Home » To Turbo Or Not To Turbo? Battle Of the 5-Cylinder Benzes

To Turbo Or Not To Turbo? Battle Of the 5-Cylinder Benzes

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Welcome back to Shitbox Showdown! It’s May the 4th, which apparently holds some significance for fans of some science fiction movies, but us cool kids know that 5/4 belongs to Dave Brubeck. So in honor of weird time signatures, let’s “Take Five” and look at a couple of five-cylinder cars.

But first, I want to apologize for the kerfuffle with the poll yesterday. I clicked on some doohickey wrong, and broke it. I can balance SU carbs by ear, and wax enthusiastic about Procol Harum’s music, and discuss the symbolism in T.S. Eliot poems, and bake a mean chocolate chip cookie, but I’m an idiot when it comes to this tech stuff. Special thanks to Jason for fixing it. I’ll try to get it right today.

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Speaking of yesterday (when Shitbox Showdown wasn’t such an easy game to play), let’s see how the vote went down.

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Again with the Saab! That’s twice now I’ve put some charismatic old diesel up against these Swedish weirdos, and they’ve both lost. I will find something to defeat a Saab some day. Just gotta find the right McEnroe to go up against Borg.


But let’s see what we have today. Let me tell you, it’s not easy to find five-cylinder cars in our price range any more. I had a line on an Acura Vigor, but they went and sold it this morning and the ad disappeared. (The nerve.) And I almost chose an Audi 5000 here in town, but it’s over-budget at $2900, and I’m trying not to keep this strictly local. Facebook Marketplace turned up nothing at all, and Craigslist wasn’t much better.

While looking for these cars, I started thinking of other ways to add up to ten cylinders with two cars. Obviously 6-4 is an easy split. 5-5 takes some doing, as I found out. 8-2 is theoretically possible, but I’d have to find an old rear-engined Fiat or a Citroën 2CV or derivative in our price range. 3-7? Nope, 3 is easy, just find a Geo Metro, but no 7-cylinder engines exist in cars. 1-9 has the same problem; you could use a King Midget for a single cylinder, but the only 9s I know of are radial aircraft engines or big diesel marine engines. 10-0? Possible, if I could find a cheap Ford van with a V10 and a half-dead Nissan Leaf. (Or an RX-7, but that’s cheating.)

But that’s neither here nor there. Today, your choice is between a Mercedes, and… a Mercedes.

1977 Mercedes-Benz 300D – $2500

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Engine/drivetrain: 3.0 liter diesel inline 5, 4 speed automatic, RWD


Location: Northridge, CA

Odometer reading: ad says 36,000, but I suspect they forgot a zero

Runs/drives? “Drives perfect”

The one, the only, the legendary W123. Built like a tank, drives like a tank, and kinda looks like a tank, come to think of it. Such an early 1980s yuppie icon that Jackson Browne featured it on the cover of his 1983 album Lawyers In Love. Designed by legendary Mercedes design boss Bruno Sacco, and powered by a range of stout inline engines including this nigh-invincible 5 cylinder diesel, these cars may very well just keep trundling along until the end of time.

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It’s not fast. This is an eighty-horsepower engine in a thirty-five-hundred-pound car. But the feel of  these things is inexorable, relentless; it doesn’t so much accelerate as acquire velocity, and it feels like no force in the universe could stop it from doing so. It’s very civilized. But a Hyundai Accent will blow your doors off.

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This one looks a bit unfinished. The interior door panels are off, and the carpet is AWOL, and I don’t know what’s up with the holes on the sides for the bump strip. Is that tape covering the holes? Or did somebody fill the holes and primer over them? It’s bizarre. But if it runs as well as the seller claims, and the interior pieces are included, it could make a nice inexpensive entry into the world of Mercedes diesels.

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It’s a world I keep threatening to enter. I keep getting a jones for these old Benzes; one of these days I’ll show up with one, and my wife will want to kill me. So I’d better make it something more put-together-looking than this one.

1984 Mercedes-Benz 300SD – $2500

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Engine/drivetrain: 3.0 liter turbodiesel inline 5, 4 speed automatic, RWD

Location: Fountain Valley, CA

Odometer reading: 286,000 miles


Runs/drives? Yep

If the W123 was just too, too common for you, you could step up to the W126-chassis S-class. For twelve years, this car was just about the best big sedan you could get. Available with a variety of inline sixes and V8s in Europe, the S-class was initially limited in the US to a small V8 or the venerable inline 5 diesel, fitted with a turbocharger to improve the acceleration from tectonic to merely slow. But in an S-class, you always arrive precisely when you are meant to, so why hurry? They’ll wait.

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We can’t tell a whole lot about this car from the few photos provided (other than the manicured Orange County neighborhood in which it resides), but the list of recent replacement parts is impressive: the transmission, battery, and tires are all new. That, combined with the bulletproof diesel engine and the car’s overall phemonenal build quality, should keep it on the road for a good long time.

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Sure, it’s a little rough around the edges, and the paint is essentially matte at this point, but those are just signs of a life well-lived. If you can show me another car that has this much presence and authority to it at nearly 300,000 miles, I’d be surprised.

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So there they are, our two old odd-number-cylindered Germans. Neither one is exactly five-by-five, but neither one is a disaster either. Which one is a better choice? That’s up to you.


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2 years ago

Turbo, definitely, even if it’s about to detonate. I’ve driven a non-turbo diesel Benz before. 0-60…actually, 0-30 time was “maybe”. Probably the least safe car I’ve driven on surface streets. Never dared to take it on a highway.

2 years ago
Reply to  FG

Also, I think I just got tetanus from looking at those photos.

2 years ago

I am always amused by comments by the experts (not being sarcastic), who talk about spending thousands of dollars on upgrades even up to the point of engine replacements on pieces of shit like these. It is where technical expertise/theory supersedes practicality/common sense.

The other great one is fretting over the repair costs. If you pay 2-5k for an ancient car, unless it can be fixed with a half assed, near zero cost repair, salvage the damn thing.

Ad absurdum per aspera
Ad absurdum per aspera
2 years ago

I’m a bit alarmed by the fact that the 300D is the most intact car visible in the pictures.

The seller seems to be divesting himself of a number of mostly diesel Mercedes in various stages of projectness:

I voted for the SD: faster despite being bigger, plus it seems to be actually on the road and complete and whatnot (though at 284k even an old-school Benz will keep the dust off your wallet and toolbox).

2 years ago

Maybe if the W123 was a manual, I’d take it. Since it is not, I would prefers the well-worn but seemingly functional S-Class over an absolute hooptie of a 300D(And before you claim these cars were built like a bank vault, there are things that can and WILL go wrong on these cars, namely the vacuum lines which power damn near everything and the more complex comfort items like the climate control unit).

Brendan Sample
Brendan Sample
2 years ago
Reply to  Forrest

I looked at a similar era Mercedes diesel, and the vacuum system was a nightmare. Nothing worked, you couldn’t open the trunk, the car wouldn’t turn off on its own, sometimes it would lock. It was a little disconcerting to turn the key off and see all the gauges go dark, but the engine keep rattling away.

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