Benz SL550 Screams Wealth, Not Performance: Jason Harper
It’s a bright, clear day as I pull into the parking lot of an antique shop in Upstate New York. I’m in a new 2013 Mercedes-Benz SL roadster.
The owner is sunning himself, and he leans forward in his rocking chair as my convertible hardtop closes, a complicated origami operation.
I can virtually hear the guy thinking: “I’ve got a live one here.” To him, I’m a walking dollar sign. I’ve arrived in a car which starts at $106,000 (and is $122,000 with options), so I can forget about haggling.
That’s because the SL looks rich. You know the Janis Joplin song where she croons, “Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes- Benz?” She surely was thinking of the SL. No other Mercedes is as culturally iconic. Since their first appearance in the 1950s, the SL roadsters have been truly beautiful cars.
This is the SL’s sixth generation. While it isn’t as gorgeous as the 1957 300SL or as suave as the later 350SL models, the new design feels thoroughly today. A piece of modern hotness.
The SL550 inherits the new, flat nose found on the Mercedes SLS supercar. When the metal hardtop is up, the seams are artfully concealed and most people would be hard-pressed to spot it as a convertible. You won’t overlook the SL, top up or down, so there is no compromise there.
The front end and door sides are heavily adorned with automotive jewelry: Scoops and side strakes, character lines and LED running lights. Yet the hind three-quarters and trunk are curiously un-showy, with blunted lines and an almost monastic aesthetic.
Some find this marriage of styles displeasing, but I like it. All the tension is up front, with gradual relaxing as you travel toward the rear.
In the sports car world, the SL has always been a bit of an anomaly. You own an SL to project a sense of well-being and being well off. Show up in a SL and you will look fabulous. You can get a tan while driving, after all.
But as a true-blue sports car, it falls short. Don’t expect a supreme road carver -- it would ruffle your coiffed hair.
Yet take note of the specifications on the 2013 SL550 and it seems to have the engineering goods: a twin-turbo, 4.6-liter V-8 with 429 horsepower and an incredible 516 pound-feet of torque. And this time the roadster has an aluminum body, hood and doors, so it’s lighter than the outgoing model.
On the freeway, it is a thing to behold, gamboling through slower traffic with verve. Plenty fast, plenty powerful. But to see how it fares on twisty back roads, I leave behind the antique shop for miles of secluded blacktop.
The car feels overly wide and still heavy on these narrow roads, too often wrong-footed on wriggling, off-camber turns. The stability and traction controls interfere, often and quickly, as if to cajole the driver. Come on, it’s a beautiful day. Let’s just slow down and enjoy ourselves, shall we?
I’m disappointed. For that price, I want a bit more duality. More bite for my bank.
On a later day, I get the chance to put the SL on a racetrack. The AMG version, the SL63 ($146,000) would be better suited, but I’m curious.
Even if it isn’t meant for such sports-car madness, how will the SL550 do?
I get two glorious laps. The SL zings through the track’s wide lanes like a silver arrow, at impressive speeds and turning very willingly. Far better than expected.
On the third lap, the overworked tires overheat and lose traction. I’m sliding around the corners, drifting wildly. Stupid fun. On the fourth lap, though, it’s just stupid. I’m a bit out of control.
I slow down and appreciate the car’s zillion amenities. The skyside window in the convertible roof, which goes opaque or clear at the press of a button. (Another way to amaze your friends.) The heater in the back of the seat which blows warm air on your neck.
I fiddle with the armada of safety features, which help keep you in your lane and will brake for you if you’re about to rear-end somebody and which constantly beep until you turn the maddening things off.
The leather on the seats is designed to stay comfortable even in direct sunlight. The stereo system is good enough to stir your soul.
These are the bits which make the SL, unmistakably, a modern Mercedes-Benz. In a word, fabulous.
And the interior, of course, which is soft and suave, and incredibly fashioned except for one glaring detail.
It’s those four air vents on the dashboard, distinctly designed circles bisected by a cross. They’re oversized and hard to ignore. They’re also shiny and pretty and you want to touch them and when you do, you realize they are made of plastic.
Ouch. Designers should know better. When it looks rich, it should feel rich, too.
Anything less isn’t quite worthy of a SL’s level of fabulousness.
The 2013 Mercedes-Benz SL550 at a Glance
Engine: 4.6-liter, twin-turbo V-8 with 429 horsepower and
516 pound-feet of torque.
Transmission: Seven-speed automatic.
Speed: 0 to 60 mph in 4.5 seconds.
Gas mileage per gallon: 16 city, 24 highway.
Price as tested: $122,845.
Best feature: The way it makes you feel when you arrive.
Worst feature: Those plastic air vents.
Target buyer: The rich-looking driver who likes to tan.
(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the writer of this column: Jason H. Harper at Jason@JasonHharper.com or follow on Twitter @JasonHarperSpin.
To contact the editor responsible for this column: Manuela Hoelterhoff in New York at email@example.com.