Mercedes-Benz 560SEL V126 vs. Daimler 4.0-litre XJ40

2019 Adam Shorrock  and Drive-My EN/UK

Daimler meet Benz. Who really made the best executive car of the 1980s? We pitch the Daimler 4.0-litre against the Mercedes-Benz S-Class W126. Words John-Joe-Vollans. Photography Adam Shorrock.


HEAD TO HEAD DAIMLER VS. MERCEDES

Why late-1980s luxury saloons can make ideal commuters. W126-S-Class vs. XJ40 Sovereign for pride of the executive class.


The best car in the world is always a hot topic – these days it might be a hypercar, or if you want to look right-on at a trendy dinner party, an EV. But back in the 1980s, the battle raged in the executive market. Forty years ago, Mercedes-Benz unveiled the W126 S-Class – the very peak of design and engineering technology for the time.


W126-S-Class vs. XJ40 Sovereign for pride of the executive class

W126-S-Class vs. XJ40 Sovereign for pride of the executive class


Meanwhile, Jaguar was trading on the traditional mixture of grace, pace and a level of leather and wood that would shame the private members’ clubs that its well-heeled customers visited. That was the SIII XJ6, but in 1986, and long overdue, the XJ40 was unveiled. It was a thoroughly modern take on what a Coventry big cat could be. It was acclaimed by the home press, yet internationally the S-Class held sway as the plutocrat runaround du jour. Today we’re pitching a Daimler 4.0-litre against a Mercedes-Benz W126 560SEL to settle the argument. Who built the best car in the world?

‘YOU CAN’T HELP BUT FEEL THE PLUCKY BRIT MIGHT JUST BE THE ONE TO HAVE’

The late 1980s were a glorious time for luxury cars. While the decade may have started with the worst unemployment levels since the 1930s, by 1990 it had more than halved to six per cent. In 1987 the UK economy grew by two per cent in the third quarter alone – by way of comparison, it’s predicted that the UK economy will grow by 1.1 per cent over the whole of 2019.

Of course, the boom didn’t last, but in the mean time the fight for the executive class was fierce. Jaguar and Mercedes-Benz were traditional rivals, but relative newcomers to the genre, BMW, were getting serious with the E32 7 Series. Even Bentley, which had been a problem child for much of its life, saw sales soar on the boosty rush of the Turbo R. By the end of the decade, there were fresh challengers from Audi and Lexus.

All of them were transfixed on one aim – to build the best car in the world. Internationally, the benchmark had always been the Mercedes-Benz S-Class. The S stands for ‘Sonder’, or special, and the W126 generation was certainly that. It was lighter, more efficient and packed with more tech than the space shuttle.

If any W126 can still impress, it’s got to be the top of the range model, so that’s why we’ve tracked down the big daddy 560SEL.

‘ONLY THE VERY WORST POTHOLES REGISTER THEIR PRESENCE WITHIN THE CABIN’

That means a 5.5-litre, 295bhp V8 engine and a top speed of nearly 150mph. The picturesque Rockingham Castle in Northamptonshire is our rendezvous.

Originally a Norman stronghold, this Keep nestles in a commanding position atop the largest hill for miles, meaning wind chill makes it bleed in’ freezing out here. I’m therefore even more eager than usual to grab the Benz keys from Phil James.

He’s something of a minor celebrity in the W126 community. He’s known as ‘Mr W126’, as he owns several of these top-end models (plus a Lambo).He swears by them and even uses this SEL as his daily commuter. We don’t envy his fuel bills, but we’re still green over the rest…

The first thing that strikes me about this W126 is its sheer scale. The 560 was only available in 121.1in long-wheelbase form; in modern-speak, a gargantuan 5.2 metres.


