The world of high-end, stretched-wheelbase, super-expensive luxury sedans has often been carved up between two main contenders. In one corner, there’s the Mercedes-Benz S-Class, the long-time champion and in many ways the originator of the European executive sedan segment in the minds of North Americans. In the other, the BMW 7 Series, a generously-proportioned car that often attempted to prove big-bones could dance just as well as they coddled.
Which of these two Teutonic titans reigned supreme when looking back over their years of polite sniping and siphoning from the pockets of well-to-do customers? Although their respective chronology doesn’t always perfectly match up, the quest for the luxo crown portrays an intriguing contest between two philosophically different takes on delivering a high end, chauffeur-ready driving experience.
Check out our in-depth evaluation of the never-ending rivalry between the 7 Series and the S-Class.
The first ‘official’ Mercedes-Benz S-Class (after years of dabbling with the upper crust of automotive sedans via models like the Ponton and the Fintail), the W116 set new standards in terms of what customers could expect from a technologically-advanced luxury car.
Built from 1972 to 1980, the W116 was large, featured exceptional power (especially when ordered with its available 6.9-liter M100 V8 engine that delivered 286 horses and over 400 lb-ft of torque), and offered class-leading handling and safety gear in an era where seatbelts were about as advanced as most domestic automakers could manage.
The E23 BMW 7 Series came much later to the game, debuting in 1977. It was a more modest effort, sticking to six-cylinder power (although a pair of turbocharged options were available) and it was also smaller than the executive-oriented W116 (which came in a popular long-wheelbase edition).
Given that it ran until 1986, and stayed in production as the L7 even after the following gen had debuted, it’s not surprising that the E23 offered some features, like anti-lock brakes, before the W116 did. By that time Mercedes-Benz had already moved to the next S-Class iteration, and as we’ll see the overlap between these two flagship sedans often meant a game of constant give-and-take when it came to features.
The Verdict: The Mercedes-Benz W116 remains an icon, and is truly one of the most significant cars the brand ever built. The E23 from BMW is more of a footnote. It’s an easy choice.
Mercedes-Benz took the momentum it had gathered with the W116 and used it to create an incredibly popular version of its full-size sedan package. The W124, which arrived in early 1980 and stayed all the way until 1991, had the styling, comfort, power, and features that made it the dominant ’80s luxury ride, preferred by titans of industry and third-world despots alike.
Power was up across the board, with its mighty 5.0-liter V8 just as effective as the massive 6.9 in terms of propelling the W124 to autobahn cruising speeds. To many, this vehicle to this day remains the mind’s-eye image of the S-Class, such was its impact on pop culture and the automotive industry alike.
When BMW introduced the E32 for 1987, it was a quantum leap in terms of prestige and sophistication. The second-generation 7 Series birthed the brand’s V12 engine (and acquainted owners with the first of the brand’s extensive maintenance bugaboos in the process) and grew in size to more effectively fight against the S-Class in terms of presence and prestige.
Also new was a V8, which had been missing from the BMW line-up for almost 25 years, and this lighter version of the E32 proved to be a better driver’s car than the comparable S-Class, establishing a trend that echoed forward in their future rivalry.
The Verdict: As much of an improvement as the revised 7 Series was, the W124 continues to ply roads all over the world as a daily driver for thousands, while the E32’s spiritual flame is maintained almost exclusively by a small cadre of enthusiasts. S-Class takes this one handily.
The W124 was a hard act to follow. Intent on maintaining its luxury lead, Mercedes-Benz’s answer in 1991 to the question of ‘what should we do next?’ was ‘more of everything.’ This meant extra power (its new six-cylinder engine was nearly a match for the previous model’s V8), more size (with brutal styling that avoided the detailed character of the W124), endless gadgets (electric rearview mirror, anyone?), and of course, a higher price (as much as 25-per-cent more for certain editions).
Inside, the new car (dubbed the W140) was a soundless vault, isolating riders from the rest of the world, and deadening driving response with a soft, less-precise personality on the road. In keeping with BMW upping the ante under the hood, the S-Class could now be had with a V12 of its own, as well as the first turbodiesel option offered in its home European market.
In contrast the E38 7 Series marked the peak of BMW’s ability to connect driver and car in a suitably enormous full-size four-door. Arriving three years after the W140, the new 7 Series featured sharp, sleek looks that stood in marked contrast to the institutional stuffiness of the Mercedes-Benz.
It also continued to feature a diverse range of engine choices (six through 12 cylinders, as well as diesels), and benefited from advanced safety equipment and infotainment features that came later to the S-Class. Most importantly, however, it was truly excellent to drive, a fact made all the more surprising by it finally having stretched in size to be a true competitor for the longest-wheelbase Mercedes-Benz.
The Verdict: Few have fond memories of the S-Class’ empire phase, whereas the E38 7 Series got to star in a movie with Jason Statham and donated its V12 to the McLaren F1 supercar. Game, set, match, BMW.
