210 Auf der Autobahn

Why one of the least loved Mercedes might actually be one of the best.

All images: The author.

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?

Author: Lukas von Rantzau

Founder & editor of www.TRANSPORTMUSEUM.net, an online-only museum for aesthetic, strategic & historic reflections on how to move people & things from A to B.

37 thoughts on “210 Auf der Autobahn”

  1. If you don’t insist on an estate there’s an even more overlooked alternative in form of the W124 E 420 which has nearly the same performance as the E 500 without the brash looks.

    1. My choice as well. I always read that the E 500 is so understated, but I disagree as the big wheel arches are really in your face in my opinion.

    2. I considered the 400E at the time too. And ultimately decided against it. (Yes, I would also prefer it over a 500E, not least for its longer gearing, which actually gives the 400 a higher theoretical top speed than the 500 at much more importantly a lower rev level on the highway.)

      But the 430 has a five speed transmission and hence an even lower rev level. The 430 also has the more refined engine, that is more reliable, more efficient and has very noticeably more torque at the bottom of the rev range. (I test drove an E420 before I bought my E430 and was a little underwhelmed.) Besides, the E430 on average probably costs about a quarter of the 400.

      I admit, were the 400 available as a T-model, it would be a very close call. But it isn’t. (Though I have actually researched the possibility of engine swapping an M113 engine into a W/S124 chassis. But it is unfortunately prohibitively expensive. That I believe, would really be the perfect car!)

  2. The 210 seems to me to symbolise the fork in the road where Mercedes began their transition from hewn-from-rock car maker to a producer of units and filler of niches.
    I have experienced 5 Mercedes personally and three suffered catastrophic and expensive to repair mechanical failures at a young age and low mileage.
    It’s a thought-provoking article so maybe it is right to reevaluate the 210’s qualities. This brand used to trade on its reliability and you are asked to pay a lot for the product so people quite rightly will be unforgiving if expectations are not met.

  3. Good morning Lukas and thank you for providing an alternative perspective on the W/S210, much maligned on these and other pages. Two and a half years with the car is certainly enough to form a properly balanced view of your E430 T and it’s good to hear that it has many redeeming qualities and has proved to be reliable. The corrosion issue is frustrating, but you are dealing with it sensibly and pragmatically.

    Well done too for swimming against the tide and choosing the car despite the adverse publicity surrounding it. I would be interested to read more about your thinking and the circumstances that led you to choose it.

    1. Good evening Daniel,

      Well, to begin with, I have always had a soft spot for Mercedes from the Bruno Sacco era. (I used to have a smoke silver 190E 2.0 at one point, and also a dark blue 904 320CE with a manual dog leg transmission.)

      Then, thanks to very lucky circumstances I once had the pleasure of driving a current Ford Mustang 5.0 as a rental car for a couple of days. And evidently, the characteristics of the naturally aspirated V8 engine as I got to experience them, have left a profound impression on my taste for cars.

      So I sought to bring the two together and as mentioned above considered the W124 400E, and also the R129 500 SL (which I test drove too). But somehow, I couldn’t quite get myself to go ahead and purchase one.

      Then, based on some quirky search query on mobile.de I stumbled across an S210 E420 T for sale that cought my attention (for the first year or so, the W210 was equipped with the old M119 engine before the M113 took over and the model designation was changed to E430, #nerdalert). It was quite well photographed, had few kilometres on the clock and was on the expensive side, for a W210, yet still half as much as the other options I had considered. Hmm, I thought, why not have a look. Mercedes. V8. Estate. Ticks more boxes than the others at a bargain price! Maybe this will convince me.

      Well, this first example I looked at did not. It did not meet my expectations. It was not as neat and clean as it appeared on the photos. Rust lurking everywhere. The engine, as I said, underwhelming. I didn’t buy it.

      On the way back I knew however, that there was potential in the S210 V8-wagon and that I would keep looking for one. So right there on the train I searched again, this time including “rust” in the search term to find one that was praised as rust-free.

