Mercedes-Benz 280 SE W108 vs BMW 2800 E3 – test-drive

2014 Drive-My

Giant test – Mercedes-Benz 280 SE W108 vs BMW 2800 E3. Photography: John Perkins. Hardly more than a decade ago the possibility that BMW and Mercedes-Benz could be mentioned in the same breath would have appeared extremely unlikely. Then came BMW’s return from the edge of collapse to begin a steady upward climb of improvement that even now shows no signs of levelling off. This classic case of a company’s renaissance is based on the success of the 1500, 1600, 1800 and 2000 saloons. With these cars BMW sensibly took care to avoid a head-on clash with Daimler-Benz. Then came the 2500 and 2800 BMWs, not just direct enlargements of the four-cylinder cars but completely new and, at last, openly competing with Mercedes.


BMW 2800 E3 vs. Mercedes 280SE W108 drive-my test

Or almost competing, for both firms have too much respect for each other as hardy independents in an industry mainly composed of anonymous groups to indulge in excessively vicious competition. BMW likes to think that its six-cylinder models are that much more sporting, less staid, than those of the people up the road and that they are consequently finding a different market. Be that as it may, prices are closely matched. And BMW was unable to restrain a smile when, recently, it outsold Mercedes in the car field. The smile, though, was tempered by the knowledge that Mercedes’s considerable output of diesel cars had not been taken into account. In any case the Daimler-Benz group is involved in many aspects of engineering, of which cars are just a part, while BMW has only its specialist production of motorcycles as a hedge against the fluctuations of the motor business.

BMW 2800 E3 vs. Mercedes 280SE W108 drive-my test

Not that either firm has much to fear in the way of competition from outside its native heath. Italy have only just returned to the market for biggish, high quality saloons in the Mercedes-Benz / BMW mould. Among other 2.8s — the odd capacity limit is a result of German road taxes that disproportionately penalise anything bigger — Opel is getting better all the time, yet still has a lot of leeway to make up in terms of image as well as fineness of concept and engineering. That leaves only Jaguar with the 2.8 litre version of the XJ6. Here, unhappily, import tariffs contrive to ensure that a direct comparison can never be made, for in West Germany the Jaguar is substantially more costly than either the Mercedes-Benz or the BMW. In Britain, even with the lower duty now applying, the difference is even more marked. A hefty £1317 separates the BMW from the Jaguar, while with the Mercedes the differential is even larger at over £1500. So either car costs well over half as much again as the XJ6 and that, we suspect, is a price difference that few buyers even in this bracket can contemplate.

BMW 2800 E3 vs. Mercedes 280SE W108 drive-my test

Both German cars are in a way fortunate in being priced out of direct competition in Britain. They fall neatly and with negligible opposition into the yawning gap that British firms leave between the £2500-odd of the Jaguar and its kind and the heady heights occupied by Jensen, Aston, Rolls-Royce and the rest, all selling at upwards of £5000.

BMW 2800 E3 vs. Mercedes 280SE W108 drive-my test

Superficially the carburettor-inducted Mercedes 280 S W108 would seem the closest rival to the BMW, but there is a surprisingly large deficiency in power and therefore performance. One has to pay nearly another £300 for fuel injection to bring the Mercedes output closer to that of the carburated BMW E3. Thus it was the fuel-injected 280 SE that we chose for trial; it is in any case the big seller.


In almost every major aspect of design this is a remarkably similar pair of cars. The likeness is reflected even in the styling for, although no one is actually going to confuse the pair, there is an unmistakable resemblance in the squared-off lines. The Mercedes shell is in direct line of descent from earlier examples, subtly suggesting a certain solid quality. The BMW’s lines are clearly developed from the smaller four-cylinder cars, with strong contemporary Italian influence which suggests a close look at Bertone’s Mazda 1500 and 1800 saloons. Both cars  manage to retain the vertical false front grilles of tradition. The Mercedes does so boldly, the BMW more as a half-hearted though very necessary afterthought.

Traditional and mod. The Mercedes 280SE interior is plush but staid (top). The BMW 2800 E3, with cloth seats, integral headrests, wood wheel, seems to be aimed at young drivers.


