These days, when I look at new Mercedes-Benz E-Class cars, I think about that famous Estee Lauder line. ‘The pursuit of beauty is hounourable,’ she used to say. And Mercedes-Benz is one company that can certainly claim to have done the honourable thing – they have pursued beauty in automobile design. Some of their more recent efforts may look rather dubious, but over the last few decades, they did make some of the best-looking cars ever. Fifty years after the world first saw it, the pathbreaking 300SL, with its tubular frame, mechanical fuel-injection and dramatic (if impractical) gullwing doors, still looks radical enough to stir up emotion in any international auto show. And who can forget the eager panache of the 1950s 300 or the delicate, feline grace of the 190SL from the same decade? Then there were those impossibly striking-looking 1960s SEs – you only expect to see one of those being driven by some intimidatingly beautiful European woman – dark glasses slightly askew, silk scarf billowing in the wind. Or the 1960s/70s pagoda-roof SLs, which had the carelessly indifferent star-quality of the very wealthy and the very good-looking. Those SLs just didn’t give a damn and the world loved them for it. The last-generation SL, launched in 1989, is still the car to have if sheer snobbery is your thing. The new rich drive current SL55 AMGs, but old money still wafts past in 1980s/1990s SLs. Unless, of course, they’re blasting by in one of those grosser wagens – a barely-in-control, V12-engined, 600-horsepower, S-Class-based coupe that’s the new CL65 AMG.
But I digress. This story isn’t about some of the more exotic cars that M-B have built. This one’s about cars built for those who are on a relatively tighter budget, yet aspire to own a proper, full-size Mercedes-Benz. Which is not a bad thing at all, for even ‘economy’ Mercs with smaller engines (the early-1980s 190E being a prime example here) have always boasted of excellent build quality, reliability and unburstable longevity. All of which are qualities that can also be associated with the early-1990s E-Class, the much-loved W124 series, which was sold in India till 1996. Though it was replaced by the ‘twin-eyes’ W210-spec E-Class in 1997, people continued to associate the older W124 with the word ‘Mercedes’, for much longer. To quote Bijoy, from an article he wrote for the Business Standard Automobile Annual in 1996, ‘the old W124 shape has its own presence and is easily recognisable as a Mercedes from a kilometre away.’ You know where he’s coming from. I mean, everyone from Idi Amin to Paul McCartney to Bhagwan Shri Rajneesh probably had one of those cars at some point in their lives.
But things have changed. And the new E-Class (W211) is in a completely different world from the old E. Hence, when we were informed that we were getting the latest E200 Kompressor for a test, we thought of pitting it against the W124 and see whether the game has moved on. Sting might not like it, but would the Ayatollah at least still be driven in the new E-Class? Let’s see.
The lines are drawn
Styling first. And I’ll start with the W124. It really is very hard to say anything that hasn’t been said in the past, by many people and at many times. And yet, it must be said again – the W124’s lines are timeless. Straight and solid and square as they come, this is one Mercedes whose presence is as commanding, as compelling now, as it was ten years ago. Totally devoid of fatuous, short-lived styling cues – let’s see where Bangle’d BMWs are, in ten years time – the W124 E-Class is the very embodiment of an honest German family saloon. I won’t discuss A-, B- and C-pillars or rooflines or windscreen rake, because you wouldn’t care. All I’ll say is, if cars were human, the W124 would be a rich German farmer’s wife – good looking in a solid, well-fed, hard-working and dependable kind of way. You can imagine spending a decade with this car and still being able to feel happy opening its door every morning, getting in and doing the daily commute. To quote Bijoy’s 1996 article again, ‘the fit and finish and attention to detail are impeccable.’ It was that way back then. And after almost ten years and almost one lakh kilometres, it still is. The only thing is, I do wish they had given it alloys. Pressed-steel wheels (15-inch) behind plastic wheelcovers on a car that cost Rs 23 lakh when new, smacks of scrimping. Not fair. On to the W211. If the 124 is a rich German farmer’s wife, the newest E-Class is definitely upper-class New York investment banker. If the W124 reads like a copy of the Financial Times, the W211 is more of Wired magazine – all most modern design and complex curves. Where the old E is all straight lines and straightforward mien, the W211-spec E200 K is all fluidity and styled elegance. Initially, the current-generation E-Class was derided by some (including me, I admit) as being a bit overwrought. Bijoy and Srini have been fans of the new E right from day one, but the rest of us were of the opinion that ‘it’s gone Korean.’ But now that it’s been with us for a year, I, for one, am getting used to the way it looks. In fact, I am beginning to like the new E-Class’ styling and though I don’t much care for silver, the W211 looks very desirable in darker colours, especially black or navy. Park it on a bright, sunny day and watch sunlight glinting off its sinuous curves and 16-inch alloys. Also observe the hundreds of admiring, covetous glances it attracts. And listen to the animated discussions it’ll spark off, amongst bystanders. I don’t know if it’ll still look good in ten years (the W124 E220 does), but for now, the E200 K looks self-assured and in control. I hate to say this, but parked alongside the E220, the E200 K did make the older car look rather gauche. Compared to some Mercs of yore, the 200 K’s glamour might be a bit synthetic, but it still works like a charm.