      And voilà, there it was. Many more miles, poor photos, half the price of the first one and not a dealer but a private seller and it was actually right en route!

      So I called and we arranged to meet at the train station more or less right away. I got off the train for the second test drive of the day. This time the car seemed much better in reality than on the pictures and for the price one almost couldn’t go wrong. I also had a good feeling about the sellers (two Russian cousins) who seemed jolly and sincere, and indeed, everything they told me about the car turned out to be true. So I bought it on the spot and drove it home the same evening.

      I don’t usually hold on to my cars for this long. But, as outlined above, I just haven’t been able to find a better one since.

    2. Thanks, Lukas, for the additional background, and glad the car has worked out so well for you. I like the sound of your 190E too. I had one from 1987 to 1990, a company car, automatic, in red. It was a great car, not at all luxurious but beautifully built and it felt it would last for ever.

  4. It´s always good when someone find a car they really like and which works for them. I am quite pleased with my XM but I also recognise that objectively it wasn´t as good as it should have been on several fronts. I think the W210 is a bit like this. Most of them weren´t sold with the boss engine or in the estate format. I know these cars as rusted base model 2.0 cars almost always with grey cloth inside. They are more or less a Ford Granada from Stuttgart. I am a big fan of big Fords but my expectations are different than for M-B.

  5. While i’m sure it has some redeeming qualities buried deep inside, i will never forget the feeling of shock the first time i got to ride in one of these back in the early 2000s – it just felt horribly cheap, had uncomfortable seats, and generally was as miserable to be in as to look at.

    I do occasionally see some wheezing around town with rusty exhausts, but they are all in horrific shape, completely covered in surface rust, and without fail driven by someone who probably lost their license to drunk driving but keep on driving anyway.

    For me, the pick of the litter would obviously be the e55 AMG, as then you would at least have a nice engine and cool alloys to distract me from all the bad stuff.
    would never pick one over an XJR obviously 😉

  6. By the way, I should echo Daniel´s point. I know what it´s like to swim against the tide with my XM. One either meets die-hard converts from whom it is the best car ever made or the rest of the world who think it´s unreliable, pointy rubbish. After some years in the first group, I formed a third one, the “I like my car and recognise why others think less of it”. While I am on the topic of the best car in the world for me, I notice with some satisfaction that XM prices have jumped markedly up, even for high milers. This means now I have to hang on to it as there are no more cheap replacements out there!

  7. As a matter of interest, what would be your second choice of car? I always thought a Saab 900 might be as interesting as a Citroen XM though I also hanker after a Lancia Trevi (a totally different ball of wax) and lately, maybe a Dedra (if the Trevi proves too costly). Is there another car that you´d consider if the 210 was out of consideration?

    1. Richard, you may be pleased to read that the last car I owned before the S210 was a Citroen XM (V6, 2000) that I also enjoyed very much. Just the maintenance was a bit cumbersome. Mostly because I didn’t have much faith in my local, overprized Citroen specialist.

      Thinking about what other cars I would consider is, it won’t surprise you, one of my favorite hobby (horses). Often I am just curious about trying these cars out and am not actually interested in owning them for a longer period of time though. Among these cars: Citroen C6, First Gen (pre-facelift) Mercedes CLS, First Gen (pre-facelift) Mercedes SLK (in yellow), Mercedes 600 SEL, Honda Insight, Golf IV GTI (with 5-cylinders), Polo Harlekin, … (a few of them I have owned by now) I’m not sure what’s the thread here. But I do like cars that are heavily depreciated and were special, when they were new and that aren’t recognized as classics yet.

    1. The SM’s system was very effective and it was completely mechanic/electric instead of electronic. It went through umpteen iterations during the SM’s lifetime but it worked. The system used the current flowing through the wiper motor to detect the grade of humidity on the screen by the friction of the wipers and regulated the wiper speed accordingly. There was also a provision for setting different levels of sensitivity by adjusting a ballast resistor.

  8. It’s very nice to hear of someone enjoying their car, and you clearly bought it with your eyes open. It looks in good condition – the superb engine will make a big difference to your experience of it.