W126-S-Class vs. XJ40 Sovereign for pride of the executive class

W126-S-Class vs. XJ40 Sovereign for pride of the executive class


It’s even more evident on the inside as I sink into the huge, orthopaedically sculpted driver’s seat, before taking note of the generous leg and head room as I stir the big V8 into life. The rev counter assures me that the motor is running but there’s very little audible or physical evidence to confirm it. With the heated seats on full power, I spend the first few miles fiddling with various toys; as it turns out, almost as many as Hamleys before Christmas. Here are the abridged highlights – you sit on eight-way, electrically adjustable front seats with two-stage heating for driver and passenger. The steering column and the pews have two memory settings, so tailored ergonomics are a button-push away.

Rear passengers don’t miss out – there are two-way powered, dual-stage heated seats with electrically adjusted headrests, plus a central console that could be swapped for an in-car phone, television or a fridge for a post-meeting tipple.

Clearly Mercedes-Benz would never allow its customers to feel even the slightest discomfort, so it fitted the 560SEL with a fully automatic climate-control system. An interior temperature sensor constantly monitors the cabin and independently adjusts the heating and air-conditioning to maintain a pre-selected ideal temperature.


W126-S-Class vs. XJ40 Sovereign for pride of the executive class

W126-S-Class vs. XJ40 Sovereign for pride of the executive class

Anyway, that’s enough fiddling with buttons, let’s see how this thing drives. The rural roads surrounding Rockingham aren’t the W126’s natural stomping ground but they are ideal for testing real world practicality. For a car of this scale it’s easy to place, as the square styling makes the dimensions easy to judge.

Our first encounter with a national speed limit sign delivers a surprisingly swift turn of pace, especially as we’ve 1.8 tons plus ‘ballast’ to shift. You still have to nudge the long-travel throttle pedal deep into the carpet for the engine note to pipe up. When it does, there’s no snarling muscle car soundtrack, but you certainly know there are eight cylinders under that aircraft carrier-proportioned bonnet. There’s a pleasing growl, hinting at the Grunt waiting to be deployed.

This V126 SEL’s (W126 index for SWB SE version) power-to-weight ratio is barely over 150bhp per ton but that hardly matters. More important is the 336lb-ft of torque, enough to give this SEL useful overtaking pace at almost any speed. If you really feel the need to do a traffic light drag race then the SEL will oblige, lolloping past 60mph in 7.1 seconds, but it’s really geared to cruise. It’ll manage to keep you in the lap of luxury at nearly 150mph all-day long. Just don’t show it corner… Despite the optional sport dampers fitted to this SEL, and the self-levelling rear (standard on 560s), sumptuous comfort is still its primary rationale.

The damping is ideal at insulating the cabin from bumps, but together with the roll bars, they’re too forgiving to provide much in the way of body control. This SEL squats under braking, pitches under hard throttle and lists over in the bends. There’s plenty of grip though, so if you can put up with the lean then you can carry some speed, but it just doesn’t feel right doing it. Oh, and rear seat passengers might decorate the back of your neck with their last meal. Best to ease off and let digestion take its natural course.

The 560SEL still grants its occupants huge levels of comfort and isolation from the worst our pot-holed road network can throw at it, but for better or worse, it’s no sports saloon.

So how does the Daimler compare? Well Jaguar has always prided itself on making luxury cars with a sporting bent. Today’s Daimler 4.0-litre is actually a Jaguar XJ6 (XJ40) with leather seats, a fluted chrome grille and picnic tables in the back. You’d pay a four-grand premium over the Jaguar XJ 4.0-litre for the Daimler badge privilege.

‘THE W126 WAS LIGHTER, MORE EFFICIENT AND PACKED WITH MORE TECH THAN THE SPACE SHUTTLE’

At the time, Jaguar was taking on the European Touring Car Championship elite in the iconic green Jaguar XJ-S racers, and would soon be stepping up to the Group C Sportscar Championship to take on the might of Porsche and Sauber-Mercedes-Benz. So, there should be plenty of that race-winning knowhow under the surface then. Er, sort of…

Getting into Jonathan Palman’s well-cared- for Daimler there’s a marked difference from the SEL. There’s less room for a start – it feels as though the lower dash, centre console and door cards are all hemming you in.

