Talking Cars #003: Super Saloons with Soul

For our third installment of Talking Cars, we met up with Mike Ottati to chat about his adoration for Super Saloons. We shot some video (which will come to you later this week) and chatted about two iconic Sports Saloons: The BMW E35 M5 and the Mercedes-Benz 500E. Below you’ll find Mike’s history lesson and take on the two cars and how they stack up just about 1/4 of a century after they rolled out of the factory.

The idea of a sporty saloon (sedan) has been around practically as long as the car itself. Putting an engine from a larger car into a smaller car, offering sports car performance in a practical sedan body.  Coachbuilders were doing it in the 30’s, American car manufacturers were doing it in the 60s. The Europeans were too, Jaguar had the Mk2 with its 3.8 litre engine, Mercedes had the 300sel with the 6.3 from its limos.

But in my opinion, the winner was BMW, who in 1980 took their largest inline 6 from the 7 series and put it into their intermediate-bodied 5 series with Recaro sports seats and firmer, sportier suspension, making a really well rounded package that could hang with the sports cars on a winding mountain road. This was an overtly sporting sedan, and with stripes and spoilers, it looked the part. The model was popular enough to continue onto the next generation of 5 series, the e28.  But, what if you wanted to be a bit more under the radar? BMW took this concept a bit further, using a refined version of their super car engine, the M88/3, and putting it into a much more standard looking 5 series, developing what many consider the first Super-Saloon car, the e28 M5. Hand built in relatively small numbers, it was quite popular. Truly a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

This model continued, a bit larger, a bit more refined, and with a bit larger engine, in the E34 chassis in the late 80’s. Contemporary magazines appreciated the car’s refinement, but felt it has lost a little bit of its edge. It weighed more, and was moving a bit more upscale. Even with added displacement and horsepower, it also wasn’t quite as quick as its predecessor. BMW responded at the car’s lifecycle update with its largest inline 6 ever, the S38B38. 3795cc, 347DIN and 400Nm of torque. It included a new electronically adjustable suspension that could be set into ‘sport mode’ at the flick of a switch. Over a couple years, the model developed further. It was given larger brakes (with floating rotors, an industry first for a passenger car), and eventually a 6 speed manual transmission. All of these cars were hand built at BMW’s Motorsport facility in Garching. Many of the more bespoke, built to order cars, even took 2 weeks each to build. BMW built 12,254 E34 M5s between 1990 and 1995, with 1678 of those officially coming to the US. (many more would come over later as personal imports, such as the later 3.8L version we have here)

Meanwhile, in Stuttgart, Mercedes had nothing to compete with. In the early 80’s their new competitor chassis, the w124, was designed around 4 and 6 cylinder power. Their most powerful version was well over 100hp down on its competitor from Garching.  Back to the drawing board then, Mercedes engineers made some modifications to the chassis to allow a V8 to be installed. Not just any V8, but the new 4 cam, 32 valve, 5 Litre M119 from the R129 SL500   producing about 325hp and 480Nm of torque. The problem was, Mercedes did not have the capacity, nor did it want to be building cars that required significant additional work on their already busy production lines.

Enter Porsche. Coming off a global recession, Porsche was struggling. More importantly, they had available capacity.  In a convoluted ballet, w124 bodies were trucked north to Zuffenhausen. The bodies were widened and strengthened, and the suspensions modified to accept the larger, much more powerful V8. The modified bodies were then sent back to Stuttgart for paint, rustproofing and sound deadening, then again, trucked back the Zuffenhausen for drivetrain and assembly. They then finally went back to Mercedes in Stuttgart for inspection before delivery. On average it took 18 days to build each car. In the end, Mercedes and Porsche built 10,479  500e’s (or E500 as it was called during it’s final 1994 model year) between 1991 – 1994, with 1505 units coming to the US market.

Two cars with similar missions, but quite different in the way they achieve their objectives. The BMW with its high revving race car derived 6. The Mercedes with it’s higher technology multi cam, variable valve timed V8. The BMW did come in 2 versions, the early 3.6L with 315hp and 360Nm torque (90-92, or 93 for the US market) and the later 3.8L with 340hp and 400 Nm torque for 93-95 (never federalized or imported to the US). Mercedes made a slight revision for 93 and later cars, to improve economy and reduce emissions, which cost it a few hp). The BMW was only available with a 5 speed (and at the end a 6 speed) manual transmission, the Mercedes only with a 4 speed automatic.

On paper, performance was similar. 0-60 in around 6 seconds, top speed electronically limited to 155mph.

The BMW a bit more lively, more to do with it’s manual transmission, and better bolstered seats to hold you in place. The Mercedes a bit quieter, but with torque to make you feel like you’re really moving.  The Mercedes is at a bit of a disadvantage, with it’s smaller 16” wheels, and slightly smaller brakes. Especially today, where it is nearly impossible to find performance tires in it’s size. The BMW has more potential for grip and cornering, with its lower profile, wider 17” rubber (18’ on the latest models). 

While the BMW has the better seats, the quality of the Mercedes interior seems a bit higher in all other areas.  Bank vault solidity is thrown about often when discussing the w124 chassis. High quality materials, and an interior design that just doesn’t age.

Both are fairly small by today’s standards, with limited room in the back seat. Early M5’s, and all 500e’s are strictly 4 seaters (the Mercedes lost its rear center seat space due to a larger differential from the 500Sl). At the end of the day, it comes down to what you intend to use the car for or perhaps where your allegiance lies. I happen to own both, and love each for what it is.

Stay tuned for our video, which we’ll be dropping this Thursday, if you want to see a bit more. Thanks for reading folks and a special thank you to Mike for his time, his cars, and his encyclopedic knowledgeThe VALT Team.

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