By on April 25, 2019

They’re large, expensive, and hail from a time when the sedan was king of the luxury pyramid. German exclusivity personified in three flagships — but which will you burn?

BMW 735i

The sporty one. BMW introduced the second generation of its flagship 7 Series model in 1986; forums called it E32. Improvements over the prior version included many more electronic gizmos, additional control over things like traction and climate, and a more refined interior. V8 and V12 engines debuted in this generation, but in 1991 options were limited to cylinder counts of six or 12. Today’s selection is the top-trim 735i with a 3.4-liter inline-six. With 208 horsepower on tap, both manual and automatic transmissions are available. Choose whichever you like.

Audi V8 Quattro

The new boy. Audi decided to get into the full-size luxury sedan game in 1988. It was the first time Audi implemented a V8 in any of its vehicles, and also the first time an automatic transmission was paired to the Quattro all-wheel drive system. Just think, at one point in time all Quattro Audis had manual transmissions. Two different V8s were offered in the V8 Quattro, dependent on when the purchase was made. The introductory 3.6-liter V8 was offered from 1988 to 1993, while the larger 4.2 went into production late in 1991 for 1992 model cars. That means today’s V8 is the smaller one, offering 247 horsepower. Zero to 60 took 9.9 seconds with the automatic, or 7.6 seconds with the manual. Your choice.

Mercedes-Benz 420SEL

The stalwart. 1991 was the final model year for the frankly epic W126 S-Class, as the following year it was replaced by the larger, heavier, and much more complicated W140 version. Launched in 1981, the W126’s impressive decade-long run was punctuated by a variety of engine offerings of inline-six or V8 configurations. 1986 saw major updates to the S-Class line, as well as reconfigured engine offerings. Two V8 engines were offered after ’86: the 4.2 in the 420SEL, and the full-fat 5.5-liter in the 560SEL. Today we reach the lower end of V8, with the ever-conservative Mercedes only offers 201 horses. Hey, at least there are dual airbags. An automatic transmission is the only one on offer.

Three exclusive German sedans, and only one goes home to the garage. Which will it be?

[Images: BMW, seller, Audi]

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69 Comments on “Buy/Drive/Burn: Big German Luxury Sedans of 1991...”


  • avatar
    FreedMike

    You kiddin’?

    Buy the Benz. Three times.
    Drive the BMW.
    Burn the Audi

    (And if we were playing today, I’d still buy the Benz, I’d drive the Audi, and burn the BMW three times.)

    • 0 avatar
      Astigmatism

      I mean, this is the only comment we need, right?

      I grew up in the back seat of a 420SEL, which my dad bought in ’86 and which still looked new when we sold it and moved overseas in ’93. It’s probably still running today.

      • 0 avatar
        FreedMike

        Far as I’m concerned, the W126 belongs on any serious list of Greatest Cars Ever. It isn’t even fair.

        • 0 avatar
          golden2husky

          Agreed. This M-B harks back to the day when a Mercedes- any Mercedes – implied quality and serious long term durability. It’s not even close. I can’t help but think how far they have drifted from that “Engineered Like No Other Car in the World” standard of excellence…Buy the Benze, drive the BMW, burn this Audi

          Still, I appreciate what Audi has morphed into and if these choices were all about 15 years newer I’d change the order considerably.

      • 0 avatar
        Jerome10

        100%

    • 0 avatar

      I think through a 1991 lens, I’d have ended up with the BMW. It had superior brand recognition to the Quattro, and was not as staid as the Mercedes. So the Audi gets driven because it’s unique, and the Mercedes burns.

      In the current year, I’d buy the Mercedes because it’s so timeless, and drive the Audi because it’s rare, and burn the BMW.

      • 0 avatar
        FreedMike

        Fair point, but back then, the Benz was still the go-to choice.

