Losing Face – Mercedes’ Billion €uro Facelift

Mercedes-Benz threw the piggy bank at the W212’s mid-life facelift. No, I can’t see where the money went either.

What a transformation! 2012 Mercedes W212. Image via paultan
What 1bn euros buys you. Image: paultan

The Mercedes E-Class represents the quintessence of Daimler’s saloon car range. It’s been their heartland model, the one from which they made their post-war name, so it’s incumbent upon Mercedes’ engineers and stylists they don’t screw the pooch. Yet screw it they did, 1995’s W210 and 2002’s W211 instrumental in tarnishing the three pointed star’s hard-won reputation for solidity, build integrity and reliability. W212 had it all to do in 2008.

Gorden poses with W212 next to its putative inspiration. Image via germancarforum
Yes Gorden, we get the connection. Mercedes’ design chief poses with W212 next to its putative inspiration. Image: germancarforum

While Daimler’s engineers appeared to have got the fundamentals right, the car’s styling proved divisive. The W212 styling theme might have passed without comment but for three glaring visual flourishes. The poorly executed bonnet to front wing shutline (of which we’ve spoken previously), the ‘Ponton’ wheelarch flares at the rear three quarters and a more rectilinear variation of the twin headlight motif which characterised its two immediate predecessors.

These features signified a move towards a more graphic visual vocabulary, but opinion was strongly divided over the success of the E-class’ new look and it appears, early sales were not as healthy as Daimler bosses hoped. But having already crossed a Rubicon by carrying out a questionable nose job on the R230 SL, it was deemed expedient to task design chief, Gorden Wagener with inducing a similarly striking visual transformation.

Autumn 2012 – (an unprecedented three years into its lifespan) – the W212 facelift made it the first Mercedes saloon ever to require such drastic surgery. Attributed to Michael Frei, the restyle saw a variation of the current more expressive Mercedes-Benz nose grafted to the existing mid-section, leaving a good deal of facial scarring in the process. A situation amplified by the decision to push the ‘sport’ grille in favour of its more dignified alternative.

Further aft, the removal of the ‘Ponton’ flares left Frei with something of a problem in that the front door pressings were to be retained. His solution, creating two forlorn-looking feature lines running counter to one another before fading out pointlessly saw W212.2 emerging an even clumsier looking thing than its immediate predecessor.

Just for reference, W212 from the air. Image via mercedesblog
Just for reference, a pigeon’s eye view of the pre-facelift W212. Image: mercedesblog

A further three years have passed and having sold in more encouraging numbers W212.2 is due to be replaced, joining the ever-growing ranks of throwaway Mercedes designs. Daimler likes to portray an image of serene and aloof competence, be it in engineering, design or business practice, but the fact that it’s now thirty years since the definitive W124 series bestrode the sector suggests the boys in Sindelfingen have been engaged in a similar headless chicken dance to everyone else.

Meanwhile, the new W213 E-Class débuts at January’s Detroit motor show, dragging Mercedes’ heartland model kicking and screaming back into line. Perhaps they’ll finally get it right, but after all this time, is there any excuse?

A final observation. The W212’s 2012 sojourn under the scalpel cost Daimler a gobsmacking €1bn to execute, some describing it as the most expensive facelift in automotive history. If true, has so much ever been been spent on so little?

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

16 thoughts on “Losing Face – Mercedes’ Billion €uro Facelift”

  1. They are so ordinary, these cars. Mercedes ought to get someone to very carefully dissect why the W123 looked so special in comparison with the competition and translate that into contemporary forms. They stumbled on the right formula twice. Now they need a formal investigation. If anyone at Mercedes is interested I know how to go about this process.

  2. Ever the contrarian, I like the pre-facelift W212. It looks sharp and modern where the previous model looked pillowy and bland. I particularly like the headlights and grille treatment, which to my eyes still looks fresh, although the clamshell bonnet always looks like it needs pushing shut. As for the pontons: too much garnish, but at least they highlight the rear drive nature of the car. In comparison, the facelift suffers the same problem as we talked about with the Ford Sorpio, in that the front does not match the midsection. The shuts around the leading edge of the bonnet are particularly cack handed, although W212 v2 is not the only recent Merc to suffer that trait. That said, the overall impression given by the facelift is it makes the car look more expensive, which is no doubt the air Mercedes wished to convey. As for where they spent that billion, I can only wonder. I believe the only panel pressings that changed aside from the bonnet were the rear doors?

    1. The first version worked better than the second. I may have been ambivalent about it. The bonnet/grille shut line is particularly egregious. It´s the kind of horrible detail I´d expect of Chrysler. As to which looks more “expensive” I could not say. It´s like being asked compare Evian and some other still mineral water.

