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Mercedes-Benz S Class (W140): Buying guide and review (1991-1999)

Mercedes-Benz S Class (W140): Buying guide and review (1991-1999) Classic and Performance Car
Mercedes S Class Mercedes S Class Mercedes S Class Mercedes S Class Mercedes S Class
It’s often said that if you want to know what technology family hatchback will have a decade from now, take a look at a current Mercedes S Class. The fifth-generation W140 introduced in 1991 was no different, and featured a whole host of automotive firsts that have (for the most part) become commonplace in the industry.

Technologically it was an absolute benchmark, but its styling garnered some polarised opinions. Significantly larger than its predecessor, the W140 did not try to hide its bulk, and when compared to just about anything else on the road looked a trifle imposing.

It was a very accomplished cruiser and handled extremely well, despite its bulk. One of the most expensive cars on sale in the ‘90s, today second hand models can be found for extremely reasonable sums. A money-pit waiting to send you to the poor house, or a savvy used buy? That depends on getting the right car.

Which S Class to buy?

The previous S Class had been in production since 1979, and a replacement was sorely needed to compete with the latest 7-series and the upstart Lexus LS. After a number of delays, the S Class arrived in 1991 as a four-door saloon (W140), long-wheelbase (V140) and two-door coupe (C140) body styles. Engines ranged from a 190bhp 2.8-litre inline-six up to a 402bhp 6.0-litre V12 and eventually a 7.0-litre AMG V12.

1993 saw the rationalisation of Mercedes-Benz nomenclature with all SE, SEL and SEC cars being renamed as S Class. Whatever badge was stuck on the back, the level of technology and luxury packed into these new cars was industry leading. Double glazed windows, soft close boot lids and electronic traction control were just a few of a massive list of options on offer.

The smaller 190bhp 2.8-litre and 228bhp 3.2-litre inline-six models provide laid back performance that gels well with the nature of the car, if you want more straight-line grunt then the larger V8 or V12 models will better suit your needs. The very rare 518bhp 7.0-litre V12 models could dispatch 62mph in 5.2-seconds, but finding one is difficult. The S500 with its 322bhp V8 is rapid enough for most, and while the S600 V12 was smoother and a bit quicker – the running costs can make grown men weep.

In essence you have two options when approaching W140 S Class ownership, the bottom of the price-range can yield amazing bargains or potential headaches in equal measure. The best condition cars cost a lot more, but if you choose carefully, your rare AMG or V12 models should make a solid investment.

Performance and specs

Mercedes-Benz S600

Engine  5987cc 48 valve DOHC V12
Power 402bhp @ 5200rpm
Torque 428lb ft torque @ 3800rpm
Transmission Four/five-speed automatic
0-60mph 6.0sec
Top speed 155mph (limited)
Insurance group   20
Fuel consumption  20.6mpg
Price when new  £93,500

Dimensions and weight

Wheelbase            3040mm
Length 5113mm
Width 1886mm
Height 1486mm
Weight 1880kg

Common problems

• Engines are developments of tried and trusted power units and are engineered to last. Evidence of regular servicing is a must, as missed oil changes can prematurely wear components. ECU issues, especially on V12 cars can be very expensive to resolve.
• The wiring loom on early cars was biodegradable and is an expensive part to replace.
• The fluid filled engine mounts can collapse causing vibrations especially at idle.
• Rust-proofing was of a high level but it is recommended to check under the wheel arches and around drainage holes as corrosion can occur and replacement body panels are not all that easy to come by.
• Suspension bushes and tyres take a beating thanks to the weight of the car so check the suspension mountings for excessive wear and leave some budget aside for regular tyre replacement.
• The electronics are a weak spot in the W140, so check the major systems thoroughly. Unless you are looking for an immaculate, car be prepared to accept a few electronic gremlins and/or non-functioning accessories as part of the experience. Later model years exhibit fewer problems in this area.
• The air-conditioning evaporator is a 12-hour job to replace, so be sure to check that cold air is blowing out of the vents. Be wary of anyone saying ‘it just needs a re-gas’. 

• Two recalls to look out for: Cars built between 1995-96 were recalled for a potential brake hose fluid leak. Corrosion of the airbag mechanism on these same model year cars can cause unintended airbag inflation.

Model history

1991: W140 launched, initially only available in either standard or long-wheelbase four-door body style. Full range of engines available from the inline-six 280 and 300SE right up to the V12 600SEL.
1993: Two-door C140 Coupe joins line-up featuring identical running gear. Tightening emissions controls in US and Europe mean a slight reduction in power across the range. Naming standards changed across Mercedes-Benz range (500SE now S500).
1994: Traction control standard on V8 models which was previously only available on V12s. Upgraded Becker radio introduced.
1995: Facelift carried out on entire range with small changes to exterior in an attempt to disguise its bulk.
1996: Side airbags and auto wipers become standard fitment. Parktronic sonar-based parking sensors introduced.
1997: Traction control standard now standard on six-cylinder models
1999: W140 phased out to be replaced by the W220 S Class. Limited production continues in India for non-European markets.

Clubs and websites

• www.mercedes-benz-club.co.uk – Mercedes-Benz UK Car Club
• www.mercedesclub.org.uk – Mercedes owners' club
• www.mbworld.org – Mercedes-Benz Forums

Summary and prices

If you are the risk taking sort, then S Class ownership can begin at around the £1000 mark. High-mileage S280s and V8 models with patchy service histories can be found lurking at this price point and if you find a mechanically sound car you could have a serious luxury bargain on your hands. There are safer bets out there if you are prepared to spend closer to £5000 but choices are limited so be prepared to wait a while for the right car.

Top of the range V12 cars and Coupes with low mileages can command up to £15,000 and beyond. They may not be quite as collectible as older Mercs just yet, but find a good one and you may well see their values rise in the coming years.

Comfortable, quiet and a surprisingly good steer when pushed, the ‘90s S Class is an oft overlooked luxury limo and well worth a look.
Words: John Tallodi
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Last updated: 8th Jun 2017
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  • MERCEDES-BENZ S CLASS S350d L AMG Line 4dr 9G-Tronic [Executive] Auto

    £57,950 £57,950

    Type: Used Year: 2017 Make: MERCEDES-BENZ Model: S CLASS Trim: S350d L AMG Line 4dr 9G-Tronic [Executive] Auto Body: Sedan Trans: Automatic Mileage: 4999 Engine Size: 2987 Ext Color: BLACK

    • Mileage: 4999 mi
    • Engine size: 2987
    For sale
    £57,950 £57,950
    Mercedes-Benz Wolverhampton
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