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Mercedes W124 300D

A superb long distance cruiser

by Julian Edgar

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At a glance...

  • 3-litre diesel
  • Superb ride and handling
  • Very slow acceleration
  • Excellent and frugal long distance car
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With petrol prices ever-rising, the lower consumption of a diesel is becoming an increasingly attractive option. In Europe, diesels make up over half of all new passenger car sales but here in Australia, oil-burners are relatively rare. However, over the last few decades, a number of diesel passenger cars have been sold locally. One of them is the W124 Mercedes 300D, which was available between 1986 and 1993.

The mid-size Mercedes established an excellent reputation in 300E (ie 3 litre petrol engine) form, with the diesel version less well known. Like the petrol engine, the OM63 diesel uses a swept capacity of 3 litres and also has a SOHC 12-valve design. The injection system is mechanical and – in a modern context of common rail direct injection diesels – very old fashioned. Peak power is just 80kW (at 4600 rpm) and while the torque figure of 185Nm at 2800 rpm is good, it’s nowhere near as impressive as the outputs achieved by turbo diesels. However, partly offsetting the low power is the surprisingly light 1370kg mass.

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Still, whichever way you call the numbers, the combination of 80kW and 1370kg is never going to result in scintillating performance - and the 300D certainly doesn’t have that. In fact, 0-100 km/h comes up in 15.3 seconds and the standing quarter mile takes a very leisurely 19.2 seconds. Fuel economy in contemporary magazine tests was a touch under 10 litres/100 km – significantly better than the petrol engine version.

Now you might be thinking this doesn’t sound much the stuff of a performance on-line magazine and in a way you’re right. But the major attractions of the 300D are not its straight-line acceleration but instead its brilliant ride and handling, and its longevity.

At the time of its release, the 300E was acclaimed as one of the best handling sedans in the world and despite using the heavier engine, the 300D diesel version gave away very little. At the front you’ll find struts with separately mounted (and extremely long!) springs, while the rear boasts very sophisticated independent suspension using no less than five locating links per wheel. Alloy 15 x 6 wheels were standard and these were originally fitted with 195/65 tyres. (Most of the cars have since been shod with wider and lower profile tyres.)

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Despite using recirculating ball steering that has a reputation for vagueness, the 300D points extremely well. Steering is precise (albeit low-geared around centre) and has linear weighting. The turning circle is a very tight 11.2 metres and when this is combined with 3.3 turns lock-to-lock, the car feels nimble and manoeuvrable. The handling is excellent, even when compared with current cars. On smooth urban surfaces there’s plenty of grip without excessive body roll and on bumpy country roads, the 300D is immensely stable and well-damped. In fact, on tough winding, undulating and rough secondary bitumen roads, it’s one of the most impressive cars we’ve ever driven – and certainly the most impressive old car.

But if you’re used to Japanese or Australian luxury, the equipment in the cabin of the 300D may disappoint. Despite having separate left/right temperature controls for the HVAC system, there’s no auto selection for the fan control – so you can’t say the Merc has climate control. There are also no electrics in the seats (although there are plenty of manual adjustment knobs), only the passenger side mirror is electric, and the steering column is fixed. Most 300Ds have vinyl rather than leather seats and airbags were fitted only to later models. In fact, the cabin can look quite Spartan although the instrumentation and controls are clear and easy to use. The boot is large but there’s no ski port or fold-down rear seat facility. ABS and cruise control were fitted to most models.

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The wobbly gate transmission is a 4-speed auto but in the way of Mercedes models of the era, it won’t select first gear from a standstill unless the accelerator pedal is literally floored. The accelerator itself has a very long travel and the result of this and the auto trans’ penchant for second gear gives the initial impression of an incredibly slow car. However, use plenty of throttle and the 300D will keep up with city traffic. But reach a steep country road hill and the story changes - you’ll need to use revs and manual gear selection. And, it must be said, at anything over 4000 rpm, refinement drops considerably and the car feels like it’s struggling.

The body design still looks elegant and with its large boot, adequate rear space and slippy 0.30 drag coefficient, is functional as well.

And what was that earlier about longevity? Diesel Mercs are known for racking up huge distances without trouble and most 300D’s that you’ll now find have well over 200,000km on the odometer. Each car should obviously be taken on its own merits but many examples with these sort of kilometres still drive very well. Incredibly, the car shown here had no less than 475,000 kilometres on the odometer and while there is some doubt as to whether that’s the correct figure, the car drove like it had seen only 100,000 kilometres. There was a minor squeak from the right-rear suspension but as for mechanical faults, that was it. This particular car had also been repainted.

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Current pricing for a 300D extends from AUD$7,000 to about AUD$15,000.

The 300D is especially suitable if you do a long daily commute or travel big distances on country roads. It’s less happy in the cut-and-thrust of frequently stopping city traffic, but once wound up, can maintain that speed almost irrespective of terrain and outside conditions. And that’s just why so many have high kilometres and are ex-country cars: it’s one of the all-time ultimate long distance haulers.

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