    What causes the rust, by the way – can’t it be sorted out, once and for all, or does it keep appearing in different places?

    As for a Mercedes-Benz which I’d choose instead, it’d have to be a saloon from the sixties or seventies – I’d buy based on condition. There are some lovely, original cars out there (priced accordingly, of course).

    That said, a dark metallic green W123 280E on alloys would do very nicely, thank you.

    1. The rust sits in places that were typical rust traps in the Seventies and everyone thought were eliminated.
      Under the rubber door seals, under the kick plates, window frames, around the boot lock, bonnet edges and everywhere the car is ony painted in primer without further paint and everywhere plastic is rubbing against metal like wheelarch liners etc.

    2. Here in Denmark the W210 rusts where the bumper meets the body, around the leading edge of the bonnet, around the star badge at the back and around the wheel arches. It rusts conspicuously more than other cars of its period. I get the impression Benz made some notable improvements relating to the car´s first seven years of life at, perhaps, the expense of the car´s longevity (a bit like Renault). Conceivably cars further south would not be so badly affected by rust.

    3. Almost all body parts of the W210 can rust and it cannot be stopped – other than by replacing the body parts with new ones. The problem started with the switch to water based paints and prevailed throughout the 1990s into the early 2000s. It has caused the brand incalculable damage to its reputation. I wish these cases were publicly investigated.

      I once read that bacteria started growing in the paint after a few weeks and they would undermine the rust protection. (If that makes much sense, I unfortunately cannot judge.) Apparently this effect would only set in a few weeks after the paint baths had been refilled. So the cars painted during the first weeks were not affected. Can anybody verify this?

    4. The switch to water based paint happened during the production run of the W124 which suffered badly for a short time. Late W124s were just as good as the early ones once production processes had been adapted to the new kind of paint.

      Except for cataphoretic application of the anti corrosion base coat as a substitute for galvanising cars are not painted by dipping them into a bath, so this part of the story can be considered an urban myth.

      Fungus and bacteria can attack metal – that’s true but is more of a problem in wet environments. US Navy spends eight billion USD every year to repair corrosion damage caused by ‘biological attacks’. For a car this seems highly improbable – the reason for the W210’s corrosion problems is simply bad engineering and production methods.
      The W210 has welding seams without body sealant, large parts of the body’s surface are unpainted and there are layers of overlapping metal without any dedicated anti corrosion treatment. It’s just that they engineered and built the W210 as if the anti corrosion know how gathered in the Eighties and Nineties hadn’t existed.
      Other manufacturers used the same water based paints and their cars didn’t suffer from corrosion to the extend the W210 did, even other Benzes didn’t and they were produced in the same environment.

  9. I like the example in this article: the casual observer probably would not guess about the performance this car offers. No AMG wheels, de-badged, green, and an estate – more subtle than an AMG version would have been.

    Did this period affect the commercial division, and Unimog, as well?

  10. A late-model matt navy-blue C124/A124 300CE-24 would be my choice. Still an incredibly elegant vehicle. The 2-tone cladding wasn’t popular with everyone but I loved the contrasting colours which were generally tastefully selected, and the thin fillet of chrome at their intersection was very elegant – especially when the W124 was otherwise so devoid of embellishment. There are still a few around where I live, all being very carefully looked after, and every time I walk past one I marvel at the understatement and inherent quality of the design.

    1. A friend of mine had a C124 320-24 with five speed manual and checquerboard pattern half leather seats. Would be my choice becausenit was the most powerful engine availe with a driver-control gearbox.

  11. It’s good to hear you have a good experience with your E430. When the W210 came out I was a disappointed and the car hasn’t grown on me since. I don’t think I ever sat in one, nor do I personally know anyone who has or had one.

    With the W210 successor it’s another story. One of my dad’s friends had a W211. It was plagued by a long list of electronic issues and had two complete brake failures, one of which was on the German Autobahn with a speed well over 200 kph. They managed to bring it to a safe stop on both occasions, but he never bought a Benz again.