In some ways, the W220 S-Class felt like a penance from Mercedes-Benz for the stern, overbearing demeanour of the W140. Arriving earlier than past versions of the four-door, in 1998 the redesigned S-Class turned to more sculpted sheet metal and a softer visage that was matched by an interior that looked good at first, but soon revealed itself to be on the low end of the buck when it came to materials. It was the beginning of a dark period for Benz where cost-cutting intruded on what had once been a car built to a specification, not a price.
That being said, the W220 is also the generation that introduced S-Class buyers to all-wheel-drive, as well as the wonders of the full AMG experience, with a twin-turbocharged V12 joined by a supercharged V8 to bring exceptional straight-line speed to the massively heavy (though smaller than before) automobile.
At roughly the same time as the S-Class was experiencing its downsized mea culpa, BMW decided to make things weird with a 7 Series sedan that featured Chris Bangle’s brand-wide flame surfacing styling. The 2002 to 2008 E65-generation car grew in almost every dimension, featured a rounded fuselage look, and went all-in on technology both in the engine bay and throughout the chassis. In fact, the car required a fibre-optic network to keep things like the new iDrive infotainment system, the adaptive cruise control, and its active suspension system as close to operational as possible. A hydrogen-powered model, as well as the first supercharged 500-horsepower Alpina B7 would follow.
The Verdict: Reliability concerns plagued the W220, and few have any nostalgia for the rental-car interiors of this particular S-Class. The E65 7 Series is equally terrifying to own if you’re not a BMW tech, and it coined the term ‘Bangle Butt.’ It’s a draw.
Arriving for the 2006 model year (2007 for North America), the Mercedes-Benz W221 tried to get the S-Class back on track. Attempting to bury past interior indiscretions, the new car’s cabin was a little much, with its higher-quality upholstery, wood, and plastics somewhat overwhelmed by styling flourishes and the new COMAND infotainment system display. The exterior was similarly busy, especially at the rear where Mercedes-Benz tried hard to link its strong-selling S-Class with the completely ignored Maybach ultra-luxury limousine that had debuted to resounding apathy earlier in the decade.
The true catchword for the W221 S-Class was “technology.” This is the car that added night vision, radar-based safety and cruise control, emergency braking assistance, a collision-prediction system, steering-swivel headlights, lane-keeping and blind-spot monitoring, and two different adaptive suspension systems. It also upped the ante considerably in terms of power: the S500’s V8 crested 400 horsepower while the S65 AMG milked an astounding 604 horsepower and 738 lb-ft of torque from its twin-turbo V12.
BMW caught up to the S-Class with far less of a delay in the form of the 2008 F01. This 7 Series was considerably more conservative in terms of its looks, banishing Bangle’s excess and creating a neater overall package. The interior, too, embraced old school luxury while further improving the iDrive interface and splashing in wow-factor features such as an LCD gauge cluster.
As with the S-Class, the 7 Series gained all manner of advanced safety features in this generation, but it was more notable for experimenting with a short-lived hybrid model (the ActiveHybrid7), as well as introducing all-wheel-drive to BMW’s largest car. Although shying away from a pure M model to match AMG’s muscled-up sedans, Alpina was still in the picture with a 532-horsepower version of the 7’s twin-turbo 4.4-liter V8 that was just a few ponies shy of the automaker’s in-house turbocharged V12.
The Verdict: BMW’s F01 looks have aged much better than the overwrought W221, but each of these cars represent early efforts at a high-tech experience neither brand was full capable of delivering. It’s another draw.
Taking a page from BMW’s notebook, Mercedes-Benz toned down the beefed-up lines of the W221 with the incrementally-named W222 in 2014. Classy and well-proportioned, it’s the best-looking S-Class of the new millennium and it also happens to deliver a passenger compartment that is a cut above anything Mercedes-Benz had been able to achieve with past S-Class efforts. Technologies that once felt tacked-on are now properly integrated across the board, and the wood, seating, and metal trim combine with subtle lighting cues and better interfaces for each vehicle system.
Of course this is also the generation that gave us terms like ‘Magic Body Control,’ and expanded the list of gadgets to include perfume dispensers and other ‘features’ of dubious utility. Still, with a hybrid model now in the lineup, a range of truly frightening standard and AMG powerplants on offer, and the subjugation of the Maybach brand as a sub-trim of the S-Class, the W222 fully redeemed Mercedes-Benz’s executive sedan.
There’s little to complain about with the G11/G12 version of the BMW 7 Series, which followed the W222 just a year or so later. Somewhat bland to look at, its interior improved with time, and its engine options (including a new turbocharged four-cylinder) continue to be adequate for almost every conceivable driving scenario outside of a race track.
As with Mercedes-Benz, trim levels and drivetrain combinations multiplied to confusing levels, but the most defining characteristic of the latest 7 Series is just how overshadowed it’s become by both its in-house competitor (the by-now large, and impressively-equipped, 5 Series) and of course the S-Class across the aisle. Yes, it’s an option, and sure there’s still a 600-horsepower B7 model available, but leadership in technology, handling, and innovation are seemingly ceded in recognition of how few buyers are still shopping for a four-door this big.
Mercedes-Benz S-Class, Bayerische Motoren Werke AG
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