As you will detect from the specification tables there is, at first glance, little to choose between the two as far as engine layout is concerned. Both are in-line sixes with slightly oversquare bore/stroke dimensions, alloy heads and single overhead camshafts operating mildly inclined valves.

Yet the BMW — a direct development of the well-established four-cylinder — is streets ahead of its older rival, even without the advantages of the latter’s Bosch mechanical fuel injection. Breathing through nothing more exotic than a pair of dual-choke Solexes it develops 10bhp more than the Mercedes at an unflustered 6000rpm — well below the practical rev limit. The Mercedes peaks at a more leisurely 5500rpm, giving 160bhp, but of greater merest is the fact that maximum torque occurs at a brisk 4250rpm, underlining a surprisingly narrow power band. The BMW, only 3lb ft behind on torque, peaks at a -natively low 3700rpm. Both cases serve to emphasise the way in which German road tax laws force highly developed 2.8 litre engines into cars that would be more at home, perhaps, with a mild, less peaky and more torquey unit of, say, 3.5 litres like the V8 Mercedes-Benz puts in some of its costlier offerings.

The BMW comes with a choice of manual or automatic transmission by ZF (ZF3HP), of which more later, while the majority of Mercedes arrive in Britain with £221-worth of homemade automatic transmission, there being little demand for the manual version. The Daimler-Benz automatic is one of the last surviving examples of the fluid flywheel, as opposed to torque converter, and because no torque multiplication is possible with the former there are four speeds in the gearbox to ensure reasonable acceleration. Even these were hardly adequate until a recent change ensured that all starts are made in first and not second gear. The driver has full manual override in the usual way.

The 280, unlike the smaller Mercedes models, retains low-pivot swing axle rear suspension, an improvement on unmitigated swing axles but still theoretically less desirable than the semi-trailing arms of the BMW, despite Herr Uhlenhaut’s constant denials. At the front the Mercedes sticks to traditional wishbones against the struts of the BMW. Both cars have coil springs and compensating struts at the rear to maintain level trim under a full load. Both cars, too, have disc brakes of generous size all round. They share the continuing German lack of interest in rack and pinion steering, the BMW featuring a ZF worm and roller system and the Mercedes recirculating ball.

That, then, is the basic layout of the two contenders. What deserves special mention is their sheer excellence of engineering concept, in detail as much as overall. This is only as it should be in cars costing three and a half thousand pounds, but bear in mind that in Germany neither the Mercedes nor the BMW are held in anything like the esteem accorded them here. Inflated British prices are a lot to do with this, perhaps. In Germany, where their prices are much lower, both cars are considered worthy but hardly dashing symbols of material success.


Mercedes saloon body shells come in a bewildering variety of sizes. The 280 is the largest of the mid-range models, exceeded only in size by the 600s and by the long wheelbase edition of the basic shell as used in the 300 SEL 3.5 and 6.3 W109. There is, in fact, a long wheelbase 280 SE W108 available in some markets but Britain is not among them. As it is, the standard 280 is not a particularly roomy car bearing in mind its price and external dimensions. The shortage of space is most acute in the rear seat, where legroom is adequate but not generous. Stuttgart appreciates this fact and it is in rear seat legroom that the extra four inches of wheelbase is used up in the LWB cars. Width, at shoulder and hip levels, is satisfactory and there is room enough for three adults abreast. Despite a bulky transmission tunnel there is no shortage of room in the front, where individual seats are standard. The boot, as you might expect, is cavernous. The Mercedes is quite a big car and not one that is particularly economical of space.

The BMW is somewhat better in that it manages to provide as much legroom and comparable boot capacity in an overall length a full six inches less. The BMW also contrives to be a full three-seater astern in spite of being a little narrower than the Mercedes. Neither of these cars provides anything like the space that it could, were the engineering departments ruled by an Issigonis. But neither is there any need for them to do so. They are roomy enough.

Both suffer to some extent from the need to accommodate lengthy six-cylinder engines. Their long bonnets are fully justified by the mass of machinery revealed beneath. If inline sixes are wasteful of space, and a glance into either engine compartment will bear this out, they do at least leave plenty of room for the increasingly bulky ancillary paraphernalia of the modern car. The gaps between slim cylinder blocks and wheel arches can usefully be filled with servo systems, reservoirs and the like and still leave room for service access.

