Picture the scene. It’s 1990, you’ve just ended a call on your mobile phone and secured yourself a comfortable bonus. At the end of the decade of the yuppie you’ve made it to the boardroom, and you want a motor that shows your new-found status to the world. There are only three cars with the right amount of gravitas; the BMW 7-series, Jaguar XJ6 and Mercedes S-class – and as the most junior member of the board, you’ll be looking at entry level models so you don’t upstage the chairman.
That was then, though, and this is now – 26 years on all three make compelling classic daily drivers for those who like the finer things in life, yet enjoy classics of the Unexceptional era. Each can be had for a surprisingly low price and each is appreciating almost by the day. But which one’s best?
Keeping the British end up is Jaguar’s XJ40 – the popular 3.2 litre derivative launched in 1990 to replace the unpopular 2.9. Launched in 1986, the Jaguar XJ40 was a new, high tech replacement for Jaguar’s long-standing XJ series; by then 17 years old. It was Britain’s second most technologically audacious car when new; second only to the Aston Martin Lagonda – and those early cars suffered from almost as many technical gremlins. The digital dash was scrapped by 1990 and these later cars are wiser buys for regular use. It’s testament to the mechanical reliability of a late XJ40 that Jaguar’s replacement was little more than a mild facelift, and now these big cats are past the banger stage they make compelling classic purchases.
The Jaguar’s biggest failing was always its build quality; a criticism you could scarcely level at Mercedes-Benz’s W126 S-class, tested here in 300SE six-pot form. Launched in 1979, the W126 was the longest-lived S Class and the best-selling to boot with almost 900,000 made in total. The 3.0 M103 six-pot tested here was the smallest engine available in the UK, though a 2.6 litre 260 was available on the continent using the engine from the top 190 model. Replaced in 1991 by the technically audacious W140, W126s are still widely used daily.
But what if the Merc’s too Teutonic, too efficient? What if you want something a little sharper? Step forward BMW’s E32, seen here in 730i guise. Like the Jaguar, the BMW was launched in 1986, as a replacement for the E23 era 7-series. Higher-specification versions premiered BMW’s V12, Xenon headlamps, double glazing, and a device to increase wiper pressure at motorway speeds. The E32 also gave rise to the 767 “Goldfish” concept – a prototype V16-engined 7 series with the radiator relocated to the boot. By 1994 and the E32’s replacement, over 310,000 had been produced.
For the driver, it’s a two-horse race. The Mercedes might be a quality car but dynamically the Jaguar and the BMW are vastly superior – while both appeal to different tastes we’d argue the BMW is the sharper drive. The Mercedes claws points back in terms of interior ambience though – the BMW is a little sterile, and the Jaguar doesn’t feel as upmarket as it looks. The subtle and understated Mercedes has the edge. None of them are particularly quick – but then none are exactly slow, either. Economy of 20-25mpg can be expected.
On price, the Jag’s your best bet – though while you can get XJ40s for under £1,000 forget it. We’d advise £2,000 spent well as the cheapest long term action, as a cheap XJ can bite hard. Really good examples are nudging £5,000 but these will be too good for everyday use. £2000 will buy the Mercedes, but we’d spend £5,000 on a nice example to avoid hidden rot or electrical issues. 730s are harder to value as prices are currently shifting, but £3,500 will buy something very presentable. So the Jag’s ahead on value.
On paper then, the Jag has it – it’s almost as good as the BMW to drive and it’s the cheapest of our group as a classic. And despite Jaguar’s reputation for rust problems, electrical faults aren’t unheard-of, and they feel like less of a quality product than the German pair. The Mercedes has bombproof build and reliability on side, but it’s numb to drive and it doesn’t feel quite as special as the other two. The BMW combines the Merc’s solidity with the Jaguar’s sharp driving experience, it’s comfortable, quick, and it’s an investment to boot.
This is a difficult triple-test to award – it’s close between the all-round capabilities of the BMW and the value of the Jag – the most special feeling car of our trio despite quality issues. Ultimately it's too close for us to call - your personality will dictate which you prefer. Me? I'd take the Jag.