Home » Yes, They Both Run: 1985 Mercedes-Benz 190E vs 1986 Jaguar XJS

Yes, They Both Run: 1985 Mercedes-Benz 190E vs 1986 Jaguar XJS

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Welcome to another Shitbox Showdown! Today was supposed to be another pair of sub-$1000 fixer-uppers, but after my own $500 daily beater shat the bed yesterday morning (the battery was toast, and I suspect the alternator may be on its way out), I just don’t feel like writing about non-running vehicles. So I found the two coolest runners I could on short notice.

But first, let’s finish up with yesterday’s projects:

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Looks like the VW’s potential gremlins scared most folks off. Really, the older ones aren’t that bad to work on. But I agree that the Mazda would be the better car to drive once it’s fixed.

Today, we have two cheap European cars, and we all know there’s nothing more expensive than those. But in this case, both of them run, and could be driven home, so at least you’re starting from a workable baseline. They’re very different cars – one has three times as many cylinders as the other – but they share a common reputation for costly repair bills, and they’re close in age, mileage, and price, so they seem like a good matchup to me. Let’s take a look.

1985 Mercedes-Benz 190E – $1,900

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Engine/drivetrain: 2.3 liter inline 4, 5 speed manual, RWD

Location: Bellingham, WA

Odometer reading: 190,000 miles

Runs/drives? Yes, but needs some cobwebs cleared out

The “Baby Benz” has been a fixture of the cheap car market for many years now. Depreciation on luxury cars is brutal anyway, and it seems to hit entry-level luxury vehicles especially hard. The trouble is that while the price of entry for a second- or third-hand 190E may be low, maintenance and repair costs don’t depreciate, and when those second or third owners can’t afford to fix things properly, they sometimes get creative. This makes for some really ratty cars, and drives the values down even further.

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But sometimes, that appallingly low value can work in your favor, if you find The Right One. And this little white Mercedes may very well be The Right One. Not only is it in apparently good cosmetic shape, but it has a feature very few 190Es in the US have: a clutch pedal.

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Manual-equipped Mercedes sedans are common in Europe, but very few American buyers checked that option box. I’ve only seen a handful of manual 190Es over the years, and only two of the larger 300E with a stick. Diesel-engined Mercedes with manuals are somewhat more common, but they’re still the minority. It doesn’t magically turn this thing into a sports car, but it does make it more engaging to drive, and probably more reliable as well.

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The seller says this car runs and drives. but has been driven fewer than 100 miles in the past five years, so it could use some exercise, and probably a little fettling before being put back into regular service. But the overall condition, and Mercedes’s reputation for durability and longevity – at least back when this one was built – make it worth fixing a few little things. Taking it to car gatherings and seeing the surprise and delight of fellow gearheads when they look inside would be icing on the cake.

1986 Jaguar XJS – $1,800

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Engine/drivetrain: 5.3 liter V12, 3 speed automatic, RWD

Location: Centralia, WA

Odometer reading: 200,000 miles

Runs/drives? It does indeed

The Jaguar XJS has never gotten the respect it deserves. It lived in the shadow of its predecessor, the E-Type, for its entire model run. To make matters worse, that model run began right at the dawn of the so-called “malaise era,” which slapped imported cars with the same oppressive regulations as domestics, resulting in gigantic added-on bumpers and power-sapping emissions controls. Bigger, heavier, and less sporty to begin with, the poor XJS had an uphill battle to fight in the US market.

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Jaguar’s build quality and reliability was somewhat lacking during this time as well. Combine that with the typical luxury-car depreciation and high repair bills, and the result is a lot of cheap broken XJSs for sale. But cheap drivable XJSs? Those are harder to come by.

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Jaguar’s 5.3 liter V12 was one of only two engines found under the bonnets of their cars in this era, the other being various sizes of the legendary XK inline six. Earlier versions of the V12 used four side-draft carburetors, but on this “HE” (High Efficiency) version, the big engine’s fuel needs are met by an electronic fuel injection system, with spark provided by a Lucas electronic ignition system. The seller says it “starts right up” and “you can drive it home,” which is more than I can say for any other sub-$2000 XJS I’ve seen for sale recently.

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The body and paint, clearly, won’t win any prizes, but look at this interior! This leather, wood, and chrome environment looks absolutely delightful, even if it’s not perfect. A running V12 Jag with an interior like this is a mighty tempting package for under two grand, even if you know going in that it will break your heart and beat the shit out of your wallet. It feels blasphemous to consider attempting the $50 Rust-Oleum paint job on a Jaguar, but if ever there was a candidate for it, this may be it.

So that’s what I’ve found for you to consider today: a compact German luxury/sports sedan, and a British coupe that puts the “grand” in grand tourer. Which one will it be?

Quiz Maker


(Image credits: Craigslist sellers)

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54 Responses

  1. I was being practical and leaning towards the Mercedes until I saw that Jaguar interior. Hard to resist. Both are money pits. Might as well be good looking.

    1. I voted Jag, bitnonly for the surprisingly clean interior, but also because “meh, they’ve made SBC swap kits for these for ages, so have a blast with the V12 until you need to slap an LS in it.”

  2. 4 cyl 5 speed Benz is going to win over the 12 w/ Auto. But if that jag had been the inline 6 that would be the super easy choice. That engine w/ the 4 spd GM trans is butter smooth and drives dreamy. and is reliable if properly maintenanced

  3. You say Jag vs Merc I don’t even need pictures it’s Jag. Neither of these is sporty but at least the Jag looks the part. The Merc just looks like another econobox on wheels. If I buy a box on wheels I’d rather have a Volvo.

    1. If I squint at the XJS, I can almost imagine Jaguar designers looking at Monte Carlos and Thunderbirds and scoffing, “Silly Americans – HERE’S how you make a proper ‘personal luxury coupe’.”

  4. Speaking as a Jag owner from that era of car…
    I’m picking the Merc – it looks like it’s in quite decent shape and couple be whipped into a nice little daily driver. The 3rd pedal is a big plus.
    So why not the Jag, especially since I have an ’88 XJ6 that has been nothing but a joy to own and drive? I’ve become quite convinced that if you want to go into Jag ownership you need to buy the best example you can afford, and this is not it. In the end you would be far better off finding a better example and spending even five or eight thousand more unless you really have a jones to take on a British project car. The better shape it is when you start, the less heartache in the end. That interior is lovely, though.

  5. Looking for a daily beater right now. I’ve seen that Benz online and it is tempting! Don’t want to do any major work right away though so the lack of recent mileage is putting me off.

  6. This is tough – I would really like to own both at those prices. I test drove a similar 190 years ago with a stick in red and still kick myself a little bit for not buying it. On the other hand I really like the looks of the Jags from that era. I’ve already got an ’82 XJ6 as well as a parts-car ’87 XJ6. This Jag would be fun to drive as is, plus my daughter is getting ready to drive and she would greatly enjoy having the only 12 cylinder in the high school parking lot, at least on the days it would make it there.

    Jag ftw – I’ve already got too many “sensible” cars the way it is.

  7. Jaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaag. No reason other than the interior looks fine and that V12. Despite it needing a small country’s treasury to keep it going.

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