Just like in the Benz, the seat and wheel are easily adjusted to an ideal position with a few flicks of electric adjusters. At idle the Daimler’s engine is just as creamy smooth as the SEL’s V8, despite losing out on a couple of cylinders.

The ‘J-gate’ automatic shifter made its first appearance in the XJ40, and provides an additional ‘manual’ shift pattern just around the corner from the conventional auto layout. There’s time for that later – instead, I leave the ZF four-speed (ZF 4HP 22) to make its own mind up for the time being, so I can concentrate on familiarising myself with the Daimler’s road manners.

Along the same rural roads as ventured along in the Benz, the Daimler’s ride is very nearly as compliant over the rougher sections, floating along serenely. Only the very worst potholes register their presence within the cabin.

Both these cars have slim pillars and Huge windscreens, which means wonderfully clear, driver vision. The Jag’s steering wheel is similarly huge, though the steering wheel rimis as thin as 80s British Rail coffee. The two-spoke design provides a great view of the dials, but I’d rather trade a little less vision for a bit more grip and a smaller wheel. The Daimler’s engine might not be as powerful as the lump in the SEL, but it certainly makes up for it with character.

Where the SEL’s M117 dishes out its mid-range urge with the smoothness of a well-aged cigar, the Daimler’s AJ6 loves to rev. The 24-valve six is refined and smooth below 3500rpm, but go beyond and you’re pushed along with the vigour of a swiftly necked Harvey Wallbanger. Although the on-paper stats say otherwise, this Daimler feels like the quicker car.

Flick this late-spec Daimler’s transmission into SPORT and the changes sharpen up noticeably. It also holds on to every rev, allowing you to exploit all 223bhp. It sounds great too.

Once up to speed you don’t need to dive on the brakes before the corners, which is just as well as it turns out as they’re pretty underwhelming. Turn in isn’t as devoid of feel as the Benz; push in hard and the car leans over, but it’s progressive, allowing you to feel the front load up. There’s plenty of grip and even in cold conditions the Kumho tyres never wave the white flag.

Getting on the power early reveals a frustrating delay from the ‘box but once over-ridden in manual mode it shifts neatly and briskly. Easing off and returning to a wafting pace, this Daimler settles back into the guise of a luxury executive express. The transformation is more convincing than it was in the Mercedes, though cabin refinement remains higher in the Benz – there are a few friction noises from overlapping trim and dash surfaces in the Daimler. There’s also a hiss from a rubber seal that’s past its best, hinting at a level of finish that’s no doubt good for Jag, but still not up to Benz. Then again even Mercedes couldn’t match its own standards for the W126’s, follow-up, the W140. Despite this, and to my surprise, it’s the Daimler that provides more fun behind the wheel. But does fun make it the best 1980s executive car?


 

The Modern Classics view

Both of these saloons are rare survivors of a lost era. The slab-sided Benz may look imposing but it’s anything but to drive. It’s as easy to use today as it must have been 40 years ago. It was given standard fit safety tech such as ABS, safety belt pretensioners and crumple zones many years before they became the norm. Some of the creature comforts you’ll find inside – such as electrically operated head rests and heated seats – still aren’t standard equipment for many manufacturers today. For many, this, along with its engineering solidity, makes it the undisputed king of executive luxury.

Maybe that’s the case if you prefer to sit in the back. While the ride might well be as comfortable as a Rolls-Royce, it handles like one too. Combine this with vague and numb feedback from the steering box and if you’re behind the wheel, you can’t help but feel the plucky Brit might just be the one to have.

The Daimler doesn’t skimp on ride quality, but it doesn’t compromise handling with it. Ride versus sportiness is a tricky knife edge to balance, but it’s a balancing act that Jag has got spot-on time and time again. The Daimler is the better all-rounder than the Benz. Will it break more often? Probably, but you’ll cheerfully forgive it and fix it when it does.

On top of this, the XJ40 shakes off much of Jag’s conservative image. Its styling was a strong departure from the SIII XJ6’s curves, which still upsets traditionalists. However, with such a tiny price tag, it’s easy to award the rosette to Coventry.


