Battle of the big sedans

BMW's 760i channels the same energy as its forebears, but it can't match the Mercedes S 580's polish
BMW's 760i channels the same energy as its forebears, but it can't match the Mercedes S 580's polish

by Nathan Leipsig | December 25, 2023

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They say history repeats itself, and this is possibly the most decadent way of echoing history. See, BMW wasn’t always a dedicated luxury brand like we know them now; sure, they made nice cars, but they weren’t on the level of Mercedes-Benz. No one was, and the S-Class proved their slogan — “engineered like no other car in the world” — was more an irrefutable statement of fact. Until BMW rolled out the 750iL.

Having debuted in 1988, the E32-generation 750 was a quantum leap over the previous 7, setting a new standard in every single metric, and even usurping the almost-mythically-excellent S-Class. It was considerably larger, sporting sleek and futuristic styling for the time, top-notch materials throughout, and bleeding-edge technology both under the hood and in the cabin — again, for the time — that Mercedes-Benz couldn’t and wouldn’t touch for four more years. In every measurable and most immeasurable ways, the biggest BMW bested the big Benz.

The 2023 BMW 760i xDrive is the spiritual echo of that car. It represents a dramatic leap over its forebears, both in technological trickery and sheer visual drama, courtesy of its monolithic styling. It’s a car that’s obviously been crafted very specifically to dethrone the despot 2023 Mercedes-Benz S 580, which has always maintained a stranglehold over the big boi class of cars, with only the occasional moment of weakness to keep the battle interesting.

When the 750iL first rolled out, the S-Class was already well into a long life cycle. As magnificent as it was, it felt dated next to BMW’s futuristic 7. Not so is the case here — despite debuting for the 2021 model year, the big boi incumbent, seventh-geneartion S-Class still feels very fresh, and is about as far from feeling dated as a car can be. With both cars being on level ground, the result is the most grandiose grudge match that can possibly happen in modern cars. A bar fight between billionaires, tussling in tuxedos.

While the present-day 760i may be a spiritual echo of the E32-generation 750iL, in a lot of ways, it’s a much more direct callback to the legendary W140-generation S-Class with which Mercedes answered BMW in the early ’90s. Blunt nosed, slab sided, and preposterously huge, the new 7 looks like nothing else on the road, including other BMWs, which is its strongest asset — and greatest weakness.

Where the new 7 goes out of its way to embrace the imposing, gangster stature that comes with big boi sedans, the S 580 looks like a big boi Mercedes, which is a double-edged sword. The S looks like every other Mercedes sedan. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a gorgeous car and the very Mercedes-like proportions look amazing stretched out over the long-wheelbase S-Class, but it also looks like a stretched E-Class, which looks like a longer C-Class, which looks like a blown-up A-Class.

There’s an argument to be made that a $200,000 flagship shouldn’t look like an entry-level sedan — and it doesn’t, but it does bear a striking resemblance. This resemblance means the S is a vastly more conventionally pretty car than the 7, which can most politely be described as striking, bold, daring … or any of those marketing department buzzwords employed to make sure you don’t call it ugly. It really comes down to what you value in a car: the Bimmer looks far more distinct and imposing than the Benz, but the Benz is conventionally pretty while also having its own magnetic field and serious presence.

Other than their wildly different presentation to the outside world, both cars are nearly congruent. The 760i and S 580 are both well over five metres long, both mask their size with four-wheel steering, both ride on literal clouds of air, and are both powered by twin-turbo V8s with 48-volt hybridized assistance that produce enough power to alter the rotation of the Earth. The devil is in the details between these two behemoths, split only by details whose merits can largely be chalked up to personal preference. Choosing a winner here is going to take a lot of nit-picking.

Both cabin spaces are decked out with opulence and titillating tech, but they go about things a little differently. The BMW, with its newest iDrive 8.5 infotainment, is a little more slick, noticeably more responsive, and overall much more intuitive to use. The importance of the iDrive knob to control everything can’t be overstated. It’s a perfect single point-of-contact to keep everything cohesive. That cohesiveness translates to the centre screen, gauge cluster, and heads-up display; nothing feels redundant.

Where BMW has slowly-but-steadily stripped away some functions in the name of simplifying things, Mercedes has gone the opposite direction, with a much heavier focus on in-your-face-tech and the broadest degrees of configurability and customization. The center stack is dominated by a massive, portrait-style display running Mercedes’ MBUX infotainment, flanked by a 3D stereoscopic gauge display which is admittedly gimmicky, but its an extremely cool and well-executed gimmick that never stopped being visually impressive.

 

Similarly, the litany of different visual themes and customization options also strike me as a little gimmicky, but I can’t deny that it’s satisfying to fiddle with everything and set things up exactly as I please. On the subject of gimmicks, the S 580 goes all-in on breaking nearly every cardinal sin in interior design, chiefly by employing piano black surfaces and capacitive touch controls for everything, going directly against the grain of pragmatism, instead embracing here-and-now trends.

There are some savings grace for these transgressions in the Benz. For one, once you take some time to understand how Mercedes’s interface works, you have to hand it to them — it all works quite well. The capacitive controls on the steering wheel are well-differentiated, with the left side handling the gauge cluster and the right side being able to navigate every single part of the big centre stack, if you don’t want to take your hands off the wheel.