  3. I generally agree with the comments of others – Chrisward’s comments about the new front and back not matching the middle being particularly pertinent. In terms of the pre and post facelift, I prefer the nose pre- and the treatment of the rear wheel-arches post-. I accept that the replacement for the ponton-a-like feature is not good, but the original treatment is just too contrived and fake for me to stomach.

  4. I am surprised at the cost too. As Chris points out, they didn’t think it worth changing the rear wings to do a full job, and indeed the coupe still retains the unfortunate ‘ponton’. The old front at least had its own character. Another criticism is the vertical crease in the boot lid. OK in itself, but the Mercedes star is placed across it, which looks wrong. The star should read as being flat, not folded. VW do a similar thing, placing the rear badge across a horizontal crease on the current Golf.

  5. It is as justified as it is easy to condemn Mercedes design of the last, say, 20 years.
    On the other hand: Did they have a choice? Maybe Bangle influenced Daimler’s styling more than did Wagener.
    It’s easy to ask for a modern W123 but not as easy to actually create one. Maybe it looked so special in comparison to the competition back then, because there simply wasn’t any…

    1. Yes, the W-123 didn´t have much direct competition in terms of its magic formula. If you tried a Jaguar you spent more (I assume). None of the major mass market cars came close (though the Peugeot 604 beat it in some areas). BMW´s 5-ish car seemed like another type of car and while nicely assembled lacks the Mercedes´ gravitas. As a research question you could ask what *would* it take to capture that sense of being head and shoulders better than every one else.
      Mercedes wrongly decided that being “staid” was a bad thing. Wagoner stepped in and offered an alternative when none was really needed. Maybe Bangle scared them by making them think striking design mattered. I would have sent them back to design history school and asked them to read about the Ulm School of Design.

    2. The W124 appears quite conservative today, but not so much at the time. For instance, the way the rear tapers in plan makes it look far more sophisticated that the contemporary 5 Series.

      You’re right Daniel that Mercedes wouldn’t look the way they do if it hadn’t been for the Bangle BMWs. But we can’t blame Bangle for that. He did what he did (generally) very well, having a clear vision. Mercedes felt they should get funky too, but were pretty clueless about what they were doing.

      Though, as I’ve finally had to concede, just because they are so wrong, doesn’t mean they aren’t right. W212 hiccup aside, the punters do seem to love ’em. I tried to fool myself that they liked them despite the styling, but I really don’t believe that any more.

  6. Somebody must have written a big, serious book on the W-123. It´s almost 40 years old and still running, still talked about and still a big reference.
    Was it conservative? In a way, because of its upright form. It also had some quite flamboyant brightwork. It puts one in mind of the way Swabian houses from the pre-modern time were painted. You could also think of it as German Cadillac. The forms are quite subtly shaped too. Other cars from the same period are harder edged. It confounds easy summation, doesn´t it?

  7. Personally I regard the W123 as being quite ritzy. Certainly, whilst the forms are upright and conservative, you cannot slap that much chrome on a car without glamorising it. Contemporary Mercedes are the reverse: less chrome, more sculptural. Both are methods to attract attention and offer that visual receipt for the heinous amount of money spent. I would argue that the latest round of bent banana Mercs are far more effective in that respect than models from the late 1990s and the 2000s. The W211 for example is a very cheap looking jelly mould, not much different from a Jaguar S-Type in detail. The current W205 C-Class looks like a million quid in comparison, which bodes well for the forthcoming E-Class on the same theme.

    1. The W210 is the nadir. I don’t mind the W211 apart from the cack-handed mirror-sail panel.
      At some point chrome itself was deemed conservative. Anthony ffrench-Constant still thinks it’s bad in and of itself.

    2. You cannot get much lower than the W210, in both pre- and post-facelift guises.

      The main aim behind the W212, which was to manifest the lost sense of quality of Mercs of yore through ‘solid’ shapes, is to be applauded, actually, if only they hadn’t executed it quite so bluntly and inelegantly. The W124 certainly didn’t appear particularly blocky in its day, yet still exuded solidity and quality in spades.
      So misguided it wasn’t, the W212, just very poorly executed. The W210 was both at once.

      Unfortunately, the facelift went one step backwards by trying to lend the car a more ‘contemporary’/’dynamic’ image, a concept that’s at the very root of Mercedes’ nadir. The end result therefore just had to be extremely inconsistent.

    3. Ball-breaking, octopus-caught-in-a drain like, parrot- heartedly impregnable verbosity aside, it seems Mr A F-C is right in at least one sphere.

  8. A ff-C is beyond parody, Sean. And he’s dead wrong about chrome. He’s read too much Ruskin and drunk Adolf Loos’s Kool-Aid. While he tries to write idiosyncratically which is good, his style obscures, which is less good. I notice Car now makes him write articled chopped into Q&A style sections. It’s still often based on one trope or conceit driven to destruction. I now don’t bother even trying to decipher his work.

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