New Mercedes SL emphasizes power and verve

Under the long hood is a sophisticated and powerful engine. The small cabin is perfect for two adults. The tapered trunk is roomy enou...


Under the long hood is a sophisticated and powerful engine. The small cabin is perfect for two adults. The tapered trunk is roomy enough to carry golf clubs or accessories for a long weekend in Monaco or Montecito. A convertible top completes the package.

This formula dates back to 1954 for the Mercedes SL, a two-door roadster which is the oldest nameplate in the history of Mercedes-Benz production cars. (The initials stand for super leicht, or super light, a German superlative for sportiness.)

Mercedes recently unveiled an all-new SL, the seventh generation of this model, true to its roots, but with significant modern updates.

“At Mercedes, an SL is just about the biggest icon we can get,” said Gorden Wagener, global design director for Daimler, the parent company of Mercedes-Benz. “Next to the S-Class it is at the heart of the brand – probably even stronger than the S-Class,” he said, referring to the brand’s benchmark. luxury sedan.

This new SL is the first to include all-wheel drive, as well as four-wheel steering, improving stability, performance and handling. It is the first to be developed from the ground up by Mercedes’ fast subsidiary AMG, which helped design the chassis and will, when introduced in the United States, provide a twin-turbo 4.0-liter V8. with a power of 480 liters. horsepower (in the SL 55) or 560 horsepower (in the SL 63). The price of the SL 55 is expected to start at around six figures, and the additional horsepower is expected to cost around 20% more.

The new generation is also the first to promise a plug-in hybrid option, which will arrive later in the product cycle and will be based on Benz’s Formula 1 racing technology, prioritizing performance over efficiency. And it’s the first in decades to feature an electrically foldable fabric roof, instead of a space-stealing retractable hardtop. This freed up room for another long-lost SL feature, a two plus two seat configuration, with small rear buckets suitable for accessories, like carry-on luggage or small children.

Many of these items are intended to help the SL regain its former glory. “I’m a huge fan of the 300 SL Gullwing,” Mr. Wagener said, referring to the line’s initial model, an outright sports coupe derived from a winning race car. “With the new car, I wanted to get as close as possible to the very first one and try to infuse that DNA into the new model.”

In addition to reflecting the past, Mercedes has focused on a vision for the future – “to make it a very modern SL, a digital roadster, the car that represents the transformation the industry is going through,” added Mr. Wagener.

This means that the new SL is loaded with sophisticated technology. It has an LCD dashboard and a central, almost 12-inch tablet-like touchscreen display that tilts and adjusts for better viewing when the top is down and there is plenty of light. . It has an enhanced navigation system with augmented reality, which projects directional animations on the windshield in the driver’s field of vision. Its braking system uses cameras and sensors to detect oncoming traffic during bends. He can even change lanes and park (on the driver’s instruction).

Mr Wagener hopes this buzz-bangery will bring new enthusiasts into the demographics of SL. “SL has a very established customer base, but I think with the new model we’re going to get a lot of new customers, also younger customers,” he said.

Such an injection seems necessary. SL has long been a shortcut for some sort of pinnacle of success – stars such as Clark Gable, Sophia Loren, Audrey Hepburn, John Lennon, Burt Reynolds, Bob Marley, Tina Turner, Jennifer Aniston, and Jude Law have owned SLs. But as the tastes of luxury consumers have moved away from sports coupes (and all other vehicle classes) in favor of sport utility vehicles, sales of the SL plunged. In 2003 Mercedes sold over 13,000 SLs in America. Last year he sold around 1,300.

A changing product portfolio can offer some help. The platform of the new SL will also be used to support the next generation of more serious sports cars from Mercedes, the coupe and the AMG GT roadster. And the marque will be phasing out two-door versions of its S-Class, a move that Wagener hopes will prompt “many customers who once drove the S-CoupĂ© and Cabriolet to step into the SL.”

Fortunately, resilience and adaptability are among the many qualities of SL. “It’s one of those cars that is constantly evolving to reflect the times it came from,” said Brian Rabold, vice president of automotive intelligence at Hagerty, collector’s vehicle insurer and standard bearer in their valuation.

The 1954-63 W198 “Gullwing” SL is a futuristic outlier, a Sputnik-style rally of Mercedes’ efforts to regain prestige after the ignominy of its collaboration with the Nazi regime during WWII. (The smaller, similarly styled but much less innovative W121 from 1955-63 is a bit of a stepson of this generation.)

The 1963-71 W113 “Pagoda” SL is a delicate mid-century modern construction, with sleek, no-frills sides and a subtly ornamental concave roof that earned it its nickname. The 1971-89 R107 “Panzer” SL is “Me Decade / Greed Is Good” testimony to solid, chrome-plated personal luxury, turned towards the future but baroquely anchored in tradition. The 1989-2001 R129 SL is sharp and technical, an oversized tour de force representing the glorious end of the analog era.

The 2001-11 R230 is somewhat amorphous in appearance. With dozens of real and virtual buttons needed to operate an in-dash infotainment system and an overly complex folding hardtop, it was inspired by the possibilities of digital design before catching up with capabilities. The 2011-20 R231, while fast and comfortable, accommodates awkward proportions that don’t quite line up; even Mr Wagener called them “not very attractive”.

According to Mr. Rabold, many of these cars are collector’s items. High-quality first-generation SLs have long been top-notch seven-figure vehicles. Second-generation cars have enjoyed significant appreciation over the past five years, increasing by 20% in value, with excellent examples hitting the six-figure mark. Top-of-the-line third-generation cars, especially the end-of-race 560SLs, are also approaching this level, with their prices rising by 47% in the past year alone. Interest and values ​​are increasing even for fifth-generation cars, as they hit the 20-year mark and begin their transition from used cars to collectibles.

But it was the fourth generation that saw the biggest increases. According to Rabold, high-end V-12-powered models have jumped more than 150 percent in value since 2016, and even more regular V-8 models have seen their prices rise by more than 75 percent. This push is due in part to their sleek design and rugged engineering, but mainly to the generational whims of the classic car market, which sees each cohort chasing and buying the cars of their youth. With Gen X in their peak earning years, cars of the 90s are hot.

Mercedes trotted some of the past nameplate stars to give the new SL some luster. This further renews interest in cars that people may have forgotten about.

“It always brings new attention back to older models, especially in a brand like this and a nameplate like this, where it takes inspiration from such an established history,” Mr. Rabold said. However, he warned, “It doesn’t always follow that increased interest translates into more dollars.”

While this vast heritage gives prestige and importance to the latest model, it can also exert significant pressure.

“It’s always a big responsibility to make the next SL,” said Mr. Wagener. “You don’t want to be the one messing up the SL.”

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