      • 0 avatar
        ToddAtlasF1

        At the time, the Mercedes-Benz was ancient and had never been as loved as the previous generation anyway. It was more durable than the E32 though. I’d have bought a BMW. Actually, that’s what I was doing back then. Looking back, I should have been evolved enough to appreciate the LS400 that made these all seem underpowered and chintzy. I had an SC400 as a company car a few years later and I still didn’t like it. The power antenna had issues and it ate rear tires. I shrugged off never having a new BMW where the engine or transmission didn’t catastrophically fail in the first two years of ownership, but heck if I was going to tolerate a Lexus that needed a power antenna repair!

        • 0 avatar
          FreedMike

          I wouldn’t fault anyone for taking the 7-series – my dad had the previous-gen one, with a manual, and it was a hoot. If I remember correctly, the V-12 model had an all-leather interior.

          The Audi, on the other hand, was a too-thinly disguised 5000. My dad had one of those too, and it was dogs**t.

          But before and after the BMW and Audi detours, it was all Mercedes in our driveway. It was the way to go back then. I was 32 in ’91 and never saw that car as “ancient.” All you had to do to sell yourself on a S-class was close the back doors.

          • 0 avatar
            SunnyvaleCA

            >>>
            The Audi, on the other hand, was a too-thinly disguised 5000. My dad had one of those too, and it was dogs**t.
            <<<

            I had an Audi 5000 CS with manual transmission and FWD. The manual made a HUGE difference in the drivability of the car (or at least the acceleration). I had a colleague with the 5000 Turbo Quattro, which was SLOOOOW by comparison. Unless it's snowing outside there's not much practical use for Quattro at these power-to-weight ratios. Plus, with the simple drive system, mine would crest 30 MPH on road trips.

          • 0 avatar
            FreedMike

            Dad’s had the naturally aspirated five, and it transcended slow as we know it. You actually had to turn off the A/C to avoid speed drops on steep hills. Just awful.

          • 0 avatar
            dal20402

            The V8 engine transformed the nature of the car. They also made a whole lot of very appreciated design and build refinements from the 5000 to the V8. It wasn’t a W126 but it felt appropriately luxury and was quite nice to drive (including at 140 mph on the Autobahn).

      • 0 avatar
        phxmotor

        You would not be able to drive the Audi. It being under layers of dust in your garage …waiting… for the sixth (teenth) time… for you to try to fix the poor delicate flower that it is. Drives great? Sure! You bet! Until it didn’t. Until it dug its heels in and said: “ I’m done… stop trying to resurect me…”.

    • 0 avatar
      EquipmentJunkie

      They don’t build cars like the W126 anymore…come to think of it, nobody ever did.

      Buy: M-B
      Drive: BMW
      Burn: The Audi, even though I always had a thing for the V8 Quattro.

  • avatar
    Adam Tonge

    DAMN YOU COREY! I DON’T WANT TO PLAY YOUR GAME!

  • avatar
    ajla

    In ’91
    Buy: BMW (I’d actually even get the manual here)
    Drive: Mercedes
    Burn: Audi

    In ’19
    Buy: Mercedes
    Drive: BMW (I guess I’ll keep the manual)
    Burn: Audi

  • avatar
    28-Cars-Later

    There is truly a level of refinement and class which emanates from all of these the current examples are truly lacking.

    • 0 avatar
      FreedMike

      I’ll disagree with you here, 28 – I find the new S-class and A8 to be quite tasteful. I know Caddy isn’t popular around here, but a metallic black CT6 is a pretty dignified looking ride as well.

      The grill on that revised 7-series, though, is a damn disgrace.

      • 0 avatar
        28-Cars-Later

        I look at them and I just don’t think any of them are so special, moreso by design are not economically viable to repair and will likely fail midlife.

        Example:

        autotrader.com/car-news/cars-carbon-ceramic-brakes-are-going-be-used-car-p-267318

  • avatar
    ToddAtlasF1

    The US didn’t get any W126 500SELs through MBNA. At the end, we had the 420SEL, the 350SDL, and the 560SEL. The 560SEL had a 5.5 liter V8 of 238 hp in US trim.

