by Mike Daly
Originally published in Guitar Aficionado, Winter 2011 Issue – Buy Issue
Reconciling fundamental differences between performance and luxury has always posed a challenge for manufacturers of highline automobiles. Conceivably, a sporting brand like Ferrari has the technical ability to produce a quality luxury car, just as a luxury marque like Rolls-Royce has the means to design a sports car. Yet, company DNA usually pushes an automaker to lean one way or the other. Mercedes-Benz is an exception. The brand has built an entire tradition on the concept of perfectly balanced cars that are equal parts lavish comfort and high performance.
If Mercedes has demonstrated anything over the years, it is a proficiency for seamlessly integrating these two aspects. The company defined its two approaches to motoring tradition in the Thirties with its track record as a race winner and producer of fine automobiles. To that end, Daimler-Benz seems to have produced a model showcasing this concept for each era. While the Thirties-era 540K that now routinely wins concours d’elegance once set the benchmark for simultaneous speed and opulence, the 1954 300SL Gullwing (now commemorated with the SLS supercar) offered its racecar brother’s performance in an elegant design that was often optioned with fitted leather luggage, among other high-end amenities.
In addition to being one of the few cars that deservedly earns the overused automotive superlative “timeless,” the 300SL Gullwing is notable as the first step in the evolution of the SL line. Today, the line constitutes a range of hardtop convertibles, of which the entry-level SL550 is the lookalike gateway to the more viciously AMG-tuned SL63 and the top-of-the-line V-12 SL65. Though the 550’s aluminum 5.5-liter V-8 might seem comparatively meager, its 382 horsepower and 391 lb-ft of torque are more than sufficient to get the blood running. Mercedes claims the motor launches the SL550 to 60 mph in a respectable 5.3 seconds, although members of the motoring press have tested the car below five seconds.
The capable engine is linked to a seven-speed automatic transmission that can be operated in three settings: a fully automatic Comfort mode, in which the tachometer rarely exceeds 2,000 rpm; a midpoint Sport mode, which shifts for you but with upwardly revised shift points that begin to suggest the potential of the stout V-8; and a Manual mode, in which the driver assumes responsibility for all shifting (which can be executed with steering-wheel-mounted paddles or with a nudge of the leather-trimmed shift knob). Shift times are quick enough to imbue sportiness but smooth enough that luxury is never forgotten.
Handling, as would be expected, is precise and neutral. A barely perceptible hint of understeer warmly greets the driver on winding roads, pleasantly reassuring that the heavy back end won’t slide out under even the most aggressive turn-ins. With the large wheel and full power steering that one would find in an S-Class sedan, turning is achieved in quick order. In fact, for a car that feels so long in front, the SL delivers a remarkably short turning radius of just over 36 feet. To boot, from lock to lock the steering wheel barely turns two and a half revolutions, meaning a little goes a long way. Once again, Mercedes walks the luxury-performance tightrope, in this case with a steering system fluid enough to potentially oversteer the car at speed. However, assisted by the SL’s active suspension and mounted on its wide 61-inch track and sticky 255/40 R18 high-performance tires, the luxurious steering characteristics never threaten to mismanage the car’s sporting verve.
It’s only when its signature automatic hardtop is retracted, though, that the SL550 truly showcases its strengths, delivering the kind of open-air experience for which the convertible body style was invented. The car’s high shoulder line and raked windshield envelop the driver in a cocoon that largely deflects wind and noise, lending the “outdoor” driving experience a removed yet engaged quality, like watching a big-game safari from the safety of the bus. And then there’s that subtle V-8 rumble that’s far easier to hear al fresco—not as boisterous as an Italian engine note, but a mildly threatening grumble that hints at the beast that lies within.
Bolstering its premium on comfort, Mercedes has integrated a new heating feature called AIRSCARF, which directs warm air to the occupants’ necks through vents in the headrests. Thus, if one wants to ride around with the top down in the dead of winter, the SL can make that more appealing. Luxury also continues to be offered in less innovative but equally desirable features, like 12-way adjustable heated seats with massage function, hand-polished black ash interior wood trim, an electronically telescoping steering column, and a 10-speaker Harman/Kardon sound system with iPod/MP3 media interface.
Considering both exterior design and driving experience, it’s difficult to find fault with the SL550. To look at it is to love it, with its sinewy bulges and smooth lines. And with a top speed of 155 mph, it’s also plenty fast. But as its balancing act of a design directive ensures, the new SL is neither sporty enough for the track nor luxurious enough for tickets for four to the opera. Which, as Mercedes has long known, is exactly what the SL buyer wants: a balanced taste of each sensibility that offers the best of both worlds.
Base MSRP: $102,600; as tested: $114,175