  12. Great photos and article and I am glad to see a W210 kept in such good shape- and hopefully for many more years too. Because the headlamps on this model are so large, I think that the more modern (clearer and flatter) headlamp glass of the facelifted W210 significantly cleans up the design of the car as a whole. On the earlier cars the mis-match in sizes and shapes between the headlamps, grille, and bumper corners is more pronounced.

    Several years ago I briefly owned a W126 560SEL (1991, the final year of production for the W126). That car was far from perfect but the interior materials had held up to more than twenty years of use astonishingly well – truthfully ‘constructed for a lifetime’ as the ad copy says. (Doubly so as the car was fitted with light tan interior, though the exterior, in the two-tone ‘Smoke Silver’ beige with gray bumpers, had begun to fade.) And yes, the doors still shut and locked with the appropriate ‘thunk’. In retrospect I think the W126 was too much car for me at the time and I would have been better served by a W201 or W124 – I would take either, with inline-six power, over the W210, though today my dalliances with German cars are over.

  13. I had an old W210 320d estate that I liked very much, both aesthetically and for its ride and handling. It did suffer rust and doubtless unreasonably I did not think “a trip to the local body shop once every few years” should be part of the ownership experience. Its electrics were also an issue, with some information displays failing and being uneconomical to rectify.

    1. Likewise. I had the same rust problem but the biggest bugbear was the injectors welded themselves to the cylinder head over time. Otherwise a beautiful engine for its vintage. Just pity it ran on the black stuff.

  14. Thank you Lukas for sharing your passion for W210. This truly is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Very understated since it’s debadged, except fot the obvious license plate.

    I can completely understand your fascination with V8s. Hubraum kann Mann durch nichts ersetzen. My father used to own a W126 420SE and then 560SEL with hydropneumatic suspension. That car had about the same power (280PS) but only 4 speed automatic transmission and more weight so your T modell must feel like a race car in comparison. Nevertheless this combination was very pleasing to drive.

    Since we’re daydreaming, my ultimate W210 would have to be the Brabus EV12 7,3. It’s not that I like speed that much, but 582PS and 330km/h top speed in a body that looks like 200E with some larger wheel is something truly special. It’s more 500E than the 500E, since on the 500E you can immediately tell it’s a 500E.

  15. Here in the sodden South coast of Ireland what few W210s there are left plying the roads are in a fairly sorry looking state and given the climatic conditions which prevail, one can only guess at the corrosive horrors lurking beneath. But leaving entropy aside, time’s march has not lent 210’s styling any more charm than it exuded upon its introduction – it looks especially insipid in saloon form.

    However, I can attest that they were quite a decent car to drive. My own experience was limited to a single, if reasonably lengthy drive in a facelifted model, powered I seem to recall by a 2.7 litre V6. I think it said E240 on the bootlid. This car was bought on an approved used scheme from M-B UK and was in as new condition. As much as I didn’t care for its appearance, it was a very pleasant, relaxed machine and its owner (a close relative, who had always promised himself a Mercedes) was very pleased with it. About six months later, it was stolen from his driveway, never to be recovered.

    We tend to avoid the subject…

    Notwithstanding the above, Lukas’ example is about as compelling a case for the defence as I have encountered.

  16. Darko

    Any of the Brabus V12s are a brilliant drive. Awesome engine in a capable chassis. What’s not to like?

    One of the nice things about V12 cars is that you do not have to drive quickly (although it is fun) to enjoy them. A reasonably large engine naturally aspirated makes a lot of sense once you experience one. A reasonably large V12 is special indeed. Supercharged they are just extraordinary.

    Who was it that wrote along the lines that every gentleman needs to own a V12 at least once in his life?

  17. A very interesting article Lukas and thanks for posting. I also had a W210 Estate but with the 3.2 litre petrol engine. Purchased cheaply for trips to the allotment, tip etc and was certainly a great load carrier. Took the whole family and luggage on holiday to Devon with no issues at all but then the rust took effect. Battery under tray , rear wheel arches, under the boot, along the rear windows etc etc. Would have cost a fortune to put right so sold it for buttons to a friends son.