    Buy Mercedes, Drive BMW, Burn Audi.

  • avatar
    Hydromatic

    Buy the Benz.
    Drive the Beemer.
    Burn the Audi while shedding a single, sorrowful tear, because I’m quite partial to Audis in spite of their….tendencies.

  • avatar
    John R

    Buy the BMW
    Drive the Merc
    Burn the Audi

  • avatar
    JimZ

    Buy Benz.
    Drive Bimmer.

    Burn the Audi because right away something will break, requiring half the car to be disassembled to access for repair.

  • avatar
    Cactuar

    I’ve actually played this game and own a 1992 735iL with 90k miles on it.
    With the M30 engine these cars are reasonably affordable to own, if you’re willing to do a bit of wrenching.

    Some bits need replacement every now and then simply due to age. Some parts are NLA (exterior and interior trim etc) but most of what is needed to get the car running is widely available and not too expensive. What hurts the wallet are the big items like the driveshaft, exhaust, etc. But that’s also true of many non-luxury cars and trucks.

    For someone who is stuck in the 90’s and doesn’t care for the latest tech they are great cars.

  • avatar
    dal20402

    I may be biased because my father owned a 1992 Audi V8 (with the 4.2) and the car was an absolute sweetheart to drive, with an engine sound like a NASCAR car two miles away. Surprisingly reliable, too, in his often neglectful hands.

    In 1991:
    Buy the Audi for the engine noise
    Drive the BMW because elephants can dance!
    Burn the obsolete Benz

    Today:
    Buy the Benz because it’s actually serviceable
    Drive the Audi for the engine noise
    Burn the BMW because it will overheat anyway if you try to drive it

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    The only right answer is to burn them all.

  • avatar
    PrincipalDan

    Damn how much HP/Torque got sucked up by the Audi’s automatic?

    Thinking of these cars in 2019 I’m reminded of a house I walked through last evening that was built around the same time. It was cheap because the only way to buy it was with a renovation loan.

    • 0 avatar
      FreedMike

      Like a 203K loan?

      • 0 avatar
        PrincipalDan

        More or less.

        A neighborhood where most of the houses were priced $225,000 to $300,000 this house was listed at $130,000. And probably needed a minimum $50K in work – the left half of the property was trying to obtain a separation from the right half of the property.

        (And yes in Gallup NM a $225K to $300K neighborhood is the nicest part of town, you would hardly find anything over $500K in the whole county.)

  • avatar
    arach

    The BMW is the only one I would NOT be embarrassed to be seen in. The thought of someone seeing me in either of the other two makes me hyperventilate.

    Therefore I have to say burn the other two. Drive and buy the bimmer.

  • avatar
    Philippe Pietro

    Buy the Mercedes because reliability.
    Drive the BMW because driving machine.
    Burn the Audi (just) because.

  • avatar
    Cactuar

    One cool thing I like on my 735 is the way steering resistance increases with speed. So at low speeds the steering is very light and as you build more speed the steering becomes harder to turn. It makes highway cruising effortless because the steering stays in the center and requires almost no correction.

  • avatar
    Kyree S. Williams

    Buy the Benz,
    Drive the Bimmer,
    Burn the one that doesn’t start with a “B.”

  • avatar
    tomLU86

    500SELs were gray market cars imported by individuals.

    420SEL and 560SELs were sold by MB USA.

    In 1991, I would want the BMW because it was more of an ‘enthusiast’ car. But now I want the Benz, because it’s the last of the “engineered like no other car in the world” Benzes–and it was, and IS a great car, built like a tank, quiet, classy, ….I could go on

  • avatar
    MRF 95 T-Bird

    Buy: Benz-The W126 was a bit long in the tooth by 91 but still a classic design.
    Drive: BMW- The well executed evolution from the E23.
    Burn: Audi- Quattro was its only saving grace. The repairs are frequent and pricy. The only reliable part on it is the Cadillac HVAC digital control panel.

  • avatar
    Ermel

    Okay, someone’s got to say it, might as well be me:

    Burn the Benz.

