Mercedes W116 280SE vs W126 300SE

For years the W116 has lived in the shadow of the W126.    The W126 is often lauded as one of the best cars Mercedes-Benz ever made.     Under its skin it can trace its lineage back to the W114 models of 1968, but the styling was fresh and modern and it was light years ahead of everything else on the market.    Today, the W116 is starting to gain more appreciation as an extremely usable classic.   It is however stuck between the classic styling of the W108 series and the modernity of the W126.    450SEL 6.9s aside, they have not reached the same values as their predecessor or successor.

Values aside, how does the experience actually differ?   We have a short wheelbase six cylinder example of each.   A 1979 280SE and a 1986 300SE.   Both cars occupied the same place in the Mercedes-Benz line up, with the first generation W126 280SE coming in between.

Our W116 is a 1979 model, the last full year of production.   It is a highly optioned car, as run out models typically were.    Being a late car, it has the more desirable velour carpets and dash wood.   As an Australian delivered example, it suffers from the ADR27A pollution controls, which hampers performance a fair bit as compared to the standard model.    On the plus side, it has self-leveling rear suspension, which offers a great ride.

The W126 is a 1986 model – the first full year of production of the second generation W126.   In Australia, at least in 1986 and 1987, many features that would be standard were still optional.   The car has MB-Tex seats, no sunroof and was originally sold with plastic hubcaps.   Being an Australian deliverd car, it has self-leveling suspension, burl walnut trim, rear reading lights etc that were not commonly found on the standard 300SE.


While the W126 is a facelift of the W116, their styling looks quite different at first glance.    The W126 is a bit of a mix between modern and classic, with the plastic bumpers, side cladding and a more streamlined shape.   The W116 is pure classic with lashings of chrome.   Even though there is not much in it, the W116 looks long, low and mean.    It has nice touches like the fully chromed door handles.     The double bumper bars are polarizing to some, and date the design, but add to the classic look.      They are both extremely handsome cars, and look good in both the colours here. The W126 is timeless, but I do enjoy the classic look of the W116.

W116 280SE vs W126 300SE

Both cars have attractive alloys, but when hubcaps are specified, the W116 wins hands down.   Those plastic hubcaps on the W126 are not nearly as classy as the painted W116 hubcaps.


This is one where the W126 wins hands down.   It is a much more feasible proposition to run a W126 as a daily driver than it is for a W116.    The W126, especially the second generation is much better for rust than the W116.   Even W116s that have been garaged all their life still develop rust in various areas, and cars kept outside disintegrate before your eyes.      The W126 also has ABS as standard, and better A/C.     The W116 was available with ABS from mid 1978, but it was never offered by Mercedes-Benz Australia.

The interiors of both cars are equally hard wearing, given they are both MB-Tex.     Later 300SEs were standard leather and they can be hard to find with decent interiors as few owners conditioned the leather.    The W116 suffers from a lack of rear legroom, wheras the W126 short wheelbase is about the perfect size.      The W116 has a noticeably better turning circle than the W116.   The seats are also more comfortable on the W116.

The W126 is lighter, and has better aerodynamics so has far better fuel efficiency.   The second generation cars in particular, as KE-Jetronic is more efficient than K-Jetronic.

Parts availability is also better for the W126, although its a more complex car with more to go wrong.

Driving feel

The W116 is slightly better here.   It feels a bit more connected to the road and gives you more feedback.    The advantage of the W126 is that its far quieter on the motorway.   The extra aerodynamics really pay off here.     The wind and engine noise in particular are much less noticeable.    In some ways the W126 is too quiet, you can’t really hear the engine at all.    The W126 is also softer – you can feel the influence of the American market on how the car is set up.

The W126 is much lighter, the 300SE in particular.   An early car like this weighs in at around 1500kg, meaning you can toss it around roundabouts with abandon.   The W116 is about 200kg heavier.

Generally I prefer the W116 unless you’re doing mostly motorway driving.    The W116 is just more fun, but less refined.     They are both great cars to drive.


The W126 has the edge.   The M110 never coped well with emissions, whereas the M103 just shrugs them off.    150hp vs 180 is a pretty huge difference, especially with the W116 being the heavier car by a fair margin.   Having said that, the gearing is better in the W116, so the real world difference is not quite as great.

The same is the case with the v8 engines too, so not limited to the six.


Slight edge to the W116 here.     The W126 took the W116 concept and further refined it.    In some ways its nicer, but in other ways it lost some of the nice little touches, such as the chromed window switches.    The pinstripe Becker radios were some of the classiest of the era.       The W116 instrument cluster is also easier to read, and the seats are more comfortable.    I also prefer the fox eared headrests to the W126 units.     The velour carpet W116s are also nicer than the W116 in that the rears still have proper separate carpets.   On the W126 there is a modern style moulded carpet that doesn’t have the same luxury feel with the soft underlay.

W116 280SE vs W126 300SE

The standard air conditioning controls are simpler than the climate control that was standard on the W126.       The W126 just feels a bit more refined, and has some newer touches in the cabin, such as electric passengers mirror.    It also has a rear passengers vent, outside temperature display and other modern conveniences.

W116 280SE vs W126 300SE

Conclusion – W116 280SE vs W126 300SE

They are both excellent cars and there is not much to separate them.   The W116 has the classic look and a more engaging driving experience.    The W126 is more modern and refined, and bit less connected.     The W126 is far better suited to daily, or semi daily use.    The W116 is probably a better classic. If you can’t decide, have one of each. That is what I did.

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