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Mercedes S-Class vs BMW 7-Series: Comparison Over the Last 6/7 Generations

Today, I compare the Mercedes S-Class and the BMW 7-Series over the last 6 or 7 generations from the matchup between W126 and E23, E32 to today's battle between W223 and G70.
Published by Dr Jiulin Teng on 07 Jul 2024
Keywords: bmwmercedes
Hero Image for Mercedes S-Class vs BMW 7-Series: Comparison Over the Last 6/7 Generations
Today, I compare the Mercedes S-Class and the BMW 7-Series over the last 6 or 7 generations. Six or seven because the W126 had an extraordinarily long production run.

W126 > E23, E32

The story begins with the BMW E23, the original 7-Series. It carried many design features commonly found in pre-Bangle BMWs, including small kidney grilles, quad headlights, and the Hofmeister Kink. Most cars had M30 engines, and all used inline-6. Some early cars were carburetted, and the 745i was turbocharged.
The E23 “competed” with the pre-facelift W126 S-Class, at least in theory. In reality, the W126 far outclassed the BMW. It was a lot bigger and heavier and unbelievably better built. In fact, most Mercedes enthusiasts believe the W126 to be the best-built Mercedes S-Class of all time. Design-wise, it is much statelier, being the default choice of business and political leaders across the globe, while the E23 was more of a manager’s car in comparison. Of note was the OM617 inline-5 diesel, arguably the most durable Mercedes engine.
The E32 BMW 7-Series “competed” with the facelifted W126. Even though it grew in size and features and was heavier than some W126 variations, the car still felt outclassed by the Mercedes. One thing that drew some towards it, among others, was the introduction of the M70 engine, the first post-war German V12. The car is much better proportioned for its size than the E23 and remains one of the better-looking BMWs in history.
Overall, the W126 holds in my book the largest lead over the 7-Series in history. The most interesting examples of this era to check out (and possibly to collect) are the 500SE, 300SD, and obviously 560SE on the Mercedes side. For BMW, it would be the E32 750i and the original Alpina B12.

W140 ~ E38

In the 1990s, the Mercedes W140 S-Class again stood as the luxury sedan for business and political leaders. However, even though it is remembered today as a stately car, many find the W140 to be lacking the elegance of the W126. Some even considered it a little vulgar, and some still do. This was also the time when the quality of Mercedes vehicles started to drop, slowly at first and faster with the facelift. Of note are the M120 V12 engine, arguably the best V12 out of Germany, the M119 V8, the most reliable V8 out of Germany, and the OM606 inline-6 diesel, the favourite platform for diesel tuners today. It is one of the rare cars that can look good in LWB, probably because the V140 is just 10cm longer.
Competing with the W140 was the E38 7-Series. Arguably, this was the last purist BMW full-size sedan with a strong focus on styling and handling. With the right configuration, it was also the most beautiful BMW 7-Series of all time in my opinion. While many still consider the W140 to be half a class higher, the E38 is probably the best 7-Series of all time. It was the Quattroporte V before Quattroporte V. This car looks good only in SWB, though, with the elongated mid-rear section in the LWB ruining the graceful proportions of the vehicle.
Overall, the W140 and E38 have a draw in this generation. The most interesting Mercedes W140 to check out are the late 5-speed S500, which is still a good daily driver, and the early 600SEL, which had more power thanks to full-throttle enrichment. On the BMW side, that would include the 740i with 6-speed manual transmission, the 750i, and the Alpina B12, all after the 1998 facelift.

