There are plenty of power limousines available today. 600 horsepower already sounds pretty normal, but that wasn’t the case in the eighties and nineties. So what do you think of these two? The Lancia Thema 8.32, and the true enthusiast will know what I’m talking about. This is a Lancia with a Ferrari V8 in the front. Or this Mercedes-Benz, the 500E. A very special car in Mercedes’ history. It’s fitted with the engine and brakes from the SL500, and it was partly built by Porsche. A very special W124. Let’s take a look at this truly great engine… There it is. It’s the same engine found in the SL 500, producing 326 horsepower. Because of that, this car accelerates from 0-100 km/h in 6,1 seconds, and it will keep going until it hits 250 km/h, that’s when the limiter kicks in.
That was seriously quick when this car hit markets, in 1990. That’s what makes this car, which looks like a taxi, a true cannon of a car. So, what do we have here? It’s a Ferrari-engine, oh yeah. Let me put it up… This engine originally comes from Ferrari, a 308 to be exact. It’s completely different though. It might have the same name, but it’s a completely different engine. The engine block angle itself is smaller, because it’s been transversely mounted. It’s an 8-cylinder, and “.32” stands for the amount of valves, because it’s got 4 valves per cylinder. This already has a catalytic converter, and that means it produces 205 horsepower. The original one without catalytic converter produces 215 horsepower. Still, this car is very quick. 0-100 km/h takes only 6,8 and it will keep going until it hits 240 km/h. Also, very special for the time, it was fitted with ABS. It reached dealerships in 1986, and ABS wasn’t common at all back then, but despite that, the Thema featured ABS. This car has a manual gearbox and front-wheel drive. Lancia has considered four-wheel drive for this car, considering they had the knowledge, but eventually they chose to put all of the power on the two front wheels.
That’s why they’ve limited the power a little. If you look at it, you’ll notice it’s a very decent looking car, and it doesn’t really stand out compared to other Thema’s. You’ll immediately spot the badge saying 8.32. Also, this very fine striping on the side. The underside is always yellow, and the upper one corresponds with the body color. Then you’ve got these special wheels, specially developed for the 8.32… There’s another badge… And finally, this incredibly fun gimmick. An electrically operated rear spoiler. It doesn’t pop up automatically though, that’s something you’ll have to do yourself with a small lever. It does generate quite some downforce, but it’s not like it’s going to pop up at a certain speed. If you aren’t an enthusiast, chances are that you think it’s just a W124. If you are one, chances are you immediately see it’s a 500E. You can tell by different parts. Let’s start at the front. The headlights are different. You might think they’re the same, but they’re not.
On a normal W124, these are fog lights, but now they’re the bright lights. The fog lights now are in the bumper. The bumper as a whole is different as well. Then, the fender. You can see it’s quite a lot wider. It’s fitted with a different suspension, so the wheels are further apart. The flanks are mostly the same, except for the fact it’s a tad lower than a normal W124.
The rear bumper is different as well, that’s because the rear wings are wider. Other than that, it’s the same at the rear as the normal W124, except that the bumper is a tad different. Also, it’s got two exhaust pipes. On the inside, it’s mostly W124, but it’s just a tad more luxurious. Beautiful wood, automatic climate control, cruise control, it even features an airbag. Also, the rear seat is very distinctive, because they’re two separate seats instead of a full rear seat. That means it’s actually a four-seater, despite the fact it’s a big car. The driving abilities are very recognizable as a W124. It’s known as an incredibly comfortable car. It’s got an amazing chassis, especially this particular car. Don’t expect it to be a sturdy, bouncy sports car all of a sudden, it’s still a Mercedes-Benz.
