Road test - The Mercedes 280E (W123)

Superb engineering, styling and handling, reasonable performance, too expensive

When Mercedes-Benz introduced their nine-model W123 series last year they made much of the continued production of the old “New Generation” W114 series of largely parallel engine size medium size models. Logically, at last the W114 series is now being faded out, imports to the UK have ceased and the model range conflict has ended to leave the market clear for the superior newcomer. In Britain there are seven models of W123 available, as described in Motor Sport, November, last year 200D, 240D and 300D diesels; 200, 230, 250 and 280E petrol cars. Our transport over the Christmas and New Year holidays was the top-of-the-range model, the fuel-injected, six-cylinder 280E. Very much a baby S-class Mercedes in looks, the 280E packs considerably less punch than the big V8 S-class versions, though naturally more than the identically-powered, but heavier, 280E, but what it lacks in sheer performance it makes up for in quite superb road manners and convenient compactness.

The 280E is perhaps the best looking of all the Mercedes saloons, the more compact body better balanced in line, the wide wheels and grille more in harmony with the squatter appeal of the slightly wedge-shaped body than with the “grosser” lines of the S-class. The 280E’s distinguishing feature of rectangular head and foglight nacelles blends better with the W123’s modern styling than the round units of the lesser models in the range. Any mention of compactness must be taken in Mercedes relative terms, for this four-door, five-seater measures 15.5 ft. long, 5.86 ft. wide and 4.7 ft. high. It is a measure of this Mercedes’ driveability that those dimensions feel shrunken to the driver.

The model type “280E” reflects the engine’s cylinder capacity and “Einspritz’ (fuel-injection) induction system. In general it is the same six-cylinder, in-line oversquare unit used in the old W114 280E, with twin overhead camshafts, a capacity of 2,746 c.c. from a bore and stroke of 86 mm. x 78.8mm., a seven-bearing crankshaft, a cast-iron cylinder block and a light-alloy cylinder head. There is a significant change from Bosch electronic fuel-injection to the Bosch K-Jetronic mechanical system with air-flow metering device recently adopted on the V8 engines and the 280SE. The compression ratio has been lowered front 9 to 1 to 8.7 to 1 though the engine retains its 98-octane fuel requirement. These changes have brought a reduction in power from 185 b.h.p. DIN at 6,000 r.p.m. to 177 b.h.p. DIN at the same engine speed and from 176 ft. lb. torque at 4,500 r.p.m. to 172 ft. lb. torque, again at the same engine speed. At 28.7 cwt. the new style 280E has gained a few pounds on its predecessor.

Overseas 280E customers have the choice of either a four-speed, floor-change manual gearbox or Mercedes’ own four-speed, torque converter, automatic gearbox; the British arm of the company has decided to restrict imports to automatics, which is perhaps a shame because the splendid handling should be even more responsive under manual gearbox influence. Both transmission types use a 3.55-to-1 final-drive ratio, offering 60 m.p.h. at 2,966 r.p.m. in the 1-to-1 top gear.

This new medium size Mercedes’ front suspension is derived from that of the S-class and incorporates zero offset steering and anti-dive geometry. It has double wishbones, coil springs, telescopic shock-absorbers and an anti-roll bar and is described as “maintenance-free”, which won’t enthuse grease-gun manufacturers. Not unexpectedly the 280SE’s rear suspension is of diagonal swing axle type with coil springs, telescopic shock-absorbers and an anti-roll bar. The rear track is substantially narrower than the front 56.9 in. against 58.6 in., both figures a fraction greater than those of old, slightly wider-bodied 280E. The wheelbase of 9.17 ft. is 1.0 in. longer than the W114’s.

Something in the looks of a Mercedes always epitomises solid, reliable, brilliant engineering and this 280E is no exception. That appearances reflect fact is obvious the moment the key is turned in the driver’s door lock each door’s locking button rises silently and smoothly as the vacuum-powered central locking system is activated. The boot lid and petrol filler cap are included in the system, the best in the business.

There is nothing grandiose about the interior, just the usual Mercedes amalgarn of functional completeness without frills, almost austere in appearance in comparison with Jaguar’s leather and walnut luxury. That is no criticism of either make; it would be a boring world if different tastes could not be catered for. The upholstery is a combination of smooth cloth in the scat centres and on the door panels and tough vinyl elsewhere, both hard-wearing, for sure. The carpet too suggests durability rather than soft-pile luxury. There is a touch of the cheap and nasty about the plastic door pockets, but they are useful. Adjustable headrests and centre arm-rests on front and rear seats are more in keeping with the car’s status. A first-aid kit in a rear parcel-shelf locker is a sensible detail.