The other saving grace is Mercedes’ use of real Piano Black lacquered wood in this particular S 580, which gives a much deeper, richer finish than the glossy plastic plaguing most other cars. Despite this, I have to give the nod for interior opulence to BMW on this one: the 760i’s extensive use of stainless steel, some physical buttons, and softer Merino hide outshines the Nappa leather and capacitive touch controls that have infested the S. Also, our BMW has an Alcantara headliner, where the Benz doesn’t. Moreover, the 7’s cabin doesn’t look like any other BMWs, and feels more special.

Both cars feature decadent accommodations for any VIPs in the back seat, with reclining-this, powered-that, and massaging-whatever-else. The BMW essentially has an iPhone in each door to control everything and then some, whereas the Mercedes makes use of a single, optional iPad to control everything. The Bowers & Wilkins Diamond sound system in the 760i is just a little bit more impressive than the Burmester 3D audio in the S 580, with a few more speakers and a little more wattage to back up subjective impressions.

Up front, both cars go out of their way to make the driver’s life easier. Both feature pretty much every driver assist and safety feature in the book, but go about things slightly differently. The Benz is decidedly more tech-forward, with its huge heads-up display used to communicate what the car is seeing and thinking; the adaptive cruise highlights what and where it sees other cars, and telegraphs lane changes and bends in the road clearly, along with directions from the navigation, all up on the windscreen.

The BMW can do most of the same tricks, but doesn’t highlight other cars or lane change paths, and keeps basic (but concise) navigation directions on the windshield, relegating the fancy augmented reality to a crystal-clear display in the gauge screen. The BMW adds a very cool party trick to the equation in the form of hands free driving; it’s ready nearly all the time and activates by simply letting go of the steering wheel, telegraphing its readiness via lights on the steering wheel.

If you’re driving on your own, both the 760i and S 580 feel rather similar — ugent, powerful, smooth, silent. Both cars are directed by light, nearly numb steering wheels, with the BMW being ever so marginally more alert, and Benz feeling a tiny bit more relaxed, although arguably less natural. Both cars are serenely smooth, with the BMW feeling a tiny bit more organic and the Benz being almost supernaturally smooth, using road-sensing sleight-of-hand to adapt to aberrations in the road before they even happen. The 7 is incredibly smooth, but the S is downright surreal.

The differences between these two flagships are largely down to nuance, and the 7 comes out slightly ahead in almost every way. More adjustability in the seats, more speakers, more power to drive them, more power to drive the car, more performance, more options, more over-the-top materials, more driver aids — BMW has tried really hard to make the 760i a slam-dunk over the S, just they did decades ago. In my eyes, they succeeded … although it’s not quite a slam dunk.

The BMW is handily the car I’d rather drive or be driven around in, and it doesn’t hurt that at $174,400, our decked-out 7 is some $13,000 less than the S 580, even if it may be a trivial sum to those actually cross-shopping these. Having said that, don’t write off writing off the Mercedes on your taxes just yet. The Bavarians may have won this battle, but the Swabians aren’t out of the war entirely.

I wouldn’t knock anyone for preferring the Benz to the BMW, and the staff around our office are in a dead heat as to which is the better car. The S 580 is prettier and maintains the presence you’d expect from a $187,445 big boi sedan, while the 760i leans heavily on avant-garde drama, which I personally love, but I know I’m in the minority. Said avant-garde drama works wonders in the cabin, where the 7 looks and feels significantly more special than the S, with its bespoke design elements and slightly more gorgeous materials.

I’ve very publicly called out Mercedes for their declining build quality and short-sighted focus and here-and-now tech gimmicks. While the S 580 is definitely a technological showcase in most of the best ways, there is a level of polish here I wasn’t expecting. I don’t love the gloss-black-everything, I don’t like that everything is capacitive-touch, and I despise that the driver interface looks and feels exactly the same as a C-Class. But there is some serious engineering wizardry here that shows the S 580 is still engineered like no other car in the world.

There’s the aforementioned ride quality, which actively senses the road and adapts to it before it happens, making things like speed bumps disappear. There’s the driver attention monitoring, which seems a lot more lackadaisical than the 7, but is instantly able to recognize when you’re nodding off and will alert you without forcing control back on you. Or there’s the stop/start system, which is flat-out black magic. I don’t understand how it’s mechanically possible to kill and resurrect an engine that mighty without being noticed, but Mercedes made it impossibly slick. In the 7, I was annoyed that I couldn’t turn it off, but in the S, I didn’t notice it all.

It’s those kinds of details, those little things you wouldn’t be able to point to immediately, where the 2023 Mercedes-Benz S 580 4Matic shines. There is a level of mechanical polish and attention to detail here that shows this is still engineered like no other car in the world, even if the 2023 BMW 760i xDrive is just a tiny bit more special, channelling the same energy and effort that went into putting Mercedes on notice so many years ago.

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About Nathan Leipsig

Deputy Editor Nathan is a passionate enthusiast with a penchant for finding 80s and 90s European vehicles. He can typically be found messing about on his E28 5-series or on Kijiji looking for the next project. Current Toys: '78 928, '23 MX-5 GS-P, '95 XJR, '86 535i, '99 New Beetle GLS 5MT
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