What did luxury look like 30 years ago? Classic comparison test Mercedes 420 SE, Lexus LS, Audi V8 and BMW 735i

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The German magazine Auto Zeitung made an interesting comparison test with four classic luxury limousines: Mercedes 420 SE, Lexus LS, Audi V8 and BMW 735i. Which is better?

Photo: Auto Zeitung

About 30 years ago, Audi and Lexus decided to attack German luxury sedans with V8 engines, Mercedes S-Class and BMW 7 Series.
Mercedes S-Class set the standards in the luxury class with the W186 model presented at the Frankfurt Motor Show in 1951. Since then, the luxury class has been associated with Mercedes and since 1972, with the premiere of the Mercedes W116, the Mercedes luxury limousine is known as the S-Class.

In 1977, BMW introduced the first luxury sedan called the 7 Series (E23). In 1979 Mercedes has launched the second generation S-Class, codenamed W126, designed by Bruno Sacco and which is less opulent because it has fewer chrome elements. The S-Class shines with technology and high safety standards, being the first german car with an airbag.

In 1986, the second generation BMW 7 Series appeared, coming for the first time with two innovations: an electronic engine control and ASC stability control. In 1987, the 7 Series range is completed with the 300 HP BMW 750i, the first german V12 engine after World War II. Mercedes S-Class W126 had no less than three versions with V8 engines.

The Audi V8 has used a V8 engine since its debut in this prestigious segment in 1988. Derived from the Audi 100, the Audi V8 was the world’s first all-wheel drive luxury sedan. The engine was mated with a 4-speed automatic transmission. At that time, the Audi V8 was 30% more expensive than the base versions from BMW and Mercedes because it came with a better standard equipment that included leather upholstery, heated front seats, audio system, automatic air conditioning, ABS and safety system procon -ten.

The first Japanese competitor of the German triad was Lexus in 1988 with the LS400. Toyota has invested over DM 1.5 billion to set up the luxury brand Lexus and develop a luxury limousine.
Unlike German rivals, the Lexus LS had a very rich standard equipment and only four options were available: leather upholstery with heated seats and memory, sunroof and CD player.

Audi and BMW are the most spacious, Mercedes and BMW offers the best ergonomics
In this test, the power of the four models ranges from 211 HP (BMW) and 250 HP (Audi). Also, all four models are around 5 meters, corresponding to the format of the luxury class. But the close exterior dimensions do not correspond to a similar interior space. Audi offers plenty of space both front and rear and the largest volume of the trunk. BMW is at a similar level but is slightly narrower in the rear. Lexus has the smallest trunk and does not have enough space for three passengers in the rear. Mercedes 420 SE is the largest on the outside but at the rear offers the smallest kneerom.

Instead, Mercedes impresses with its ergonomics at the highest level, just like BMW. At Audi things are more complicated due to the four levers on the steering wheel and the American-inspired air conditioning control. Lexus is the most modern in this comparison and impresses with the three-dimensional speedometer but the multitude of buttons on the dashboard requires a time of habituation.

Audi and BMW offers the best dynamics
Surprisingly, the Lexus is the first to reach the magic barrier of 250 km/h. Audi runs at a maximum of 240 km/h followed by BMW while Mercedes 420 SE stops at 220 km/h. But the S-Class accelerates the fastest to 100 km/h in just 8.7 seconds. However, the Mercedes 420 SE is not very agile, it bends quite a lot in corners and the direction is quite indirect. However, the road holding is correct and Mercedes does not pose any problems. The red flashlight in terms of road behavior goes to the Lexus. The direction is too indirect and does not provide contact with the road. Lexus was designed for the American market and this explains the suspension too soft. In case of high load, the safety suffers considerably and Lexus undesteer a lot in corners.

Bavarian limousines from Audi and BMW demonstrate how to do things better in terms of dynamics. Thanks to all-wheel drive, Audi is very safe and in corners understeer a little. BMW impresses with its precise steering, which has no influences at all from propulsion and is very neutral in corners. BMW wins at the chapter dynamics because it is more stable in a straight line than Audi. BMW also impresses with its balanced suspension and good seats. BMW elegantly cushions bumps. Mercedes absorb also well bumps, but the front seats do not provide enough lateral support.
Audi’s suspension is too rigid for the luxury class and too uneasy on the highway and on bumpy roads. In terms of comfort, Lexus ranks second. Under normal load, Lexus offers good comfort.

Lexus  is the most economical
Lexus also has the lowest consumption, of 13.1 l / 100 km, obtained also thanks to a very good Cx of only 0.29 (+ BMW 0.32, Audi 0.34, Mercedes 0.36). Although it has 2 cylinders less, BMW consumed 1.5 l / 100 km more, but it also runs on normal gasoline. The Mercedes V8 engine needs 16 l/100 km and Audi over 18 l/100 km due to all-wheel drive.

BMW is cheaper to maintain. The oil bath has only 5.75 l of oil and the inspection intervals are flexible being announced by the on-board computer. For normal use, inspection at 150,000 km is recommended. Audi needs 8 l of oil at 15,000 km and the brakes are expensive to replace. Lexus and Mercedes have shorter inspection intervals with 5000 km. Mercedes needs also 8 liters of oil. At the time of its launch, Mercedes was considered an innovative limousine but in this comparison it is the oldest. Mechanical fuel injection and simple rear axle construction lagged behind rivals. The two-valve engines from Mercedes and BMW are solid.
With its V8 engine with four valves per cylinder, four camshafts and all-wheel drive, Audi plays in another league. The Lexus also has a sophisticated V8 engine with four camshafts. In addition, the Lexus engine is very reliable and runs smoothly even after hundreds of thousands of kilometers. All four limousines cost today only a fraction from the new price and can be registered as vintage cars.


Fun factor is very different in the four limousines. Lexus’ values are reliability and a refined and silent engine. But it is not very pleasant to drive. Mercedes is for those who want a sovereign limousine, which offers a special status to its owner. Audi offers a high standard, top quality workmanship and an excellent engine. But the engine performance is not exploited to the level expected by the automatic transmission. Four-wheel drive contributes to a dynamic and safe driving. Thanks to the fully galvanized body, Audi offers long-term satisfaction. BMW is the most pleasant to drive. It is powerful, spacious and prestigious. BMW wins this comparison of claasic luxury limousines not only because of the sportiness and excellent comfort.