Hands-On With the New Rolex Daytona

Change is hard, as they say. Particularly when the thing that requires it, wasn’t exactly broken in the first place. Rolex has found themselves in a near impossible situation of updating the near universally lauded 1165XX generation of the Daytona. A watch that’s recently found itself in a position it never really asked to be in, serving as the barometer of the second hand watch market and subsequently the subject of ire to many lamenting availability issues writ large at boutiques the world over. The watch itself, though? When considered at its initial MSRP upon introduction in 2016, which was $12,400 (or even its MSRP last year, which was $13,500), is pretty awesome. Not without fault, certainly, but a mighty fine chronograph to be sure and a total sweetheart on the wrist. 

But of course, the Daytona was a rare bird to score at retail pricing, and judging it at aftermarket prices was a far murkier proposition. Still, there’s no doubting that this watch tapped into something deep, serving as the veritable poster child of the meteoric rise of the hype watch, and for good reason: it’s a great all around watch sitting on a load of heritage that includes some of the coolest figures of the past 50 years helping to inadvertently build the watch’s lore to unhealthy levels in today’s climate. While things have mercifully cooled off over the past 12 months, this is still largely the context in which Rolex is tasked with creating a new generation of Daytona, which they’ve done with the release of the 1265XX generation at Watches & Wonders this year.


I don’t know what the market or availability situation will be with this watch, so I’ll judge it outside of all that fuss, at its new MSRP of $15,100, and based on some brief hands-on time with the watch courtesy of Rolex here at Watches & Wonders (see more of our coverage of the show right here). Full in-depth review (with all the requisite measurements that we’re curious about) to follow. 

The new Daytona range welcomes the number 2 into that second slot of the reference number, and believe it or not, that’s not the only change it’s undergone. Upon its reveal some small, but important changes were immediately apparent. If you’re anything like me, the biggest of which was the new re-proportioned rings framing the three sub dials, with the inner portions matched to the dial on the steel references. Early press images were concerning, as the balance looked to be off by just a tick. This led to fears of the case being resized as well, but in reality this ended up being a far more benign change that’s not nearly as perceptible in person. Most importantly, the sweet-spot dimensions have not been tampered with (on paper, at least). 

The Daytona remains 40mm in diameter, but that doesn’t mean the case hasn’t undergone its own changes, most notably on the steel references. The intricacies of the Daytona case aren’t as straightforward as you might expect. With the last generation, at least, which utilized an asymmetric case thanks to the peculiar way the lug along the crown side of the case transitioned to the crown guard and pusher openings. This wasn’t the case on the precious metal references, which had a symmetrical case and a different lug profile along the bottom. With the new 126500 steel Dayton, the case now matches the symmetry and the lug profile of the precious metal references. In the prior generation, this difference led to the watch wearing a touch larger in precious metal spec compared to the steel models. In this new generation, the steel will feel ever so slightly larger than the prior. Unfortunately, I did not have a set of calipers to give the case a proper once over (though I did confirm that the lug span remains 20mm), but it still wears quite beautifully on the wrist, so no immediate red flags when it comes to the numbers.

Same reference across generations, new on the left, old on the right.

Visually, there are some other small changes that make a notable impact on the aesthetic. First are the redesigned hour markers. The new dials have gone back into a longer, thinner hour marker last seen on the 16520 of the ‘90s (the so-called Zenith Daytona for its use of a modified El Primero base caliber). This is a change I (and many of you) have been hoping for, replacing the small, boat shaped markers of the outgoing models. I always found this detail slightly less elegant than the thinner, longer execution, especially in the context of the rather full dial. I think this will help legibility quite a bit, and free the dial for a bit of tension in the process. 

The other big change is the bezel execution. On references containing Cerachrom (ceramic) bezels (all steel references, and all PM references on Oysterflex straps), there is now a ring around the bezel insert that is the same material as the case itself. This move thins out the appearance of the bezel a small amount, and more noticeably, a thin element of contrast at its edge. In person I was rather fond of this move which, along with the new hour markers, represent a nod to earlier Daytona design cues, preserving the DNA in a still quite modern manner. 

In total, if you fell into the “Daytona is a good looking watch” camp before, you likely will remain in that camp with this generation of the watch. On the other hand, I don’t see this winning those not in the camp over. The likely continuing availability issues and bloated second hand prices will only exacerbate that. Like last year, Rolex noted that they are working to ease that tension by providing more supply, but we haven’t quite seen that bear out in the market just yet.

The 4131, visible only through the back of the platinum anniversary reference

Rolex is using a new evolution of the excellent 4130 caliber that was introduced back in 2000 with the first six digit reference of the model, the 116520. The new movement is called the 4131, and while doesn’t seem to stray too far from the formula used in the 4130, it does welcome the Rolex Chronergy escapement, and a new, more efficient, ball bearing at the center of the automatic winding system, among other things. If you haven’t caught on by now, Rolex plays the long game, with slow evolutions separating generations rather than leaps. Iteration is the name of the game here and the new Daytona, from every angle inside and out, represents that. Obligatory comparison to the Porsche 911 inserted here. 

This leaves us with, for all intents and purposes, a very good chronograph that’s slowly crept up in price to now cross over the $15k line. It may seem silly to judge it based on that price, but that’s what Rolex is saying it’s worth, and I think they’re close. At $12-13k the Daytona is a great watch, and I’d apply that to this new reference as well. At $15k, I’d say it’s no longer punching above its weight, but rather, right at it. 

From my perspective, there have always been, and continues to be more interesting watches available at this price point, but none that quite take into consideration an intangible element of usability in the same manner that Rolex does. I don’t mean technical usability, I mean easy to get along with all day every day, goes with anything, looks-good-scuffed-up-a-bit kind of usability.  Watches become interesting for the experiences that they allow the wearer, and the Daytona is still hands-down one of the great chronographs on wrist. It might be a new generation, but it still felt like putting on that favorite pair of well worn jeans: Imperfect, but pretty damn cozy and practical. 

We’ll go deeper on this watch when we’re able to get more time with it, and get some answers about the ongoing amplitude issues affecting newer calibers, and that might impact the 4131. Until then, learn more from Rolex.

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Blake is a Wisconsin native who’s spent his professional life covering the people, products, and brands that make the watch world a little more interesting. Blake enjoys the practical elements that watches bring to everyday life, from modern Seiko to vintage Rolex. He is an avid writer and photographer with a penchant for cars, non-fiction literature, and home-built mechanical keyboards.