At first blush, the Mercedes SL-Class is a legend. The car you see here can count such classics as the 300 SL Gullwing and 280 SL in its lineage, and later models have been the cars of choice for rappers and movie stars alike for decades.
Thing is, the SL has competition today like it hasn’t really had before. There’s outside competition, yes, but the SL’s stablemates pose the biggest threat to its legend. On the one hand, you’ve got the technical and engineering marvel that is the S-Class Cabriolet. The handsome and well-equipped E-Class Cabriolet is making waves and now you have the recently-revealed AMG GT C Roadster that, if it’s anything like its coupe cousin, will wow a lot of buyers.
So where does that leave the SL, that stanchion of old-money Mercedes, a car that’s partly responsible for the legend that is the three-pointed star today?
The first thing you’ll notice – well, that I noticed — is the colour. As luxury-minded as the discerning Mercedes buyer is, they tend not to be the most colourful in their colour choices; the parking lot at Mercedes Canada HQ in Toronto is a riveting kaleidoscope of greys, blacks, whites and silvers.
The Fire Opal red you see here, though, is not that at all. In fact, it does well to recall the colour that wonderful 300 SL is known so very well for wearing. It’s fantastic, and it’s how a car like this should look. It’s perfectly complimented by the 19-inch split-spoke wheels. Lovely, and likely the ones we’d have as they come as standard.
The rest isn’t bad either; the SL got a slight facelift last year to better fit with the rest of the Mercedes line-up, meaning the addition of a 3D-effect aluminum grille and newly-shaped headlights with futuristic LED DRLs. The deeper front splitter is just icing on the cake, as are the twin oblong tailpipes and SL-trademark side grilles.
That’s all with the top down; Mercedes obviously knows how to make gran-touring drop tops, because this is one particular convertible that looks almost as good – perhaps better – with the folding top up. Better still, it happens in about 20 seconds and even when up, keeps things nice and quiet (and bright, thanks to the glass “sunroof” that remains when the top’s up) inside.
Speaking of inside: it’s a bit more of a mixed bag than the exterior. Where the exterior lines and detailing is all aces, the interior has its strong points, but those are too often overshadowed by some weak spots.
Take the woodgrain trim, for instance: Where many manufacturers are going to nice, natural, matted open-more finishes, the marbled, glossy wood in here looks decidedly old school. Give me a faux (or real, considering this car’s cost of entry) carbon-fibre or aluminum finish any day.
So that’s a bit rough, but then you take into account the fantastic metallic detailing on the seat controls, the line of buttons below the climate knobs that house your seat and traction controls, and around the stubby shift lever. Yes, the latter looks weird, but it’s a whole lot better than the cheap-feeling column-mounted shifter on other Mercedes products.
It’s roomy enough, though, that’s for sure. No back seats (past SLs did have these) but there is a shelf back there that makes a good – and somewhat secure – spot for handbags or briefcases. There’s also a centre console but you won’t get much in there as it shares space with the roof controls. Good thing, then, that trunk is roomy enough with the top up, and still usable once down. Plus, the way the roof automatically folds into the trunk is a sight to behold.
Usually, the seating discussion would happen in the previous section, but there’s so much going on with the SL’s particular numbers that it’s moved here. They’re comfortable at the outset, and if not, the numerous ways they can be adjusted will make it so most body types will find a way to get comfortable.
Then there’s Mercedes’ air-scarf tech, essentially a vent that sits just below the headrest and heats the neck when the top’s down (or up). It can be set to three levels and it works for the most part, but is a little less effective when you’ve got a collar on.
We end this with the real techy bit: there’s a lot more to these particular chairs than a few cushions and some nice leather upholstery. They can massage you, which is nice. They also feature active side bolsters that can be adjusted to two levels. When you’re turning right, the left bolster firms up and when turning left, the opposite happens. I do have to say, however, that it’s good the feature is adjustable; on the higher of the two settings, it’s quite intense in how tightly it grabs your rib cage — especially when it thinks you’re panic braking, at which point it squeezes tightly on both sides. Trouble is, it’s a little quick to determine you’re actually in need of extra support, causing a little more panic than comfort as you start to look around to decipher just why you were squeezed. Had you run over a pigeon? Hit a pothole?
The final tech frontier is the infotainment system. The SL’s is a little older-school than much of the rest of the Mercedes line-up, which features both a scroll wheel and touchpad to navigate the menus. Here, there’s just a scroll wheel, which I don’t really mind. What bothers me more, however, is the same here as it is in the rest of the line-up: the graphics on the main display. The fonts are clear enough, it’s just frustrating to navigate. The colour palette is such that you often can’t tell what’s highlighted and what isn’t, leading to unintended menu selections. The touchpad does make this easier, but that simply doesn’t apply here.
Get the car movin’ and shakin’, however, and you start to see why the seats offer the extra support.
My car’s “450” designation meant the existence of a turbo six-banger underhood, as opposed to the V8 and V12 powerplants offered elsewhere in the line-up. It’s good for 362 hp and 369 lb-ft, and while there are many that will always crave big-bore V8 power from a car like this, I wouldn’t call it “sluggish.” Having said that, the spec is a little down on what’s seen from the same engine in the smaller AMG SLC 43, so there is the risk that the SL450 will be outshone a little by its little brother in the performance department.
That being said, I drove both cars in quick succession, and I’m pretty sure that’s what you’d have to do in order to really tell the difference between the two. Two fewer cylinders means the SL 450 is lighter up front than its twins, which, in turn, makes for an actually pretty engaging handling model.
Sure; most buyers will likely be selecting the 450 for its fuel-saving characteristics more so than the handling bonus, but it’s still nice to know that your fancy German drop top can still handle itself when you ask it to.
Just as you can tune the seats a certain way, you can also tune numerous aspects of the powertrain and handling. Your steering, transmission and throttle response times can all be modified, and the most aggressive settings are pretty firm. In fact, like the seats, I actually found myself dialing it down a notch unless I was really pushing it, so firm is the ride. That’s actually a good thing, for cowl shake and chassis flex are always an issue with convertibles. That stuff’s there a little with the SL, but I wouldn’t call it a deal breaker by any means.
Could the steering wheel be a little more feelsome? Perhaps. Will I crave more power in the long run, and will I always be pulling up beside SL 550s and going, “Man, I wish I’d taken the V8?” Doubt it. The SL’s ancestors we talked about earlier? They all had six-bangers, and they did just fine, thank you very much, all without turbocharging.
The real problem with the SL 450 starts here. Even with the V6 and no extras, you’re looking at a $104,900 MSRP. Yes, that’s lower than what you’re laying out for a BMW 650i xDrive cab, but that gets you a V8 and AWD. The $7,000 difference doesn’t seem so bad once you factor that in.
You can still grand tour like a pro in this, though. It absolutely looks the part (especially in that red), there’s plenty of room inside for the front passengers and there’s no denying the presence the SL has to this day. Will it be eclipsed by the AMG GT or the S-Class? The AMG is simply too hardcore, so it’s out. The S-Class cab is a different story, but it clears the SL 450 by a whopping 60 grand, which really brings it into a whole other price bracket. It actually makes that $104,000 and change MSRP seem almost a bargain. Yes, the E-Class cab undercuts it, but it’s got nowhere near the panache of the SL, which is something you want from a car like this.
Looks like there’s room for the good ol’ SL after all. Just get rid of that circa-1990 wood trim.