Vintage R&T Road Test: 1973 Mercedes 450 SE – “World’s Best Sedan?” Did You Have To Ask?

Yes, there was a time when it wasn’t exactly hard to identify “the world’s best sedan”, and with the arrival of the newest w116 S-Class Mercedes, it was pretty much a shoo-in that it would claim that title. What else is new? The w116 was a big deal at the time; the first really new bigger Mercedes since the fintail in 1959, since the W108/109 sedans from 1965 were really just a direct evolution from the fintail.

Of course the W116 wasn’t “all new” inasmuch as it shared some elements under the skin and in its interior design with the R107 SL that had appeared just a year earlier. It did have an all-new front suspension, but the semi-trailing arm rear suspension dates back to the smaller W114/115 from 1968. The engines weren’t new. But this latest Benz was definitely bigger, heavier, longer, wider and thirstier; just in time for the energy crisis. And significantly safer; there’s no doubt it was “The World’s Safest Car”.

In Europe, the majority of these were six cylinder versions (280S, 280SE), with the new DOHC version of the Mercedes six, introduced earlier in the smaller Mercedes 280. In fact, initially the 4.5 L V8 wasn’t even offered there; just the 3.5 L version, which was not available in the US, where only the 4.5 was available. The six cylinder 280S and 300SD diesel version arrived a few years later here.

These were also more expensive, listing at $13,491 for the swb 450SE ($85k adjusted) and $14,698 ($93k adjusted). As a point of comparison, the 2022 S-Class starts at $111k. But it’s a bit difficult comparing cars that far apart.

The S Class came fully equipped, with leather being the only option (standard on the SEL). Although the W116 was significantly bigger on the outside, that did result in a corresponding increase on the inside, as these cars featured extensive thick padding on door frames, pillars and other areas. As R&T put it: “It’s just another concession to required crash safety”. This was the era when safe cars were still equated to well-padded crash cells. At least the new S-Class had was attractive padded crash cell.

The interior was laid out with logic as the highest criteria; the steering wheel was so large so as not to impede visibility of the instruments (now you know why). Switches and controls were all well designed and highly functional. The front door panels “breathed” cool or warm air, depending. Seats were typical Mercedes old-school: big, firm and comfortable (for many, if not all), with only manual adjustments. The inertia seat/shoulder belts were praised. Outward vision was excellent. Etc; etc..

“Fantastic” was the only word R&T could describe its handling, but warned that its ride might not appeal to all (especially former Cadillac and Lincoln owners). The Mercedes was designed for the driver that wants to be involved with the actual driving, and not be isolated from it. There’s a big difference. And I know folks who bought them during the Great Mercedes Mania that complained about that. They would have been better off buying another Caddy or Lincoln, but the lure of the star was irresistible.

The chassis was tuned to work with the high speed VR-rated radials, which involved some intrinsic trade-offs, such as whine and a bit of harshness, but the grip was superb.

The steering was deemed “the best in any sedan ever”; both road feel and effort were spot-on. The car’s stability and feeling of security was in a class of its own, no matter what the speed, terrain, in curves or on an endless straight. R&T said that “for 10/10 a Porsche 911 or Maserati will corner faster…bit one must accept nervous, twitchy behavior in all but the smoothest of surfaces. Not so with the big Mercedes; the 450 takes smooth and rough roads with equal aplomb even when driven hard. As a roadgoing sedan, it has no equal.”

That is precisely why I wanted a Mercedes and why I eventually got one (a W124 300E). I needed to experience that for myself, and I put it to the test repeatedly, whether running at 140 mph through the desert or ripping around rough mountain roads.

The brakes were good, and the power from the 190 hp de-smogged 4.5 L SOHC V8 was was not exactly breath-taking, but certainly adequate, especially above 3000 rpm.0-60 came in 10.6 sec.; top speed was 127 mph. Fuel economy was marginal, at 13 mpg. We’ve come along way; the 2022 version does 0-60 in 4.9 sec., and gets 21city/30hwy mpg.

But in 1973, that was what it took to be the best, and the new 450 SE delivered, and then some.

Related reading:

CC Mercedes 450 SEL 6.9 – Plenty of Power But None For The Seats  PN

CC 1973 Mercedes 450 SE  – Hello Darlin’, It’s Nice To See You  J. Shafer