COAL: 1992 Mercedes-Benz 400E – The Sleeper

mercedes 400e

I’ve always had a thing for the understated car. To wit, my Audi S4/S6’s were nothing special to those not in the know, the Saab 9-2X was a visually tamer WRX, and the Buick Regal GS, well, does the general public see a Buick and think “Supercharger”? No. So the 400E makes sense, let me explain…

I’d long been a fan of the W124 chassis since back when I saw my first 300E in high school around 1985. Classically elegant design, but very modern compared to the larger models at the time – but clearly building on the 190’s design language. Built to the standard that used to define Mercedes and offered in the U.S. with 6-cylinder power and, for a while, an optional Diesel engine as well.

The Birth of the Sleeper

Then, in 1992, Mercedes decided to expand the range. The car that got all the press was the 500E – basically a 300E with a 5-liter V8 engine, wider track (and fenders to match), many luxury features. However, the 500E was born along with a little brother at the same time, the 400E. If you were willing to take a car that was externally visually identical to the 300E but still had V8 power under the hood, for $60,175 (base price in 1992) this could be yours. Over the next 4 years, 15,425 buyers in the U.S. acted on that impulse.

A Remarkable Find

I was perusing Craigslist again and came across this one being advertised by San Francisco Toyota of all places. Asking $9200 the car had a total of only 32,000 miles on it! I called, thinking it might be a typo but they confirmed it. I then ran a CarFax and confirmed that the car was one-owner car from Belmont (the city I worked in) and had been maintained at Autobahn Mercedes, also in Belmont. Clearly, this was a car I had to see.

400E2

The next day after work I headed up to San Francisco. The car was as described, that is, like new. White with gray interior. Excellent paintwork. Flawless interior. Gleaming chrome highlights. There was no wear on any parts that I could see, the only negative is that it was missing its floormats but the visible carpets were pristine. Everything seemed to work fine and it drove great. I tried to bargain them down, but they were not budging. In the end, I got a couple of hundred off but, truth be told, it did not really matter to me, it was unlikely I would find another car in the same condition anytime soon and I had gotten more for the Buick than I thought I would.

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The 400E: Not Just a Looker

So what is a 400E and what differentiates it? Well, as mentioned previously, externally it is the twin of the 300E besides the badges and a different wheel design. Inside they all got leather (instead of the still excellent MB-Tex), the wood trim is Burl-Walnut instead of Zebrano (which I actually like better, the Zebrano looks more “real”), automatic climate control, dual airbags, and some other goodies.

400EEngine

Engine-wise, it sports a 4.2-liter 32-valve V8 producing 268hp at 5700rpm and 295lb-ft of torque at 3900. Backing this up is a 4-speed automatic with the traditional gated shifter. With weight being just over 3800lbs, this was quite a fast car. What is surprising though is how nimble it felt. Once familiar with the car and anticipating its tendency to be a little slow to downshift you could very easily exploit small gaps in traffic. Its party-piece though that I never got tired of was the way it accelerated onto a freeway.

Unforgettable Performance

The San Francisco peninsula has several freeway on-ramps that are very long, sometimes taking over a mile to merge with the traffic proper. Curving onto the on-ramp you’d put your foot down and the engine would just start to howl with a glorious noise towards its 6000rpm redline, upshift and do it again. The thing is the rush of power never seemed to stop. Once on the freeway passing power was prodigious. You could hit the throttle at 80 and get pushed back in your seat, then next thing you know, you’re doing well over 100 and at risk of heading to jail…but the car was still pulling as hard as before, you just wanted to see how much longer it would last.

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Car and Driver says it is clearly the 500E’s little brother but in many ways almost its equal. If you did not drive the 500E, you would not miss the additional power but the extra $27,000 in your pocket would go a long way towards tempering any remorse. I freely admit that the 500E is something special and would still love to have one but the 400E is a true gem.

400E1

I recall that a few years earlier I had seen a 400E at an auction I used to attend and was looking at it, marveling at its condition. Only when I got into the still pristine-looking driver seat did I notice that the example in question had over 200,000 miles on it. Without a question, these cars were built for the long haul and with proper maintenance could last almost indefinitely.

Reliability and Maintenance

As maintenance and repair goes, not much was needed and for what was, quality German OEM supplier parts were (and are) readily available at all sorts of inexpensive internet sites. I recall that one day the car began to run very sluggish and was significantly down on power. I tracked it to the dual distributors, one of which had a visible crack, so I ordered two and replaced them. They are located in a weird position facing forward on the front of the engine but replacing them was straightforward. For good measure, I also replaced the spark plugs and the leads since if nothing else they were probably fairly old.

Another time, we were driving on the freeway and saw something small spinning through the air towards us. Before we had time to even register the item beyond noticing it, we heard a very large bang. Turns out it was a metal bar or a wrench that fell off a truck heading the other way and came over the divider. A very scary incident, it easily could have come through the windshield. However, half an hour of Ebay time and I was able to find another mirror painted the correct color for a reasonable sum which I installed the next week.

The Legacy Lives On

When I got the car in 2005 we were still living in Lafayette with my 42-mile each way commute. Within a year we ended up moving to Belmont where I worked, trading for a 2-mile commute. The car barely got warm but also due to the short drives revealed its real V8 thirst, usually averaging around 11mpg around town. Even though gas prices were sky high, the reality is that I did not have to drive very much, so blaming that would be a bit of a cop-out.

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However, coupled with the fact that while most would consider it a largish car, the back seat was surprisingly snug, our second child was on the way and fitting a car seat base with a rear-facing car seat was a challenge. But the reality is that I was always looking in many different directions so the car’s time had come, no matter how good it was.

I ended up selling it to someone who had one years before and regretted selling it. It had around 70,000 miles on it when I sold it for $7,700 and represents one of the better purchases I made. The new owner (like me) felt he could not do better or find a better one easily, so he quickly paid me and left. It was quite the car and made a definite impression on me. And no, they do NOT build them how they used to. Not Mercedes anyway.

FAQs

Are Mercedes-Benz 400E cars reliable?

Yes, Mercedes-Benz 400E cars are known for their reliability. With proper maintenance, these vehicles can last for a long time.

How much does a Mercedes-Benz 400E cost?

The base price of a Mercedes-Benz 400E in 1992 was $60,175.

What is the engine size of the Mercedes-Benz 400E?

The Mercedes-Benz 400E is equipped with a 4.2-liter 32-valve V8 engine.

How fast is the Mercedes-Benz 400E?

The Mercedes-Benz 400E is quite fast, with a top speed of around 150 mph.

Conclusion

The Mercedes-Benz 400E is a true gem, combining elegant design, powerful performance, and exceptional build quality. With its understated appearance and V8 power, it is the epitome of a sleeper car. Whether you’re a fan of the W124 chassis or simply appreciate classic Mercedes engineering, the 400E is a vehicle that can make a lasting impression. With proper care and maintenance, this car can provide a reliable and enjoyable driving experience for many years to come.