interior of a Mercedes efficient rather than sumptuous. Every aspect of the car has a briskly efficient air and this quality extends to the trim level and specification as well.

Visibility is terrific and all the minor secondary controls fall to hand easily. Cocooned within the insulated luxury of its high quality cabin, the 560SEC imbues a feeling of calm well-being even before the key has been turned in the ignition. A touch on the key and the subdued, reassuring throb of that V8 comes to life without the slightest hesitation.

The lightest touch on the throttle is sufficient to get the car rolling, the thump-bump from its 205/65 VR15 Continental radials appearing mildly obtrusive until speed builds up and the whole chassis develops a restful rhythm. Generally the ride is a nice and comfortable blend of comfort and precision. Initially, the 560SEC feels quite soft, but the ride is well damped against ruts and potholes so although one remains aware of an element of tyre noise, this never really becomes irritating.

Compared with the 500SEC, for example, the extra half-litre capacity makes the 560 a real sprinter. Power is up by 55 bhp over the earlier machine and the engine’s torque characteristics are also substantially improved. We went for a short ride with Benetton F1 driver Thierry Boutsen, the Belgian an avowed 500SEC fan who is now waiting for his 5.6-litre model to come through the delivery pipeline. “In every respect this has more performance and torque,” he told us, “in every gear, every situation.” Praise indeed from a man who’d just been lapping Silverstone’s Grand Prix circuit in the low 1 min 8 sec bracket in his Benetton-BMW…

The truth of the matter is that the 500SEC alway felt slightly overchassised. The engine propelled it quickly enough, but unless you were judicious in your use of the automatic transmission’s kick-down facility, you inevitably came away thinking that the car could cope with a bit more power. The 560SEC pushes its tyres, its brakes and its capability just that little bit further. No longer does the driver feel as though he is a unnecessary appendage — that the car could probably get on just as well, if not without him. If you push the bigger-engined coupe, you have sufficient power on tap to make it work for its living.

Its four-speed automatic has an economy and a sport mode, all our motoring taking place, unsurprisingly, in the latter. Whilst the 560SEC will rocket from rest to 60 mph fractionally over 7 sec — not bad for a car weighing over a ton and a half — its utter and complete security at sustained high cruising speeds is its most impressive single aspect. Superb and painstaking attention to aerodynamic detail ensures that wafting from 80 to, say, 130 mph is accompanied by little more than a slightly more obvious roar from the slipstream. In fourth gear the 560SEC is purring along at little more than 4,000 rpm at this sort of speed, feeling unflurried, relaxed and totally confident. Even edging towards an indicated 150 mph, this big Mercedes never feels strained; it merely runs gently out of top gear steam.

Once you are used to the feeling of being wafted around in well-insulated comfort, exploring the outer limits of the 560SEC’s handling and adhesion can be rewarding. Its brakes are powerful and progressive; an experimental emergency stop from 120 mph on the wet tarmac of Silverstone’s central runway betrayed no snatch or deviation from the prescribed line.

Pressed hard, a trace of reassuring understeer will develop, which can be killed instantly by easing the throttle slightly, but to get the rear wheels to break adhesion takes a damp road surface and energetic use of one of the intermediate hold positions on the automatic box. The harder you press on, the more precise and sporty the chassis feels. Lively, yet never unruly, it belies its external dimensions.

Unquestionably, it is one of the World’s great cars. Not because it carries the three-pointed star on its radiator grille, not because of its superb performance and docility for a car of its size, not because of its high level of equipment. The Mercedes-Benz 560SEC earns its right to a slot close to the very pinnacle of automobile engineering because of the manner in which it combines a whole host of enviable traits, blending them into an exquisitely balanced package which radiates high production standards, superb engineering and a keen perception of what the discerning buyer really appreciates.

Driving the 560SEC, I inevitably found myself thinking about Jaguar’s current brilliant efforts with the XJ40 range and I though back to my visit to Browns Lane to interview John Egan in the summer of 1981. Outside the office block I found Egan’s parking space occupied by a Mercedes 450SEL. What was that all about, I inquired. “Simple,” replied Jaguar’s top man, “I’m driving it for a week or so just to remind myself that the next Jaguar can’t just be as good as the Mercedes — it has got to be better.”

In many ways, that says it all about Mercedes-Benz in general and the 560SEC, the marque’s flagship, in particular. There are people who suggest that the current ‘S’ series chassis is struggling a bit to keep up with the XJ40 and the new range of big BMWs, but even if those two marques have excelled themselves with their new offerings in terms of road manners, handling, performance and equipment, there will still be one area in which a question mark hangs over their products. Would you keep one for ten years and each up 140,000 mechanically troublefree miles?

That’s where we come back to the 560SEC again. If you were of a mind to, you certainly could with this Mercedes. As I write these words, our Managing Director’s 1977 450SEL stands in the car park below my office, its odometer halfway through its second trip “round the dial”. It still looks pristine . . . At the end of the day, it is this quality of potential longevity which justifies the 560SEC’s truly daunting UK tax paid price tag.

Technical strength in depth probably sums it up best. So, by a strange paradox, if the Jaguar XJ6 and the BMW 7-series are better cars than their predecessors, it is largely because Mercedes-Benz has set them both a truly daunting base line to aim at. And nowhere today will you find those standards on more public view than from the driving seat of the Mercedes 560SEC. AH

Model: Mercedes-Benz 560SEC

Maker: Daimler-Benz AG, StuttgartUntertuerkheim, West Germany

Type: Two door, four seat. coupe

Engine: Light alloy V8. 5547cc (96.5 x 94.8mm). cr 10:1. One chain driven overhead camshaft on each bank. 300 bhp (DIN) at 5,000 rpm, 335 lb ft torque at 3.750 rpm. Electronic micro-processor controlled ignition system, mechanical/electronic fuel injection with microprocessor-controlled fine-tuning functions.

Transmission: RWD. Mercedes-Benz torque-convertor four-speed automatic with programme selector. Tempomat cruise control. Limited slip differential.

Suspension: (front) Coil springs with gas filled shock absorbers with twin control arms and anti-dive characteristics; (rear) Coil springs with gas filled shock absorbers with diagonal trailing arms. Differential case located by flexible mountings. Self-levelling.

Brakes: Fixed caliper discs all round, front discs internally ventilated. Mechanical/hydraulic dual circuit with vacuum booster and ABS system.

Steering: Power assisted rack and pinion.

Wheels and tyres: Alloy rims shod with Continental 215165 VR15 radials.

Performance: 0-60 mph, 7.1 sec: 50-70 mph, 3.7 sec, Maximum speed: 145 mph.

Economy: Overall, 18.7 mpg. Estimated 22 mpg (touring).

Price: £52,185.

Summary: Sophisticated and refined beyond the needs of most mortals MB’s latest flagship is an enduring testimony to the manufacturer’s continuing commitment to excellence. Unflurried, and a very high performer, its agility belies its ample external dimensions. Very covetable!