Middle wallop

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Late last year, Mercedes-Benz brought its extensively overhauled middleweight range of W124 saloons, coupés and cabriolets to Britain. Besides being fine cars, perhaps the epitome of the versatile and durable West German saloon, this particular model line is currently Merc’s biggest seller in the home market. In the first three months of 1993, it was only 2628 units behind BMW’s cheaper 3-series. For our test, we were entrusted with the elegant two-door 320 CE coupé, featuring the most powerful of the range’s in-line sixes (3.2 litres, 220 bhp). An exceptionally civilised cabriolet is available with the same running gear.

Our test car was special in that Unterturkheim racing saloon car specialist AMG, now a sibling of the Mercedes organisation, will invoice you around £12,500 for the additional body panels, replacement wheels and uprated suspension kit. The result was a 320 CE of distinct personality and outstanding stability (even at the recorded 147 mph maximum). Because the engine was not modified, top speed and accelerative capabilities remain close to those of the showroom item.

However, the sub-19 mpg fuel consumption was a direct result of our enjoying the modified suspension so much that the five-speed automatic spent most of its time in ‘sport’ mode, answering consistently enthusiastic demands.

UK range

There are just two middleweight Mercedes coupés listed in Britain, a four-cylinder 220 CE for under £30,000 and the £39,200 320 CE, the price of which went up by £800 as our test was in preparation, as did the cost of all the sporting extras.

AMG is the favoured factory saloon car racing team in Germany and has provided a faster version of Mercedes road cars since the 1970s. It developed its own four-valve-per-cylinder units for road use in advance of the factory . . . or were those simply factory prototypes released for some early consumer testing?

Even though the test car’s engine remained as standard, the options and accessory packs had been applied with such vigour that the price had escalated by £19,363 in all.

The result was a hard car to assess.

Since items such as driver’s airbag, 15 in diameter alloy wheels, electric sunroof and automatic four-speed gearbox are part and parcel of the standard specification, you might wonder how one manages to spend the best part of a further £20,000?

Chief culprits are the AMG suspension and multi-piece 17 in wheels with oversize Michelin tyres (£8741). The more aggressive body panelling accounts for another £4168. The leather seats also make it onto the expense podium, at £1787. Even before AMG gots its mitts on the car, Mercedes had touched it up considerably: items which spring to mind are electrically adjusted front seats (almost £2000), superbly sensitive cruise control (£360) and five-speed automatic gearbox option (£748).

Technical analysis

The engines have changed since we sampled the alluring 300 CE 24-valve coupé in 1991.

The alterations are most dramatic further down the range, because previous two-valve-per-cylinder technology has now been entirely superseded. Owners of previous 200E, 230E, 260E and 300E models gain an average of 22.6 bhp, but at the top of the line the 24-valve six does not have more horsepower than its predecessor. Instead, there is a useful torque bonus from the extra 239cc, achieved by enlargements of both bore and stroke. The test unit offered fractionally under 229 lb It of torque at 3750 rpm, whereas the three-litre 24v generates 195 lb ft almost 1000 revs further up the range. The result is an engine which feels about 1000cc larger than it actually is.

AMG’s input is most obvious from the coupé’s lower, wider stance, which centres on the 8.5 in wheels (a stretch of fully two inches over the showroom model) and the 1.2 in droop in ride height. No more precise information was available from Germany as we went to press, but the amount of feel generated by the car points to the replacement of all springs and dampers by substantially stiffened components.

Action

Recalling the investment that has been sunk into styling and suspension modifications, it seemed wise to pause before climbing aboard, in order to examine what is provided for an extra lump-sum that could, realistically, have been spent on a decent family saloon . . .

I could find no flaw with the dark metallic grey paint, quite an achievement when applied to such a diversity of surfaces (including steel and plastic). Since that solid rear spoiler is a £670 appendage, one is entitled to expect a truly flawless finish, without the gaping attachment lines that turn so many body kits into cash losses when a vehicle is traded in.

The multi-component wheels were a credit to their manufacturer (they are simply credited to AMG) and the body package included the usual front rear and side sill extensions, all properly integrated.

I found the result distinctive, but dated. Others will have their own opinions. No aerodynamic advantage was claimed, but the car proved extraordinarily stable at high speeds. It is possible that the subtle recontouring of the front end under-bumper lines and side sills may offset some of the aerodynamic drag penalties associated with fitting such substantially wider tyres.

Inside, the cockpit is far more restrained than an M-series BMW would be. Aside from automatic transmission, the usual Mercedes four-spoke steering wheel (with air bag) was retained, along with the customary black and orange instrumentation. We have never previously seen so many trees sacrificed in the interests of Mercedes interior trim; this, like the extensive use of leather, owed much to the options list.

The overall impression is a long way removed from the old West German preference for austere matt black cockpits.