    I have also owned a W124 T300 petrol which was far superior in every department and do regret selling that.

  18. Can see the appeal of a 430 in T form. The T W210 have a particularly striking road presence – much better looking than the sedans. My experience of the W210 is limited to a V6 E240 with the 3-valve heads, in a 6-speed manual guise.

    Pros:
    -amazing ergonomy & seating quality
    -built very sturdily, not only for a late ’90s MB.
    -a nice balance between road isolation, ride and feelsome handling (miss it)
    -engine absurdly economical on easy long runs (easy 6-7 L/100km if one took things very leisurely)
    -engine character changing from silky & friendly into unexpectedly aggressive & vocal in higher RPM ranges (not unusual for a 3-valve, mind)
    -oceans of character & feelgood factor
    -very good traction-mgmt. systems in real-life snowy & icy conditions.
    -superior active safety

    Cons:
    -absurdly thirsty in city stop-and-go traffic (14-15 L/100km was a rare
    favourable occasion, it was usually thirstier…)
    -manual gearshift notchy and somewhat reluctant (not unusual with a MB)
    -not much else TBH.

    The (1. BASF / 2. nasty-edges on doorskin seams) rust issues were dismal, but it is also intriguing that not all W210s are blighted by the first one. The second one, however, creates huge problems on almost all model years save for the very last ones. If it wasn’t for these issues, they could’ve quite possibly been one of the most accomplished Benzes ever (styling is divisive, but with the right set of wheels/colour/trim, it doesn’t look that repulsive to me).

    1. It´s the styling that set me up to dislike the rest. They made such a royal mess of the flow from the front out lamp to the A-pillar. It´s horrendous and looks so much like a late-stage design decision. The 2002 VW Polo shows how to get a big round lamp to flow into an A-pillar. It´s not hard but Benz messed it up thoroughly. At the back, there are those mean little rounded lamps. The side mirror panel is another mess. The exterior sculpting is not expertly done. Given the resource this company had, its depth of thinking, its heritage the failure is remarkable. Each Mercedes car used to be a statement, an event and on its own terms, correct (the W-140, for example was the right answer to the wrong question and only if you are being picky). The W-210 broke that run of 100% rightness. You could not argue with M-B before that car.

    1. They did not resolve the three-way blend at the mirror area. It is real horror. The image from KGF cars captures the broken-ness of it. Every time I see that I sense it is deeply wrong from a sculptural point of view. It may very well be the most notably egregious example of a failure to handle that part of a car´s exterior design.

  19. Off-topic pet peeve alert: I’d contend that nothing with a swing-axle rear suspension should be considered “probably the best driving car of its time” in any post-WWII context.

  20. It’s a lovely eulogy to an increasingly rare model and one that I find rather handsome. Optimal aesthetics for these, in my view, are dark blue or green with monoblock alloys, though silver works well too. There is a low mileage and seemingly rust-free one that lives near me in a well-heeled, leafy part of London. I imagine that it has been serviced at MB for its life and as such, likely benefitted from MB corrosion guarantee, without quibble.

    My (biased) vote goes to the S211 E500, with the 5.0L M113 V8. It has a modern, understated look and feel (no visible tail pipes), a comfortable interior and an excellent 7G-Tronic gearbox with the intelligent and confidence-inspiring SBC with AMG-spec full airmatic suspension. I’ve owned one since 2017 and covered about 50,000 miles across the UK and Europe.

    Additionally, there aren’t significant rust issues of which to speak and parts are largely readily available (though I did have to wait seven months for cat-back exhausts to be manufactured once again).

    In the UK, they’re about one third of the price of an S211 E55. I suspect that in the real world, they offer a greater proportion of the price difference in A to B speed, driver satisfaction and utilitarian use-ability.

    The usual caveats apply, however. If the MB-intended character and quality is to be retained, maintenance is key and costly. The cocooned and stable, three-figure-speed-comfort for all occupants over long distance, ensures thar the investment is well worthwhile.

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