The facia is neat, but not extravagant, except for it strip of real wood across its width. Grouping and clarity of the Vdo instruments is first class, in a black surround behind a single-pane glass in a cool ahead of the driver. Of the three round, white-on-black dials with orange needles, that on the left houses an accurate fuel gauge for the 17.6 gallon tank, a temperature gauge and an oil pressure gauge, the needle of which sticks at its 45 p.s.i. maximum if all is well, in the centre is a larger 140 m.p.h. speedometer and on the right is a clock which kept good time in the test car. There is no tachometer and no real need for one either; if it is felt necessary to take the engine to its 6,500 r.p.m. maximum in the lower three gears the speedometer is marked correspondingly at 34 m.p.h., 55 m.p.h. and 90 m.p.h. Fortunately lot gear can’t be held manually to 34 m.p.h. for, as the handbook shows, that is the figure for the manual gearbox. The automatic figure should read 26 m.p.h.! An ignition cut-out is fitted to make sure maximum revolution, are not exceeded, however. The trip-meter re-set knob doubles cleverly as a rheostat control for the instrument lighting. Warning lights are collected together in it neat strip running along the base of the instrument cowl.

Switchgear is kept to it minimum by a combination switch on the right of the steering column which contrives to control the two-speed, plus dwell, parallel-blade wipers (by turning the switch), the powerful four-jet electric washers (by pressing the end, which automatically gives five sweeps of the wipers), headlamp dip, flash and indicators. A lights master switch on the right of the facia tums to operate the plentiful beams of the halogen headlights and if pulled out one click turns on the halogen foglights; a further click adds rear foglights to the array. There is it parking light facility too. Headlamp beams can be adjusted to compensate for heavy loads by knobs under the bonnet, which serve as a reminder that there are cars at half the price with self-adjusting headlights… A headlamp wash/wipe system is it £136 extra, by the way. Just below the facia, the centre console houses switches for the rear compartment interior lights, the heated rear window, which switches off automatically after a maximum of 30 minutes, and, on the test car, an electric sunroof. A £349 extra, the steel-sliding sunroof has an automatically operated deflector and proved to free from draughts and buffeting that even winter weather didn’t preclude its use as a “fug”clearer at the touch of it switch. I would much rather spend £349 on that extra than £363 on electric windows, which the test car aid not have.

In my job I drive to many cars that adaptability isn’t much of a problem, save for one thing: heater controls. I’m sure there must be a running competition between the engineers responsible for heaters as to who can devise the most confusing and inefficient arrangement. Trying to sort out the new “automatic” system on a Porsche Carrera 3-litre a few weeks ago made my brain ache. Mercedes obviously sympathise, for whilst their heating is complicated by individual temperature control for either side of the car, the controls couldn’t be more clear and logical. The left-hand knob of three in the centre console controls temperature on that side and vice versa for the right-hand knob and a clearly-marked central knob controls the three-speed blower and air volume. Above them is an air distribution lever for the screen or all four footwells. All the controls are illuminated at night and heater and demister/ defroster output is magnificent. If it is fresh air you want then there are four big, facia-mounted eyeball outlets to comply, two in the centre and two at the extremes. Air conditioning is available as an (expensive) extra.

The boot is capacious, in spite of the spare wheel in it well beneath it, has useful wells at each side for small objects, is frugally carpeted with a rubber mat, has a warning triangle stowed in its lid and is illuminated automatically with or without sidelights. The tool-kit looks a bit sorry by BMW standards, but the jack is effective. Cockpit stowage space includes a lockable glovebox, illuminated only when the sidelights are on, regrettably, those plasticky door pockets, a good-sized rear shelf and nets on the backs of the front seats.

Front and rear seats are very firm, German fashion. They are also impeccably shaped, seemingly for all shapes and sizes, with room for the largest of people to spread, and as a result they are exceedingly comfortable, even for several hours on end. The driver’s seat is adjustable for height by a ramp mechanism and through the four-spoke, 16 in., padded steering wheel is in it fixed position, nobody who drove the car complained of being unable to find a suitable driving position. Rover-fashion, the centre seat belt buckles are built into the seats and thus adjust with them. The big exterior door mirror is adjustable mechanically from inside the car. While left-hand-drive models have a foot pedal-operated handbrake the r.h.d. model has a very effective pull-out brake high on the right of the facia, where it can sometimes be in the driver’s way when he is climbing in.

During the cold weather this 280E proved to be one of the easiest cold-weather starters I have come across. It fired instantly, ran smoothly immediately without an increase in tickover speed and the automatic gearbox showed no lethargy. It was practically impossible to distinguish between its cold and warm conditions and I had to remind myself to let the oil warm up before revving the engine.

