Flashback Review: 1994 Mercedes-Benz W124 E320 Coupe
As the television blew up about the arrival of hurricane Irene, I sat there, staring into space, reminiscing about my past car ownership experiences. So assuming that a fair amount of you will be pulling a hermit crab while the storm rolls through, I thought I’d provide some piece of mind from my own personal motoring experiences, which could also mean you fans can learn about your favorite senior-editor…that is, if you still have Internet and power to read it.
I absolutely love to drive. In fact, I love driving so much that whenever I do things with my friends, I’m always the first to volunteer. But the part of driving that makes my insides twist the most is long road trips. It’s rather similar to the feeling you get when you revisit that greasy burger joint down the street for the first time in months because the lady doesn’t appreciate your love handles. With me being in college with high school friends being scattered all over the east coast, many a long road trips happened. And they wouldn’t have occurred without my first car.
Now, for just about every petrol head, or perhaps even everyone, one of the biggest and most memorable moments in one’s life is their first car. That is, unless you care so little about cars that you’ve managed some way to avoid suicide from being verbally and physically harassed by fellow classmates for riding your childhood bicycle with tassels for all your entirety.
Either way, the car that took up the challenge to being my first major key to freedom was a clean, well-maintained 1994 Mercedes-Benz W124 E320 Coupe with a low 76,469 miles on it. As far back as I remember, the first car I ever fell in love with was the black 1980s Mercedes-Benz W126 420SEL driven by the Triads in Lethal Weapon 4. Let’s not forget folks, I was seven years old when I saw that movie. Since then through the ownership of my E320 Coupe, my love for the Stuttgart brand grew to an obsession. And I’ll explain why.
The longest road trip I have ever driven on my own was a lofty nine-hour road trip from Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ to Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia to visit one of my best friends from high school—roughly 470 miles by direct route. And I was not worried one bit as I was in my third year of owning my Mercedes. By then, I new my car inside and out—I knew of its place and importance in automotive history as well as its particular highlights. So while I was practically already married to my first car, getting inside of it to carry out the longest road trip ever yet for me was no different than driving to Starbucks for a cup of Joe.
I woke up bright and early on a Wednesday during the spring of 2010 to make sure I was ready, packed and set for the long journey to Virginia. Clothes? Check. Munchies? Check. One-dollar tallboy Arizona teas? Radar detector? Can’t leave with out it.
If my memory serves me right, the E320 had around 140,000 miles on it and yet the interior looked as if it had yet to be broken in. Everything had the solidity of a brick house.
At around 12 noon, full of breakfast, I tugged the long, heavy door to step inside the black Benz and embark on the trip. With every entrance into the E320, I couldn’t help but appreciate the fastidious build quality. The opening and closing of the coupe doors resembled that of a tank so much, that it was an event in itself…a petrolhead’s odd, but rather guilty pleasure. Now this isn’t one that comes from arousal, but rather through appreciation. If my memory serves me right, the E320 had around 140,000 miles on it and yet the interior looked as if it had yet to be broken in. Everything had the solidity of a brick house.
Inserting the skeleton-like laser-cut key into the tumbler, firing up the 3.2-Liter M104 straight-six only brought a slight shutter to the car as the engine’s presence disappeared at a high idle just above 1k RPM for a cold start. Even with the at the time mileage accumulation of roughly 140,000 miles, the car was still as refined as its Germanic build quality proudly boasted. After the car shortly settled to a nearly hybrid-quiet 600 RPM idle, I shifted into D and set off.
The first part of the journey began when I gunned the E320’s straight six to its 6400 redline to merge with high-speed flow of traffic on I-95. Regarded by many Benz enthusiasts as the best six-cylinder ever produced by the brand, the E320’s M104 offered 217hp and 229 lb-ft of torque. It was during a time when Mercedes built their cars to the “cost-no-object” ideology set forth by the company decades ago—something that permeates throughout the entire car. But the engine is also thoroughly modern featuring tech that even basic cars these days use: a DOHC valvetrain with variable valve lift, electronic fuel injection, four-valves per cylinder. Some time before the road trip, the same friend I set off to visit in Virginia rode shotgun with me to test the E320’s 0-60 time. Low and behold, we clocked 60 in at 8.29 seconds, just a hundredth of a second off of the official factory time of 8.3 seconds. Though with that flat torque curve, the E320 felt far faster than its numbers suggested. A true testimony to the precision engineering that paid off by keeping the car still very fresh in its operation. Ok, so onwards. First waypoint on the trip: Baltimore.
Now, it was on long road trips that I learned to appreciate the E320 and even reflect on its history and pedigree for a bit to appreciate the brand even more. As I sat there and glanced at the exterior temperature gauge, which read an accurate 76 degrees, I set the cruise control at a comfortable 79 mph, shut off the HVAC, opened the four windows, sat back and cruised. It was moments on the highway that Mercedes-Benz’s history of anal retentive engineering paid off to make some of the most sublime highway cruisers ever made, the E320 being no different. The W124 went down in the book of superlatives in ways that explain the way the Benz just ate up miles. For instance, the W124 E-Class had the lowest drag coefficient of any car at its time at just 0.28 Cd. That of course also translated into fuel economy—30 mpg popped up very frequently for highway driving. Not to mention, even with all four windows down, a conversation could still be had with your front passenger using only a moderate voice at that speed.