E200 K: ****
M-B interiors are supposed to be special, aren’t they? And they are. Our E220 had, remember, almost one lakh kilometres on the clock, but the interiors still seemed fairly fresh to me. All the leather and wood was in good condition and plastics seemed to be holding up very well. Unlike some other German cars we’ve seen in the past, which have broken/cracked plastic parts on the dash and miscellaneous rattles emanating from various places, the W124’s innards were all in one piece. Control knobs and stalks felt meaty and worked smoothly and precisely. Except for a tape-player that had been removed for some reason, not a thing was out of place on this car. It’s like getting into the Bombay Gymkhana. Not flashy, not ostentatious and not loud – you just get in there, nod at pretty much everyone sitting around and settle down with a glass of wine, followed by a mellow Cuban cigar. The W124’s interiors are spacious and instantly comfortable. There are no fancy power-adjustments in there, but I didn’t miss them. What’s so bad about having to pull a lever to push your seat behind by an inch or two? Especially when you know you can happily spend 10 hours in that seat, driving across a continent or two.
The E200 K will also waltz you across continents without a care in the world and pampers you even more than the E220. If the E220’s interiors are Bombay Gymkhana, the E200 K’s are Velocity, or Technopolis even – modern, funky and fresh. There’s lots of leather and wood in here, small touches of chrome, a 6+1 CD-changer, automatic aircon (which offers dual-zone airconditioning), power-adjustments for the front seats, steering wheel-mounted controls for the phone, music system and trip computer and... the list is endless. The first-time driver can still figure out everything on his/her own and the E200 K’s user-interfaces do not have the complexity of a BMW 7-series’ or an Opel Vectra, but I wonder if that’s very far off. For now, the K, like all other E-Class cars, is a wonderful place to be in. There’s oodles of space, the aircon is powerful, the CD-player sounds awesome, the curvy dash looks more contemporary than any other and every single thing feels like it was tailored just for you. Much as I like the W124’s sobriety and simple old-world comfort, the E200 K is, as you would expect, far more modern, plush and sybaritic. Velocity is, simply, more happening than the Bombay Gym.
E200 K: *****
Under the hood
What really matters, of course, is how these cars are to drive, and once again, the W124 is indefatigable. Said Bijoy, when he tested this car in 1996, ‘though most Mercedes owners seem to prefer chauffeurs, this is very much a driver’s car.’ Well, it isn’t particularly powerful or responsive, but the old E220’s 2199cc, 143-horsepower inline-four is certainly adequate for most applications. This relaxed, unhurried mill produces a very usable 20.4 kgm of torque and mated to a 5-speed manual transmission, makes brisk cruising a breeze. With a kerb weight of 1460 kg and an inline-four to power it, this car certainly doesn’t have blistering performance – not at all – but still lets you enjoy yourself. Pin the accelerator to the floor and the E220 moves ahead with authority, but an automatic, and this is contrary to what I say for most cars, would have made things even better. The 5-speed manual gearbox isn’t very slick and shift-quality could have been much better. Perhaps it’s the near-1,00,000 km which our car had already done and maybe age had taken its toll, but whatever it is, driving this car in stop and go city traffic demands a fair amount of effort. Some will say that makes it more involving and well, it does, but Mercedes’ automatics are where it’s really at. But coming back to the engine, it’s a gem. Age and mileage don’t seem to affect its spirit – I suppose it’ll still be going strong after another one lakh kilometres. It’s a pity that M-B had to restrict the Indian E220 to 180 kph – and only because the OE tyres weren’t capable of taking any more than that. The E200 K’s 1796cc inline-four is a bit on the small side – hardly sufficient for a car that weighs 1570 kg. That said, the engine has 4 valves per cylinder, which let it breathe better than the old E220’s mill. Plus, it’s supercharged, which boosts the output to 158 bhp and 22.5 kgm of torque. You wouldn’t expect these numbers to produce any fireworks. And no, they don’t. Where the old W124 went from 0 to 