Why one of the least loved Mercedes might actually be one of the best.
I used to think a good Mercedes is distinguished by the sound its doors make when closing. Nothing oozes solidity and confidence in a subtle, effortless way, like a good Mercedes Klonk. By this standard, my Mercedes E430 T is not the best Mercedes ever made.
But perhaps there is more to a Mercedes.
Doors aside, a good car should drive well, be reliable, safe, practical, comfortable, and reasonably economical to operate. And if the essence of Mercedes is the aspiration to build the best of all cars, a Mercedes should be good at all this too, should it not?
Evidently, there are trade-offs between these qualities – priorities differ accordingly across the model range. In the 1950s a 300 SL was probably the best driving car of its time. A decade later, the Mercedes 600 set the benchmark for comfort. In the 1970s, a 200D was without peer in terms of reliability and economy. The new T-Model body style added (Touristik or Transport) a new dimension of practicality to the Mercedes line up.
But, at no time before and at no time after, has one single Mercedes model driven so well, been so reliable, safe, practical, comfortable, and economical to operate, simultaneously as the E430 T.
Yes, the W210 chassis does not receive much love around these quarters. And yes, as already stated, its legendary predecessor looks better and makes a much more satisfying noise when shutting its doors. By no means, a small feat. But is it enough to outweigh all the other qualities of the later model? Because, I argue, especially in E430 guise, the W210 is better at everything else.
To begin with, it introduces a whole range of useful, technical innovation that have since become ubiquitous: Xenon lights, a self-dimming rear-view mirror, parking sensors, a rain sensor adjusting the windscreen wiper interval, adaptive dampers, electronic stability control… 20 years on, all still works flawlessly and have proven to make driving safer, easier, and more pleasant every day. They are also a clear reflection of an intact innovation powerhouse called Mercedes-Benz at the time of inception.
Simultaneously, the car retains many more of the beloved Mercedes quirks than it is commonly given credit for. The one-armed-windscreen wiper, for example, the clearest, most legible instrument cluster imaginable, superb seats, overall good build quality (rust issues apart, more on that later), a third row of seats in the back, and, not least, a three-pointed hood ornament. All is then wrapped into a most subtle, unpretentious package. Only the almost invisible, small and vaguely shiny dots that are sprinkled over the B- and C-pillars distinguish the E430 as the flagship.
Still unconvinced? Well, how about this then: The W210 T-Model (yes, technically an S210) was the very first Mercedes estate to be given a V8 engine. And the Swabians gave it their masterpiece. The 4.3 litre (M113) engine was conceived during the very short period of time, when real-world-fuel consumption and driving comfort were the engineers’ top priorities. Unrealistic norm-cycles and irrelevant performance figures do not seem to have bothered them much.
They came up with an unusual 3-valve design that delivered more torque and much improved fuel economy than the preceding engine generation. Unheard of in today’s world, the power output was kept constant. The result is an engine that transforms fuel combustion to forward motion in the most delightful, silky smooth manner. Operating in perfect harmony with the 5-speed automatic transmission, it leaves nothing to be desired.
On a swift but relaxed Autobahn run the W210 consumes no more than 10l of fuel per 100 km, which today’s turbo-charged 6-cylinder top of the line E-Class is not able to undercut by much. The M113 is also known to be one of the most reliable V8 engines in the company’s long history. A list of common issues is hard to come by. They do not seem to exist.
So, what about the rust? Yes, the rust is indeed an issue that even this author cannot square with the Mercedes brand promise and it is a fault one needs to be able to forgive. In my experience, the issue can be overcome by through good care and a trip to the local body shop once every few years. Gently wafting away from the workshop will make the issue easy to forget about again for the next couple of years.
This is of course (still), a minority view. For those persuaded, the former 150,000 DM German flagship estate might just be one of the most overlooked gems on the used car market, fetching about as much as a well specified laptop.
I have owned an E430 T for more than two and a half years now, and driven it further than any car before it. Its odometer will show 300,000 kms one of these days and there are no signs of it requiring more than an oil change any time soon. (Knocking on Vogelaugenahorn.) Now please tell me: Which Mercedes would you swap it for?