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.
If there's any complaint that echoes among the motoring community it's that the new Mercedes-Benz SL somehow seems to have been designed by committee, with different hands sculpting different portions of the car.
The interior package comes together much more cleanly. The updated design is well-appointed, with just the right mix of upscale materials and detailing. And Mercedes engineers have delivered a well-appreciated upgrade of the oft-perplexing comand infotainment system that, in the prior generation, often left us cursing aloud. One of the SL's nicer new features is the Frontbass system, which mounts subwoofers in the floor, one each for driver and passenger, rather than in back. You don't lose luggage space and it enhances the presence to your music, especially if it features a thumping bass line.
The folding hardtop remains one of the signature features of the new SL. It's quick to operate, which encourages you to go al fresco even if bad weather threatens. And the Air Scarf system, which blows heated air onto the back of your neck, just might lead you to put the top down even on the most chilly of autumnal days. If you don't, of course, you can still get a commanding view of the clouds passing overhead if you've ordered the optional Magic Sky roof.
All-in-all, the 2013 Mercedes SL550 is still a striking and reasonably handsome design, one that might tempt you to leave it sitting in your driveway, rather than hiding the new roadster in your garage. That is, of course, when you finally take a break from driving. As we quickly discovered, the new SL practically begs you to discover new detours on your way home and to find any excuse possible to take an otherwise unnecessary excursion.
We had the chance to split our trip out West between two different models, one equipped with the standard-issue Agility Control suspension. It's a good package for everyday driving, able to soak up all but the worst bumps of LA's poorly maintained roads without complaint. But for our money-assuming, of course, automotive journalism paid more-we'd opt for the Active Body Control package. It took us only a matter of minutes driving along the winding canyon roads of the Angeles National Forest to appreciate the payback. Simple as ABC, it magically flattens out even the sharpest corners, giving the roadster a sense of magnetic grip-further enhanced by a new electromechanical Direct-steer system that automatically adapts to a driver's inputs.
The new SL550's beating heart is a twin-turbo 4.6-liter V-8 making 429 horsepower-about 12 percent more than the eight-banger in the outgoing roadster, even though it's 0.8 liters smaller in displacement. This engine delivers near-instantaneous, tire-spinning torque, Mercedes claiming 0-to-60 times have been cut nearly a full second to 4.5 seconds. While we didn't have the opportunity to run through timing traps, we're betting the corporate estimate erred on the conservative side. Yes, some will lament the lack of a manual transmission-but Mercedes planners rightly concluded that's something few potential buyers would likely even consider. And it's hard to complain about the seven-speed adaptive automatic they opted for. Slap the steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters and you'll likely jump from gear to gear faster than near anyone could work a stick.
The new SL adopts a standard Stop/Start system. It automatically shuts the engine down instead of idling at a light or while sitting in a bank line. Lift your foot off the brake and that V-8 instantly fires back up with nary the slightest shudder. Also taking into account the 2013 SL550's lighter weight and other factors, Mercedes boasts of a 22 percent improvement in fuel economy. We tend to ignore official EPA numbers-we also know that, as "they" say, mileage will vary, especially if you're a lead-footed driver. But expect to see an average of at least 16 to 17 mpg and perhaps even 20 or more if you're less aggressive.
Few automakers are more skilled at serving up different takes on a single product platform than Mercedes-Benz. And with the latest SL line it is offering the "base" SL550, the 530-horsepower SL63 AMG and the 621-horsepower SL65 AMG. Recently shown at the 2013 Geneva Motor Show, Mercedes also showed off the new SL65 AMG Black Series which pushes the limits of performance-and gets its top speed up to 200 mph.
In an industry where new models come and go at an ever-quickening pace, the SL has remained a solid and reliable part of the Mercedes-Benz lineup for much of the marque's history, at least as far as U.S. buyers are concerned. Importer Max Hoffman's idea of taking the Sport Light from track to street instantly connected with Stateside buyers, with something north of 80 percent of the first 1,400 gullwings built being shipped to the United States. And 60 years later America remains the single-largest market for the latest-generation roadster-though China is vying to become Mercedes' largest global market overall.
The new model isn't light on the wallet, the SL550 listing for $105,500-but typically going out the door for $110,000 or more once you add in routine options, taxes, fees and the like. But that hasn't seemed to slow buyers down. Nor has the even steeper $212,240 for the SL65 AMG edition. Indeed, Southern California alone sucks up about a quarter of total production for the SL65 AMG.
Despite some quibbles over styling, the new Mercedes-Benz SL continues a tradition that few other manufacturers can match. No, it's neither the fastest nor the most powerful sports car you can buy. But that sense of tradition only enhances the appeal of the vehicle overall and will likely make the latest version of the roadster the most popular yet.
Paul A. Eisenstein is publisher of the website The DetroitBureau.com.