I recently had the chance to drive a mint 1991 Mercedes-Benz 560SEL, which is a vehicle considered by a lot of car enthusiasts to be the single best S-Class in existence. They are wrong, of course, as my earlier list of S-Classes showed you, but it’s nice they tried.
Still, the 560SEL is a wonderful vehicle, and the one I drove was especially wonderful: Everything was original, everything worked, and it had covered just 29,000 miles in the 26 years since it was sold new, in 1991. It was also the final model year of the "W126" body style, which came out in 1980 — and it had the largest factory engine of any W126, a 5.5-liter V8 (which made all of 300 horsepower — huge for the power-starved 1980s).
I drove this car courtesy of my friends at Automobili Limited, a local car dealership here in the Philadelphia area with an excellent and varied selection of inventory; they recently got it from the original owner. And, really, it feels like a time capsule: I’s just about perfect in every single way, with no modifications whatsoever. It even has the original stereo.
So in the video you see above, I’ve gone through all the quirks and features of the 560SEL, just like I always do, and there are certainly a few interesting ones worth noting — like the hidden storage areas on the rear parcel shelf, behind the rear seats. Or the rear center armrest, which actually pushes out the seat belts as you push it down so they don’t get stuck under the armrest while it’s down. There’s also the tremendously annoying noise it makes when you start it up with the door open or with your seat belt unbuckled, reminding you that people had it pretty rough in the days before pleasing warning chimes.
But the most interesting thing about this car, to me, is the way it drives. That’s because the 560SEL is a special car, known for impressively restrained styling and a solid on-road feel — and I wanted to see if I felt it matched up to the hype, as it’s often considered one of the finest S-Class models of all time.
Here’s what I discovered. First off, it isn’t fast. Not even close. Even though the 560SEL was the top-of-the-line model, it’s a big, heavy sedan with an acceleration-dulling 4-speed automatic transmission, and it really doesn’t feel fast by modern standards. It’s hard to imagine that as recently as the early 1990s there was a point where the flagship S-Class felt this slow — especially since its pricing would’ve been equivalent to around $150,000 today. Zero to 60 was a 7.5-second affair, which is glacial by modern standards — particularly for a luxury car. Still, in the performance-starved 1980s, that was pretty good, especially for a big sedan. Plus, it could get worse: The diesel-powered 300SDL was said to do zero to 60 in around 14 seconds.
Aside from the performance, however, it’s hard to find a fault with the 560SEL. The restrained styling is the perfect look for this era — an era of exuberance and excess in many ways, except for the powerful businessperson driving along in the S-Class. The interior, too, is restrained yet inviting: It’s filled with the finest materials, everything is solid and stable to touch, and nothing shakes or rattles like you’d expect on some lesser vehicles from 1991. There’s no displeasing part of the S-Class interior; no piece or portion where they "cheaped out," thinking no one would see it.
As for the driving experience, handling is just as you’d expect — poor. The steering is tremendously heavy by modern standards, and the car suffers from a lot of body roll and relatively weak grip on account of its small wheels and tires. It isn’t a car you throw around corners. However, it’s excellent where it matters: quietness, comfort and (on account of the lack of high-tech safety features and modern styling touches) visibility, which is impressive in all directions.
In terms of comfort, the 560SEL was excellent: The seats are softer than you might expect, if you’ve had previous experiences with 1980s and 1990s luxury-car leather, and the suspension soaks up everything masterfully (likely part of the reason for all the body roll). The interior is quiet and manages to keep out all but the loudest exterior noises, though it’s worth noting that the 560SEL isn’t as quiet or as comfortable as the early-1990s Rolls-Royce Silver Spur I drove last year. Then again, it’ll probably run forever, unlike the Rolls.
And, indeed, that was another benefit of the 560SEL: In the days before endless gadgets, a car was judged by how reliable it was, and the quality of the interior materials, and, indeed, the 560SEL was near the top of the world for those items back in the 1980s. Today, you still see a lot of 560SELs running around in all states of disrepair, kept on the road with a lot less hassle than it’d take to keep a modern S-Class going. But none are as nice as this one — and for a moment there, I really felt like a 1980s dictator or captain of industry, driving around in my pristine, brand-new S-Class. And it felt glorious. Find a Mercedes-Benz S-Class for sale
Doug DeMuro is an automotive journalist who has written for many online and magazine publications. He once owned a Nissan Cube and a Ferrari 360 Modena. At the same time.
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