Power and character. Trio with 1000hp Mercedes-Benz 280E W114, E500 W124 and E63 AMG W211. To what extent should journalists allow personal feelings to shape their words? On June 7, 2006 I found the answer to this age-old conundrum. At the end of the day, subjectivity really doesn’t come into it – If a car really grabs you, it will do the writing for you. Our comparison event at Mercedes-AMG in Affalterbach involved a first-hand taste of 1,019 hp. More than a thousand horsepower under the hood of three different cars – what more could an automotive heart desire?
The pulse begins to gallop as the three muscle motors come into view. Karlsruhe historian Thomas Meyer is first up in the Mercedes-Benz Classic comparison test, the DOHC engine of his carnelian red W114-series 280E (W114/115) from 1972 pumping out 185 hp. Pure and understated, the 280E Stroke Eight is powered into shot by a silky-smooth six-cylinder motor.
A noticeable step up in grunt is provided by the Mercedes-Benz E500 W124 from 1994 driven by Alexander Klein, an automotive marketing expert from Stuttgart-Stammheim. His sapphire black W124-series E500 was one of 500 special-edition E500 Limited models to roll off the production line and can be identified from a distance by its sonorous V8 roar. Its 320hp engine is clearly straining to be let off the leash.
The third high-performance car in our lineup comes from Mercedes-AMG. The E63 AMG is the most powerful E-Class car ever made, its light-alloy V8 channeling more power – namely 514 hp – to its 265/35 R 18 rear wheels than the two older mid-range sedans put together. As with the E500 Limited, a hard-hitting V8 growl leaves you in no doubt that this is a genuine highspeed heavyweight.
Discussion forum: Thomas Meyer, Hermann Ries and Alexander Klein share experiences. Rear view: This is all most drivers see of the power Mercedes.
Parking the AMG powerhouse alongside the almost 45-year-old 280E is like standing a pint-sized jockey next to a well-honed decathlete. The E63 AMG is 20 cm (almost 8 inches) longer and 11 cm (4 inches) broader than the 280E. Even in the early days of production in April 1972, the 280E was seen as the ultimate in automotive understatement. From the outside, only relatively small features marked it out from the more sedate members of the W114 and W115 Stroke Eight families. To the untrained eye, the 280E could easily be confused with a 200D, which claims less than a third of its output. As auto motor und sport wrote in April 1972: “If you don’t mind compromising a bit on prestige, there’s nothing better for the money.”
With this is mind, I settle in behind the wheel on the wide, spring-cushioned driver’s seat. It takes no more than a few seconds to get your bearings among the clear structures of the spacious cockpit, a wood- trimmed dashboard and Mercedes’ hallmark instruments, switches and controls setting the tone with a classical ambience.
I’m soon feeling wonderfully at home in the 280. With its Bosch D-Jetronic management system pulling the strings, the engine revs smoothly to the accompaniment of a turbine- style six-cylinder soundtrack. From the comfort of my generously proportioned seat, I can sit back and relax as the 185 horsepower do their thing, auto motor und sport timed the 280E at 9.5 seconds for the sprint from 0 to 100 km/h in 1972, making it one of Mercedes-Benz’s punchiest ever series-produced cars at the time. Factory figures put the 0-100 km/h time for the 300SL, for example, at ten seconds and the 280SL Pagoda W113 reached the 100-km/h mark in eleven. The R107-series 280SL that followed did manage to match the 9.5 seconds of the 280E, but only the 300SEL 6.3 W109 – with a sprint time of eight seconds – could show it a genuinely clean pair of heels.
The style with which the 280E went about its business won it many friends. The previous owner of the 280 purchased by Thomas Meyer in 2001 with 164,000 km (102,000 miles) on the clock had ordered his car as a pure driver’s machine with a few factory-fitted extras included. Indeed, he even passed up the optional five-speed transmission. And that was perhaps a shame as, in Meyer’s words, “the engine went past its nominal 6,000 rpm when accelerating to top speed, and a rather longer top gear would ease the strain on the power unit somewhat.” Having said that, the short-stroke 2.8-liter was actually in its element at high engine speeds, exuding an impressive authority between 4,000 and 6,000 rpm.
