Meet the 1991 Mercedes-Benz W124 E230 – again – in Iran
Mercedes and BMW’s best design language belonged to the 1990s. Mercedes used mature design characteristics back in the 90s, with simple and conservative lines and curves presenting the sexiness of some 40-year old male-model in a black tuxedo, who still had some youth left in his charming smile behind his D&G sunglasses.
They created some of their most beautiful vehicles ever produced to this date; it is inevitable to name the C126, R129, W140, W124 and W202 as just a few “perfect” models of this era. I personally believe almost none has gotten old enough to become boring, not just yet. But unfortunately these characteristics left Mercedes’ design department in the 2000s.
What you are about to read is the test drive of a well-preserved, low-mileage, 1991Mercedes-Benz E230 (W124)—a favorite used modern-classic MB in Iran’s car market.
The W124 is exclusively known as Benz Kopol (“Chubby Benz”) in Iran. The nickname refers to its exterior fat look, compared with its actual dimensions. If one looks closely, the W124 interestingly looks a bit chubby from some angles and sometimes long from other angles. But mostly is known as a Fat Benz even if the 4755X1740X1430 mm exterior dimensions say otherwise.
If I had the chance to meet Bruno Sacco in person, I would have said: “It could not be any plainer than this!” The design was finalized by Sacco, the Italian head designer of Mercedes-Benz for almost 24 years, from the mid 1980s to the late 1990s. Sacco was also responsible for designing of other legendary Mercs such as the C111 concept car, R129, W202, W203, W210, and W230.
The W124 mid-size sedan replaced the W123 (a/k/a “Scholar Benz” in Iran, as it mostly used to be imported by Iranian scholars from Germany) back in 1985. When production ended in 1995, the W210 took over.
The W124 was the first platform officially named the E-Class, and was produced as a coupe, saloon (sedan), convertible, estate (wagon), and limousine. The W201, closer in look to the W124 (190E), was considered as a lower segment and was later named C-Class, and was succeeded by the W202.
Looking so alike, the major difference between W124 and W201 is on the rear panel, where the different styled tail lights are. Both tail lights are louvered in design, but in the W201 it is a simple rectangle, while the W124 is angled more like a trapezoid.
Just like the exterior, W124 interior is simple, as most other MB models of the 70s and 80s. Everything is designed and located to fit everyday practicality. Behind the strangely large steering wheel, the whole dash design is a minor upgrade of those from the 70s, including the classic circular gauge cluster with minor white/yellow colors to make them easier to read at a glance.
The cluster, from right to left, includes the tachometer along with an analogue clock, speedometer, fuel gauge, oil pressure, engine temperature, and the famous Mercedes instant economy gauge.
The center console is covered with wood trim, embracing keys and dials of the manually controlled dual zone A/C system and radio/cassette player along with ashtray and cigarette lighter, conveying a great deal of nostalgia. Mercs usually were equipped either with the sunroof or the A/C system, but as a rare optional request, they could have been equipped with both; such as this case on this particular car. The sunroof used to be more than adequate for colder target markets like Europe, Russia, and Canada, while the A/C equipped models were mostly exported to hotter regions. But most Mercs exported to Persian Gulf and Middle East had both A/C and sunroof together by costumers’ request.
Having such vast comfort options along with the ridiculous manual gearbox, manual windows, and manual seats, and only one electrically controlled passenger side mirror, it is easily understood that this very W124 was ordered in such a specific way by the first owner; the company papers confirm this.
By taking the rear seats, the short 2799mm wheelbase shows off immediately. Having in mind that W201 is even shorter (2665mm) in wheelbase, it is guessed that W124 is way roomier than 190E (W201). Yet there are not much complaints about the rear leg room and I must insist that the rear seating ergonomics are pretty comforting compared to many new Chinese rivals. One other interesting aspect of the interior is the original first aid kit, preserved like day one behind the rear head rests.
Sitting behind the wheel, the dimensions immediately seem easy to handle in city corners and traffics. A vast variety of powertrains were available for W124 at the time: 2.0L, 2.2L, 2.3L, 2.6L, 2.8L, 3.0L, 3.2L, 3.6 (AMG E36), 4.2L, 5.0L (500E) and 6.0L (AMG E60) gasoline engines, along with 2.0L, 2.5L and 3.5L diesels. Our test vehicle has the most common MB engine in Iran (along with the 2.8L I6), the 2.3L I4 with a Bosch electronic injection system.
