My experience running the 2005 One Lap of America (OLOA) in a Mercedes-Benz 190E 2.3-16/ had left me more than a little cynical about the event. The fantasy of running the “modern-day Cannonball” had been eclipsed by frustration with the quasi-time-trial, horsepower-obsessed reality that is OLOA in the modern era. Still, the competitive disease from which both I and my co-driver Brian suffered meant that we wanted to “win” the thing before we left Brock’s Big Parade for the greener pastures of real wheel-to-wheel racing. Enter former radiologist and current Mercedes-Benz tuner, Satish Tummala, owner of Motorwerks in Detroit.
Satish proposed that we run a Kleemann-tuned diesel E320 in the event’s “Alternative Fuel” class. The only entrants listed in AltFuel were three TDI-powered Volkswagens. Awesome. With twice a TDI’s horsepower, we’d be bringing a gun to a knife fight. Within days of our fanfare-filled announcement that we would be contesting OLOA 2006 in a diesel Benz, the Volkswagens all removed their registrations. They could read the writing on the wall as well as we could. This meant that, as Alain de Cadenet might say, it would be “victory by default.”
Our 2005-model E320 CDI was, in many ways, a perfect example of why many long-term Mercedes loyalists have abandoned the brand. The interior was indifferently constructed from low-value materials. After just 30,000 miles and one year’s worth of use, there was more visible wear on the surfaces than there had been on my two-decade-old, 236,000-mile 190E. Throughout the car, there was a visible emphasis on style which simply is not present in pre-1995 Mercedes-Benzes, from the cheap-looking “floating needle” gauges to the wobbly chrome rings which controlled interior temperature and radio volume. Too much flash, not enough substance.
This fifty-thousand-dollar-plus car really didn’t look the part, inside or out; worse than that, it wasn’t up to the traditional standards of the brand. The following year’s E-class would rectify some of these issues, particularly with regards to materials quality. But that was no comfort to us as we crossed the country in seats that gently wobbled in their mountings with every expansion joint.
Fortunately for us, the engine made up for many of the car’s surface deficiencies. With a V8’s worth of shove from idle and a most un-diesel-like willingness to hustle all the way through the short rev range, the CDI was smooth and strong. This was the very last Mercedes-Benz sedan available with an inline six. It was a joy to pop the characteristic ninety-degree-opening Benz bonnet and see a real engine there instead of a cost-cutting, crash-conscious, cravenly cheap V-6.
Unfortunately, we found ourselves opening that bonnet time and time again. The Kleemann upgrades, which consisted of aggressive programming and additional fuel injection hardware, made plenty of extra power but caused the E320 to enter “limp-home” mode twice during our first few on-track events. As we passed through Pat Metheny’s hometown of Lee’s Summit, Missouri, we made the decision to return the big Benz back to stock, right there in the parking lot of a Speedway gas station.
With this accomplished, it was time to salvage some minor glory out of a default victory. Around VIR’s Full Course, the E320 was six seconds a lap faster than our 190E 2.3-16 had been the previous year, and “only” ten seconds a lap behind self-proclaimed stunt driver Ken Block in his mega-bucks Subaru STi. Around Putnam Park, I was able to put the smoky, slow-steering Benz ahead of a variety of BMWs, Corvettes, and the aforementioned Block-mobile, setting the front brakes on fire in the process.
There’s something both reassuring and terrifying about tracking a two-ton-plus diesel sedan. The sheer magnitude of the steering motion required to make the car turn, slide, and recover approaches community-theater levels of exaggeration, the brake pedal presents a different level of fade and feel in every turn, and the infamous M-B ESP intervenes at precisely the wrong moments, “dyno mode” or no. By the end of the event, the car felt tired, plain and simple, although the diesel never faltered once freed of its aftermarket junk.
Secure in the knowledge that we could not lose this event, my co-driver and I proceeded to engage in an unfortunate bit of hoonage that ended up with me being dragged behind a driverless E320 as it headed for a very well-occupied paddock. After a long discussion with an enormous security guard holding an even larger pistol, we decided to skip the rest of the event, bandage up my feet, and get our trophies in the mail. Pro tip: don’t “hang out” of the car while doing parking-lot donuts, okay? Lesson. Learned.
To this day, I regret selling my 190E 2.3-16, but we walked away from this E320 without a second thought. It simply wasn’t a very good car, and more unforgivably than that, it wasn’t much of a Mercedes. Let’s hope that the new E-class proves itself more worthy of the three-pointed star; it could hardly prove to be less.