Vintage R&T Comparison: Three Luxury Sports Sedans: BMW Bavaria, Jaguar XJ6 and Mercedes 280

Road and Track tested and compared the Big Three import luxury sports sedans in their Feb. 1973 issue, and the results make for interesting reading. One thing is clear: the state of the art at the time was a long way off from what we would get used to in just another ten or so years, most of all in engine management systems. All three of these still struggled with carburetors along with emission control systems that negatively affected their driveability, performance and economy. Meanwhile, the European versions of the BMW and Mercedes were available with fuel injected high-compression engines that were a delight, but of course dirty too.

It was a bit painful to note the stark differences, but the US was pioneering emission regulations and eventually the technology solutions were applied world-wide. In the meantime, Americans had to make do, and these cars offered a number of qualities that the domestics didn’t, hence their growing popularity.

Back to the reality at hand: these three were very different cars, in R&T’s analysis, although I wouldn’t consider the BMW and Mercedes to be all that different. Obviously the BMW E3 was designed to compete against the Mercedes W114/115 mid-range cars, although BMW’s emphasis was clearly more on performance and sportiness. The Jaguar was of course in a league of its own, as all Jags had essentially been almost forever.

The Bavaria was a US-only version of the E3, created at the instigation of BMW importer Max Hoffman as the original 2500/2800 sedans did not sell well and were considered to be too pricey. The Bavaria had less standard equipment, but it did get the larger 3.0 L version of the M30 six, rated at 170 hp. Unfortunately, it was saddled with an automatic, the less-than stellar Borg Warner 65. And the tested version didn’t have the optional rear anti-roll bar, blunting its full handling potential. That actually put it at a disadvantage against the other two in what should have been its forte. And it had driveability issues, especially when cold, requiring two to three attempts to keep it running.

But in character, it was still the sportiest–and quickest– of the three, with very good power steering. Its ride quality was deemed the worst in the group; not surprising given the well-known capabilities of both Mercedes and Jaguar in that department. Its interior was well designed, with good space utilization, visibility, the best dash, and decent seats. It was also the cheapest by a healthy margin, by some $1,500, so in terms of affordability, the Bimmer was clearly the winner. Equipped with the rear anti-roll bar and the manual, the Bavaria would have taken greater advantages of its inherent abilities, and scored higher.

The XJ6 provided the starkest contrast to the other two. It was of course handsome and elegant, is not really overtly sporty. Its interior offered the usual British charm in terms of wood and leather, but its accommodations were the tightest, with its rear seat being by far the least commodious of the trio.

The venerable 4.2 L XK six acquitted itself fairly well, considering that it was now a quarter of a century old, although it would soldier on for quite some time yet. Its very long stroke was a plus in around-town driving, but made it sound more strained at higher speeds. It was of course the largest engine by a considerable margin, but due to the Jag’s weight, its performance just barely equaled the Mercedes, both well behind the BMW. They both took 11.7 seconds in the 0-60; pretty modest for such expensive cars. Such were the times, unless one could find the rare exceptions.


The Jag’s handling was deemed to be roughly the equal of the BMW’s, but its balance of characteristics was different. At lower speeds, the Jag excelled, in part due to its lower center of gravity. Its assisted steering was quick, but lacking in feel. Thanks to the low center of gravity and beefy wheels and tires, the Jag beat the others in terms of outright cornering power.

But its ride had to took a second seat the the Merc’s. Its suspension didn’t like bigger dips and bumps, presumably for lack of travel, but on smooth highways it was very good. Braking was “worst in group”, as were instrumentation, controls, and heating/ventilation. Not surprising.

The Mercedes sported the new DOHC version of the six. This engine used the block and innards of the familiar SOHC unit, but had a new hemispherical head with dual cams. Combined with fuel injection, this engine made 185 hp in Europe, meaning a worthy competitor to the BMW six, which was of course precisely why it was created, as the old six couldn’t keep up. But in the US version, it had a four barrel Solex carb, lower compression and other factors that lowered that to a mere 130 hp.

Like the BMW, it too had driveability issues, in this case when warm. There was surge noted at light throttle openings, and a big flat spot at medium throttle. This US-version carburated 2.8 was a dog, frankly, especially so when it showed up in the bigger and heavier W126 S-Class, where it rather embarrassed itself, the car and the brand. This was from the pioneer in fuel injection. Did MB really think that the additional $250 was going to deter sales? Not.

The 280’s automatic was the very last iteration of their 4-speed fluid-coupling box. It had been modified on recent years to make it less herky-jerky; in this case a bit too much so, in that the shifts now came too slow. It was to be replaced shortly by the new torque converter 4-speed box.

Typically, the Benz was a very well thought out car, and scored high. It lacked the visceral driving experience of the BMW and the elegant styling of the Jag, but except for certain deficiencies of its motor, it was hard to beat.

Handling and high-speed stability were the best in the group, as was its power steering and brakes. It exhibited the characteristic Mercedes quality of being able to take on any road at any speed in any condition better than any other car, period. That’s what really distinguished a Mercedes back in the day, and that was the quality that was so superior to cars that tried to emulate certain aspects of it, like the Cadillac Seville, but failed to understand what it took to actually achieve them.

The Mercedes lost only two categories: driveability and seat belts.

The Final Scoring:

The Mercedes won with 324 points. But the BMW was quite close with 320, and at a significant lower cost. Tha Jag came in third with 307 points.

As to reliability, R&T made some assumptions based on the fact that these cars had been around for a few years in previous versions. The Mercedes was given top honors by a healthy margin, followed by BMW and then the Jaguar. No surprises there.

For what it’s worth, I doubt many buyers of these cars were strongly influenced by tests like this, as they had rather different images and appeal. The BMW was strongly favored by serious drivers, as well as a growing coterie of younger buyers very attracted to the brand, the youngest one by far–in the US.

The Mercedes was of course favored by those that were attracted to the powerful social prestige the brand had developed, as well as those who were the most rational, but then they most likely were gravitating to the diesel models.

And the XJ6 was of course visually seductive, and its powers inherently fell upon those that were most susceptible to them. Given certain objective limitations and its poor reliability record, that suggest a highly emotion-driven lot.

As to myself, a Bavaria with a manual and rear sway bar would have been my pick, but I would have preferred to wait a couple of years until the fuel injected 3.0 Si came along.