Back in the passenger compartment, the BMW easily wins on stowage space — an area which Mercedes seems never to take very seriously. The BMW boasts map pockets galore, a deep compartment on the passenger’s side, a tray (with borders and ridges to stop things sliding around) above the facia, pockets in the seat backs and another deep though non-lidded compartment in the central console. The Mercedes could follow suit in providing most of these compartments — as it is, the console and facia top are just so much wasted space.


Anything the Mercedes lacks in matters of oddment accommodation it more than compensates for where comfort is concerned. The seats are slightly softer than on some earlier Mercedes we have met and, partially because of this, they give better support both laterally against cornering forces and beneath the thighs. More padding in the lumbar region would be welcome. There is the customary — and very smooth working — fore and aft and backrest adjustment, plus control over the height of the seat. For this, one releases a separate catch, slides the seat forward to raise it or back to lower it, then uses the normal catch to find the required longitudinal setting on the runners.

The BMW also has this method of seat height adjustment, though in a less comprehensive form based on the theory that shorter-legged drivers invariably need a higher seat.

The seats are firmer than in the Mercedes. If anything they give better support through more anatomical shaping, but non-heavy weight occupants will find them unyielding even with the optional cloth upholster. Both cars have large central foldaway anther rests at the back. The BMW lacks from central armrests. On the Mercedes they are mere £30 extra!

The BMW has easily the softer ride of though two, though it is much more prone to body roll. The Mercedes feels distinctly firm by command parison, and its shorter-travel suspension with does not cope so spectacularly well, where extra-ride comfort is concerned, with poor surface glass. The Mercedes is somewhat prone to road rumble four and tyre noise when the going gets anything ireless than good, whereas the BMW is out standing quiet in this respect.

Wind roar is well controlled on the Mercedes, rather less so with the BMW in which the separate window frames arms inclined to bulge outward at very high speeds, particularly on a gusty day. Then latter car also produces more mechanical commotion, in contrast to the Mercedes which seems to become quieter as speed increase. In this respect the BMW is average by the standards set by its price, the Mercedes rather better than average. Conversation normal tones at 100mph is possible in both.


Front seat occupants can have no quibble with the heating and ventilation systems in these cars. The controls are fairly complex, but once mastered they work well, which more than can be said for the majority earlier BMWs. There is no separate heating ventilation provision for people in the rear seat. Nor does either car produce much in the way of ram-induced cooling. On a hot day the booster must be called into action.

We found the BMW a delightfully easy car to settle down to. Its slightly smaller over all dimensions, large area of glass and rather high seating position combine to give excellent all round visibility and, consequently, feeling of immediate assurance. One sit lower in the Mercedes and visibility, while still satisfactory, is not quite as good. At first one is very conscious of driving a big, unwieldy car, though the feeling wears off after only a few miles.

Rather high-mounted steering wheels in both cars reflect their respective characters! The BMW’s is three-spooked and wood rimmed in the sporting manner, while the Mercedes’s is an uncompromisingly affair of large diameter and with a massive padded boss. The gearlevers are nicely placed, as are the pedals, and there sufficient seat adjustment for almost any or to find a satisfactory driving position. The BMW handbrake is a proper lever between the seats. Its rival has an awkward pull-on affair tucked away under the dash behind the steering wheel.

Minor controls on both cars have been-simplified to the point where the dullest drive can cope. They have been combined into two – sets of multi-purpose switches. Both car have a simple knob on the facia for the lights. In the Mercedes, an ingenious but very ugly steering column stalk serves for headlights, inkers and two-speed wipers. The BMW has two stalks to do the same jobs. Instruments and warning lights in both are of intelligent design and clear layout, though there are surprisingly few of the former.

Both cars are extremely well finished inside and out. We preferred the BMW’s — more modern approach to interior styling, though the Mercedes has an air of smooth opulence that befits its nature. It can be — and, by most British buyers, is—equipped with a selection of more or less practical extras. Among the more sensible are tinted glass at £39, a pneumatic system locking all four doors, boot lid and fuel cap from the driver’s door at £50 and a power-operated sunshine roof at £181-£88 for a radio with automatic power aerial is another matter. A heated rear window is standard on the BMW. It should be on the Mercedes, also, for missing-up occurs quite frequently.

