Ron Sessions and I gave each other a determined look. “Let’s put the top down.” Right.
Being a couple of (well-seasoned) car journalists in this partly new/mostly old, mid-cycle refresh of the Mercedes-Benz SL, we were duty-bound to at least once operate the car’s monumental mechanical canopy. Perhaps some purple Vans-wearing, Snapchatting, newbie blogger would skip this crucial step and beat us to the lunch-stop espresso machine. But we’re savvy enough to know we could stash the lid, ditch the remainder of the meandering pre-preplanned route and beeline it to the espresso bar before them anyway. Unfortunately, we were going way too fast on the freeway to drop the top.
Ron headed the big two-seater down the next off-ramp. At the bottom was a light we hoped would stay red just long enough, but it immediately turned green, and there were cars behind us. Nuts. We slowly motored through the intersection, then back up the opposite on-ramp, as all I stammered all the while, “Where’s the button? There’s got to be a freaking button here!”
I got close to the center console. There’s some leather, plastic bits, chromey stuff, a button for adjusting the shocks, another for changing the shift strategy, a knob for the suspension settings, something else I don’t understand, but nothing about folding a top. This is exactly where you’d put a button with a little icon showing air-whipped hair. Or maybe a toggle displaying a raised top, which—if I think this through—I’d push the other way.
As we slowly started to merge back onto the freeway, I noticed a small leather-covered, clam-like pod. Hmmm. Flipped it open. Holy smoke, the switch. The top began to go down as I yelled for Ron to keep it under 25 mph (that’s faster than the mechanism would have allowed before) until it was done. Perfect. Two confused-looking guys in their 50s and 60s, creeping down the right lane in a 449-hp Mercedes-Benz SL550 with a Transformers top clawing at the sky. Bored kids in passing minivans slightly lowered their phones and shook their heads.
Finally, the header latched. Ron stamped on the gas. Our heads snapped back. How could this be only the “mid-level” SL? The press handout claims a 0-60 mph time of 4.3 seconds, and the car absolutely rips. Bye-bye, minivan.
Mercedes had three versions of the SL on hand: the $87,975, 362-hp 3.0-liter twin-turbo V-6 SL 450 (0-60 mph in 4.9 sec, with 34 added horsepower); this $111,225, turbo 4.7-liter V-8 SL550, and the hairy, scary, $152,275, 577-hp twin-turbo V-8 AMG SL63 (60 mph in 4.0 sec). That SL63 retains its seven-speed tranny, but both the SL450 and SL550 are now swimming in nine, nicely separated ratios that paddle shift in eye blinks.
At the lunch stop, the whispers over those espressos found just about everybody thinking that the SL450 was actually the best of the SL bunch. Even with its comparatively pedestrian V-6 (that is, if you’re a pedestrian on the Champs-Elysées) the SL450 is still much faster than any sensible person would need an SL to be. And while I’ve never thought of any SL as a “light” car—to my surprise, it stands for Super Light—the SL450’s handling is noticeably less about tires than trimming its inertia. The SL550 is straight-line faster but less successfully balanced, while the SL63 is probably better-suited for a dragstrip than a classic cruise down Sunset strip.
If Corvettes are classic rock, and Jags are jazz, Mercedes-Benzes are Bach at his baroque best. Obsessively ordered, multi-layered, busy. Johann Sebastian would love the SL (though it would probably blow his powered wig off, if he ever happened to find the top button). The SL’s dense mechanical songbook—already more black than white with 16th notes—now adds Active Body Control (capable of tilting the car by up to 2.8-degrees to offset cornering roll), an active cargo separator (that raises and lowers, depending if the top is sharing the trunk with your stuff), greater connectivity with a standard OnStar-like system for emergency services and diagnostics, available Apple CarPlay, and LED headlights.
Back when the 1980s-era, third-gen SL was new, I disliked it. For a guy in his 20s, they drove like superbly built Thunderbirds, dizzyingly boring and pretentious automobiles. But you’re more of a binary thinker at that age. Good/bad. Cool/lame. Recently I came across a pristine 450 SL with its top down in a parking lot. Red, tan interior. After looking four ways for the owner, I began circling it, in a deep reappraisal. No, these weren’t beautiful cars in the sense of the feminine Jaguar E-Type or Pininfarina’s sensual Ferraris, but like the 911, they were polished to a clean essentialness: an Eames chair on Michelin tires. The subtle transitions, taut detailing, balanced proportions—it stills look right. Wouldn’t mind having one of these now, even with the T-bird handling.
Which left me uneasy with this new SL, even with its freshened-up face and hood. By themselves, the changes are for the better. I like the SL450 and SL550’s bigger diamond grill, the hood’s bubbly “power domes,” and the simpler, swept-back headlights. On the other hand, this doubles down on the car’s very problem: its collection of discordant visual treatments that are all clamoring too hard for attention. It’s like a pencil sketch that’s been drawn and erased too many times, every time with a firmer hand. At some point you crumple the paper and start over. Rather than chasing a more coherent-looking car (Aston Martin, for instance), it’s time for a quiet walk around those seminal SLs to remember what made this car compelling in the first place.
Before the farewell lunch on the event’s second day, our Mercedes hosts sent us out to sample the car again after having a night to sleep on it. The route meandered along some terrific roads, one wrong turn this side of the Mexican border. The SL really does handle incredibly well. At the limit, it’s a car of big doses of both brain and brawn, a heavily muscled mechanical athlete that’s thinking much faster than you to keep the car on the road and away from those idyllic trees smearing past.
Ron and I gave each other that look again. “Let’s put the top down.” I nonchalantly flipped the switch—without even looking. The interior filled with the smells of grass and oaks, the sounds of crunched leaves spit out from beneath the tires between the roars of the engine. Then, off to my right was the crack of a rifle shot—probably from a shooting range or a hunter—but we flinched. Ron quickly slowed, I pushed the button again, and Ron leaned into the accelerator pedal when it latched. Suddenly the SL’s new capability to operate its top as fast as 25 mph actually mattered.