Home » Fresno Five-Cylinder Battle: 1982 Mercedes 300D vs 2008 VW Rabbit

Fresno Five-Cylinder Battle: 1982 Mercedes 300D vs 2008 VW Rabbit

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On today’s Shitbox Showdown, we’ve got two cars with five cylinders each, both hailing from Fresno, California. But before we head there, there is the matter of yesterday’s salvage titles to finish up:

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Looks like we’re “Motorin’.” Yeah, that would be my choice too. That Aston reminds me of a beat-up Bentley sedan I see street-parked in front of an apartment building here in Portland from time to time. Yeah, you can maybe afford to buy it, but you’re not fooling anyone. And beat-up neglected luxury exotics are just icky. I’ll take the Firebird, and feel no shame about it.

Today’s choices are both German again (yeah, I know) but both of them do run and drive. And one of them does it with style, albeit slowly and smokily. Let’s check them out.

1982 Mercedes-Benz 300D – $3,500

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Engine/drivetrain: Turbocharged 3.0 liter overhead cam diesel inline 5, four-speed automatic, RWD

Location: Fresno, CA

Odometer reading: 286,000 miles

Runs/drives? Sure does

In contrast to something like an Aston Martin or a Bentley, a W123-chassis Mercedes actually almost looks better a little bit beat-up. Still in service as taxicabs all over the world, in some ludicrously harsh environments, the stalwart 300D is more than up to the task of handling the mean streets of Fresno, even at nearly 300,000 miles.

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Not only is the running gear damn near indestructible, the Bruno Sacco-penned styling is timeless. Clean lines, perfect proportions, and those iconic ribbed taillights that are more practical than you realize all add up to a car that still looks great nearly fifty years after its introduction. The W123 does have a tendency to rust, but central California isn’t known for salt-covered roads, so I expect this car is pretty clean underneath.

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Inside, the classic M-B Tex upholstery and carpets look nearly like new, and it isn’t even missing any of the wood dash trim like many of them are. We don’t get many specifics about the car’s mechanical condition other than an assurance that it runs and drives well (amid many misspellings and crypic references to a lack of electromagnetic interference) and has been serviced by a Mercedes-Benz specialist shop.

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These cars have been the worst-kept secret of the cheap car world for many years, and if you’re a shitbox aficionado like me, you have either had one or always wanted one. They’re not particularly rare, but their numbers dwindle every year, and values are creeping up. If you want one, now may be the time.

2008 Volkswagen Rabbit – $3,000

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Engine/drivetrain: 2.5 liter dual overhead cam inline 5, six-speed automatic, FWD

Location: Clovis, CA

Odometer reading: 220,000 miles

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Runs/drives? Indeed

For some reason only Volkswagen knows, the first generation Golf was sold in the US (and Canada as well, I think?) as the Rabbit. Maybe they didn’t want their car associated with Arnold Palmer or something, or they just wanted another cutesy animal name to follow the Beetle. We also got the first-generation Passat named after one of Santa’s reindeer, so who knows what they were thinking? Regardless, for our purposes here, all you need to know is that after three generations with a Golf nameplate, the Mk5 Golf was once again the Rabbit.

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The Golf was never as popular in the US as the Jetta sedan was, even though the hatchback was king in Europe, and is arguably the more useful body style. For the fifth generation, to go along with the Rabbit badge, we got a five-cylinder as the base engine, here spinning a six-speed “Tiptronic” manually-shiftable automatic.

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This Rabbit has seen 220,000 miles, and the seller says it still runs well. It has new wheels and tires, but in one photo you can see the the tire-pressure light is on, which may mean the TPMS sensors are toast, or missing. Also absent is the headliner cloth, which commonly falls down on these cars. The rest of the inside looks fine, if a little grubby, and outside it’s in fine shape.

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VWs of this vintage don’t have a stellar reputation, but one that has survived so long has probably had the bugs worked out of it. It’s a shame that it’s an automatic, because a Golf with a manual is a wonderful thing, but for a city runabout it doesn’t matter much.

So that’s what we’ve got: a couple of German five-cylinders with a ton of miles on them, but still with some life left. One is an old low-tech diesel, and the other is full of electronic wizardry. Which one pushes your buttons?

