The Best Coupé
The W124 (200E to 300E) Mercedes mid-range saloons, estates and coupés are the most popular products handled by Mercedes Benz UK, as well as the most versatile. Within the 16 model line you can have anything from a rear-drive diesel saloon to an all-wheel drive estate; there are also five petrol burning fuel injection engines, two diesel powerplants and a selection of three gearbox types. These are the no-cost alternatives of a five-speed manual gearbox on any model normally fitted as standard with a 4-speed automatic, or the option for 24v six cylinders of picking a five-speed automatic. We combined a look at Mercedes durability with the later alliance of 24-valve engine and five-speed automatic, all wrapped in a svelte black coupé (300CE) outline.
When we started negotiations to borrow the 14,000 mile demonstrator (then at the end of its press fleet life) the basic tax-paid price was just under £40,000. By the time the Chancellor imposed his blessed 17.5% VAT rate, and Mercedes in Milton Keynes had priced the eight options from a lengthy list, the retail cost surpassed £45,600. It was important to remember this price, for our enthusiasm for the car was liable to overcome almost anything save such sobering figures.
The 300E saloon is probably the sensible choice of the “300” branded middleweight range leaders, providing much of the performance that the more extrovert 24v so willingly exhibits. Yet the 300CE-24 combination of dark good looks and satisfying performance, aided by the best automatic outside the Porsche Tiptronic system, had us hooked by the end of an 856-mile week.
The twin overhead camshaft 24-valve cylinder head sits atop substantially the same finned and strengthened iron cylinder block as that of the 3-litre sixes, but the 12-valve engine has a nominal 88.25mm stroke, .05mm more than the 24v unit to allow another 2cc. There must be a logical Teutonic reason for this, but it was not divulged to us.
The combustion chamber shape and mechanical-electronic (KE) Bosch injection are efficient to the point of allowing a 10:1 compression to be fed cheaper unleaded fuel. The engine does not look beautiful in the current BMW or Jaguar anti-Japanese packaging idiom, but the unit performs extremely effectively and has notably low noise levels when compared to either of the equivalent BMW or Jaguar units. Compared to the 12-valve 300E cousin, it develops another 50 bhp, peaking 600 rpm higher. Maximum torque is little changed, plus 3 lb ft is all that the Mercedes 24v engineers could find; the unit runs to 4600 rpm, rather than 4400, to realise that pulling power summit.
The 5-speed automatic gearbox is an essential weapon in the war between Benz and BMW, the Bavarians slightly ahead on points with a ZF unit installed in the new 3-series that changes with spectral ease. The unit in the test Mercedes was very nearly a match for that BMW performance, save that the gate was so misleading and convoluted that we did four initial hours without engaging fifth! The confusion arises because fifth is not marked on the shift pattern. Thus 4 OD is meant to convey to the driver that you nudge the lever to the right for top gear. Once learned, the system works very well and there is the usual high degree of driver control over holding ratios down to second that assists the harder driver at work.
The running gear beneath that low drag coachwork had been modified by more than £900 expended on Sports Pack/Sportline components. This centres upon springs and dampers reset to increase their values by 20 per cent whilst dropping ride height 21mm/0.83 in. Replacement wheels and tyres are included of plumper outlines, but it is worth noting that Mercedes have also picked up a strand from the original TWR Jaguar conversions and imposed a more direct feedback on the steering system by ensuring it is more rigidly mounted in the car, worrying less about transmitted noise vibration and harshness for the more sporting application.
The cost of Sportline is quite hard to locate because the company give customers who have cars equipped with standard alloy wheels and leather steering wheel rim discounts on the overall Sportline price of £1762. What matters is that the suspension components work well to reduce any middleweight, middle age, feedback.
The Mercedes remains a machine rather than an exuberant companion as the corners become tighter, but it is supremely effective. The now much imitated five-link independent rear end remains a convincing argument that a rear-drive car can keep feeding power to tarmac even during the most extraordinary manoeuvres. Mercedes prefer that you take one of their electronic traction devices from the option list to complement that rear axle ability. Yet an ASR-coded device costs over £2000 and did not stir our devotion. We had to rely on the electro-hydraulic ASD limited slip differential layout that the company also offer (at half the cost, £944.42), but are not satisfied that either system really answers the needs of the more enthusiastic driver. The accompanying ASD flashing orange light is distracting and ASD seems to have all the surges in diverted power delivery that haunt so many multi-plate limited slip differentials.
