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A Classic Reborn

Short, light, thrilling, Mercedes returns to its roots with the latest SL roadster
Paul A. Eisenstein
From the Print Edition:
Laurence Fishburne, May/June 2013

It takes more than a little effort to slide across the fat sill plate and plop into the driver's seat of the ancient roadster, followed by another awkward grab for the strap that dangles from the gullwing door. Finally ensconced behind the wheel, we turn the key and are, after a moment, rewarded with a rich and resonant rumble that sounds more in tune with a race track than the back streets of Beverly Hills. The transmission grinds just a bit as it slips into gear, but despite its age our Mercedes-Benz SL300, among the oldest still in running order, quickly reveals the athletic grace that made it such a sensation when it first debuted six decades ago. Even in this car-jaded town, the classic turns heads as we roll onto Sunset Boulevard.

While Mercedes-Benz had reemerged quite quickly from the rubble of World War II, its first post war models were little more than remakes of the solid but staid offerings of the past. The German maker saw racing as an opportunity to both rebuild its design and engineering prowess and transform its image. By the early 1950s it was on the track with the distinctive SL300 coupe capturing a string of victories in high-profile events like the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Max Fisher, the legendary importer, trying to relaunch the Mercedes brand in the U.S., was certain that the design could be a winner on the road, as well as on the race course. He soon convinced Mercedes management back in Stuttgart to build a street-legal version. While some automotive historians might quibble, its 1954 debut at the New York Auto Show marked the birth of the modern sports car.

On a warm spring afternoon all these many years later, we've landed in Los Angeles, following up on an offer to drive one of the early gullwings-among the most sought-after cars from the post war era-along with a series of later-generation Mercedes roadsters. But that's past as prologue. The other reason we've made the cross-country trek is to log some seat time in the latest version of the Mercedes-Benz SL, the sixth-generation SL550 marking the 60th anniversary of the long-running line.

While there have been faster sports cars and more nimble sports cars, few have had the staying power of the Mercedes-Benz SL. Credit a mix of style, performance, prestige and technical achievement, something that certainly continues to apply on the gen-six line. While the looks of the latest model have generated a fair share of controversy and even criticism, the overall package remains one of the market's trendsetters. There are any number of new innovations, like the Magic Sky Control roof, which transforms itself from transparent to opaque with the touch of a button. The Magic Vision Control wiper system jets washer fluid out from the wipers to keep the glass far cleaner than ever before. There's even a sensor that opens the trunk if you wiggle your foot under the back bumper.

But in a number of critical ways, Mercedes decided to return the new roadster to its roots. Mercedes early on adopted an alphanumeric nomenclature, and those letters and numbers typically had a direct meaning. The 300 referred to a 3.0-liter powertrain, while the SL was short for the German "Sport Leicht," or "Sport Lightweight." (Originally styled 300SL, the names were later changed to put the initials before the numbers.) Indeed, the original race car offset a decidedly underpowered engine with its extremely light, tubular design, something incorporated into the first street model. Over the years, however, each successive generation of the SL has grown bigger and more bloated. From the point of mass, at least, the penultimate offering had little in common with the ur-SL coupe.

So, when they set out to develop the all-new model, one of their highest priorities became what engineers like to call "lightweighting." It wasn't as easy as that might seem. There are plenty of reasons why almost every car on the road has grown heavier over the years. There are today's bigger, more powerful engines. There are regulatory requirements that mandate all sorts of emissions control systems and safety devices. Airbags are heavier than they might seem, and just beefing up the windshield pillars to meet the federal government's latest roof crush rule requires a lot of reinforcement. But motorists also share the blame as we demand standard air conditioning, power windows, doors and trunk lids, never mind 500-watt audio systems and eight-inch infotainment display screens.

Nonetheless, Mercedes was determined to put the original meaning back in "SL," with chief engineer Juergen Weissinger calling it "the biggest step we've taken from one generation to the other." Except for that ultra-high-strength steel windshield frame, designed to meet the new rollover rule, Mercedes adopted a mix of lightweight materials-primarily aluminum, though there are some magnesium applications, such as a panel near the gas tank that's so light you can pick it up with two fingers. While the new SL550 is still a solid beast, at 3,950 pounds, it's almost 270 pounds lighter than the outgoing model. And that's something we'll soon come to appreciate out on the road.

"The effect is as if a large passenger has stepped out of the car" explains Dr. Thomas Rudlaff, who was responsible for the development of the aluminum bodyshell. "The result is perceptible and measurable. Less weight means improved performance and efficiency. In other words, the driving pleasure increases and the environmental impact decreases." Translation: better mileage and lower emissions.

Lined up alongside one another, it's impressive to see how the genes of the SL line have evolved. Sure, the original gullwing doors were soon abandoned for simpler, if less distinctive, portals, but the two-seater remained a design trendsetter, introducing the stunning "Pagoda" roof in 1963, and a break-through foldaway hardtop four decades later.

With the 2013 Mercedes SL, the big changes were made under the skin. The dimensions are largely the same, though the back end is a bit wider-providing a broader track meant to enhance handling while also improving the car's traditionally cramped cargo compartment. The new model seems decidedly familiar, though a closer look reveals a number of styling cues borrowed from the German maker's flagship SLS supercar, including the more upright grille and headlamps, and others lifted from the smaller, more plebian SLK (that "K," in typical Teutonic fashion, is shorthand for "kurz," German for "short"). And that's where it runs into trouble.

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