SPECIFICATIONS MERCEDES-BENZ 560SEL V126

Engine 5547cc, 8-cyl, SOHC 
Transmission RWD, 4-speed auto 
Power 295bhp @ 5000rpm 
Torque 336lb-ft @ 3750rpm 
Weight 1780kg 
PERFORMANCE
0-60mph 7.1sec
Top speed 147mph
Economy 22mpg

{module Mercedes Benz 126}


SPECIFICATIONS DAIMLER 4.0-LITRE (XJ40)
Engine 3980cc, 6-cyl, DOHC
Transmission RWD, 4-speed auto
Power [email protected] 4600rpm
Torque [email protected] 3750rpm
Weight 1865kg
PERFORMANCE
0-60mph 8.5sec
Top speed 140mph
Economy 26mpg


JJ’s a bit chatty for a chauffeur. It may look bulky, but its drag is just Cd 0.36. Good for 1979. Endlessly adjustable comfort. From a time with proper sidewalls. Plenty of room for JJ’s Spice Girls tapes. The last XJ with Sir William Lyons’ input. Quintessentially British interior still charms. Much more solid in the Merc, less character mind. Right for smoothness, left for thump. Ah, more rubber Than wheel. Remember those days? Pass the brandy, there’s a good chap. JJ won’t be getting a tip for driving like that.


 

I BOUGHT ONE DAIMLER 4.0-LITRE

Student Jonathan Palman uses his Daimler daily. ‘The XJ40 has a real magic carpet ride. It drives and feels like a classic Jaguar but with some mod-cons such as a CD changer and air con. Long journeys are effortless. The AJ6 engine is bulletproof and this car has Given me nothing to worry about. The electrics can present issues but they’re easily cured. It’s a true driver’s car, both sports saloon and luxury carriage from a bygone era.’

I BOUGHT ONE MERCEDES-BENZ 560SEL V126

Phil James is known in car circles as ‘Mr W126’. ‘I bought my first 560SEL V126 in 1992: a dark blue over Mushroom ‘1987 car with hydropneumatic suspension. I still own it over a quarter of a century later and it’s now done 350,000miles. I own three more 560SELs, all hydropneumatic cars. They are the apogee of Benz, the best-engineered cars of all time.’


 

NEED TO KNOW

DAIMLER 4.0-LITRE

Corrosion is the main killer, with serious rot found in the headlight surrounds and the windscreen bottoms. Other areas include the sills, wheel arches, floors (cabin and boot), bonnet, boot lid and inner wings. Chrome bumpers can pit and aren’t a cheap fix. Interior wear is common especially to leather seat bolsters. Basic cloth seats tend to survive better.

These cars were fitted with a lot of tech in their day and most of it hasn’t seen any fresh wiring or cleaned earth points since new. Many electric components fail so check everything works.

Pre-‘1989 cars (before Ford) had Leyland-leftover trim, which doesn’t last nearly as well as later models. Exterior door mechanisms can snap leaving you locked out.


What to pay

Concours £5000

Good £3000

Usable £2000

Project £1000


MERCEDES-BENZ 560SEL V126

Built with corrosion resistance from the factory, the W126/V126/C126 has survived well but that protection is now over 30 years old. Rust attacks the Front wings, rear arches and jacking points first. Look at the boot floor and the panel under the rear screen as repairs here are long and expensive.

Inspect the corners of the screens for any clouding that indicates the ingress of water. If bad it’s a MoT fail.

With hefty straight sixes and meaty V8 engines, the front suspension has to work hard. Check the top of the springs for cracked or missing coils.

Steering is by a box and isn’t razor sharp when in the rudest of health but any vagueness or wandering at motorway speeds indicates play in the linkages or the box itself.

Cars fitted with self-levelling rear suspension can suffer associated pipework failure due to corrosion. Not cheap or easy to cure so unless you have to have it, stick with conventional suspension.


What to pay

Concours £20,000

Good £12,000

Usable £10,000

Project £5000


 

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Additional Info
  • Body: Sedan
  • Type: Petrol
  • Drive: RWD
  • Type: Petrol

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