To haughtily dismiss the Fiat 130, the Mercedes-Benz 280E W114 and the BMW 3.0SA E3 as cars that fulfil only a prestige role is to admit not only that you cannot afford one but also to confess to a blocked mind. Yet to look suspiciously at their value-tor-money ratio is to indicate an inherent astuteness. After all, can any lone of this trio really be worth four CAR of the Year-winning Renault 5s? Or be slightly more than half as good as a Mercedes S-Class W116?
But these cars are not sold on any single basis; prestige, price, specification, fashion and snob appeal all enter into it. If a potential buyer were to stop and consider the value-for-money aspect of these cars, he would step briskly in the other direction. It is, of course, the price that sells them. If they were cheaper they would be less desirable. So one stands on the footpath and says ‘there goes an important man in his £4000 Mercedes’. Lowering the price of these cars would widen the market potential — and lower their desirability.
Mercedes are in a unique position. All the cars they sell are expensive and all of them have a high reputation; they are the upper-middle-class prestige brand. The road for BMW has been harder, although success has come fast despite the fact that the big versions also have smaller, cheaper relations in the form of the 1600, 2002 and more recently, the BMW 520 E12. But by keeping all their prices high, the image has been maintained right through the range.
Fiat is the newcomer in this prestige field, at least on the UK market. The 130, in various guises, has been around for years, but only in right-hand-drive form for the last 12 months. It has put Fiat into the top end of the market for the first time in decades and despite the company’s established reputation as a major producer of small cars, seems to be making reasonable progress on these shores with the 130 in the face of formidable opposition.
STYLING AND ENGINEERING
Of the former there is not a lot that can be said on the credit side. But of the latter there is ample to boast about. In view of the handsome Fiat 130 Coupe, one would expect the saloon to look something more than a larger 125. But Fiat have been caught with the 130: when it first appeared in the mid-sixties, it met with little success in Italy and even less in the few European countries to which it was exported. Finally it was revamped mechanically in 1971 but since the cost of the original tooling had not been anything like amortised, there was no question of new styling. Its appearance is anonymous but also quite suitable for many buyers who do not necessarily need to broadcast their success.
The Mercedes is somewhat the same way. The 280E shares the same New Generation body with others in the range and is more notable for its efficient look than for aesthetics. But by definition a Mercedes is a Mercedes so it does not matter too much if the styling is tight rather than flamboyant.
Conversely, the BMW is by far the most contrived of the group. It has rounded lines that have caused sacrifices in some areas and, like the Mercedes, the traditional grille has been grafted into the front. It looks an important car on the road, one in which the handsome lines are matched by other good qualities. It really is this BMW shape that has been the keystone in the Munich-based company’s return to successful operation as a motor car manufacturer. So, in a way, the big BMW has sold on its merits, having started virtually from scratch with its back to the wall. Bearing this in mind, the 3.0SA’s styling can only be deemed as a success.
Although this trio may not set the world on fire stylistically, or cause the studios of Northern Italy to alter their plans (except in anticipation of the day they are summoned for consultation), their mechanical features, hidden from most owners and admirers alike, tell a story of striving for good solutions — and damned-well finding them as well.
None of this shows up specially well to the onlooker, but it does to the driver and to anyone who cares to delve more deeply into the bodywork. The Fiat is interesting, for its gradual evolvement has helped sort out some of the early difficulties that afflicted it. But perhaps the most important change is the increase in engine size and torque, without doing much to the brake horsepower figures. Like the other two, the Fiat has a six-cylinder engine, but with the cylinders arranged in vee formation rather than in-line. This engine is basically the same block as used in the Ferrari Dino and in the regrettably extinct Fiat Dino; it’s a very compact unit although this virtue has not really been exploited in the 130. A single overhead camshaft is used on each bank of cylinders and with the aid of 3235cc, a Weber carburettor and a 9.0 to one compression ratio, manages to produce 165bhp at 5600rpm with an impressive 184lb ft of torque at 3400rpm.
All this sounds like enough power, but it must be seen in conjunction with its kerb weight of 3330lb, which makes it the heaviest of the trio. In common with the others, it employs a fully independent suspension system with coils back and torsion bars at the front. It’s a normal strut arrangement at both ends with anti-roll bars. The rear geometry is of the trailing link variety.