The eight-valve single overhead cam engine (code name M102) starts easily, with the original engine note unique to Merc vehicles; this one produces 135 HP (99.2 KW) of power and 205 N.M (151 lb-ft) of torque. The power is delivered through a manual 4-speed floor shift (column shift also available) to the rear wheels to get this 1.4 ton W124 to 100 km/h (62 mph) in roughly 11.2 seconds, with an average fuel consumption of 9L per 100 kilometers (26 mpg).
The numbers do not seem promising, at least other than the fuel economy, but the W124 is a daily-driver family sedan and compared to what is out there today in Iran’s car market, the 2.3L W124 still looks as a highly potent, lovely Modern-Classic Merc model carrying a ton of prestige along.
The gearing is heavy especially through the first two gears, so driving in Tehran, a city in the foot of the mountains, is easy; and traction is lovely although the engine sounds a bit harsh under load, which I believe shows that the I4 is not as powerful as we needed it to be. The gearbox is more modern than most other lower model W124s and therefore the reverse gear is selected by pulling up the lever and pushing toward the first gear, as in most German and East Asian vehicles. A 5 speed manual was also available for W124 but the 5 speeds are rare comparing to 4 speeds and 4 and 5 speed automatics are even rarer in Iran.
In spite of having a hydraulic assisted steering system, maneuvering seemed a bit heavy, which requires more accurate and precise driving habits. The heavier power steering wheels showed up among global car manufacturers back in the 1980s to reduce the risk of accidents in high speed driving conditions. This decision soon led to more advanced speed sensitive steering systems that most car manufacturers use today.
Despite having a rather short wheelbase, the driving does not come with the sense of a see-saw on speed bumps or a nose dive in hard braking. Thanks to the all-wheel independent suspension system with MacPherson struts up front and multi-link (five-link) in the back, the vehicle is tight even in sharp corners.
Although this was Merc’s first try at using a multi-link suspension on the E-Class (W123 used to use MacPherson struts all around), the effort payed off perfectly.
multi-link suspension systems tend to have a more expensive design process and time/money consuming maintenance costs comparing to more contemporary solid axles or MacPherson types, but they behave more predictably and rigidly on various pavements while bearing a more aggressive driving style. The W124 served successfully as a taxi in various countries, but ignoring its suspension expenses is not an option.
This particular W124 also uses a Bosch all-wheel anti-locking (ABS) disc brake system, which does not sound surprising for a vehicle from the 1990s, as the MB was the pioneer to test and use ABS system as a standard safety option. The braking system hopefully works like day one, solid and trustworthy but what is not clear tough is why Merc did not show much interest in using air vented discs at least for the front brakes. It did not use vented discs until deep into the 90s, while its American rivals like Cadillac used air vented disc brakes all around in some models since 1970s.
The topnotch W124s are definitely those assemble-completed by Porsche in a very limited number. The 500E W124 sedan used the 5.0L M119 V8 engine (common with 500SL R129), a twin cam (32-Valve) 5 liter of displacement V8 motor capable of producing 322 HP (236.8 KW) and 480 N.M (354 lb.ft) at the time. They were assembled on Porsche production line by Porsche workers and are known as “Porsche Built Benz,” available from 1992 up to 1994 with retail price of almost $82,000 USD; today they carry price tags close to $40,000 USD.
E-Class Mercs are one of the best-selling segments of the Mercedes-Benz production line, and the W124 was not an exception. The W124 is one of the best modern-classic choices among Mercedes’ used vehicles in the Iran car market; it has decent characteristics and an affordable price range. In Iran, the W124 stays one step lower than W126 and one step higher than W201 and W123 as a proper choice. Compared to todays’ domestic cars available in Iran, the W124 offers the prestige of a Mercedes-Benz, a nice handling, roomy interior, everyday practicality, and a reliable engine which punches more power than most Chinese and Iranian vehicles produced today. All essential characteristics shows that W124 is still a valuable vehicle for the money.
This particular W124 has been preserved very well and with the low mileage of only 51,000 kilometers (~32000 miles) is quite collectible.
I deeply appreciate the time and effort that Akbar Khalili, the owner of the W124, put to work to make this test drive happen. Appreciation also goes to Mahbod Jannati and Ashkan Anisi to support me on this test drive.
Group Photo (Left to Right): Shahab Anisi/Ashkan Anisi/Akbar Khalili (Owner)/ Mahbod Jannati