Pushed hard the Mercedes is thus most likely to understeer, but if a poor surface is encountered on a wide throttle opening in a low gear, the rear will swing lazily out of line.
Ride quality is generally exceptionally good, and well controlled, but at town speeds the sporting options make their presence stiffly felt. More impressive was the fact that the Mercedes regularly traversed, with neither squeak nor rattle, an allegedly tarmac Oxfordshire by-road that has become more akin to an RAC Rally special stage.
The cockpit retains a familiar Mercedes formula. Many of the orange needle dials have combined functions, the oil pressure is resolutely pegged “off the scale” and the “handbrake” is a fiddle with a separate American-style foot pedal, one that requires a degree of agility not always associated with some of the more corpulent Mercedes customers.
Quality is not an advertising slogan to be ignored at Mercedes. The interior, replete in creamy leathers costing nearly £2000 extra, was of the highest quality fit and finish I have encountered since my family had a 1927 Rolls-Royce refurbished in the Fifties. That was at a now-extinct coachbuilder whose name now (somewhat ironically) adorns a number of BMW outlets. . .
The Mercedes single stalk to control both wiper and flashers seems entirely logical. So does the miniature outline of a seat to provide the optional electrical adjustment of each front perch; cost is £506 per side.
Power delivery is notably restrained by four-valves per cylinder standards (attributed largely to piston design by Mercedes) and the inline six imitates an urbane civil servant at urban toil. The transformation into a unit of distinctly sporting edge occurs around 4000 rpm and the engine is a delight to exploit all the way to its 7000 rpm limits. The overall effect is as if the townbound servant had donned athletic costume and become an outstanding sprinter. — JW
Key Features: Mercedes 300CE-24 Coupé
Tax inclusive price: £39,750. Tested with eight options: 5-speed automatic transmission, £723.37; leather seats, £1728. 81; two electrically adjustable front seats, £1012; outside temperature gauge (digital), £123.10; cruise control, £348.58; ASD limited slip differential £944.42; illuminated sun visors, £73.65; Sports Pack (wheels, tyres, dampers, springs and relocated steering gear), £946.12.
TOTAL, as tested, £45,650.05
Body: Steel, 2 doors + polyurethane protective side mouldings.
Drag factor: 0.30Cd.
Engine: Inline 6-cyl, 2960cc (88.5 x 80.2mm). DOHC, 24-valve alloy cylinder head, iron cylinder block; 10:1 Cr. Bosch KE CIS electronic fuel injection and ignition management. Power outputs: 220 bhp @ 6300 rpm; 195 lb ft @ 4600 rpm.
Transmission: Longitudinal engine drives the rear wheels through 5-speed automatic gearbox. Ratios: First, 3.87; Second, 2.25; Third; 1.44; Fourth, 1:00; Fifth, 0.75. Final drive, 3.69.
Running gear: Suspension: Sportline suspension pack provided a 21mm reduction in ride heights and 20 per cent increase in front and rear damper and spring rates. Standard system consists of: gas-damped strut, coil spring and wishbone front suspension with anti roll bar. Independent five link per wheel rear suspension with gas telescopic dampers, coil springs and separate anti-roll bar.
Steering: Relocated Sportline power assisted recirculating ball, 3 turns lock-to-lock.
Brakes: Ventilated front discs; solid disc rears; electronic ABS is standard.
Wheels & Tyres: Sportline specification is for alloy 7 x 15 inch and 205/55 Goodyear NCT.
Mercedes 300 CE-24
Millbrook Proving Ground test site, Teesdale Publishing staff using Correvit electronic measuring gear.
Acceleration: 0-30 mph 3.0 seconds; 0-60 mph 7.9 seconds; 0-100 mph 20.3 seconds; Standing 0.25 mile/400 metres: 15.9s @ 89 mph; Flexibility 50-70 mph in fifth gear 8.0 seconds
Maximum speed: 144.1 mph
Test distance: 856 miles. Overall test fuel consumption 24.4 mpg. Government mpg figures: Urban, 19.1 mpg; 75 mph, 25.9 mpg; 56 mph, 34.0 mpg.