Mercedes-Benz 500 SEL

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Alan Henry

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Yet another landmark in Stuttgart’s pursuit of excellence

When you have already got a refined, high quality product, improvements to its specification come about through a gentle process of evolution rather than by a stark, “sweep-the-board” policy of sudden change. So it is with the products of the Daimler Benz AG and this process is particularly well exemplified by its new “S” class of large saloons which were first shown in Britain at last year’s International Motor Show in Birmingham. Over the past couple of decades, we at Motor Sport have consistently praised the merits of Mercedes-Benz products and their level of appeal has been raised to such heights that it’s rather difficult to see where improvements can be made. In consequence, we approached the long-wheelbase 500SEL with cautious optimism; how could it be appreciably better than its 450SEL forbear? The answer is,of course, that the carefully planned process of Mercedes evolution has resulted in a car which seems slightly better than its predecessor in every way. And when all these small, apparently detailed, improvements are added together to produce a complete new character, the result is a machine which provides a significant overall improvement.

That a great deal of thought was put into the development of this range is emphasised by the fact that their initial concept was outlined before the first fuel crisis of 1973/74. Inevitably, the most spectacular progress has been made in the areas of aerodynamics and weight-saving generally. The 500SEL which we tried is actually 11 cm. longer than its predecessor, the 450SEL, but thanks to painstaking research and extensive use of high tensile sheet steel and light alloys, it has a 14% lower drag coefficient and is appreciably lighter than the car it replaces. Much of this weight saving is achieved by using a light alloy cylinder block and head for the 4,973 c.c., 97 mm. x 85 mm. V8 engine which, developing 240 b.h.p. (DIN) at 4,750 r.p.m., is the smooth, silky heart of what we discovered to be an outstanding motor car.

At a passing glance, you might just not notice the changes to this big Mercedes’ body shape. But the more you study the 500SEL, the more different and distinguished it appears to the eye. We always considered the superseded “S” class (we can’t bring ourselves to refer to them as “old”, since that word implies that they’re out of date and obsolete!) to epitomise quiet, well-balanced and refined good looks. But the new 500SEL appears even more timeless in its styling. Its corners are a little more rounded, its curves more subtle and it presents a gentle wedge-shaped profile, running gently upwards from its bonnet to its high, cutaway tail – a reflection of the aerodynamic development work which has gone into its design. All in all, it is a model of clean design, gently taking the Mercedes-Benz image into the new decade without resorting to any outlandish styling exercises. It’s a totally new Mercedes; but easily identifiable as a relation to its stablemates.

As one would expect, the level of accommodation provided inside the 500SEL is to a very high standard indeed. Our test car featured tasteful light brown interior decor to set against the understated dark brown exterior paintwork. As far as the controls are concerned, there’s very little new to be seen; having developed an ergonomically satisfactory fascia layout some years ago, Stuttgart rightly feels that little purpose would be served in making changes simply for change’s sake. Immediately in front of the driver, through the upper segment of the slightly dished four-spoke steering wheel, the customary array of exhaustively calibrated instruments dominate the 500SEL fascia from beneath a hooded cowl. The largest instrument is a 150 m.p.h. speedometer in the centre, complete with odometer and trip, while the rev. counter (red-lined at 5,800 r.p.m.) is situated to the right and the minor gauges (oil pressure, water temperature, fuel contents gauge and “econometer”) are incorporated into the left hand dial. As usual, the whole layout is geared towards giving you the maximum amount of information with the minimum of complication and fuss.