As part of the standard equipment, the Fiat has automatic transmission (Borg Warner) and power-assisted worm-and- roller steering. Disc brakes are used all round. A five-speed manual box can be specified, but most people want automatic. It’s that sort of car.
The BMW is not lacking in equipment of this type, either. It has power-assisted steering and optional automatic transmission (ZF), although the four-speed manual is popular for the extra performance it gives. Its 2985cc M30 engine is weighted to provide a closer balance between power and torque so that it has 180bhp (all DIN, of course) at 6000rpm with 189 lb/ft of torque at 3700rpm. With a bore and stroke of 89mm by 80mm, the cylinder dimensions are far less oversquare than the Fiat’s imposing 102mm by 60mm. Suspension is a straightforward independent coil arrangement all round with anti-roll bar at the front but no anti-squat geometry. Before the BMW acquired its three-litre engine it used to have a load-compensator on the rear which helped keep this in check. Like the Fiat, the BMW has huge discs brakes all round which, of course, are servo assisted.
They are on the Mercedes-Benz 280E, too. In all three pedal effort is reduced by use of a servo booster and safety is increased by split hydraulic circuits. The Mercedes, as tested, had power steering; in this case, DB’s recirculating ball system, just as the transmission is the company’s own four-speed automatic. It couples to the newest six-cylinder engine which, unlike those of its rivals, employs a twin-overhead-camshaft cylinder head atop its in-line cylinder block, it is fuel injected (by Bosch) both for reasons of exhaust emission control and performance, although on some other markets there is also a carburettor version of the same engine. The significant point about this engine is that its low emission levels are due entirely to the engineering of the basic design, and not by tacking on bits later. Even if the engine had nothing else to recommend it, this alone would be enough to make it significant.
But, of course, the engine does have a lot to recommend it as you will discover elsewhere in this test. Its cylinder dimensions of 86mm bore and 78.8mm stroke are not extreme, but they are the smallest of the group, resulting in a cubic capacity of only 2746cc. Nevertheless, this is enough to provide 185(DIN) horsepower at 6000 rpm, with 176 lb/ft rather high up at 4500rpm. The compression ratio has not suffered too much in the detox game, either, for it is 9.0 to one and well able to accept four-star Jet. Ignition is transistorised and, like the BMW, the Mercedes has a central-plug system for rapid electronic analysis of the tune. Incidentally, the camshafts, which work the valves through short rocker arms that enable easy tappet adjustment, can be removed without lifting the head.
Suspension is all independent. By coils, naturally enough, with wishbones at the front, an anti-roll bar and gas filled shockers. At the rear, there is an anti-roll bar and a gas filled shocker on each side, with the wheels held and located by a semi-trailing arm arrangement. Self-levelling is an optional extra.
The point about this little group of three, the total value of which is around £13.000, is that they are far more sophisticated and well developed than just about anything else on the market. They have engines that are intermediate in size if you measure them by international standards, and suspensions that provide a great degree of roadability. Plus the inherent prestige for which most buyers purchase these cars.
There is not a great deal between any of them in design and efficiency, but the clean exhaust combined with the power output of the Mercedes must up its rating even if the BMW has more solid stylistic appeal.
Because it has the highest weight and the lowest power (despite the biggest engine capacity) the Fiat 130 is the slowest of the trio. But, as we shall soon see, ultimate performance is not really the Fiat’s bag anyway. Given reasonable opportunity, the 130 will run to a true top of around 115mph. And away from the standing start it surges rather than leaps into action so that by the time the heavy automatic finishes its initial churnings in moving the big 130 away from rest, more than eight seconds invariably elapse before it gets to its first 50mph. With foot firmly planted on the carpet, it changes at 6300rpm, achieving 50mph in low and 83mph in intermediate. Now while the initial acceleration is perhaps disappointing, once the 130 is on the move it has enough performance for overtaking and to some extent makes up for ground lost earlier in the fray. But whichever way you look at it, the 130 is the slowest of the bunch. But it is smooth, fairly quiet and well able to maintain 100mph cruising with no sense of urgency. It sips heavily from the 17.6 gallon fuel tank, though, consuming four-star at the rate of 14 to 15mpg when given what-for. The engine is not imperceptible by any means — it never is in Italian cars — although the song it sings is more of mechanical wellbeing than straining metal.