It’s incredibly comfortable, it’s got a pretty big steering wheel… I can almost imagine how those German engineers tested this car. They put their foot down on the Autobahn, and cornering those big, long bends with 250 km/h. It really sticks to the road. You can really feel the quality in this chassis, the car itself, and the engine power. If you put your foot down, it feels like a rocket. Those 326 horsepower… It might not sound like much nowadays, but it’s incredibly impressive. Especially if it comes from a roaring V8 like this, fantastic. This car arrived at the dealerships in 1990, and it hasn’t been built for long. The production already ceased in 1993. It was partly built by Porsche with a lot of components from the SL from back then. The engine, some chassis components, and the brakes were from the SL 500.
In time, it was fitted with brakes from the SL 600, because the ones from the SL 500 weren’t strong enough. Anyway, it wasn’t produced for a very long time. A little over 10.000 cars were produced, so it’s quite a rare car. Back in the day, there were more power saloons available. Cars which produced more than 200 horsepower, fitted with a big V6. They weren’t necessarily sporty though, more like comfortable limousines. Think of the Peugeot 605, or the Citroën XM. BMW of course already had the M5, which had been around for some time already, that was one of the main rivals for this car. It had a straight-six in the front, but it almost produced the same amount of power. Sometimes, it even produced more. You shouldn’t forget Audi either. In the early nineties, they presented the new 100.
Audi offered the 100 S4, which had a turbocharged 5-cylinder engine in the front. Eventually, Audi put a 4.2-litre V8 in their 100, producing 280 horsepower. So you had a choice back in the day. Of course, this is a totally different car than the Mercedes-Benz. It’s typically Italian, just look at the interior. Of course, it was a lot more luxurious than the standard Thema. It’s fitted with a leather interior by Poltrona, and literally everything is covered in leather. Even the dashboard. Of course, that’s partly why the car was so expensive. Look at all of the dials in the dashboard. The wood, climate control… It’s an incredibly luxurious car with typical Italian styling and a lot of features.
There’s even a button for electronic shocks, which you can set to “Auto” or “Sport”. That way, you can harden the dampers. The drive is also completely different than in the Mercedes. It feels a tad less stiff and solid, however the steering is a tad more direct; it gives more feedback. And the engine… You’d think it’s a wild, crazy Ferrari-V8, that isn’t the case at first. But, I’ll let you hear it, when you put your foot down and you exceed 3000 RPM… Wow. This is fantastic. It really sounds like a fiery engine. And if it’s all revved-up, it goes like a rocket as well. It’s almost a quick as the Mercedes, and that shows in the performance figures. It’s no slouch. Back in the day, you also had the Lancia Thema with a turbocharged 2.0-litre engine, which produced the same amount of power as this; 205 horsepower.
This is a lot more fun of course. It’s a lot rarer than the Mercedes, this car. Only around 4000 cars were ever produced. Some of them were first generation Thema’s, and in 1988 the facelifted version reached markets. There just are less of these driving around today. Also, because it’s powered by a Ferrari-engine, it’s a very remarkable and unique car. The first Lancia Thema was built in 1986, and the production ceased mid-1992. So as a ‘quick car’, it was built before the Mercedes-Benz 500E. This generation Thema was part of the Tipo Quattro, so it was built together with the Fiat Croma, the Saab 9000 and the Alfa Romeo 164.
They built quick versions as well, but none were as explicitly sporty as this one. Saab also had turbocharged engines, they even supplied a 3.0-litre V6 in their 9000, but it never became as wild as this 8.32. Do we really have to appoint a winner in this test? I don’t think so, if I’m honest. There isn’t a winner and there isn’t a loser.
Which car I’d take home? Well… If I would choose with my heart, I’d go for this car, but if I would think it through, I’d choose the Mercedes-Benz. It’s a lot more expensive as well. You can get a Lancia like this for a relatively low price. It still isn’t an incredibly expensive youngtimer, but a Mercedes-Benz like this… It varies actually, but this very car will cost you more than €50.000. Those are serious numbers. Of course, the Mercedes will suffer less from technical difficulties. This just is a tad more sensitive and delicate… But to answer your question. I’d take the Benz home, because it’s such a pleasant car…