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(Image credits: Craigslist sellers)

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ColoradoFX4
ColoradoFX4
1 year ago

There’s no real argument against the VW, but there also isn’t much of an argument for it either. The Benz though, so much presence, so much gravitas. When shopping at the shitbox end of the market, I’ll take interesting over boring every time.

Manwich Sandwich
Manwich Sandwich
1 year ago

Rabbit for me. I have personal experience with that ‘half-a-lambo-v10’ 2.5L I5 when I rented a New Beetle once… and it’s a sweet engine even with the automatic. Surprisingly fuel efficient too given the power.

ALSO… while that Mercedes I5 diesel is rock solid reliable, it’s crap in every other way. Slow, not all that fuel efficient and noisy. And have you checked diesel prices lately? No thanks.

I bet that Rabbit probably gets the same or better fuel economy as well.

Mr. Fusion
Mr. Fusion
1 year ago

I love the *idea* of the 300D, but a lifetime of getting stuck behind those noisy bastards and their god-awful stench & smoke have disavowed me of any warm feelings toward them.

The now-mandated low-sulphur diesel fuel does not seem to have made much difference with them, but it’s possible that all of the ones I see are in a rotten state of tune.

Andy Individual
Andy Individual
1 year ago

I had a coworker who had a 300D up until a few years ago and daily drove it for over ten years near Toronto. It had visible rust all over the body, but no holes. He described it as “that sacrificial layer of rust you see on train tracks”. The steel is so thick, it can’t eat it all.

From back in the day when you paid a premium for a Mercedes because it would last forever as opposed to paying a premium now so you can keep it for three years and get a new one with more gadgets.

Hugh Crawford
Hugh Crawford
1 year ago

Fun party trick, drape a wet towel over the passenger side headlight with the engine running, or just watch the car wash guy do it.

Stephen Reed
Stephen Reed
1 year ago
Reply to  Hugh Crawford

I’m curious… Why? 😮

Hugh Crawford
Hugh Crawford
1 year ago
Reply to  Stephen Reed

The air intake is through the gap between the headlight and the hood on the passenger side and it will suck a car wash drying towel right up. Stalls the engine and causes much confusion.

Hugh Crawford
Hugh Crawford
1 year ago

Ask the Mercedes owner if the power door locks work, and if they do, buy it.

Had one with a vacuum leak and not only did the locks not work but sometimes the engine would not turn off. So much fun with valet parking.

Every time somebody goes on about German engineering, I point out that Mercedes sold diesel cars with vacuum powered accessories even though diesel engines have no natural engine vacuum.

Alexi Antoniou
Alexi Antoniou
1 year ago

Hello from Fresno everyone. Have a great day!

Shop-Teacher
Shop-Teacher
1 year ago

This is a lead-pipe-cinch. Especially once you see the interior pictures of them both. The Benz every day, and twice on Sunday.

Nsane In The MembraNe
Nsane In The MembraNe
1 year ago

This is going to be a well-deserved blowout in favor of the Benz. 300,000 miles on a diesel Mercedes is basically 75,000-100,000 on anything else….whereas 200,000 VW miles are essentially a million miles on anything else. You can keep that Benz running for eternity with toothpicks and chewing gum….but that VW is going to need 5,000 mile oil changes, frequent tire rotations, transmission fluid changes, the whole shebang…and that’s not even accounting for whatever electronic gremlin and/or code it’s going to throw every 3-6 months.

Honestly I’m shocked the Rabbit is still on the road…and before some GTI fanboy calls me a VW hater here’s my mandatory “I owned a Volkswagen and it was a train wreck” spiel. I got out of my 2020 GTI after 23 months because of what a headache it was. That thing had 3 unscheduled trips to the service bay in the first 5,000 miles, it absolutely incinerated all of its consumables in the first year, it would misfire on anything but the most expensive gas, and after a (comparatively) smooth 5-10,000 mile stretch it started having ignition issues.

…but wait! I have more! My sister bought a certified Tiguan a month before I got my GTI in 2020 and she’s already gotten out of it. VW’s certification process somehow missed an OPEN RECALL! Their sunroof wound up breaking 3-4 different times and VW tried to say it wasn’t warrantied and they needed to drop 4 figures to repair it until my sister made them run it through their systems and they realized their techs missed a goddamn recall during the certification process.

Y’all are welcome to enjoy your Volkswagens, but the NSane household is firmly “Never VW”, and for good reason.