The miles rolled by as I cruised my way down to Baltimore. About two hours into the trip, I couldn’t help but reach for my bag of potato chips that sat on the seat next to me in a plastic Shop-Rite bag. I shifted my hands around to pop the bag open, the Benz tracked straight and true on the rather worn-down surface of the NJ Turnpike section of I-95. I reached in to grab a handful and the inevitable chip slid right out of my grip and into the slot just between the seat and the center console. Damnit! Being a bit of a clean freak, I always dread a dirty car…especially when you discover that lost potato chip or French fry that is so stale that flies refused to eat it. I reached over to see if I can snatch it up and to my relief, I remembered that Mercedes put inserts between those very slots to keep pocketed items from getting caught in the most untouchable spots inside a vehicle. There, another moment for me to appreciate the Benz, purely from their attention to detail.
In fact, everything in the car was designed not only to a “cost-no-object” build quality standard, but to form following function
In fact, everything in the car was designed not only to a “cost-no-object” build quality standard, but to form following function. The shift gate was shaped to avoid confusion when choosing gears by feel. The body was designed specifically to be aerodynamic. The taillights and the side indicators have ripples in them to prevent the build up of dirt that could inhibit their luminescence. Headlight wipers were standard to perform the same function. The passenger side rear-view is squared for better short-distance visibility where as the driver-side is rectangular for better long-distance visibility (coming from a country where you will be penalized for not staying right unless passing). Wait, hang on, Baltimore? Already? Before I knew it, three hours later I was already in West Virginia, via the route I mapped using Google maps.
I remember purposely making the route slightly longer because part of the experience of long road trips is to see what other parts of the world were like. But before I left the interstate to see what kind of entertaining back roads the mid-Atlantic can offer, I pulled for a quick rest stop just outside of Baltimore. While I stretched my legs out, I observed the black Benz from the outside. Size wise, the E320 Coupe is not much different than your modern day late-E46 BMW 3-Series coupe.
As for the shape, I have always thought that the E320 Coupe made much better use of the W124’s proportions. While the sedan looks fairly edgy and stodgy at several angles (Porsche-tuned 500E aside with the flared wheel arches), there was no angle at which the Coupe looked miles better as its proportions are complemented by the sleeker profile of two-less doors. Sure, the Coupe may have looked aged next to your current BMW 6er or Mercedes CLK with its two-tone under cladding. But the E320 Coupe still embraced the elegance and classiness that came with the hood-mounted Three-Pointed Star as it ages gracefully in the era of the Bangle-butt. And one of the most unique exterior features of the E320 Coupe was the ability to open all four-windows without the presence of a b-pillar. Ok, break time over. Onwards into West Virginia.
Legs stretched and ready to go, I was willing to put the E320 to the test with some good local back roads. Now you’re probably thinking: there are far more better cars suited for that sort of job. But a Mercedes-Benz? The E320 was very much a driver’s car, but one that differed in many ways to what others would call the performance drivers’ cars, Mercedes-Benz’s direct rival: BMW. For instance the lack of cup holders, driving position, and exterior visibility proves that the E320 was designed primarily also for driver orientation and nothing other than the sole practice of driving. But that’s not all.
At the first swooping corner I found, the big five-spoke wheel yielded the Benz’s recirculating ball-type steering system’s characteristics. Although on the slower side with 3.0 turns lock-to-lock, it was accurate and adequate for point and shoot steering. It was also well weighted and had linear and natural progression as well as plenty of feedback. Although the steering may have not offered the same amount of road feel as a BMW or Honda tiller, enthusiasts wouldn’t be upset having this car as a daily duty.
With a modified MacPherson strut up front with coils springs separate from the shock absorbers and a fully independent five-way multilink rear suspension (only employed by Ferrari and professional race cars at the time) from the earlier developed W201 190E, father to the current C-Class, the suspension was very ahead of its time as many mainstream automobiles haven’t utilized these suspension designs until the late 1990s and even still don’t utilize such designs entirely.
The Benz also had a near-50/50 weight distribution, 53/47 front and rear to be exact. The results were very balanced and neutral handling characteristics with understeer and oversteer both kept in check, making for very confident turn-in with the rear following nicely. Only if you purposely plowed the car heavily into a corner will you result in understeer (but that’s basically the story with anything on wheels). Otherwise, the car was pretty nimble for its cumbersome weight of 3,550lbs.
