The W140-generation of Mercedes-Benz's venerable S-Class had a troubled birth and initial market response was lukewarm, but increasingly the "Cathedral on Wheels" is being regarded as a genuine modern classic. Hannes takes a pristine S500, currently listed for sale, for a spin.
Words and Images: Hannes Oosthuizen
- Year, Make and Model: 1994 Mercedes-Benz (W140) S500
- Engine: 5.0 V8 petrol
- Power/Torque: 240kW/480Nm
- Transmission: 4-speed automatic
- 0-100kph: 8.09 sec (CAR magazine test, June '94)
- Top speed: 250 kph (claimed)
- Fuel economy: 11.26L/100km @ 100kph (CAR magazine test, June '94)
- Mileage: 137 503 km (as tested)
- Price: R229 000 (view listing here)
It's fair to say that, for many years, the W140-generation of the Mercedes-Benz S-Class has had a bad reputation. Styled under guidance of the highly regarded Bruno Sacco, the W140's gestation was a well-documented sequence of compromises and knee-jerk reactions. Consequently, the end-product didn't look very much like what Sacco had initially drawn, and it also arrived at a time when excess was increasingly frowned-upon.
In South Africa, where its W126 predecessor was the darling of the luxury car segment, it also faced an uphill battle. In 1994 it cost nearly R450 000, making it one of the most expensive cars available on the market. It was also the last S-Class generation to be built in South Africa, using bodyshells imported from Germany as "bodies in white".
Power and Performance
Two models were made in South Africa, the S320, and the S500, the latter featured here. The S500 was powered by a 5.0L V8 engine that featured twin-overhead camshafts and Bosch's LH-Jetronic fuel injection. The engine delivered 240kW at 5 700rpm and 480Nm of torque at 3 900rpm. Mated with a 4-speed automatic transmission driving the rear wheels, the S500 was claimed to sprint to 100kph in about 7 seconds, but a June '94 CAR Magazine road test found that figure to be a tad optimistic. Local testing revealed a sprint time of around 8 seconds, still impressive for a car weighing more than 2 tonnes!
Luxury and Features
As befits a flagship 'Benz from any generation, this S500 is loaded with some of the early '90s most advanced features. This car has dual front airbags - the first South African-built car with "full frontal" airbag protection - ABS brakes, double-glazed side windows (for better noise insulation), dual-zone climate control, cruise control, Radio/Tape cassette player with a CD changer in the boot and electrically adjustable front seats with memory. An electrically retractable sunroof is also fitted.
Even in standard form (not an L variant), the W140 was a significantly bigger car than its W126 predecessor, at 93mm longer, 66mm wider and 59mm higher than before. Rear legroom is excellent with lots of stretch-out space. Rear occupants also get their own ventilation outlets and fold-out ashtrays. Solid-looking wood trim dominates the cabin and the materials used all have an immensely sturdy feel to them.
This particular example is currently listed for sale, and is a 1994 model with only about 138 000km on the odo. Unlike many W140s, it has obviously led a privileged life and is in excellent all-round condition. In fact, if it weren't for the well-used volume knob on the radio you'd be hard-pressed to find any sign of wear in the cabin at all! There are no signs of scuffing/tearing of the leather upholstery and the carpets look like new. Thick rubber mats obviously helped with regards to the latter.
Initially, the sheer size of the car can be intimidating. As I head out onto my test drive, I enjoy seeing the Three-Pointed Star on top of the bonnet (where I think it should be on an S-Class), and soon start to appreciate the relaxed nature of the ride. There are no fancy mode-selector switches, flappy paddles or anything like that; this car was set up to deliver great comfort all the time. It features double-wishbone suspension at the front and a multi-link arrangement at the rear, with anti-roll bars all-round. It wafts at slower speeds, and is eerily quiet inside.
When I reach my more dynamic route, I boot the throttle (it has a very long travel), and the S500 responds in what appeared to be a leisurely fashion, but a quick glance at the speedo soon convinces me that it's a bit of a sleeper. It doesn't feel as fast as it really is.
Another surprise awaits in the corners. I expected it to be quite clumsy in the twisties, but body control is good, and steering feel nicely weighted. You can actually "hustle" this big yacht. It rides on 16-inch wheels (puny by today's standards) but grip from the 235/60 tyres is good. Ultimately, however, this is a cruiser, and a fine one at that!
I've long wanted to experience a W140. It has always been an intriguing car - the model that nearly bankrupted Mercedes-Benz. The last over-engineered Mercedes etc. There's a lot to like here, actually. Even the design appears to have aged quite well, and it certainly still has presence on the road. This particular car is so neat I hope it finds a good home.