In terms of sheer room, the long wheelbase set-up afforded by the SEL configuration makes for an enormous interior by any standards. The front seats have a range of adjustment which far exceeds the demands of any six-foot tall frame. Our road test 500SEL was equipped with electrically adjustable seats all-round, activated by “seat shaped” controls at the forward end of the door panels. And when Mercedes-Benz say adjustable, that’s precisely what they mean. Not only can the whole unit be moved in the fore/aft plane, but the squab can be lifted and tilted and the backrest adjusted. I’ve always found that I sit a little low in the “average” Mercedes-Benz, or at least in those models where no such luxury is fitted, and I must confess that, far from sorting out an “ideal” position, I found that this scope for unlimited seat adjustments left me experimenting every time I took the car out during the duration of the test. I never did quite sort out a combination which I took to be ideal, but perhaps that’s because I had too much in the way of choice, rather than too little!

The seats themselves, of course, are high-backed armchairs by the standards of any run-of-the-mill saloon. There’s plenty of shoulder and knee support, but I always feel that I could do with more lateral support in a Mercedes. The problem is that the 500SEL’s ultimate capabilities are so enormous for a car of this nature that one frequently ends up driving it as though it were a sports coupe rather than a dignified limousine. For the latter purposes, the seats are truly more than adequate; but even belted in, by the superb inertia reel belts with their adjustable height positioning on the door-piliar, if you start chucking the 500SEL around, you’ll feel the need for a little more contouring in the seats.

Firing up that 54-degree, Bosch K-Jetronic injected Mercedes-Benz V8 is an almost magical experience. At the first turn of the key it bursts into muted action, and if you allow it to subside to tick-over speeds, chances are that you’ ll have to glance at the rev. counter to check that it’s still running. From that point of view, the 500SEL is absolutely outstanding, equalling in the writer’s view, the high standards of silence and refinement set by Jaguar’s 5.4-litre, fuel-injected V12. Under hard acceleration the Mercedes V8 is perhaps a fraction noisier, but otherwise there’s nothing in it. The four speed Mercedes-Benz automatic gearbox is controlled by the familiar central selector, moving lightly along a well-calibrated gate just ahead of the electric window controls on the console between the front seats. You can just feel the transmission “bump” slightly as you push the lever into “D”, but there is absolutely no creeping whatsoever until you press down on the throttle pedal and the 500SEL starts to move away.

Once on the road, the whole character of this grosser Mercedes is such as to suggest to the driver that he is controlling a much smaller, more compact and nimble machine. One doesn’t drive this Mercedes at low speeds in traffic, one simply guides it along. The servo-assisted recirculatory ball steering is finger-tip light, without appearing insensitive, and the general lack of noise and vibration insulates one from the world in general. With cruise control to look after one’s requirements for motorway work and a very sophisticated ABS anti-lock braking system (as standard on the 500SEL) some might say that the driver is too cocooned from reality. That’s not intended as a specious remark; it merely reflects the atmosphere of drawing room calm within this Mercedes whilst travelling at low speeds.

Braking capability has always been a strong point on the large Mercedes-Benz saloons. Many rival big car manufacturers offer machines providing comparable performance, but Mercedes always seem to be more than a match for them in the braking department. The 500SEL weighs in at 3,649 pounds, but its four-wheel disc brakes are truly up to the job of stopping it in a hurry from speeds upwards of 125 m.p.h. To add to this sense of security, the ABS anti-lock system is not only fitted to the 500SE and SEL models as standard equipment, but is available as an optional extra on the smaller bodied saloons as well as the SL and SLC sports models.

Although we never explored the full capabilities of the ABS system on a soaking wet road (although we drove on plenty of them during the course of our test!), Mercedes-Benz assure us that, as well as reducing stopping distances on wet or icy surfaces by as much as 40%, the ABS system enables the driver to retain full steering control even during “panic braking”. In effect, it automatically confers on the driver the ability to cadence brake, that technique of losing speed by means of a series of hard “dabs” on the brake pedal. ABS does this electronically, but much quicker than the human mind could react. Sensors at the wheels tell the central control unit when each wheel is at the point of locking up; pressure in the hydraulic lines is then reduced so that the wheel begins to turn again and, as soon as it reaches a predetermined rate, the brake pressure is applied once more. The result is that the wheels keep turning rather than locking up, allowing the car to be steered effectively throughout. Thanks to electronic microprocessors, the ABS system applies and releases the brakes with extreme rapidity, as many as four to ten times per second.

