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Expert Reviews 1 of 3
By Paul Dean
Los Angeles Times
November 7, 1991
Mike Jackson, senior vice president of marketing and sales for Mercedes-Benz of North America, was saying that while sales are down, marketing hopes are up. The glimmer in the recession, he told a breakfast muster of Los Angeles automotive
writers, came with recent reports that the rich seem to be getting richer. More disposable income, theorized Jackson, should mean more buyers for Mercedes' new S-Class luxury sedans. Came a question from the floor: Fiscal studies may talk of bigger
and more available bucks, but what of social studies that indicate the mortal wounding of materialism and an end to wearing diamond drops at Laker games? "There is an element of that at play," Jackson responded. "But for us, we like to think a
Mercedes represents intrinsic value, not a frivolous purchase." But intrinsic value, it should be noted, obtained only at enormous cost. And the average price of a Mercedes these days is around $60,000. Least expensive among the new S-Class,
traditionally reserved for Mercedes' thoroughbred four-doors, is the 1992 300SE, which sells for a mere $69,400. Piddling, indeed, alongside the 600SEL, a velvet grizzly that costs $141,200, including gas guzzler and luxury taxes. Yet if anything is
truly frivolous, it could well be our habit of gawking at price tags and making comparisons rooted in our Ford Escorts and worries about the next payment. Truth is, a Mercedes is best considered--and certainly better understood--from the fat and
fortunate perch of bluebloods who own several cars for a variety of purposes. They don't carry cash, their summer homes are remodelled Colonial farmhouses in Wilton, Conn., and checking their oil means examining yesterday's closing price for Arco stock.
In such context, the big Mercedes-Benz, built like a brick omnibus, is one of the finest cars in the world. It has almost the luxury with much less the length and bulk of a Bentley.Mercedes technology maximizes safety without reducing
aggressive driving pleasures. Curb weights are measured in tons, but the performance figures will split seconds with most sports cars. The 1992 S-Class--six years in the creation and the first redesign of the super sedan series in 12 years--is
typically arrogant. Also a little excessive, an unabashed glutton for gasoline and a family car only in the sense that Hearst Castle might be considered a tract home. Had the German army made it across the English Channel in 1939, these are the cars
Rolls-Royce would be building today. The S-Klasse is a line of five cars, although one, the turbocharged diesel 300SD, has already choked on California emission standards and will not be sold here. For local audiences, that still leaves the
3.2-liter 300SE with the in-line six gasoline engine; the 400SE with a 4.2-liter V-8; the longer wheelbase 500SEL with the 5.0-liter V-8, and the gross indulgence of that 600SEL powered
by a 6.0-liter V-12 that's good for a 155 m.p.h. ride to bankruptcy court. As a group, they are wider, taller and roomier than the sedans they succeed. But also shorter, more streamlined and noticeably plainer. That visual restraint was achieved by
reducing the amount of chrome and external trim while softening the edges and angles so typically Mercedes. Even the radiator grille is smaller now, set flush with the lowered nose of the car and raked gently to the rear. But the broad-shouldered,
flat-bellied look of Mercedes, with its promise of whispering performance and elegant travel, survives. Our pick of the class was the 282-horsepower 400SE with full leather interior and a broad spread of walnut facings that must have felled a small
copse and at least seven cows. This is a familiar place. The seats are small thrones, the gearshift knob the size of a baby's fist, and the headlights are still on a turn switch. Those things worked so well in thepa
t that there simply has been no call to reconfigure them. Every desired button, lever and toggle is where the eye or hand first explores. That's where they have been for the last 20 years. That's where they will remain as long as Mercedes believes
familiarity breeds response in event of an emergency. Flaws are hard to find in such an interior. Maybe the seat-belt receptacle should be a little higher to reduce an annoying grope between seat and console. Possibly the brake release handle in the
dash could be illuminated for night work. But that's reaching far to pick microscopic nits. The 400SE--as with all S-Class cars--is an environmentally correct showcase of the future. Despite an enormous thirst for premium unleaded that clearly is at
odds with such a statement, the car comes with the motoring world's first air-conditioning system that does not use ozone-melting fluorocarbons. There's also a charcoal filter in the ventilation system to cleanse lumps from incoming smog and an
electrostatic filter to block dust, pollen and aromas from Spago. As for gadgets, this car is Alice in Deutschland. One button adjusts not just side but also rearview mirrors. It then flattens the side mirrors against the car before
parking-lot wanderers flatten them for real. Can't see out the back window? One touch lowers the rear headrests. Auntie and her bottle of Chablis getting baked in the back seats? Another button raises a mesh sunscreen to block rays through the rear
window. The front armchairs have bun warmers, orthopedic backrests and 12-way power adjustments. Also, three memories of seat positions for foolish folk who might allow someone other than the owner and a constant companion to drive. The
air-conditioning system is automatic with dual controls and thermostats for front riders, with the option of a second set of split climate controls for back seaters. The 11 speakers of the Bose Beta sound system are balanced to present identical sound
levels to all four corners. Side glass is double insulated--just like the storm windows of our frozen adolescence--to keep climate in and noises out. There's a driver's side air bag, of course, also a passenger's side air pillow installed in the
dash without losing the glove box. Short wands rise from the rear corners of the car when it's in reverse; these vertical curb feelers keep fenders safe during parking maneuvers. And pneumatics assist when closing doors and the trunk lid. Sheesh,
Mercedes even puts fuzzy linings in its cup holders. Enormous pull from its V-8 engine with four cams and 32 valves is quite enough to overcome the bulk of the 400SE. Just as surprising, the car is relatively nimble and at no time feels like it
weighs 2 1/2 tons and stretches more than 16 feet. See it as the perfect Rottweiler. It stands broad and statuesque and has insouciant moves. But poke it in the ribs and hang on a
s raw power explodes and the scenery starts to blur. The anti-lock brakes are disc, huge and would stop a Humvee on a dinar. A multilink suspension with the obligatory and independent combination of coils, shocks and anti-roll bars, allows the car
to perform without a whisper of squat during acceleration or dive during braking. Even body wobbles, a given on a car this size, only go so far before suspension geometry stops them short. These, however, are engineering systems virtually hand-built
by world craftsmen working with few restraints on component costs. Mercedes allows similar splurging on the very best in wheels, tires, leathers, woods, vinyls, every accessory and all materials. To cut corners is to reduce quality, to lessen one car is
to lower the image of the entire line. The end result is very expensive motor cars. Some observers feel that Mercedes could well be pricing itself out of the U.S. market. Automotive writers read shadows ofcorp
rate concern in Mercedes presentations that have started to acknowledge the lesser-priced competition of Lexus, Infiniti and even the new Cadillac Seville. And nobody missed Jackson's Freudian slip during the Los Angeles introduction of the S-Class.
He extolled the cars for quality and customer satisfaction and their reputation for being"unique, extinct . . . er, exclusive and distinct." 1992 Mercedes-Benz 400SE The Good Total luxury and damn the expense. Old World craftsmanship and
New World engineering. Handling and power neutralizing girth and weight. Still prestigious after all these years. The Bad O mein Gott price. Insatiable thirst for $30 fill-ups. The Ugly Still looking. Cost Base: $77,900 As tested:
$77,900, not including $2,600 gas guzzler tax, sales or luxury taxes. Engine 4.2-liter, 32-valve V-8 developing 282 horsepower. Type Rear drive, five-passenger, S-Class luxury sedan. Performance 0-60 m.p.h., as tested, 8.2 seconds. Top
speed, estimated, 152 m.p.h. Gas consumption, EPA city-highway, 13 and 17 m.p.g. Curb Weight 4,720 pounds.