Duke of Kent
Duke of Kent
1 year ago

I have an irrational affection for VWs. I currently drive one. My uncle drove a first-gen Rabbit, and when I was a little kid, Rabbits were the only cars I could identify (and I’d point out every single one I saw).

I am a modern man. I enjoy the conveniences of modern technology. I get nervous when my cars grow old, even though I keep them well maintained and put relatively low miles on them.

But I’m going against those urges today and am picking the stately Benz that’s older than I am. That interior is in way better shape than I’d ever expect to see in a car that’s currently on its way back from a drive to the moon. That implies that it was well taken care of. And the ad is charmingly kooky, leading me to believe that the seller is someone I would enjoy talking to.

Boulevard_Yachtsman
Boulevard_Yachtsman
1 year ago

I owned a pair of ’79 300 TDs awhile back. Really enjoyed those cars even though they were the non-turbo versions. I also had a ’72 220D I drove quite a bit at the same time. The w123s were slow, but felt plenty quick after a drive in the w115. Also, this line from the guy’s add got a lol and sealed the deal: “…looks great out front of craftsman home.” I also live in a Craftsman-style home, and he’s right – old Mercedes do look great parked out in front of one.

SageWestyTulsa
SageWestyTulsa
1 year ago

This one’s actually a tough one for me, as the previous owner of several W123s and the current owner of an ’08 Rabbit.

The last 300D I owned was an ’85 with similar mileage to the one shown here; however mine had obviously been well cared-for and was in largely immaculate condition. As has been said a million times, they are phenomenally solid cars with a timeless aesthetic, if a bit on the slow side. Mine would run 75-80 on the turnpike (Oklahoma!), but the motor was pretty wound out and I always felt like I was beating on it a bit.

I purchased the ’08 Rabbit for my 17yo daughter (replacing a ’98 318ti, but that’s a story for another time), from my mother who’d bought the car new. It’s just about to turn over 100k, and like the car featured here is a 2.5 automatic. My parents had the car dealer serviced during their ownership, and beyond a few cosmetic defects it’s been a solid and reliable little car that, despite the slushbox, is quite enjoyable to drive. My daughter loves it, and I suppose that’s what matters the most, but in no way does the build quality compare to that of a W123 Benz.

All that to say, choosing one over the other is a study in priorities. Do you go with the slow-and-steady bank vault, or with the newer, more nimble, but less durable hatchback?

Who am I kidding? I’m going with the Benz every time, even if the example shown here looks like it’s got psoriasis. I love W123s. What else can I say?

Tommy Helios
Tommy Helios
1 year ago
Reply to  SageWestyTulsa

Owned an 09 jsw with the 2.5 and a 5 speed and my mum is still driving my first new car purchase (ill advised at the age of 21) with the same setup and 180k. It has been bulletproof but dsg is another failure in a long line of VW not knowing how to make an auto trans. Buy a 5 speed and avoid a sunroof at all costs unless you like moldy interiors.

I’ll take the Benz for this one.

ExAutoJourno
ExAutoJourno
1 year ago

Yup, the turbodeezil is the way to go. Unbreakable, conservative good looks, and 10,000 years from now, some archaeologist will dig up the interior, still covered in unmarred MB-Tex. Seems nice enough to even merit a paint job….

Nothing bad about the Rabbit, really. Tips aren’t the worst transmission in the world, the “five” is okay, and a headliner isn’t the worst replacement job in the world.

Larry B
Larry B
1 year ago

Were the Benz taillights ribbed for visibility or pleasure? Or both?!?

SAABstory
SAABstory
1 year ago
Reply to  Larry B

Did you just invoke the TorchSignal?

Boulevard_Yachtsman
Boulevard_Yachtsman
1 year ago
Reply to  SAABstory

Rumor has it that if you rub one three times, Torch will show up at your doorstep with a jar of genuine blinker-fluid.

Unclewolverine
Unclewolverine
1 year ago

Om617 powered beast every day of the week and twice on Sunday. I’ve owned several and currently jonesing for another. If you have never had the pleasure, imagine riding in a torquey cloud that wants nothing more than to eat highway miles. We are talking 30 mpg with 5 adults cruising in German smoothness. It may not be the fastest, but it is seriously no slouch and will be cruising next to xj jeeps and slant six dodges to the heat death of the universe.