For some reason that no one seems to be able to satisfactorily explain, V6 engines have a heart-rending habit of being hard to start hot or cold. All, that is. except the current Fiat 130s I have driven. Earlier ones were plagued with starting problems, like V6s before and since. Now the problem is apparently solved, for this 130’s V6 came into life with a minimum of fuss and little manipulation of its manual choke. Only one of the group to be so equipped, incidentally. If faced with the prospect of summing up the Fiat’s performance in two words, we would select ‘soft’ and ‘adequate’ as the tidiest description.
The Mercedes is a different story. It is a car in pursuit of performance, and not one in which it is something of a background pastime. Being basically the cheapest model in the Mercedes range with wider wheels, minor brake modifications and a very responsive engine, the W114 280E is a sort of engine-swap special that is much more successful than that almost derogatory description might suggest. It is really an expansion of the line into an area where performance is of some importance. At the same time it proves that the 220/250 models are overengineered for the job they do, since it was virtually just a matter of dropping in a vastly more powerful engine to create the 280E. One can only conclude that the reason for this sudden interest in middle-class (for Mercedes) performance was the rather worrying success of the BMW 2500 and 3.0 models which have for several years been clobbering Mercedes at their weakest point. Now the club is in the other hand, for the Mercedes can match the acceleration of the automatic BMW up to 80mph. Beyond that, the BMW is faster and has more top speed.
Much of the Merc’s acceleration comes from the efforts of the four-speed automatic, which has a first gear that is sufficiently low to heave the 280E off the mark in a big rush before it changes into second at just on 24mph. The three- speed BMW is stuck with its bottom gear until 42mph, which accounts for some of its initial sluggishness. By working the transmission manually we were able to consistently get the Merc to 50mph in around seven seconds, but the BMW had only just made its upchange and could do no better than the eight. In common with the Fiat and the BMW, the Mercedes W114 will run at 100mph indefinitely and won’t fuss if the driver starts demanding a continuous 120, which really means flat out. Not that that does the consumption much good; cruising, the E will easily give 18mpg, but continuous hard use drops it back to around 15. At 17.2 gallons, the fuel tank capacity is sufficient to satisfy the needs of a very hard driver, though.
So smooth and willing is the injection engine that Mercedes have prudently fitted an ignition cutout that comes in at 6500rpm, although we have it from reliable sources that it is perfectly safe well beyond that.
In general feel, the BMW’s engine is not far removed from the Merc. It gives that same free, deep-breathing impression that enables it to respond very quickly when the driver demands it. Its two-carburettor engine is a real charger that keeps on going when the other two have tapered off. What the BMW loses to the Merc low down, it regains at the upper end by being around four seconds faster to 100mph, and by having a top speed some four mph higher than the car from Stuttgart. Fuel consumption is higher, too, and it currently emits more toxic matter than the Merc, but that’s a temporary state of affairs: all will be equal one way or another later this year when the regulations are enforced.
Transmission performance makes an interesting comparison with these cars. The manual version of the Mercedes has very similar performance to the automatic, the gear ratios being almost the same, with the fluid coupling taking up very little of the engine’ power. We have not been able to make any sort of comparison with the Fiat 130. for we are yet to encounter one with the optional five-speed manual box, but automatic costs the BMW just slightly less than two seconds from zero to 60mph. However, the Merc does not have a torque converter and there can be some awkward gaps when one is too high for automatic engagement of second, but too low for third to be really accelerative. The 280E only gives its top performance if the driver does some of the gear- changing himself.
BMWs can be made to go quite a lot harder with the Alpina equipment that is now being offered for them through the Concessionaires themselves. It’s the good gear, but it’s costly as a result and is not helped by the ever-rising DM.
The Fiat is not in the performance stakes and anyone who wants to fiddle with one is admitting he bought the wrong car in the first place. The only path to extra performance would be to order the manual gearbox version and do your own stirring.
That advice holds good for the Merc, too. Your Mercedes dealer can be persuaded to get you a five-speeder, just as he will order a set of Merc’s own nice light-alloy road wheels. Don’t let anyone tamper with the engine, though, for it is sure to upset the fuel-injection calibrations for all time!
The BMW has tuning potential; the others do not.
MAINTENANCE AND SPARES
All require specialised attention and are backed by substantial dealer networks and plenty of spare parts. Not all Fiat dealers are franchised to handle 130s, so the ones that are should know what they are about.
