It’s another one of those days in the UK and the sun is out; at just 23 degrees celcius it is by no means a scorcher but given a little nice weather my head tends to drift onto the benefits of owning a convertible car. I have already spoken about my views on convertibles in general, but this afternoon I’ve been toying with the idea of buying a car which has long resided in my dream garage…yet another Mercedes Benz, the SL.
The story of this particular Benz is a long and storied one, and one which certainly deserves abit more than me spouting facts I’ve read on Wikipedia and opinions formed by reviews and stolen glances in car parks. Instead I’m just going to talk about one particular generation of SL – the 2002-2012 car, a model which has only recently gone out of production and ushered in a host of dramatic departures for the car.
A SL for the 21st century, the 2002 model was only the 5th generation of car and followed in the tradition of it’s forebears as a grand sports tourer…elegantly styled and brimming with technology the SL was a big hit for the company, and helped Mercedes push upmarket into territory traditionally occupied by the likes of more exotic brands such as Bentley and Maserati, but I’ll talk more about that later. First we need to examine the vastly different market that the ‘R230’ generation entered; in years gone by Mercedes had generally remained renowned as the premium German marque…sure BMW was abit more sporty but it also lacked a certain amount of class, and Audi had never really managed to crack the big time, especially after a big US scandal over unintended acceleration. Previous SL’s had been the preserve of the uber-rich, with TV shows like Dallas and Dynasty doing much to enhance it’s image on both sides of the Atlantic, and as a result it was often the go-to car for celebrities and the residents of Beverly Hills for boulevard cruising and shopping sprees. But in the 13 years since the launch of the previous generation SL alot had changed and Mercedes knew that the SL had changed too. For a start easy credit put the car in reach of a lot more buyers, and with increased competition from other brands it was vital to appear desirable; Lexus launched it’s relatively underwhelming SC430 rival the year before, but less conventional rivals such as varied as the Bentley Continental GT and BMW M3 cabrio meant that SL really had to be something special, especially given the popularity of the smaller SLK, launched 4 years previously.
As a start, Mercedes adopted the folding metal roof of the SLK in it’s bigger car. Undeniably a standout feature, this set the new SL apart from previous generations and indeed most rivals. Secondly it gave the car arguably the most attractive iteration of it’s new styling language; although several years old, the gentle curves and rounded edges gave the car a much more modern look (especially when compared to it’s predecessor). Inside was also a big departure, and featured technology such as sat-nav which had previously not been available. Under the bonnet too there were changes; powerful new engines (V6, V8 and V12) helped give the car a sportier image even if the focus was still on offering a relaxed driving experience, and AMG models in particular pushed the price into competition with more luxurious cars. This approached undeniably worked and the SL was quickly adopted by everyone hip-hop stars to Hollywood wives as the ride of choice…for a few years anyway before other companies launched pricier and more exclusive rivals, but the SL remained a good seller (for it’s price) over the 10 years it was on sale.
It’s the styling in particular that really captivates me with the SL. Admittedly from the rear it can seem a little long as a result of the roof mechanism, but it does balance out the long bonnet – sized so that it can accommodate those massive V12 engines in top spec variants. The roof looks good up or down, and the understated front end is in keeping with the classier image that the car radiates to passers by. In 2006 there was a minor facelift which sharpened up the front grill somewhat, but in 2008 much larger changes occured and the SL gained a sharper face more akin to the second generation SLK and newer CLS. Personally I am not a massive fan of the updated model as the changes are at odds with the looks of the rest of the car, but they undoubtedly look abit more modern if less timeless.
Early SL’s were besieged with the same plasticky cabin that afflicted many Mercedes of that vintage, but the 2006 facelift gave it a cabin which was pretty similar to the ML and GL which I have spoken about at length. Both designs featured circular airvents and are centred around a sat nav screen (bigger and more advanced in the updated model). All specifications are well equipped, but the 2008 facelift brought the amazing AirScarf technology which keeps driver and passenger warm regardless of the weather. I say passenger as the SL is only built for 2…there isn’t even an attempt at including rear seats, and the boot is restricted in terms of access, even if it is relatively large for this class of car.
All SL’s are powerful cars and none is slower than 8 seconds to 60…impressive for a car which weighs as much as a mid-size SUV. The base model in most markets was the SL350, with a 3.7L V6 petrol (later a 3.5). Also popular was the SL500/500, which featured a 5/5.5L V8 and gave a big boost in performance. A SL600 was also available with a 5.5L BiTurbo 5.5 V8, but customers wanting performance/more prestige would probably have gone for an AMG model. I’m aware that all these numbers are probably getting abit confusing by now, but essentially the SL55 AMG had the familiar 5.4L supercharged V8 and was replaced in the 2008 facelift with a SL63 with a 6.3L V8. Topping the range was SL65 which had a storming 6L V12 BiTurbo, which in the ‘Black Series’ version did without the folding roof and came with nearly 700bhp! All bar this last model were definately more tuned to being quick rather than athletic, but the average driver would not be disappointed with the handling or ride of an SL. As a sidenote, although most new buyers probably did not car about fuel economy, 25mpg is the most people will see in everyday circumstances, with 20mpg more realistic for V8 engined cars.
I have actually been in an SL before, not this generation admittedly but I had the chance to be a passenger in a mid-90’s SL whilst on holiday last year. I can’t say I was knocked out by this base model but it was certainly an experience to sit in the drop top as we drove around the coastline of Tenerife. Yet it is this 2002-12 generation of SL which holds most appeal for me, and it has a permanent place in my dream garage alongside an admittedly long list of cars, but this is the only grand tourer. I perused Autotrader to see how much an SL would set me back, and to my surprise earlier ones could be had with reasonable mileage for under £10k…a 2005 SL500 for £13k looks very tempting, and comes with the updated navigation and 7 speed gearbox. But realistically I could not cope with the fuel costs at 23mpg, insurance prices for a group 20 car or the fact that it only seats 2; maybe one could be a weekend toy once I have a life but for the moment, much like an E46 M3 convertible, the SL will have to remain a pipedream.