Mercedes-Benz traveled to the 1981 edition of the Frankfurt Motor Show to introduce a concept car called Auto 2000. As its name implied, the Auto 2000 was designed to show what a full-size luxury car could look like at the turn of the 21st century.
The Auto 2000 project started in 1980 when West Germany’s Federal Ministry for Research and Technology challenged local automakers to design a fully-functional prototype that was considerably more fuel-efficient than what was on the market at the time. The project’s guidelines specified the prototypes had to use no more than 9.5 liters of gas per 100 kilometers (24.7 mpg US / 29.7 mpg UK) if they weighed between 1,250 and 1,700 kilos (2,755 and 3,747 pounds) and no more than 11 liters per 100 kilometers (21.3 mpg US / 25.6 mpg) if they tipped the scale between 1,701 and 2,150 kilos (4,739 pounds).
The guidelines also specified that the prototypes had to be able to comfortably carry four adults and 400 kilos (881 pounds) of luggage, while performance, size and reliability had to be at least on par with similarly-sized cars sold new at the time. The Federal Ministry for Research and Technology invested 110 million Deutschmarks to help fund the project.
Presented at the same time as the w126 coupe, the Auto 2000 Concept took the form of a long, low-slung sedan that looked like a w126 sedan on steroids. It featured a plastic front clip designed to protect pedestrians in the event of a crash, a glass hatch that contributed to a drag coefficient of 0.28 and a large hood that opened by tilting towards the driver’s side of the car.
Mercedes exceeded the project’s expectations by building three examples of the Auto 2000 in order to showcase the different drivetrain possibilities. The first example was powered by a 3.8-liter V8 engine equipped with an innovative cylinder shut-off function that essentially turned off four cylinders when extra power was not needed. The engine was closely related to the 3.8-liter eight-cylinder that was found under the hood of the regular-production 380SE.
The second car used a 3.3-liter twin-turbocharged straight-six turbodiesel engine that used 7.5 liters per 100 kilometers (31.3 US mpg / 37.6 UK mpg) when driving at a constant 75 mph (120 km/h).
Both the gas- and diesel-burning engines sent 150 horsepower to the rear wheels via a four-speed automatic transmission.
The third version of the car was powered by a futuristic gas-powered turbine that was chosen because it offered a clean combustion and good low-end torque in a compact package.
The Auto 2000 was billed as a design study that was never seriously considered for full production. In retrospect, the concept differs quite a bit from what Mercedes was building in 2000 but features like the cylinder shut-off technology eventually trickled down to the world of production cars. Additionally, the Auto 2000’s front end loosely previewed the w124 that was introduced in 1985 and, later, the w140 S-Class.