There aren’t any true “sleeper” cars today. Sure, the new Chevy SS is somewhat muted, but it still has monstrous wheels and air intakes, big dual exhaust pipes and a sinister rear diffuser — the car equivalent of wearing track spikes and slick running sunglasses with a work suit. When it comes to modern cars, nobody wants a high-performance vehicle that doesn’t have some looks to back it up, whether that means blackened trim, more dramatic aero bits, massive wheels and tires and/or a spoiler that looks like it could double as a boomerang for Andre the Giant. But back in the ’90s, there was a sleeper out of Germany that was born out of the stuff of legend. The Mercedes-Benz 500E emerged from the thick tire smoke of the iconic AMG Hammer 300E and gave the world a proper Euro-sleeper that toed the line between the Hammer’s insanity and the stately W124 sedan. It stands as a gentleman’s car with a hidden attitude, one that’s still special today, even in the presence of much bigger horsepower and torque numbers.
What It’s All About
The AMG Hammer was AMG’s answer to a wheeled missile. With a 365 horsepower V8, it was Mercedes’ first real and powerful sports sedan that could run with the likes of the Ferrari Testarossa. Today, we don’t think of a 500+ horsepower sports sedan as anything out of the ordinary; we have the Cadillac CTS-V, the BMW M5 and the Mercedes E63 AMG. But back in the ’80s, it was like creating Frankenstein. Think of it this way: Mercedes took a distinguished and conservative W124 sedan and handed it to AMG to turn the stock 5.6-liter V8 into a 6.0-liter monster with 365 horsepower. It was a four-door sedan that would do 0-60 in 5.5 seconds and nail 185 mph.
The AMG Hammer 300E set the wheels in motion, so to speak, for future generations of one-off performance Mercedes cars, and what followed was the 500E. Mercedes saw the AMG Hammer’s bonkers performance and sought to capitalize on it. But instead of making an even more exclusive, more powerful car, they turned their attention to creating a W124 sedan that upped stock performance without the insanity and boisterousness of the 300E. Whereas the AMG Hammer screamed its presence from the street with a slammed body kit and thick AMG wheels, the 500E took a subtler approach with less visual drama. Development started in 1989, and in 1992 Mercedes established a relationship with Porsche to turn the W124 into the special 500E.
Mercedes took a standard W124 chassis from the stock 300E and handed it to the Porsche boys. But more important is what they delivered as a powertrain. Instead of the base 190 horsepower straight six, Mercedes dropped off a fat M119 5.0-liter V8 from the bigger 500SL/500 SEL at to Porsche’s Zuffenhausen factory in the northern part of Stuttgart. This engine was both smaller in size and displacement than the Hammer’s V8, but still delivered a throaty 326 horses.
In 1992 and 1993, the 500E received better stopping power throughout in the form of the SL’s disc brakes with 300mm four-piston front calipers. In late 1993 and 1994, they added 320mm discs from the more potent 600 SL. Rear brakes came from the 1992 and early 1993 500 model. The 500E also received a Jetronics Ignition System (a step up from the one in the 500SL), better headlights, a battery placed in the trunk for improved balance and upsized 16-inch wheels. To hold occupants in place under hard driving, Mercedes used four leather Recaro seats for all four passengers on the Sportsline interior (the rear bench was ditched and a center console was put between the rear buckets). They anticipated drivers would use the car for more than just trips to the market. The body also got the proper treatment without the dramatic excess of the Hammer. The track was widened by 1.5 inches, the body was lowered by nearly an inch, and Mercedes added bigger fenders, fatter rubber, an air dam on the front fascia and side skirts at the wheelbase.
The result of the Merc-Porsche partnership? A top speed of 160 mph, 0-60 in under 6 seconds and the quarter mile in 14.1 seconds at 101 mph. The 500E was visually quite different from the stock W124 300E, coming in with more subtle styling than its faster Hammer brother. It was dubbed by the automotive media a “wolf in sheep’s clothing”. Mercedes called it “The Velvet Hammer” — and no description could’ve been more apt: the 500E met all the criteria of a German luxury sedan, but still retained the oomph of a German rocket sled.
Why It Matters
Even though BMW’s M5 stole much of the limelight from the 500E (later named E500), The 500E set the tone for all future AMG sedans. Only around 1,500 of the 10,000 or so 500Es produced ever made it to America, so finding one today is rare. It is one of the most well-respected sports sedans in history, and a sleeper in the true sense of the word — only marginally different from its stock brother, fast as a cheetah on the hunt, and as sophisticated as a German sedan should be.