BMW and Mercedes are very nicely set-up, thank you, and various hawk-eyes are kept on the dealers to ensure optimum customer relations. When you part out with £4000 you expect some action when it comes to servicing and this is apparently what you get if our limited research into the matter is anything to go by. If you have a gripe about BMW E3, Mercedes W114 or Fiat 130 servicing, drop us a note; we always have ears for such things.
Servicing and spare parts are not cheap. If you have to ask the price, you probably cannot afford it.
HANDLING, STEERING, BRAKES
Whether the majority of the owners fully appreciate just what they have bought in terms of roadability is debatable, but that does not alter the fact that here we have a trio of vehicles that despite their performances have managed to keep their chassis ahead of the horses. Ahead of many drivers, come to that!
To establish the point straight off, let’s say that they are all exceptionally good on the road. The differences between them is only a matter of degree, so that by any standard they are equipped with the best dynamic qualities.
The Fiat, however, is more of a horse for a course than the other two. It feels to be a bigger, heavier car and there is less inclination to toss it vigorously around on winding roads. That’s the inclination, but given an incentive the 130 driver can find himself behind the wheel of a very well-balanced vehicle capable of maintaining high averages in areas that do not invite it. The suspension is soft and that allows some body roll, but there is never a suggestion of excessive understeer, nor oversteer unless the driver sets about to induce it coming out of tight bends with the transmission in one of the low ranges. By comparison with its rivals, the ZF steering felt a little dead but it is by no means bad. Nor is it as high-geared as it could be, needing some 3.7 turns lock-to-lock for a 36 foot turning circle. Like the others, the 130 carries fat tyres that makes power steering mandatory.
Taken absolutely to the extreme limit of adhesion — a very high point indeed — it is the tail that invariably lets go first. Uneven surfaces do not fuss the sus-pension but there are times when the front seems as though it’s too soft and develops the wallows.
Braking is another story. One is always aware that the pedal relies on travel almost as much as pressure, but it is not until there is a need to get onto the brakes really hard does one appreciate just how much pressure and how much travel is involved in getting maximum retardation. The problem seems to be one of Fiat being ultra-cautious about drivers locking up the wheels prematurely, but in this they have gone too far; the brakes are, in fact, too progressive, although there is nothing wrong with the way the car stops under premeditated conditions. Anyway, Fiat seem to be aware of the difficulty and are reportedly doing something about it, at least for the UK models, just as Alfa Romeo make a similar modification.
The BMW falls more naturally into the hurrying driver’s gait. Like the Fiat, the German car relies on ZF’s power assistance for the steering, but it is rather more responsive and also highergeared, needing four turns for a 33 foot circle. Actual grip on the road is outstanding, for the suspension copes remarkably well despite excessive softness in the rear springs; body roll is well contained and the steering is substantially neutral with just enough understeer for good high-speed stability but with a somewhat abrupt oversteer due to the standard equipment limited- slip differential at the limit. Of course, the tail can always be brought out under power on tight corners.
Braking is faultless, with just the right amount of pressure requirement to ensure that the wheels are not easily locked in panic situations. There is some nose dip under hard braking, just as there is squat under acceleration.
The Mercedes has the best dynamic qualities of the three. Its steering is better calibrated and higher geared (3.6 turns lock-to-lock for a 32 foot circle) than the others, more responsive and with more road feel. It is substantially a neutral car, too, with a huge amount of roadholding and very limited body roll. This combination makes the Merc an extremely agile car, despite its size, on all types of road so that one can almost unintentionally put in very high average speeds. We were unable to induce a situation in which the 280E behaved unpredictably, regardless of surface or speed. These qualities allow the Merc to score over its rivals, although it has less character than the others. Or is that another way of saying it is almost too good?
RIDE AND COMFORT
It comes as no surprise to find that the Fiat is the best in this department. The whole car is angled to provide something that the others do not, so the emphasis is more on habitation than performance or roadholding, although it is not exactly lacking in these, either. The ride is the best compromise of the trio, for it fits in between the almost excessive softness of the BMW and the tautness of the Merc. And its interior is far more lavish with really superb seats, good legroom, blinds for the rear window, an adjustable steering column, good carpets, electric windows, nice woodwork. It is also a quieter car than the BMW, despite some road and wind noise, but not as silent as the 280E.