60 kph in 6.0 seconds, the best our E200 K could manage was 6.01 seconds. The difference is very small, but it’s there. But though the K feels somewhat sluggish while getting off the line, its performance perks up in the higher reaches of the engine’s rev range. It did get from 0 to 100 kph in 12.10 seconds and we also did 195 kph before signing off – I suspect the car would have done 200 kph if we hadn’t run out of road. Out on open highways, the power delivery is beyond reproach. The car picks up pace easily and can keep up with pretty much anything on our roads. City traffic, however, is a different story and the E200 K does feel underpowered. What’s better is the 5-speed automatic gearbox, which shifts quietly and smoothly and also gives you the option of clutchless manual shifts if you so desire. To make brisk progress, you have to plan overtaking manoeuvres well in advance and even then, you need to absolutely floor the throttle to pass swiftly. Doesn’t surprise me much – the new E220 CDI, at 148 bhp, is less powerful than the E200 K, but has a massive 12 kgm torque advantage over the supercharged car and does the 0-60 in a mere 4.86 seconds. The V6-engined (normally aspirated) E240 has a slim, 7 bhp and 0.3 kgm advantage over the E200 K and is almost a full second quicker in getting to 60. So, performance-wise, the E200 K is pretty much at the bottom of the E-Class pile in India. But missing performance will probably not be a factor for too many prospective E200 K owners, as they’d be spending most of their time in the back seat anyway. Which is plenty comfortable, by the way.
E200 K: ***
While both the W124 E220 and the W211 E200 K are more or less equally fast and comfortable and will cover ground at a similar pace, if there are any areas where the E200 K is clearly ahead of the W124, it is handling, braking and overall safety. The W124 has relatively simple underpinnings – independent suspension all around, with coil springs and stabiliser bars. The E200 K’s setup is considerably more sophisticated – four-link, McPherson struts and coil springs at the front, multi-links and coil springs at the back. Plus, there’re also stabiliser bars, anti-dive, anti-squat and anti-lift plumbing all around. While I wouldn’t call the E220 soft, the E200 K feels more taut, more connected and ultimately, more secure at high speeds. The K’s 225/55 R16 rubber is more substantial than the 220’s 195/65 R15 tyres, and though both cars have anti-lock braking, the E200 K’s anchors have additional electronics (ASR, EBD, ESP, SBC) helping keep things on track. Mercedes’ Sensotronic Brake Control (SBC) really is a big step ahead in braking technology and whether it’s braking in a corner or stopping on slick surfaces at high speed, the E200 K’s prowess is, well, a decade ahead of the E220. Once again, while both cars will be adequately safe in almost any situation imaginable, the E200 K has a clear advantage – advancements in technology in the last decade have been immense and it shows.
E200 K: ****
E200 K: *****
E200 K: ***
Who’s da boss?
There are no losers here. The very fact that we can even think of pitting a ten year old E220 against a contemporary E200 K is an ode to the 220’s staying power. Both cars are excellent representatives of top-notch machinery of their respective eras. Given that the 200 K has the benefit of ten years of advancement in technology, it is, of course, the better car. However, it isn’t the best there is, and that’s where things
have changed. A decade ago, in India, you couldn’t have bought a significantly better car than the Mercedes-Benz E220. Not for Rs 23 lakh at least.
Now, at Rs 35 lakh, the E200 K seems over-priced. For only half as much money, a Toyota Camry or a Honda Accord V6 will give you far more performance, as much (if not more!) reliability, about as much comfort and refinement and just a little less space.
M-B cars still lead the pack when it comes to braking and crash-protection – and of course, sheer three-pointed-star prestige – but the E200 K simply needs to do more to justify its extra-premium price. It certainly is a very competent automobile, but after driving both cars extensively, I don’t believe the K comprehensively beats the old E-Class in all respects. Sure, corporate head honchos will certainly prefer the new E, but I suspect if Idi Amin is still around somewhere, he’s still happily cruising around in one of his old W124s...
E200 K: ****