Review and road test of the Mercedes-Benz S-Class Saloon (1991 - 1999)
BY JONATHAN CROUCH
The Mercedes-Benz S-class series saloons and the coupes latterly known as the CL class have a long and distinguished history. The fifth generation series, announced in 1991, succeeded four other ranges of the same name, the first of which dated back to the Sixties. The 'W140' shape, as Mercedes' engineers call the 1991-1999 S-class model, took the world's motoring press by storm when it was launched. Though it attracted criticism from some quarters for its bulk and for being a 'symbol of excess' it was the yard-stick by which all other luxury cars, including the then-new Lexus LS400, were judged during the 1990s.
The technology it brought kept rival makers' engineers busy stripping examples down to see what made them tick. They even had double glazing to reduce cabin noise and ultra violet light intrusion. In 1991 Stuttgart moved the game on even further, with the launch of the all-new sixth generation S-class, also bristling with technical features that others scramble to copy and which eventually filter down to cheaper models. This S-class design continues today.
Fifth generation S-class - 1991-1999 (Saloons: S280, 300 SE, S300, S320, 300 SEL, S320 limo, 400SE, S420, 400SEL, S420 limo, 500SE, S500, 500SEL, S500 limo, 600SEL, S600 limoCoupes: S420, CL420, 500SEC, S500, CL500, 600SEC, S600, CL600)
Sixth generation S-class - 1999 to date - Saloons: S280, S320, S320 limo, S430, S430 limo, S500, S500 limo Coupes: CL500, CL600
The fifth generation S-class saloons arrived in September 1991 though the older coupes carried on until their replacements arrived in October 1992. This S-class was the last of the truly large Mercedes-Benz passenger cars ever to be designed by the factory, but it doesn't feel particularly huge when you're hustling along behind the wheel unless you've just stepped out of a sixth generation car.
As well as the proved 4.2 and five-litre V8s, this time, a mighty six-litre V12 flagship version was also offered - in saloon and coupe form. In 1993, the badging was changed to reflect new Mercedes corporate policy. All models were now identified by `S` tags - including a new entry-level S280 variant. The range next had a mild makeover in 1994 with some styling tweaks in a brave but vain attempt to make the cars look smaller, accompanied by some upgrades to the standard equipment - this was in the days when M-B still had the cheek to charge extra for a stereo! Side airbags and automatic wipers activated by a rain sensor were added in June 1996 and a year later a high-level brake light became standard.
Coupe versions started out badged with an SEC suffix, from August 1993 were confusingly badged identically to the saloons with an S prefix and finally, in June 1996, became the separately identified CL class.
As for standard-setting, the list of design features pioneered by S/CL-class models is long and distinguished. Airbags, self-closing boot lid, the electronic stability system that prevents you entering corners too fast, just for example. For the sixth generation saloons sold from early 1999 (the CL coupes arrived early in 2000), there was more. Now you could have seats that gently massaged you as you drove, air suspension and 'Distronic', a new radar-activated cruise control system that automatically prevented you from driving too close to the car in front. Many of these ideas were unfortunately optional but you know what to look for on the used market, don't you?
This time round, with criticism of the older 'Der Grosse S-class' predecessors still ringing in their ears, economic uncertainty was not something the designers ignored. So that potential customers could not be accused of wanton wastefulness at a time when the Board was tightening its belt, the new S and CL-classes were leaner, greener and bristling with clever technology which could be used to justify such opulent purchases.
For a start, thanks to engine modifications and the loss of 300kg over the previous model, the latest models were 13 to 17% more frugal with the powerful five-litre V8 versions offering an optional cylinder cut-out system that automatically changed from eight to four cylinders at cruising speeds, improving fuel consumption by a further 7%.
The bottom line is that the S-class and its relatively rare CL sibling is still in many ways an executive market leader. Both fifth and sixth generation cars make safe, sensible used buys guaranteed to impress the neighbours and valet parkers alike.
What You Get
A car that you could probably drive for the rest of your life. These cars were really built to last and you'll be amazed at the condition most are in, even after almost a decade of use. In fact, the latest examples have a 30-year anti-corrosion warranty, subject to some conditions as you'd expect.
For a car that was first released in fifth generation form back in 1991, the S-class is surprisingly competitive against many new cars on the market today though the earlier rather square-rigged styling has dated compared with the latest more curvaceous cars. The sixth generation cars from 1999 ensure the S remains state-of-the-art with high technology matching the bullet-proof build quality, even if the double-glazing has gone.
Either way, the big Mercedes is a great machine for pampering weary passengers and drivers alike - which is why it's the carriage of choice for wedding parties, diplomats, chauffeured limousines, Eurocrats and Third World dictators.
What to Look For
Being a Mercedes, every S-class generation was designed from a fresh start, to a generous budget, so all components are tested almost to destruction before any prototype is committed to production. The durability of these cars is legendary and it's unlikely that an S-class will cause you lost sleep over the possibility of it wearing out. Mechanically, these cars are all very strong; Mercedes engines are always built soundly, as are the gearboxes.
Equally, you'll find the interiors to be very hard-wearing, though many cars will have leather upholstery and this may be a little discoloured and crinkly if it hasn't been looked after. The handbook is the size of a Jeffrey Archer novel but dig it out and check that all the electrical convenience features work and that there are no signs of corrosion, though you're fairly safe with an S-class unless it's had poor-quality crash repairs.
These cars sell on easiest with the right specification which trade pundits usually define as automatic (the odd rare manual is about), air conditioning, leather and a classy metallic finish so avoid dull solid colours, cloth trim and poverty-spec 280s if you can. A full Mercedes service history is also desirable, especially on recent examples which have very generous warranty and anti-corrosion cover.
(Based on a 1992 300SE) A new clutch will be around £225 and a full exhaust system about £530, while front brake pads are around £30 and rears closer to £16. A headlamp is about £200
On the Road
From a driving satisfaction point of view; the S-class always retained its edge when it came to all round passenger comfort. There's a lot of room and the suspension allows a very smooth ride. The fifth generation car kept these attributes and, though larger, belied its size better when hustling along.
The latest S-class is unanimously rated as the finest driver's car in the class. Better handling than a BMW 7 Series. More refined and comfortable than a Lexus LS400. It's faster too. The S500 makes sixty in just 6.2s (faster than a Porsche Boxster) and, like the entire range, cruises comfortably at close to 150mph. Yet it's not unreasonable to expect to see a 25mpg average on the trip computer, even in mixed driving.
The standard by which all luxury cars are judged and the older fifth generation still takes some beating for its age. If you want a big, roomy, strong luxury car that will last seemingly forever, an S-class Mercedes demands a close look.
Mercedes-Benz S-Class Saloon (1991 - 1999) review by JONATHAN CROUCH