Mercedes has long led other manufacturers in research into structural safety items and their subsequent incorporation into production cars. Rival firms are rapidly catching up, though, and among them is BMW. Both the 2800 E3 and 280 SE W108 are built with progressive collapse ends protecting a strong centre section and both have copious interior padding and a full quota of detail items such as knock-away mirrors. A safety feature we daily appreciated in the BMW is the provision of a handsome pair of front seat neck restraints that are adjustable for height and easily removed altogether. They have, however, rigid lateral mounting bars which could be a menace to children under panic braking.


Normally we would not expect to match an automatic transmission car against a manual gearbox one. But in this instance things are little different, partly because automation is preferred by a majority of Mercedes 280 SE buyers and partly because the Daimler-Benz system, with four manually controllable speeds and a fluid flywheel instead of a power-consuming torque converter, should give acceleration times on a par with those obtainable using an ordinary gearbox.

There was a time when the larger Mercedes felt and sounded more than a little fussy when driven hard. Neither, then, was their acceleration exactly remarkable. Times have changed. While the figures we recorded with the 280 SE are not outstanding for a 2.8 litre car, they are undeniably good for one as big and heavy as this Mercedes. Even mid-range torque is now reasonable, though high speed overtaking still calls for third gear.

Past experience with big BMWs led us to expect something really startling from the 2800. The revelation duly occurred in the form of a top speed that few under-three-litre GT cars can match, likewise acceleration which could be a source of embarrassment to most sports car owners. The BMW, simply, is much quicker not only than the Mercedes but also than any saloon of similar capacity. The sole difficulty about using its full potential is that first gear wheelspin is too easily induced despite the use of bigger tyres than those fitted to the basically similar but rather cheaper 2500 model.

The BMW’s engine is one of those rare and delightful units that produces a smooth and steady supply of power all the way up from tick over to a reasonably high rev limit, with never a dip in the power curve nor a sign of undue mechanical excitement. It is not quiet but, as with the old 2300 Fiat coupe of blessed memory, its song is a song of exultation, not of strain. It is complemented by an excellent, precise and very light gearchange from the ZF transmission.

The Mercedes gear control comes as close as any automatic system can to working like a good manual setup. The slim lever sidesteps backwards and forwards through its staggered gate, giving changes as quick and as smooth as those of any manual box. One can of course ignore it altogether and let the transmission think for itself, but flexibility remains something less than a strong suit with this Mercedes.

Fuel consumption figures for both cars seem reasonable indeed if one remembers that they are luxurious, fairly powerful saloons. The Mercedes was relatively little affected by driving style. The BMW, with its lower weight, smaller frontal area, higher gearing and, we would surmise, lower drag coefficient, could be persuaded into remark-able frugality. We particularly remember one journey of 200 miles which involved a complete transit of London. Our average speed was 73mph and we got an amazing 23 to the gallon!

Exploration of the BMW’s roadholding provides even less incentive to travel slowly. The suspension is extremely supple by the standards of largish saloons. Yet it is well controlled and there is always plenty of rubber on the road, so on both rough and smooth surfaces the car’s cornering power is very high indeed. Tyre grip continues unabated over severe bumps and in the wet, at least on the Michelin XAs fitted to our well used test car. Body roll is considerable.

The BMW is a tremendously rewarding car to drive hard. Approaching the limit the original, mild understeer develops quickly until the front breaks away altogether. The way to avoid this is to ensure that plenty of power is turned on in the approach to the corner to keep the tail out and the nose tucked in. In this stance it is, finally, the tail that goes first — breaking away in a slow, easily held slide. All this, though, is something that can rarely be practised on the open road. For normal purposes the BMW is a gentle understeerer that responds well to liberal use of the throttle.

The Mercedes is much less sporting in its behaviour, as befits its generally more digni-fied character. The grip of its rather harsh Continental radial tyres is enough to ensure plenty of cornering power in the dry, but discretion is advisable on wet surfaces. Well damped suspension means that the car is never unduly disturbed by bad surfaces, although it does allow more body roll than isseemly. Reasonably enough, the Mercedes feels less wieldy than the BMW. Its basic handling characteristic is one of restrained understeer, turning eventually and quite quickly to oversteer but not with the vicious transition that the presence of swing axles at the back, even low pivot ones, would suggest to the uninitiated.