I enter the first corner with just a touch of the brake pedal. The diagonal swing axle allows the compact four-door Mercedes to hold its line to great effect and, pushing over the double wishbone front axle, it screeches and rolls its way through the bend. The 185-format radial tires concede grip relatively early compared with today’s cars. However, a careful dose of gas steadies the car again and, driving ability allowing, the 280 can be guided through a controlled drift. In this kind of circuit-only experiment, the seats are pushed to their limits. Despite their club armchair character, they offer amazingly good lateral support. However, in extreme situations of the type you would never seek to mimic out on the road, they are somewhat out of their depth.
Mercedes-Benz 280E W114
It is precisely this kind of situation in which the fun is just beginning in the E500 Limited. Wringing the maximum from its performance potential allows you to catapult your way from 0 to 100 km/h in just 6.1 seconds. With these figures fresh in my mind, I get behind the wheel of one of the most powerful members of the W124 range. Where the 280E had done no more than drive through the first corner earlier on, it now felt like the E500 Limited was literally flying into the bend.
It was comforting, then, to know that the internally ventilated disc brakes would go to work energetically and deceleration would be little short of phenomenal. At speeds which had the Stroke Eight battling at the limit, the E500 moved smoothly and without any discernible roll through the corner. Accelerating out of the curve provided the perfect showcase for the bullish 470-Nm torque of the Mercedes – almost double that of the 280E. Even at engine speeds under 3,000 rpm, the five-liter engine had more punch than its 280E predecessor between 4,000 and 6,000 rpm.
There is also a gaping chasm between the cars in terms of roadholding. Developed in cooperation with Porsche and built in Zuffenhausen, the chassis of the E500 is imbued with sports-car genes. Self-leveling multi- link independent rear suspension and a McPherson front axle enable it to corner with extreme lateral acceleration, accurate steering allows it to follow every driver command with extraordinary precision, and the acceleration skid control system reins in any over-zealous forays with the gas pedal. Running the rule over the first-generation 500E W124 in 1990, auto motor und sport test editor Werner Schruf commented: “The 500E responded to a poorly timed injection of power with no more than a short and harmless twitch of the tail, before settling quietly back into line behind the front wheels.” High-speed highway driving was also a source of pleasure. Push third gear to the maximum engine speed of 5,600 rpm and you’d be greeted by 170 km/h (105 mph). Even at this point, the engine thrust relents barely a jot, the power of the four-valve V8 still pinning the driver back into the bucket seats – which are trimmed with exquisite, soft Walknappa leather from Roser – with a firm hand. Announcing its intentions is a sonorous, yet unobtrusive rumble from the five-liter powerplant under the hood. Like the seat surfaces, the door panels, parts of the steering wheel rim and the gearshift lever of our “Limited” are trimmed in green “Walknappa leather” with black shadowing. What at first glance appears rather daring is soon no less than a feast for the eyes.
The E500 Limited is undeniably an extravagantly crafted automobile, its thread of luxury running deep into the interior. Available only in sapphire black and brilliant silver, it lavishes the driver with a generous selection of standard equipment such as bird’s-eye maple or burr walnut wood trim, an electrically operated rear blind, Bose sound system, electrically adjustable steering column and electrically heated front seats – exclusive accessories which help to elevate the class of the classic W124 cockpit to an even loftier level.
The range of extra charge options included 8 ¼ x 17 Speedline light-alloy wheel rims in EVO II design and 245/45 ZR 17 tires.
These wide-rim alternatives were fitted on the E500 discovered by Alexander Klein in 2003. Klein duly snapped up his 71,000-km (44,000-mile) find, reasoning that black asphalt suited the wheels rather better than the white carpet it had been standing on when he unearthed the car in a collector’s garage. In the event, however, Klein has only taken his 500 out on the road on special occasions and covered a mere 10,000 – highly enjoyable – kilometers to date. Already seriously impressed by the E500 W124, I still have the E63 AMG W211 to come. Switching camps invites me into something to a spaceship. Wherever you look inside the cockpit there are controls, buttons and instruments – no wonder the owner’s manual for the most powerful Mercedes-Benz E-Class of all time is 406 pages thick (the 280E manual fills 68 pages, the E500 covers 140). That’s 406 pages to explain the full functioning of the four-link front axle with air suspension system, the Airmatic DC with automatic level control, the anti-dive device and the multi-link independent rear suspension. Everything that the new Mercedes-Benz E-Class has to offer in terms of state-of-the-art electronics management systems, safety features and comfort- enhancing details comes as standard in the AMG version. These include the Intelligent Light System, NECK-PRO, PRE-SAFE, Adaptive Brake and Direct Control (for dynamic chassis control), to name but a few. Indeed, we’d have to go off on a tangent of greater length than these pages will allow to list all the details here.