The German cars in comparison are stark. The Mercedes had plastic trim and the same mottled carpet as the BMW, which was trimmed in mock-velvet. Cloth trim is an alternative in the Merc and the one which we would definitely specify. The front seats on all three cars have reclining back rests as well as a wide range of fore-and-aft adjustment, but only the Fiat has a provision — via a hand-wheel — to raise the height of the front cushions.
All three will take five passengers; some more easily than others, however. The Fiat has its rear seat contoured to take two adults, and a third may not be too happy over a long distance. Both the Merc and the BMW will accept three more readily, although the Mercedes-Benz is better in this role than the BMW due to the seat.
We were not too impressed with the shaping of the Mercedes front seats, which lacked lateral support for hard cornering and were not too generously dimensioned overall. The BMW was better in this respect and the 130 superior overall. Small items accommodation is good in all of them, but the Merc has the largest boot, followed by the Fiat and the BMW.
CONTROLS AND INSTRUMENTS
Again the Fiat scores for its instrumentation, which is complete even down to an oil temperature gauge. Its minor controls, spread Jaguar-fashion along the centre console, are confusing and one would have thought in a car that aspires to prestigious heights that the steering column stalks could have been made different to those of the cheaper members of the Fiat house. Nevertheless, one does become accustomed to the arrangements which are fairly logical overall. Ventilation is very good but retention of hinged quarter panes at the front is unnecessary in this day and age.
The Mercedes has them too, and like the Fiat could do without them. However, where the Fiat has three steering column stalks, the Mercedes-Benz survives with just one multi-function unit: wipers, winkers, flasher/high-low beam. The screen washer is on the floor for left- foot operation, instrumentation is dis-appointing in that there is no tachometer, just a speedo with trip and dials for fuel contents, oil pressure and engine temperature. Maybe that’s all anyone needs, but the 280E aspires to a sporty image, so a tachometer is hardly likely to break the bank in a £4000-plus car. The central- locking system on the Mercedes-Benz was very useful and is standard equipment.
Fullest marks for the ventilation system, and the fascia-mounted handbrake that is convenient and provides instant visual confirmation of its status. The Fiat’s is between the seat and the door and when engaged emits a raucous warning that sounds like a Hollywood telephone that has just been shot.
The BMW’s is between the seats in a much more conventional place. Like the Fiat, the transmission control Inver is a T-handle on the centre console, with a free passage between drive and neutral, the blocking button towing to be disengaged to roach second and low. On the Fiat the tree travel is between drive and second. The Mercedes however, has a definite gate that requires very positive action from the driver to reach the lower ratios. All three systems work well enough and we do not have any particular feelings about which is the bent, although the Mercedes-Benz requires more of the driver, which in one way is a good thing.
Of the three cars, the BMW’s Instrument display is the most stylistically satisfactory and incorporates a tachometer, speedometer, fuel controls gauge and an engine temperature gauge. Minor controls are operated from steering column stalks which are less easily mastered than on the other cars. There are mercifully no quarter pane’s on the front doors, but the ventilation system as a whole was not as good as those of the other two cars.
Although definitely competitors, these cars have very different appeals. The Fiat is aimed directly at the luxury market and superficially appears to offer a great deal mere for the money titan the others. Certainly it is the most comfortably equipped and has dynamic qualities that are perfectly satisfactory, but not brilliant. Performance lets it down though, for it ads like the heavy car that it is.
The Mercedes is superbly made and detailed and gives great satisfaction to the driver who cares about driving. Its roadholdlng is second to none, the brakes are fantastic, performance is very reasonable, the engine is ecologically acceptable, but the interior belongs to a much cheaper car.
On the other hand, the BMW is a good compromise between the two, seeming to be worth the money in its visual aspects, as well as dynamically. Its suspension is too soft, though, and when it is carrying a toad the exhaust hits the ground on undulations, which is off-putting; back-seat passengers have been known to complain of being over-suspended in relation to their stomachs.
So split it up this way: for unhurried comfort and more el evidence of where that £4000 went, the Fiat 130 makes sense. The Mercedes does not look like £4000 inside or outside. But it feels like it on the toad. And the BMW fits in between the two which makes it a compromise that’s hard to ignore. If the suspension was better controlled with loss squat then this would be our number one choice. Meantime the 280E W114 just scrapes in as our selection.
But let us add a sobering note: these cars all cost more than a Jaguar XJ12!