The 280 SE we drove had power-assisted steering, a £110 extra that a lot of customers specify. The servo works hard to take virtually all the effort away, together with most of the road feel. The gearing remains on the low side, calling for some rapid wheel twirling to catch a slide before it gets out of hand.

The BMW’s steering we have praised before. We make no excuse for doing so again now. By careful design of the front strut and hub location, plus concomitant geometry, the engineers have succeeded in producing steering that is responsive, positive and — above all — light enough to make power- assistance unnecessary, although it is available. Admittedly, the system is not as high geared as we would like, and it does bow to the sheer area of the front tyre prints and become heavy for parking and low speed manoeuvring. But withal it remains better than any comparable manual system, and certainly lighter than on the four-cylinder BMWs — though that in itself is possibly a dubious achievement.

With similar all-disc brake systems, both cars proved immune to fade under our standard test conditions. Trying them on a racing circuit, we found that on both cars the brakes continued to stand up well even when pouring smoke. Eventually the BMW faded first, and took a while to recover, but it never approached fade point on public roads On both cars the brakes only gave of their best when lightly warmed. The BMW had the less energetic servo of the two and gave correspondingly more progressive braking Careful suspension design means that the BMW is noticeably free from front-end dive under heavy retardation. Its rival does suffer from this characteristic and is inclined to fee unstable when braked hard from high speeds.


For anyone who enjoys driving as an end in itself there can be no doubt that the BMW is to be preferred. In every aspect of performance — top speed, acceleration, economy, handling, braking — it is in advance of the Mercedes. The Mercedes scores where comfort and luxury are concerned. It has as good a ride, is quieter and generally more restful as a means of getting about, while maintaining enough performance to keep ahead of the stream. Using the two contenders side by side, we found that the BMW would arrive at its destination first but that the Mercedes driver turned up even less tired and more relaxed, if less exhilarated.

Competition on the British market, as we observed at the outset, is restricted. The Jaguar XJ6 in 2.8 litre form is so much cheaper as not to be comparable. The 4.2 XJ6 comes closer on price but lacks detail quality, and its extra 1.4 litres put it into a different fuel consumption category. Fiat’s 130 has still to arrive in Britain. Until it does, Mercedes and BMW have a cosy little niche in the market to themselves.

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Mercedes’s fuel injected 2778cc straight six and BMW’s 2788cc twin Solex carburetted slant six come up with much the same answer, the Mercedes (top) giving 160bhp at 5400rpm and the BMW 170bhp at a noisier 6000rpm.


1 Speedo.

 2 Fuel.

3 Water Temp.

4 Oil Pressure.

6 Tachometer Warnings.

8 Ignition.

9 Main Beam.

10 Oil Pressure.

11 Indicators.

14 Handbrake.

15 Fuel Low.

17 Rear Window Demister.

18 Hazard Warnings Controls.

20 Ign/Start.

21 Indicators.

22 Lights.

23 Dip.

24 Flash.

25 Horn.

26 Panel Lights.

28 Wipers.

29 Washers.

30 Heater.

31 Fresh Air Vent

Special Items: A Cigar Lighter B Clock D Hazard Warning Control F Interior Light G Rear Window Demister.

On Continental radials mild initial understeer turns rapidly to oversteer as limit is reached, calling for a quick hand on rather low-geared steering. Actual cornering power quite high. Basic characteristics unchanged in wet, cornering power sharply reduced.

On Michelin radials initial understeer continues up to breakaway to become a full blooded front end slide unless copious power is used to maintain more neutral balance. Cornering power very high indeed but body roll considerable. Steering light for a car of this size.


At £3694 approximately halfway up the Mercedes price scale (if you exclude the 600s) and the best-selling Mercedes on the British market, despite models like the 220 at a mere £2575 and the 280S which differs from the 280SE in having carburettors.

BMW 2800 E3

At £3447 the most expensive BMW saloon, £450 more than the similar but smaller-engined and less comprehensively equipped 2500 saloon and £1150 more than the highest priced four-cylinder saloon. Only the 2800 Coupe’ exceeds it, at £4997.

