A cold, wet and windy trip to Wolverhampton for a small corporate event was a chance to reaquaint myself with two of the 1980s most 1980s classic convertibles – the Mercedes SL and Jaguar XJS. Two very different ways to deliver the super-wafty drop top experience for the cultured classes.
Our hire fleet includes this 1985 Mercedes 280SL, the smaller-engined 6-pot model designed to combat the fuel crisis, and a 1988 Jaguar XJS. Our XJS is one of the first ‘proper’ factory XJS convertibles and it’s concession to fuel economy is a High Efficiency (HE) head on its gallon glugging V12 motor.
The Mercedes SL R107 was pretty long in the tooth by the mid 80s but remained a benchmark for upmarket drop top cars. The slab-sided R107 replaced the iconic 60s Pagoda Merc, ramping up the engineering and weight whilst dramatically improving the waftability. Today the long-lived SL embodies a certain strand of understated, confident cool, with it’s rock solid build quality and svelte, uncluttered lines, with that long, long bonnet. And it is hard to convey just how engineered this car feels – a simple description will never quite nail the sense of quality and solidity bestowed by the hefty doors and perfect fit and finish. The interior may represent that curious transition point in history between olde worlde and modern impact-absorbing plastics but it is cohesive, ergonomic and tasteful.
You sit in the Mercedes behind an enormous wheel, so designed to enable all of the dials to be visible. The downside is that it requires a slightly uncomfortable splayed-knee driving position, perhaps the car’s only negative. Thanks to all that studious engineering the SL is a heavy car but even with the lowly 2.8 straight six it is a sprightly performer. The driving experience is set up for comfort and relaxation rather than inch-perfect apexing but the SL does handle and ride well. However, pushing on is hardly what this car is meant for. As the simple roof, large boot and big soggy seats attested, the SL is for blasting top-down to Nice, sunglasses and Sophia Loren to hand.
The Jaguar XJS is a different proposition. The big Jag was originally planned in drop top and coupe styles at launch but the convertible fell by the wayside due to threatened US legislation. Jaguar launched the cabriolet halfway house in the mid-80s, a curious mix of T-bars and removable panels that didn’t really hit the spot. Finally, 13 years after launch, the full convertible appeared in 1988, only available with the silky V12 5.3. The attractive convertible arguably released the full potential of the XJS, revealing the big Jag’s GT credentials.
Jaguar did a very good job of chopping the XJS roof; the car has good lines with roof up or down, and the roof is a well engineered and simple to use item. All of which simply enhances what has always been an underrated and deeply capable car. The XJS does the job of relaxed GT cruiser incredibly well, thanks in no small part to its XJ saloon underpinnings. This chassis is one of the nicest riding and handling set ups of any to lie beneath a saloon or GT car, acclaimed at launch to be better than a Rolls Royce. And so good it underpinned Jaguars until quite recently. The XJS, shock of shocks, handles really well and when allied to the brilliant V12 it is quite a package.
The big Jag sports car’s looks have always split opinion but I feel they’ve begun to mature nicely, such that the XJS is a genuinely attractive car in late 80s chrome-equipped guise. Things are less positive inside, where it achieves a less harmonious mix than the SL with its off-the-shelf switchgear, casually strewn wood and dated dashboard. It isn’t bad, just not as good as it could be. A shame that Jaguar cut corners like this when 60s Jaguars were so beautifully designed inside.
On the road the XJS achieves a better balance of relaxation and engagement than the slightly wooden SL. It is also practical, with a comfortable interior and decent boot. Where it loses out to the SL is in the sense that you might actually get where you’re going. The SL exudes a never-let-you-down vibe, which only tends to highlight the Jaguar’s rather less sure-footed approach to durability. The Jaguar is a quality product, and we’ve always found the XJS reliable on hire, but it can’t help feeling thrown together compared to the solid SL.
Choosing between these cars is not easy and, ultimately pretty pointless. If you like SLs, chances are you’re not a XJS person, and vice versa. Driving either car is an event, a relaxing introduction to GT motoring as it should be. The SL is undoubtedly the better everyday classic – which may explain why you see so many around Islington – but the XJS shouldn’t be overlooked. It is so much better than its reputation suggests.
You can hire either car from us from £150 per day. We also offer a comparison weekend that lets you drive the cars back to back for only £349 including local delivery and collection.