Driving the Mercedes regularly reduces some of the initial irritants that are traditionally imposed on customers: American-style foot operation of the handbrake alongside automatic transmission; seats with little resistance to cornering forces; ‘poke-in-the-eye’ RS seat belts, which automatically extend as you take your seat (and are prone to slipping off their operating arms). We also remain unimpressed that no radio is provided as standard (the Becker GP2000 we enjoyed was not priced); Mercedes includes a ‘weasel’ paragraph within its extensive options list – “radio equipment to customer choice”. It’s not as if customers would revolt if Mercedes made some sort of concession on the entertainment front.

The ‘switchblade’ operation of the bulky ignition key is faintly disconcerting, whilst the remote control burglar alarm/immobiliser system – apparently easy to bypass with a £700 ‘grabber’, if you believe the tabloids – activates the locks only from the driver’s door or rear panel.

Thus far, we have given little account of the enlarged W124 powerplants’ road manners. We should first establish that the aforementioned technical changes have resulted in all-round driving improvement, and that the extra ration of overtaking flexibility is appreciated when you have to accelerate rapidly with 1.7 tons wrapped around you. As an aside, we should add that the four-cylinder models are also much better for their supplementary power and torque, a fact that should become increasingly evident when the C-class becomes available in rhd later this year.

I enjoyed the 24-valve three-litre which preceded this model, and was beginning to think that Mercedes’ engineering finesse was underrated. Now that BMW is so heavily involved with its V8 and V12 power, there is a case for saying that Mercedes has come to the fore with this dose of pep for the already revered straight six. At idling (600 rpm) and town speeds you simply have a civilised ally, though it was slightly marred by some small surges from idle to 1000 rpm in one downhill traffic queue. It never happened again but, with automatic transmission, the potential for embarrassment was obvious. From 4000 rpm to the redline at 6400 it is truly invigorating, dispensing an enjoyable dollop of creamy power.

The harder you drive this modified Mercedes, the more sense it makes – especially the enhanced suspension and tyres’ provision of outstanding adhesion, overall stability and a generous helping of real driving pleasure. If you wondered whether you’d wasted your money on show, rather than go, a quick cross-country sortie provides rapid reassurance. It has the handling talents of a BMW M5, without transmitting the sensation that you are in a bulky saloon, something of which the latter is guilty. AMG ride quality depends entirely on speed. On minor British roads, there is sufficient jarring below 40 mph to make the steering judder. The road surfaces undulations transmitted to the cabin are far too intimate for a first acquaintance.

Work the chassis harder at higher speeds and the benefits of the modifications materialise, for there is no float and little roll. Any road approaching German standards of smoothness is lapped up gratefully, though the ride quality is far from the best in the modified sporting sector (JaguarSport sets the pace here).

The AMG modifications are not so crass as some inflicted on Mercedes and BMW owners by the aftermarket, but they would probably benefit from some development for B-road use in the UK.

The brakes are not significantly improved and the ABS action was a mite fussy, interfering early in wet conditions. Otherwise, it performed with the power and confidence that is required of a near-150 mph saloon. Damp (greasy, rather than soaking wet) conditions also proved unsettling. When a tail slide was provoked, the car responds lazily before oversteer ensues. The steering is more than capable of recovering a 320 at the limit, but feedback is inconsistent. The large Michelins do influence low speed manoeuvrability and cornering characteristics, delivering inordinately heavy steering loads at town or parking speeds. This becomes much more acceptable above 45 mph.

Complete with single stalk cruise control operation, this 320 CE’s potential was barely tapped at pedestrian British motorway speeds. Previous experience of the standard car in its homeland offered evidence of such docile cruising manners between 100-130 mph that average drivers could feel happy carting their families along at such sustained speeds. The only motorway cruising fault generated by AMG is the noise kicked up by the ZR 17 rubber, especially over concrete dual carriageways. That Is a charge which can be levelled at many German cars; we feel the exceptional grip levels offer worthwhile compensation.

Verdict

Although we have made a lot of detail criticisms of this Mercedes, it should be said that we still regard the 320 CE as elegant, durable, enjoyable and fast. Since BMW abandoned the 6-series (built on a 5-series floorpan), this excellent coupe has no obvious rivals.

As for the AMG bits and optional M-B ‘improvements’, I simply don’t believe they are worth such astounding outlay.

Judged as a £40,000 coupé, the Mercedes makes sense. If you can afford another £20,000, I’d choose the refined, rapid, £54,590 500E, even it it is only available in Ihd. If you can see beyond the three-pointed star, there is the largely unappreciated, 4.2-litre Audi V8 (£45,894). The Audi has the advantage of quattro stability, though it only has a short shelf-life ahead of it. It will be replaced within 12 months by the aluminium-bodied 300 series.

Even without the 6-series, there are inevitably several BMW alternatives, including the cheaper (from £33,390) BMW 540i, available in this country only as an automatic. If you are prepared to shift the gears yourself, and want crushing performance, the hand-assembled M5 may appeal at £49,750.

Even so, Mercedes should be top of the list for anybody in the market for a quality, middleweight saloon or coupé. If you want to get the best from its inherent ability to fight the ravages of depreciation, you should stick, by and large, to the factory specification, in-car entertainment not withstanding. J W

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