With the gearchange left in “D”, the 500SEL changes up at a relatively leisurely pace until it gets into top gear and this steady, albeit very smooth, progress only grabs one’s attention when the Mercedes edges beyond the legal 70 m.p.h. limit. At this point one becomes aware that the firm surge of V8 performance is continuing, unabated. At 100 m.p.h. there is little in the way of wind noise and only a small amount of drumming as the 205/70 VR 14 steel belted radials transmit some of the minor road blemishes to the occupants. By the time you’re doing 125 m.p.h. you have to consciously remind yourself that this is a large, four-door limousine and at an indicated 138 m.p.h. there is still obviously sufficient in hand to justify the manufacturers’ 140 m.p.h.plus claims for the car’s outright capability. Of course, motoring in such a manner exacts firm revenge on one’s wallet, but even so one can hardly deem 14.2 m.p.g. astronomic for this sort of performance. Driving the 500SEL in a dignified and conservative manner, we recorded 19.8 m.p.g. and the overall figure for the car’s spell at Standard House worked out at just over 16.5 m.p.g., so that’s really not bad at all.

That’s the rnotorway side of the 500SEL character, but its performance on cross-country routes, aided by the automatic gearbox’s intermediate hold, is something else again. I would hesitate to suggest that one can drive it like an Escort RS2000, but again the 500SEL proves remarkably agile for its size. It does nothing vicious or untoward when under pressure. No matter how enthusiastically one may hurl it at a corner, this Mercedes won’t deviate far off its intended line. Pushed to a ridiculous degree you will be repaid with a measurable degree of roll, but the tyres remain in reassuring contact with the road surface. Ultimately there’s a trace of understeer, and on wet surfaces it’s possible to get the rear wheels sliding, although they come back into line instantly with a touch of opposite lock from the driver. But the 500SEL wasn’t meant to be handled in this sort of unruly style; the fact that it can be, and will allow the driver to get away with it, is another indication of the enormous performance margins incorporated within its design. D.S.J. and the writer used it to drive down to Cirencester where we had been invited to sample the 1981 Ferrari range; after a cobweb-blowing trip in a Mondial 8, we sank thoughtfully back into the expansive seats of the 500SEL and purred away into the distance. After a few miles immersed in thought, D.S.J. remarked, “if you prescribed a cross-country route and sent Gilles Villeneuve off in a Ferrari Mondial 8 followed by Didier Pironi in this Mercedes, I bet Pironi would still be sitting right behind Villeneuve at the end of it.” Then, as an afterthought he added , “and Pironi would only have one arm resting on the steering wheel, quietly listening to the stereo!” That says it all for the Mercedes-Benz 500SEL!

With a price tag of £23,900.07, inclusive of car tax and VAT, the 500SEL may seem a trifle on the expensive side within its class. But for that sum you do get a great deal of equipment as standard, including air conditioning, the aforementioned anti-lock braking system, cruise control, a limited slip differential, power steering, tinted glass, an electric aerial, central locking, and headrests all round. Our test car’s extras included the electrically adjustable front and rear seats (£460 for the front two, £336 for the rear), electric sliding roof (£434.63), Becker Mexico full stereo (£681. 10), a fire extinguisher (£45.47) and alloy wheels (£453.79). Inevitably, one will draw comparison between the Mercedes-Benz 500SEL at this sort of price and the Daimler Sovereign Vanden Plas at £25,755. Personal preference is obviously the major factor in coming to a final decision, as it would be when comparing the 500SEL with the Rolls-Royce Silver Spirit which is priced at £46,629. We would not wish to prejudge the Silver Spirit in view of the fact we have yet to sample one, but would remark that if it is superior to the 500SEL we will be very, very impressed. – A.H.

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