And yet, there wasn’t a sacrifice in ride quality as it stayed true to Mercedes’s traditional firm-yet-compliant tuning. Bumps were absorbed very well but without the wallowing of say, a barge from Cadillac. Collectively, the well-tuned stiff chassis, long suspension travel and low spring rates allowed for mid-corner composure perfection. Hit any bump or dip of any nature while swooping corners and the Benz would absorb them instantaneously without upsetting the chassis. In any case of driving, you always had a feel for every move the car made, every grab and slip all four tires had. There was so much driver feedback that you’d think that BMW or Porsche got their hands on the design. The only gripe that should be mentioned here was quite an obvious one. Because the Benz was designed more towards a luxurious experience, a considerable amount of body roll was observable when you decided to quicken the pace. Otherwise handling was poised, predictable, balanced and neutral all while making long-distance cruises—like my one to Virginia—absolute pure bliss. A fabulous blend of the best of both worlds.
Huh? Virginia already? Man, the reflection on the Benz kept me occupied for that long? At this point, a springtime Nor’Easter rolled through, blanketing the entire Northeast and mid-Atlantic in rain. Speaking of which, the other cool feature, a DTM-like center-mounted mono-windshield wiper! I took an exit ramp roughly 35 miles southwest of Harrisonburg when I noticed that my gasoline light was on. Filled with all 16 gallons plus two gallon reserve to begin with, the odometer had just clocked over at 412 miles for the entire tank. That means I averaged roughly 26mpg thus far. The old Benz just finds out how to impress in many ways. It was about 7 o’clock when I was roughly another 100 or so miles from Blacksburg. I hopped off of I-81 to find myself a gas station. For what seemed like an additional 15 miles, I finally stumbled upon this little hoe dunk town in the middle of nowhere. With the dark clouds hovering over, there was little to no life on the small strip. It was almost eerie. I pulled into a run-down Mobil station, which still had classic “analog counting” gas pumps that hit a bell every time a cent ticked over. It was very stereotypical. I gave the attendant, who appeared to have no teeth, cash for the gas, hopped in and set off.
I followed the road from the hoe dunk town further southwest in hopes that I would run into I-81 again But the area became even more desolate. The rain was pounding harder and the sun had completely disappeared. I cruised along this abandoned road with not another car in sight, the Benz just powering on with a slight hiss of wind noise and a small hum from the straight six…and I had not a thing to worry about. The Benz had been on plenty of round trips to Canada, Vermont and Pennsylvania—all of which the E320 Coupe had completed without a hiccup.
Sixteen year-old car? So what that it’s old. German? Parts aren’t very expensive for a European car. In fact, none of my repair and maintenance bills have exceeded $1,200 and they barely went over $500…not to mention, the car saw the shop for only maintenance.
And if I could do it again, if I could relive the time I had with the Mercedes-Benz W124 Coupe, I would in a heartbeat…I would just have to buy another one
I arrived in Blacksburg in complete awe as to how quickly, seamlessly and trouble-free my journey had been. Usually, most would say that they’re warped after traveling for such a long time. But I arrived in Blacksburg as comfortably as I left. I felt like I could just keep driving the Benz until I ran out of money to fill the tank with premium. The Benz had done its job and could do it again and again and again with very little trouble. You could sense that all of the precision engineering from the Germans going “NEIN! NEIN!” until things were set right had paid off and will continue to pay off, that the car will just keep on truckin’. From all of these frequent, long distance road-trips, I definitely had plenty of time to appreciate my E320 Coupe and Mercedes-Benz in general. The Benz gave me a sense of dependability, a sense that I can trust it in nearly the most extreme circumstances that I can get it in, a sense that…it was reliable…it was safe. And no, I’m not talking about a run-of-the-mill Japanese appliance. I’m talking about one of the finest examples made from the culmination of automobile technology and excellence, led by the anal retentive perfection demanded by some of the best engineers in the world.
And if I could do it again, if I could relive the time I had with the Mercedes-Benz W124 Coupe, I would in a heartbeat…I would just have to buy another one (when I have some money to spend). Unfortunately, I lost the Benz in a freak accident in August of 2010 when I had my spare tire on one of the rear-drive wheels, causing a mismatch. The spare tire was bald and a thunderstorm had rolled through the area, causing me to hydroplane and collide with the highway barrier. It was a very sad and dark day for me, because the minute that I had bought the Benz, I was confident that I could keep it forever so that my kids could experience what I had. But the worse case happened and because Mercedes-Benz was one of the most prominent leaders in automotive safety, I had walked away without a scratch. All of the road trips and memories will keep the black Benz in my heart forever. Not only because it was my first car, but also for the fact that we will no longer see cars built like they used to be. It had served its purpose in every way possible, from being the excellent car to own to saving my life after nearly 100 years of innovation.
It’s very difficult to express how nearly perfect the W124 is because it did nearly everything perfectly for me. It handled well, rode great, had plenty of power, was well-built, reliable and very cheap to own and maintain. It was hard to find a fault in a car engineered by the guys who were the best in the business. Even over sixteen years later at the time, the car was still as fresh as its engineers intended it to be. The W124 is a perfect example of the perfect combination of performance, comfort, practicality, reliability, durability, old-school build quality standards—remember, Mercedes-Benz’s were always the standard at their peak—and modern day motoring technology. It’s no wonder that the W124 is the benchmark and has been critically acclaimed to be the best modern mid-sized luxury sedan ever produced.
– By: Chris Chin