Mercedes-Benz 500 SEC

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Refining refinement

FOLLOWING in the wake of the introduction of the new ‘S’ class Mercedes-Benz, the German manufacturer has supplemented its range with an impressive new coupé which is far more obviously related to the saloon model than the coupé it replaces. They share many technical features with the S-class saloons and replace the long-running SLC models. Having tested the new 500SEL last spring, we looked forward with considerable anticipation to sampling the coupé version which not only bears considerable visual testimony to the amount of time spent by Mercedes-Benz engineers refining its aerodynamic efficiency, but which also is powered by the latest “energy concept” versions of the light alloy V8 engine. The result of Mercedes’ latest endeavours is a large, imposing two-door coupé with splendidly clean lines combining modernity with a timeless appeal and the customary efficiency which one has come to associate the marque’s products.

Like their fellows at Porsche, the Mercedes-Benz design team are ever-conscious of the need to combine high performance with efficiency and the practical result of that philosophy is that these big coupés now return fuel consumption figures that could never have been dreamt of a decade or so ago. The most significant, and outwardly obvious, concession to aerodynamics concerns the radiator aperture and grille which slopes upwards and to the rear, eschewing the once-familiar grille and three-pointed star motif which has adorned the front of big Mercedes saloons for so many years. This intensive wind tunnel development work has resulted in a drag co-efficient of 0.34, one of the lowest of any car available in any sector of the market place.

Less obvious changes have taken place beneath the skin. In the interests of saving weight, the bonnet and boot lid have been manufactured from light alloy and the floor pan of the S-class saloon has been shortened by 86 mm. for this coupe which is also 30 mm. lower. What’s more, continuing the line of logic that accident avoidance is every bit as crucial a factor in a car’s design as the ability to sustain an impact in good shape, the 500SEC is fitted with the ABS anti-lock, braking system as basic equipment. The price tag for the big V8-engined machine is £28,700 with the 380SEC also available at £25,700. Standard equipment for both coupé models includes such features as cruise control, stylish alloy wheels, limited slip differential, electric front seat adjustment, choice of leather or velour upholstery, electric sunshine roof, electric windows and door mirror; and the aforementioned ABS system on the 500SEC only.

Entering through the wide opening doors, the interior is nothing new to those who’ve become familiar with Mercedes products over the past decade or more. Nothing is changed dramatically from model to model, merely refined for ease of accessibility and practicality. From the pull-out handbrake on the right hand side of the fascia, to the informative simplicity of the instruments, through the controls for the air conditioning to the feather-light movement of the gear selector, it’s all predictable, superbly engineered and tastefully presented. And the desperately difficult thing about testing a Mercedes, yet another Mercedes, is how to convey this continuing process of evolution without becoming repetitive.

Consider one small point. The coupé design, with its long door and pillarless construction, offers a particular problem over the location and convenience of the seat belts for the front seat occupants. Mercedes have prided themselves over their innovation in the past and, just as they did with progressively deforming safety cells, anti-lock braking and air bags, the new design overcomes this problem with straightforward, innovative engineering. As soon as the occupants are seated, the doors dosed and the ignition switched on, an “arm” slides discreetly forward at shoulder level to “offer” the seat belt. If the occupants don’t want it, then it slides discreetly away into the body panel just behind the door. If you don’t quite grasp what’s happening at first glance, and want the belts to emerge again, all you have to do is switch the ignition off for a second and then turn it back on again.

It’s only a small point, but I believe that Mercedes-Benz reveal a great deal about their attitude towards personal safety through the way that this detail touch is executed. Unlike the American mentality, which decrees that buzzers should flash, lights blink and ignition (in some cases) decline to allow itself to be switched on if you don’t fasten your belts, this German manufacturer leaves the choice to you. Having provided you with superbly engineered surroundings in which to go motoring, a car which should bring out the best in every driver, it reminds you that seat belts are available. It doesn’t coerce you or intimidate you into using them. Simply put, it offers you a choice without making you feel guilty about declining the offer. As I say, it may only be a very small point, but I liked it and appreciated the mentality behind it.