    Because the BMW is the single most beautiful thing they have ever made since the 1950s, and the Audi is historically relevant as their first step into the luxury car segment — and a pretty good car too, despite being a little on the delicate side. Both these things will be incredibly rare one day, on account of either destroying themselves (Audi) or being destroyed by heavy-footed, maintenance-absent last owners (BMW). W126s, on the other hand, will always be plentiful, so we can afford to burn one.

    So which to buy? The Audi of course. At least it won’t rust :-) That leaves the BMW to be driven — well, I think one could do worse.

  • avatar
    ToolGuy

    I paused for a long time on that first picture:
    – That beltline (I can see!)
    – That greenhouse (I can breathe!)
    – Those luscious sidewalls (more like picture 3 here)

    Heart rate slowing; lungs filling with sweet oxygen.

    Now where were we:
    – Buy Benz
    – Drive BMW
    – Burn Audi

  • avatar
    sgeffe

    Buy: Benz
    Drive: BMW
    Burn: Audi

    I wonder if a dealer or Benz indie would still recommend a servicing of the airbag system every ten years? I thought that was spelled-out in the book.

  • avatar
    seth1065

    Late to the party but like almost everyone I would buy the Benz, it was THE Benz after all

    Drive the Audi, I live in the NE and Like the look

    Burn the BMW no problem at all not my thing.

  • avatar
    tankinbeans

    Back when BMWs were the most attractive vehicles on the road, in my opinion anyway.

    Buy the BMW
    Drive the Benz
    Burn the Audi

    At least then I could say I’ve owned and driven German steel.

  • avatar
    Car Ramrod

    I’d buy the Benz
    Drive the BMW (with manual)
    Burn the Audi.

    I too grew up riding in an ‘86 420SEL, which my folks owned from 88 to 96. It was as solid when traded with 144k miles on it as when new, and the 96 E class that replaced it was flimsy in comparison. We cross shopped a 735iL as I remember (but hey, I was 6).

  • avatar
    dantes_inferno

    BMW = Burn My Wallet
    Burn the Mercedes with Benzine
    Incinerate the Audi.

  • avatar
    Ryoku75

    Buy the Benz, it’ll make a decent demo derby novelty once something expensive breaks in a month. Keep the grille though, to show Mercedes how to style something that doesnt look like a Nissan.

    Drive the Audi for the engine noise and better went handling. Keep a photo to recall when Audis didnt look like Hyundais.

    Burn My Wallet, or enter it into LeMons for a few laps.

  • avatar
    Art Vandelay

    Drive the BMW
    Buy the Benz
    Burn the Audi

    I love that generation 7 series and would drive a manual today

  • avatar

    Dad got to play two-thirds of this game back in 2000. That’s the year someone rear ended his 1982 Volvo 240 GLT, and his 1990 740 GL (another Swede, not the Bavarian one) was getting on in its years (but barely). He test drove an early 90s 7 series and loved it, but bought an 86 420 SEL on anticipation of worry-free ownership. Once the Benz was parked on his driveway, the younger Swede became the beater. At the time, you’d have to be crazy to consider a 10 year old Audi. The Benz definitely had presence, I can’t imagine a Roller of similar vintage would give you that much more quality and luxury for the money. I’d play it the same way he did.

    Buy: Benz, one of the greatest ever made.
    Drive: BMW… I don’t feel like I’m really driving unless there’s a third pedal.
    Burn: Audi, they hadn’t reached their peak yet.

  • avatar
    glwillia

    Buy: Benz
    Drive: BMW
    Burn: Audi

    I’ve never owned any of these but I’ve had an E34 (1990 535i/5) and a W124 (1994 E420). The W124 was smoother, better built, more comfortable and more powerful but the E34 was more fun in the twisties and vastly easier to work on. Neither was what I would call particularly reliable but I owned them at 15+ years old and well over 150k miles. I now have an E39 (530i sport/manual) and it kind of is the best of both worlds.


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