W220 ~ E65

The W220 S-Class is not remembered fondly today, even though reviewers and consumers initially loved the car. Bruno Sacco, who led the design of the W126, W140, and W220, said that he likes the styling of the W220 the best. It was an attempt to return to the elegance of the W126, but many nowadays find the car lacking in presence. What let this generation down was the electronic complexity and the horrendous M137 V12 engine. Cost-cutting was obvious in the overall build quality, too, even though that started earlier. Of note are the M275 biturbo V12 engine and the supercharged M113 V8.
Competing with the W220 was the E65 7-Series. The E65 was the start of the Bangle era, with a complete departure from early BMWs in styling. Many found it too vulgar, and it probably led BMW to replace Mercedes in the Eastern European mob scene. It was also an attempt to maximize electronic features, and by all accounts even less well put together than the Mercedes.
Today, both are old cars with very few loyalists. Since the W220 has always been an understated car, I find it to be fitting into this role better. Still, this is a draw, because the E65 still stands out today. The most interesting Mercedes W220s to own are the facelifted S320 CDI diesel, which was the last great diesel from Germany, and the S500 with 7-speed transmission, which is extremely reliable and fuel-efficient. On the BMW side, that would be the 760i with the great N73 V12. All of these in SWB form, as both were designed as SWB cars, and LWB was an afterthought.

W221 > F01

The W221 was an evolution of the W220 that brought back many design elements of the W140. As such, I find it a rare example where LWB actually looks more coherent than SWB. As AMG became fully integrated into its line-up, it also marked a high point for large AMG sedans. The W221 did not double down on the electronic complexity but instead removed up to 70 unappreciated features that improved the car’s electrical reliability. In terms of engine reliability, however, this was the start of a disastrous period with endless issues.
Competing with the W221 was the F01 7-Series. This was a much more sedate design than its predecessor. However, it lacked charisma and was never well received except among a small enthusiast community, which has decreased in number over time. While the W221 had some bad engines, the F01 had the worst offenders in poor engineering with the infamous N63. At the same time, it introduced the surprisingly good N74 V12.
I think the W221 beat the F01 slightly for reasons above. Today, the most interesting W221s to own is the S65 AMG, while the F01 to own is the rare SWB 760i.
As it was late to the game, the F01 launched into a time when developed economies were swept by the 2008 financial crisis. The LWB F02 and the W221 were saved by predominant sales in China. Whence, this would strongly influence the design directions of the two series.

W222 ~ G11

The W222 has always had its devotees. However, in my eyes, it is the F01 of the W221—it is too bland and uninspiring to be a special car. The W222 also accelerated the trend among German automakers of using electronic gadgets to compensate for a lack of build quality. While initially I was wowed by it, as lesser Mercedes vehicles started to look the same, I can no longer look past the mediocre quality of the vehicle.
Competing with the W222 was the G11 7-Series. The G11 is best known for the frequently-mocked “hockey stick” chrome bar across its wheelbase. In my opinion, it is a successful evolution of the F01, adding a bit more fun back to what is supposed to be the sportier vehicle of its class. Hence, it needs to be in SWB. Interior-wise, the G11 is also a good improvement, though it still lacks the magic feel that special cars give its occupants. Of note are the B58 and B57 inline-6 engines.
I think the two are equally matched again. Today, the more interesting W222s to own are the S600 and the S65 AMG. On the BMW side, I consider the SWB 740i and 750d to be great daily drivers. The quad-turbocharged 3.0L diesel in the latter is one-of-a-kind.

W223 < G70

In my opinion, the W223 is an evolution for the worse in styling. Its front fascia is dominated by a bulging grille that robs the car of any credibility in grace and elegance. However, it is designed to be graceful and elegant from all other angles. This contradiction does not create interest but subtracts from it. Interestingly, I find it again a car that looks better in SWB, even though most are sold in LWB.
Competing with the W223 is the G70 7-Series. In my minoritarian opinion, this is a successful return to the spirits of the Bangle era. The BMW also has a comical front grille; however, the car is coherent in that everything on it is either too large or too small. The end result is a design that piques interest.
Overall, I think the G70 is the first time that BMW has a superior product to Mercedes in the full-size sedan segment, even though it has poor sales and will not be appreciated until its more uninspiring successor replaces it. Considering the complexities that these cars have and the general lack of quality in German vehicles these days, I do not consider either good car to own. Maybe the 740i is an OK-ish choice.

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