Data
Data
1 year ago

When I think of Mercedes (The Car), this is what I see in my minds eye. Those rims, those headlights, that grill, the tail lights. Man, MB tex holds up. I’ve seen 10 year old cars that look like a rabid ferret went at them vs that Benz interior.

Didn’t Volkswagen also sell the Fox in the 1980’s? For some odd reason I now want to go buy a Tamiya Frog or Grasshopper.

IRegertNothing, Esq.
IRegertNothing, Esq.
1 year ago

The Wabbit is definitely the better choice if you need to get to work tomorrow. Since I already have a good DD though, it’s the W123 for me. The car has a truly timeless presence to it.

Man With A Reliable Jeep
Man With A Reliable Jeep
1 year ago

The 2.5 in the Rabbit became a real gem of an engine. I’ve mentioned this before, but I had a 2013 Jetta Sportwagen with the 5 cylinder and it was a great all arounder. It felt more powerful than the numbers suggested, sounded good, got good mileage, etc. The problem is the earlier 2.5s had teething issues (PCV and timing system issues IIRC). That, and the shitty early interior, with a missing headliner, doesn’t make up the $500 price benefit.

I’ve never owned a 300D, but I’ve sat in W123/4s before and they’re not great for taller, broader folks, but you can tell they’re basic and built well. At least it has the sorta “hot” engine option, the 300D, although the TD would’ve been nice. It looks nice and clean.

I was leaning Rabbit, but I don’t want to pull out my hare with the ownership experience. Give me the big D.

Man With A Reliable Jeep
Man With A Reliable Jeep
1 year ago

Doh, scratch the part “whining” about the turbo. This one’s got the snail.

Michael Beranek
Michael Beranek
1 year ago

I agree wholeheartedly, and would’ve voted for the VW IF it had a manual.
I had an ’07 and that 5-banger is GOLD on the interstate. Purrs along at 90 mph like it was a day at the beach. Torques up mountains like they weren’t even there. And the Mk V body is a bank vault, super quiet and smooth even after driving all day.
In my opinion, the Mk V Golf (American version, with the 5 and a manual) is the best small car on the highway, ever.

TOSSABL
TOSSABL
1 year ago

300TD was the wagon. Never learned why

Acrimonious Mofo
Acrimonious Mofo
1 year ago

I was leaning heavily towards the Benz before I got to the write up on the Rabbit which absolutely sealed the deal. I almost bought a 300D when I was a teenager, but it was starting to rust and it was kind of pricey for high school me (they were actually also asking $3500–but that was $3500 in late 80s dollars). Anyhow I have always liked these things–they seem both stately, and workman like. The Benz seems like a no-brainer here.

Hangover Grenade
Hangover Grenade
1 year ago

I have a w123 wagon and I think the jokes about them being slow are overstated. I think the non-turbo diesel versions are probably slow as shit, but the turbos are fine.

Jacob B
Jacob B
1 year ago

My family had several W123s when O was growing up. Most were 300Ds (two were my first and second cars!) but we had a 1982 240D (4 cylinder non-turbo with body/matching hubcaps!) and let me tell you, when you turned left across a street you always had to pray another car didn’t come down the road and hit you in the 15 seconds it took to finish the turn. By the time you had reached cruising speed on the highway you had already passed at least one exit if not two. My god that thing was slow.

As an angsty teenager in the late 90s I hated those cars, but as an adult I have fond memories of my father and I taking them to the repair shop or flying across the country to buy another 300D in good condition.
The 1984 300D he sold right before he died had 450k miles on it. Last I heard it made it to 550k in 2010 until the new idiot owner didn’t put oil in it and seized the engine. I miss those cars.

Sklooner
Sklooner
1 year ago

I used to have a non turbo diesel Jetta with a 1.6 I drove a 300 and it felt even slower than the Jetta

TOSSABL
TOSSABL
1 year ago

The 617 was rated, iirc, at 110hp, but well over 200 lb-ft of torque. I never put a gauge on any of mine, but my butt-dyno told me boost was quite usable by 2400rpm. I used to surprise people by watching the other lights and matting it just before my light went green. I used to get my used veggie oil from a good restaurant, and loved seeing people around me sniffing the wonderful smells I was emitting.