Not by coincidence do the 280SE (left) the BMW 2800 look very much the same, BMW are aiming fair and square at the traditional Mercedes market for luxury performance saloons.

Car Mercedes-Benz 280 SE W108 BMW 2800 E3
Wheelbase 108.3in 106in
Overall width 71.3in 68.9in
Front track 58.35in 56.9in
Rear track 58.46in 57.6
Ground clearance (unladen) 5.75in 5.75in
Front headroom (seat uncompressed) 37iin 36in
Rear headroom (seat uncompressed) 35in 34in
Front legroom (seat forward/back) 26in 36in
Overall length 193in 185in
Overall height (unladen) 56.7in 57.1in
Front shoulder room 58in 59in
Rear shoulder room 57in 59in
Rear legroom (seat forward/back) 23/28in 20/26in
Mechanical Specification     
Weight (in lbs kerb) 
3360 2938
Steering recirculating ball worm and roller
Turning circle
36.3ft 31.5ft
Turns (lock to lock)
3.3 4.2
Brakes discs front – Diameter (in) 10.7, disccs rear –Diameter (in) 11.0, with servo, 
discs front – Diameter (in) 10.7, disccs rear – Diameter (in) 10.7, with servo
Material (cylinder head) ligh talloy (block) iron
(cylinder head) light alloy (block) cast iron
Main bearings (number) 
six seven
Cooling system
water water
Valve gear layout single overhead cam SOHC single overhead cam SOHC

Bosch fuel injection

2 Solex compound dual-choke
Compression ratio
9.5:1  9.0:1
Capacity (cc)
2778 2788
Bore (mm)
86.5 86
Stroke (mm) 
78.8 80
Power (net bhp/rpm)
160bhp at 5500 170bhp at 6000rpm
Torque (net lb ft/rpm) 
177lb/ft at 4250rpm 174lb/ft at 3700rpm
four-speed automatic (Mercedes-Benz man) four speed all synchromesh
Top gear mph per 1000rpm 22.5 mph 20.7 mph
Ratios: 1 st 3.98 2nd 2.39 3rd 1.46 4th 1.0
1 st 3.85 2nd 2.08 3rd 1.37 4th 1.0
Final drive ratio 
3.92:1 3.45:1
Clutch : Make: 
Fitchel and Sachs
spring single plate    
Wheels and Tyres     
Wheels (type and size) steel 14in x 6in rims light alloy 14in x 6in rims
Tyres (type and size) Michelin 185/70 VR-14 Michelin XVR 195/70 14in
Replenishment & Lubrication     
Type of oil 10W/30 SAE 30
Engine sump capacity (pints) 9.7 8.8
Engine oil change interval (miles) 6000 8000
Gearbox and final drive capacity (pints) 3.9
SAE 80
Gearbox capacity (pints)  2.1
Final drive capacity (pints)
Type SAE 90 EP
Number of lights four Bosch four Hella
Tungsten halogen Quartz halogen
Battery (make) Bosch Varta
12 volt 55 a.h. 12 volt 55 a.h.

double wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers

MacPherson struts, coil springs, telescopic dampers 

Rear  low-pivot swing axles coil springs, telescopic dampers plus hydropneumatic compensating  spring

semi-trailing arms, coil springs, telescopic dampers plus Boge compensating device

Braking (Actual stopping distance in feet)  
30mph  55  53
70mph  177  170
Fuel consumption  
Overall (mpg)
17  19
Driven carefully (mpg) 24  25
Star rating 4  4
280-395 miles 340-450 miles
Tank capacity
16.5 gallons 18 gallons
From standstill to mph. in seconds
0-30 3.9 3.3
0-40 5.7 4.8
0-50 7.9 6.7
0-60 10.8 8.8
0-70 14.3 11.8
0-80 19.4 15.2
0-90 26.9 19.1
0-100 38.1 25.2
0-110 50.30 34

Speeds in gearsFrom minimum to maximum in each gear.


24mph 37mph
2 52mph 65mph
3 95mph 98mph
4 117mph (max speed in test) 125mph (max speed in test)

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