One can eulogise endlessly about the Mercedes interior. The quality of the velour seat trim is first-rate, the switches work with perfect precision and the restful atmosphere cocoons you from the reality of the outside world. Even in its most refined form I still have to say that I don’t consider the Mercedes V8 to be quite so smooth and silky as the latest Jaguar XJS HE power unit, but I will admit that this is the very first Mercedes in which I’ve had to consult the rev. counter in order to check whether the engine has fired up or not. And there are not many cars about which you can make that particular observation! Dramatic improvements in the 5-litre V8 engine’s torque characteristics have complimented the aerodynamic improvements and “weight saving” approach to the car’s overall design. The 500SEC delivers as much as 90 per cent of its maximum torque as low as 1,000 r.p.m. and sustains it up to an engine speed of 4,500 r.p.m. and as the engine now idles at a remarkable 500 r.p.m., worthwhile improvements in fuel consumption have been achieved. At a steady 56 m.p.h., the “energy concept” 5-litre returns 31.0 m.p.g. as opposed to the 24.4 m.p.g. of the earlier car. That’s an improvement of 27.1 per cent over the previous model. In the urban cycle the official figures are even more impressive, the consumption improving from 14.0 m.p.g. to 18.6 m.p.g., 32.9 per cent up. The average consumption for the time the car was here at MOTOR SPORT turned out to be 17.9 m.p.g. which, considering just how much hard driving and rush-hour traffic jams our test running included, reflects pretty well on Mercedes’ whole approach to the business of reducing consumption to socially acceptable levels.

Another major improvement has been made in the area of the four speed automatic transmission which, at part throttle, now engages the next higher gear as early as possible. However this in no way impairs the box’s ability at translating the message imparted by a firm right foot and rapid down-changes are still available under power. The combination between a very high top gear and easily selected intermediate gears provides a range of options for the enthusiastic driver. It’s equally possible to achieve reasonable fuel efficiency as it is to exploit the 500SEC’s maximum performance. In this context it should perhaps be pointed out that the “energy concept” 500SEC has a quicker 0-60 m.p.h. time that the 6.9-litre version of the superseded 450SEL. The fact that it can achieve this and perform, overall, more economically, is a measure of what Mercedes-Benz have achieved with this distinctive new coupé.

On the road the 500SEC exudes that quiet Germanic efficiency which makes the driver feel superflous. It might not be as obviously exciting as a Porsche Turbo or a Ferrari Boxer, but the sheer efficiency of the whole package belies description. There is no one area where one can see a quantum leap forward over previous big Mercedes-Benz machines, but at the same time there is no small area that has been forgotten when it comes to minor improvements.

On the road the car is quick, no question about an indicated 130 m.p.h. it is totally unruffled, only the slightly obtrusive “thumpbump” of the 205 70 VR14 Goodyears reminding the occupants that they are still in contact with terra firma. The power steering is finger-tip light, perhaps proving too sensitive for really enthusiastic driving and I personally feel that the steering wheel itself is a little on the large side. Under hard cornering there is a perceptible degree of roll which discourages one from “playing Bears” — remember, this is a sporting limousine, not an out-and-out sports car! During the course of our test the all-disc brakes showed no sign of temperament, but the roads were predominantly too dry for us to exploit the full potential of the ABS system. Anyway, I have to confess that I am sufficiently convinced about the effectiveness of that system not to want to provoke its use when I don’t have to. It’s designed for getting the Mercedes-Benz driver out of a very tight spot and I had absolutely no intention of jeopardising the 500SEC by trying to emulate such a dramatic situation on a dry road. All the same, it was warmly reassuring to realise that such a splendid capability was available should we need it.

Considering that the 500SEC is marketed as a two door coupé, there is ample room in the rear for two full grown adults. Headroom is more than generous and, although the rear seats are not adjustable, they are fitted with inertia reel seat belts as standard so that the privilege of using such accessories isn’t simply confined to the front seat passengers alone. The boot is deep and cavernous, although the sill is high. Under-bonnet accessibility is adequate, although one hopes that the sort of people who will be buying the 500SEC won’t want, or be obliged to, soil their hands examining anything more complicated than the oil dipstick.

The Mercedes-Benz 500SEC came equipped with a radio stereo installation of a very high standard and it goes without saying that there is plenty of space for the stowage of oddments within the door pockets and the reasonably capacious, lockable glove box. Over the years we have heaped superlatives onto the products of the Daimler-Benz AG and feel that the 500SEC continues the sound traditions that have gone before. It is an excellent, outstanding machine, not quite perfect, but sufficiently free from deficiencies so as to satisfy the most discerning and demanding potential customer. The Mercedes-Benz 500SEC may not be the most overtly exciting car in the world, but in terms of constructional integrity, superb finish and all-round value, it must rank very close to the best that money can buy. — A.H.

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