Sold the last-a beautiful lowered wagon-right at a year ago. Know I will regret it, but didn’t want to deal with the rust-through under my seat-and had been without a manual for a full decade. Plus, no longer have free used veggie oil available, and diesel is $5-5.50 per gallon around here

Lokki
Lokki
1 year ago

Volkswagen = folks walking. I know people love them, but man, oh, man… buying one , even new, is a bigger risk than gambling that Dirty Harry did fire six shots. Now add in 220,000 miles and that special Germanic curse word “Tiptronic”?

Maybe the Marquis De Sade was French but he got all his cars from Volkswagen.

PaysOutAllNight
PaysOutAllNight
1 year ago

Considering the California condition of the outside of both of these, this could pose a difficult choice. But the interior of the Mercedes tells me all I need to know. With the inside this well preserved, any but the most extensive mechanical repairs are still well worth doing.

The Rabbit might be a perfectly functional car for a while, but it’s not one I’d enjoy slogging around in like I would the slow Mercedes.

M0L0TOV
M0L0TOV
1 year ago

Same, I’m all about the Benz. My grandmother had one and someday I’d love to have a charcoal grey one, with that same MBTex interior, the wheel covers that are painted to match the body but with a turbodiesel and auto (I know, I suck).

Toecutter
Toecutter
1 year ago

Definitely the 300D. It is built to be repairable. If something breaks, the replacement parts are generally available to make it as good as new. Mechanically speaking, it was built to ward off planned obsolescence, even if the aerodynamics may leave a lot to be desired(I’d REALLY have liked to see them produce the C111-III streamliner concept, but using the 5-cylinder turbo diesel engine to run it and nice, tall gearing for the Autobahn, which would have led to some stellar fuel economy even by today’s standards, possibly into the 50+ mpg highway range, but I digress). Proper maintenance is of course key.

The engine in the 300D is tunable to 300 horsepower if you swap in larger threads into the injector pump. The stock internals can handle the power. It could also be run on WVO or biodiesel with carefully done modifications and proper purging systems.

I used to own a 300 SDL which I purchased with a quarter million miles on it, and it received more than 100 hours of operation at triple-digit speeds under my use. It used a less stout but more powerful and more efficient inline 6-cylinder diesel engine, making 149 horsepower. In spite of weighing 2 tons, it was surprisingly quick. 0-60 mph took around 11 seconds, but 0-30 mph took most of that 11 seconds, so highway passing capability was comparable to a V6 Camaro or Mustang from the 1990s, even if on takeoff it would get its doors blown off by a stock Geo Metro. Top speed was over 120 mph. It also got 30 mpg at a 70 mph cruising speed, impressive for the tuna boat of a car that it is.

GreatFallsGreen
GreatFallsGreen
1 year ago

A “tortoise and hare” title would have been appropriate here. I’ll take the Benz, won’t be going anywhere quickly but at least it’ll be nice and charming over the VW.

I think the Rabbit switch was supposed to be a nod to heritage/nostalgia, since that was still “in” at the time, even if not as retro as a few years prior like the New Beetle, which was a little long in the tooth by then. The GTO name was back, designs like the 5th gen Mustang, Chevy HHR, FJ Cruiser for production cars with nods to heritage, and numerous concepts with names or designs that did the same like the Ford Fairlane (that would become the Flex). What a…time?

GreatFallsGreen
GreatFallsGreen
1 year ago
Reply to  Mark Tucker

I e-sign over the rights to use it tomorrow in the recap of today’s showdown – it seems likely the old fable will hold true here.

Sandshadow
Sandshadow
1 year ago

Good point on the Tortoise vs Hare.
You’re probably right about why this version was called a Rabbit. But why did VW name the mk1 Golf a Rabbit in the first place?

GreatFallsGreen
GreatFallsGreen
1 year ago
Reply to  Sandshadow

That’s a good question – I guess it sounded more playful and fun than “Golf” which an uncited Wiki entry supports, and VW did regionally different names on other models, like the first 2 generations of Passat were Dasher and then Quantum here. But then they moved toward standardized names globally.

Gilbert Wham
Gilbert Wham
1 year ago

220k VW of that generation with a tiptronic? Yeah, nah.

Mr. Asa
Mr. Asa
1 year ago

Mom had a Passat of this generation. Loved it when it worked, but as it aged it got bad

The diesel Benz is likely to be slow as mole asses, but that can be fixed.

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