The 280E’s straight-six engine is not capable of producing the astonishing performance of some of the V8 Mercedes, but it does have fine attributes of its own, including a smoothness of feel and sound which is alien to it V8 configuration. As the quoted power figures suggest (maximum b.h.p. at 6,000 r.p.m. and torque at 4,500 r.p.m.) it loves to rev and the four-speed automatic allows it to do so. A very positive gear-lever gate facilitates easy use of the manual hold; though there are four forward gears the selector has but three positions, L (Low), S (Slope, an Americanism) and D (Drive). L selects the 1st-and 2nd-gear range, there being no positive hold on 1st only, S inhibits 4th gear and allows the use of the rest. Both L and S positions, i.e. all three lower gears, offer engine braking. For best performance it is advantageous to use the manual hold, which is more responsive than the kickdown, particularly in opportunist overtaking manoeuvres when the instant help of a low gear is needed. The slick gear-change is also a boom for extra control when indulging in rapid cornering. On the other hand the box and engine are smooth and happy when lazily left to their own devices for more gentle progress. Though cushioned by a torque converter, the engine’s crisp response through the range is quite delightful; I could imagine it attached to a five-speed gearbox in a small, light sports car (the 280SL, not sold over here, is neither small nor light). Two-up, the 280E weighs over 1 1/2 tons so the maker’s claimed and believable figures of 0-62 m.p.h. in 10.8 sec. and 121 m.p.h. maximum are highly creditable. In fact the standing start figure belies the performance available by using the holds for the 2nd and 3rd gear “lengths” of 55 and 90 m.p.h. once the car has momentum. Economy is not a strong point and my best of 18.04 m.p.g. and worst of 16.08 is poor for a 2.8-litre car.

Mercedes-Benz power-assisted recirculating ball steering it fitted as standard. Allied to I surprisingly small lock of only 34.3 ft. and square extremities which are easy to place, aided at the front by the three-pointed star “sight” CM top of the grille, the accurate steering makes this large Oar quite extraordinarily easy to manoeuvre. The feeling of agility continues right through the speed range, the steering has art ideal “weight” to It and is to beautifully responsive through high gearing which requires only just over three turns of the wheel from lock to lock. There is little roll and the car feels superbly taut with better response and without the harshnesss of a BMW. Its cornering powers are splendidly high in both dry and wet conditions, very noticeably better in the wet than the S-class cars. The 195/70 HR14 Veith tyres on 6 in. steel rims show no inclination to squeal. There is a modest amount of understeer normally, but if pressed hard the tail will start to move, without any abruptness. Response to quick changes of direction at speed is simply excellent, an attribute I was already aware of from a four-up demonstration by the M-B Chief Test Driver on the Stuttgart test track last year. Such behaviour could mean life instead of death in an emergency avoidance. Straight-line stability is good.

Superlative behaviour continues with the all-disc brakes, 10.94 in. diameter at the front, 10.98 in. rear, servo-assisted, with a dual system and a brake pad wear indicator Light. They are superb in feel, whether used gently in town or harshly from high speed, are fade-free and inspire tremendous confidence, a collection of attributes which is rare amongst big saloons.

There have to be sacrifices in some departments to meet the high standards of cornering behaviour. One is that the ride is quite firm, though not at all harsh, and better at speed. It is not so good as an XJ6, but that is a softer car all round, including handling. Nor is road noise insulation anywhere near to good as Jaguar’s and the engine, though practically silent at low revolutions, makes itself heard, albeit not offensively, when wound up to extract performance. Wind noise is reasonably low, though not helped by the big external mirror, but there again Jaguar engineers could teach them a thing or two.

One thing a comparatively brief road test cannot show up, unfortunately for Mercedes, is long-term durability. I had the point brought home to me when I exchanged the 280E for our Managing Director’s 280SE 3.5 for couple of days; in 102,000 miles “The Blunderbuss’s” (his name for it) sole problem has been a broken gearbox and the untouched V8 engine’s staggering performance—this model is quicker than the current 450SE remains. That sort of survival is what Mercedes motoring is all about and it is a point to be borne in mind when contemplating value for money. At the latest price of £8,495 without electric windows, sunroof or radio it is overpriced when compared to Leyland’s Browns Lane products, yet for those with the money available whose tastes are not suited by Jaguar style, it is a very realistic alternative. The Mercedes-Benz 280E is yet another example of superb and honest Mercedes engineering precision and in its own way, bearing in mind its size and engine capacity, I think it is possibly the best volume production Mercedes yet.—C.R.