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.
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.)
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.
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
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.
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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