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1998 Mercedes-Benz S420: Overengineering at its Finest

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Among the reasons I first partnered-up on this blog was to give myself a forum to write about cars, ponder their strengths and weaknesses, in an effort to talk myself out of buying them. It’s a lot easier to talk about the cars we are totally stupid enough to buy than to actually do it. It’s cheaper, too. Given my catastrophically short attention span for things automotive, I am reasonably certain this has saved me tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years.

That said, the new car bug recently bit me again. My daily driver for the past six months has been a cracking little 2020 Subaru WRX – acquired based on both its reputation for performance AND resale value, as well as the fact that it’s one of a very small number of new cars available with a manual transmission. I love rowing my own gears, matching the revs on a downshift, and maximizing torque based on the power band. The Subaru has been a delight to own and drive, but like everything automotive that I touch the shine is off the penny and, frankly, I’ve been offered too much money for it. Go residual value!

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Folks who have read much of TTS or my ramblings in Mercedes Enthusiast magazine will be all too familiar with my penchant for big German sedans guided by the three-pointed star on the hood. As I write this I am sitting mere feet away from the 1972 280SEL 4.5 that is serving as my classic of the moment. It’s big, has plenty of go, and has presence and style in (Teutonic) spades – which is great if you like that sort of thing. But it’s not a daily driver – at least not for me. As classic cars go it is actually remarkably solid and reliable – heck, the AC even works! – but for daily driver duty I do like a car that offers a little more coddling and that I don’t have to think about driving. So I grabbed a scotch (Jura Superstition in this case, which, incidentally, also tastes fantastic over a bowl of English oatmeal – just 1 tablespoon – but I digress), watched a few episodes of Jay Leno’s Garage, flipped through a few old magazines, and started perusing my “go to” car buying sites including Autotrader, Hemmings, SearchCraigsList, Cars.com, eBay, BringaTrailer, Cars&Bids, and even Mobile.de (just in case I got a wild hair to import something). Among the handful of cars that caught my eye was this 1998 Mercedes-Benz S420 listed on eBay in Lodi, New Jersey with a Buy it Now of $6,795 or best offer.

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It was the unusual Azure blue paint that first caught my attention, as it seems like the vast majority of Mercedes W140-chassis cars are either Black, Smoke Silver, or White – you don’t often see them in a color. Looking closer, I saw a car that looked remarkably clean compared to most of the examples you see these days apart from sub-40,000 mile examples. The paint looked good, the seats slightly patinated but not shredded, and the wood..  Oh, the wood…  The glorious real burlwood accents throughout the interior look brand-spanking-new. And then I read the ad…

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Blah, blah “style, comfort”, blah, blah “lovingly cared for”, blah, blah “soft close doors and moonroof” but wait: an eBay car with records, all the keys, and the books? Intrigued, I read on, and stopped in my tracks when I came to “213,553 miles”. Wait – what?? Sure enough, this car has traveled 90% of the distance from the Earth to the Moon. I kid you not. And yet, I didn’t just decide to bag in and click away. I mean, Mercedes-Benz is the company that built a reputation and empire on overengineering and being the *best or nothing* – and the W140 is arguably the ultimate example of this philosophy. Besides, I really like the way these cars look and drive…

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Admittedly, I have some experience with the S420’s 4,196cc dual overhead cam M119 motor, as I daily drove a 1994 E420 with the same powerplant for nearly two years back in the aughts – and it’s a gem. Sure, the S500’s 5.0 liter version squeezes-out another 40hp, but this car’s 286hp and 302 lb-ft of torque are more than adequate for the way I’d use this car. Besides, these cars are not so much about going fast as they are about going effortlessly, and this one delivers. I mean, 7.6 seconds 0-60 and a top speed of 153mph would have been record shattering for a sedan – especially one weighing the same 4,200 lbs as the S420 – just a handful of years before this car was made. Besides, it gets one more mile per gallon on the highway than the S500 (18mpg vs 17mpg). I mean, the S420 is clearly the environmentalist’s choice of the two.

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So why would I even consider this car with its near quarter-million miles?

First and foremost: condition. Anyone who has bought and sold used luxury cars over the years knows all too well that – despite cars being for most people the second most expensive tangible asset they will buy – the majority of people ride their cars hard and put them away yet. This one, although driven, shows no sign of abuse. The interior is clean, the body straight and shiny, and there is history of regular maintenance and care. In short, this car has been loved.

Second: I like big, stupid cars – especially (but not exclusively) Mercedes. I have owned one W140 before – an S600 V12. It was sublime to drive on the highway, but also felt much smaller than it really was on the side roads. That car had been somewhat neglected, and admittedly I tired of paying for the symptoms and effects of Previous Owner Disease (POD), but when it was good it was VERY good. All of them however, have that delicious hewn-from-a-single-ingot-of-steel quality.

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Third: While the M120 V12 is a great motor in its own right, and oh, so smooth, the V8 is no slouch. Frankly, I’m more comfortable under this hood than that of the twelve. These motors (and moreover the associated electronics) are complex, but parts and conventional wisdom surrounding the V8s are more plentiful than for the V12. Besides, if you think this car gets crappy gas mileage you ain’t seen nuthin’.

Lastly: I just get a good feeling from this one. It’s the little things like coming with three keys, the full set of books, no fluid leaks, working AC, matching Michelin tires, and even the cool Euro-style ribbed floormats that tell me this was someone’s pride and joy. The motor, with regular maintenance, should continue to deliver good performance for a lot of miles to come. The 1998 W140s were near the end of the run, meaning that arguably most of the bugs had been worked-out by then, and even if not they would have failed much earlier if they were going to. Things like AC evaporators and disintegrating “environmentally friendly” wiring harnesses shouldn’t be an issue, but, sure, this will take more ongoing care than a new Civic. But that’s really not what we’re talking about, is it.

Oh yeah – and SEAT HEATERS!!  Gotta love a good set of bunwarmers.

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What’s stopping me? Why haven’t I just pulled the trigger? Easy. I’m coming out of a WRX. This is too big a leap, and I’ve already got a big, soft Mercedes sedan in my W108. No, I’m looking for a little more oomph, a little more performance, a tighter suspension. I’m thinking there’s likely a W210 E55 AMG in my near-term future. But I do keep coming back to this one.  Tell you what: you buy it and let me drive it!

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