Invigorated by the wave of technology, I settle back in the exquisitely trimmed nappa leather driver’s seat with alcantara inserts, and fire up the engine with a push of the starter button. In the spirit of the new high-revs concept, AMG’s all-alloy V8 naturally aspirated engine is turning at 6,800 rpm by the time it squeezes the full 514 hp from its 6,208-cc displacement. No other eight-cylinder naturally aspirated machine currently on the market can offer more power.
At first, I am quite content to leave the 7G-TRONIC automatic transmission in position D and pass up the offer of manual gear- change using the aluminum shift paddles on the steering wheel. Putting my right foot to the floor is an eye-opening, not to mention eye-watering experience. This is probably the nearest I’ll get to knowing how it feels to be a missile after launch. The incredible thrust of the naturally aspirated AMG engine through all engine speed ranges sucks you back into the seat. 500 newton-meters of pulling power are on tap as low down as 2,000 rpm, and the engine speed limiter waits until 7,200 rpm to spoil the fun. However, until that point the engine is literally all torque. This startling performance is underscored by an energetic roar when prompted and a rumbling baritone at maximum revs.
In the 280E W114 I cruised up to the first corner, in the 500 I flew into it, and in the E63 AMG the corner virtually came out and walloped me in the face. The 21st-century power merchant reduces the straight sections of road between bends to little more than a blink of an eye. However, the impressive power of the AMG engine through the driven wheels is matched by the effect of Adaptive Brake technology on the four internally-ventilated and perforated composite brake discs. Step on the brake pedal and the E63 AMG decelerates with such authority that the front passenger is propelled forwards into the seat belt. Overtaking maneuvers are made very simple. The driver thinks ‘overtake’ and the AMG has already dashed ahead of the slower car. The next corner is upon us, a short dab of the brakes and we steer in. The AMG powers around the corners at a speed that would have seen the 280E and E500 long since exploring the greenery. The most astonishing thing, however, is the ride comfort it manages to offer as well. The sports-tuned suspension cushions the bumps in the road more softly than the E500 Limited.
Compared to the E500 W124, and to an even greater extent the 280E, it’s as if the Mercedes-AMG were from another galaxy. I know of no other car currently available which combines high-tech electronics, a similarly large number of safety systems and easily harnessed power with such nonchalance. This high-performance machine has a way of doing what you’re thinking before you’ve even finished thinking it – to the point where you suspect it is reading your mind. And that makes it no more than the logical historical continuation of an idea that Mercedes-Benz implemented for the first time in the purest form in the 280E: how to pack handsome power into an easy-to-handle car to ensure maximum driving pleasure.
Object of beauty: The D0HC six-cylinder in-line engine in the 280E. A V8 unit lurks under a plastic cover in the E500 Limited. The 6.3-liter AMG is also concealed under plastic covers.
The patterned Roser leather is one extravagant feature of the Mercedes-Benz E500 Limited. Roomy, functional and comfortable: The interior of the Mercedes-Benz 280E sedan. Functional, exquisite and diverse: The E 63 AMG interior offers a full range of appointments.
The most powerful serial E-Class W211 of all time: The Mercedes-Benz E 63 AMG W211 with 514 hp dashes from 0 to 100 km/h in 4.5 seconds. From 0 to 100 km/h in 6.1 seconds: The E500/500E W124 Limited, of which only 500 units were built, was one of the most powerful German sedans available in 1994. The 1972 Mercedes-Benz 280E sedan – a double wishbone front axle and diagonal swing rear axle ensure safe handling.
AMG specials 8.5J x 18 front wheels pictured, 9J x 18 wheels at the rear. Two of four – a pair of twin exhaust tail pipes adorn the rear of the AMG.
Fee extras: 8 1/4×17 Speedline light-alloy wheels. Standard on the Limited version W124 : The headlamp cleaning system.
The “E” stands for “Einspritzmotor” (injection engine). The twin exhaust tailpipes indicate the presence of a six-cylinder engine.