November 16, 2006
There are a few automotive purchases that no one will ever question. The Honda Civic is Canada’s economy-car of choice, the Ford pickup makes the most sense for contractors, and the Toyota Camry is the world’s most aspirational, un-inspired family sedan. Move up the scale a bit and the BMW 3 Series signifies your up-and-coming status, a Lexus SUV shows the world you aren’t a brand snob and the Mercedes S-Class means you’ve already arrived – thank you very much.
Things get a bit dicey, however, when the conversation turns to sports cars and leisure vehicles. Fierce battles are waged online and in pubs every day to determine whether the Corvette or the Porsche 911 is indeed king of the sports car hill. Younger enthusiasts flame each other over their choice of Camaro, Mustang, Integra, WRX or whatever.
The Mercedes SL transcends all this. If you have the means, a broad qualifier given the 125 to 235 thousand dollar price range, the SL is the no-brainer choice for a luxury grand touring car with indisputable prestige, pedigree and provenance – not to mention truly awe-inspiring performance capability. The superlatives and clichés that can be levelled at the SL are myriad. We will let you make up your own expletives to characterize engine outputs of 382 hp, 496 hp, 503 hp and 610 hp – SL550, SL55, SL600 and SL65 respectively. All versions of the SL are fast – some, on the other hand, are insanely fast.
There’s even an SL350 model with a 272-hp V6 (again paired to the seven-speed automatic) offered in Germany and some other markets that we don’t get. Frankly, we think Mercedes could probably move that many more SLs with this more affordable and more fuel-efficient entry model. You might see one in Canada someday as Mercedes has an established track record of treating The Great White north as a market independent of the U.S. – see B-Class and Smart which the Yanks don’t get. No need to get too worked up over it though – we do have four SL variants to choose from as each is more incredible than the next.
The new base engine’s significantly increased power and seven-speed automatic transmission imbue the car with a racy edge that it didn’t have before. With seven gears to play with and tons of torque on tap, the SL550 speeds across highways and bi-ways with effortless grace. The SL550 also has the advantage of having the lightest engine up front which gives it a light and graceful feel that the SL600 and SL65 just don’t have.
As charming as the 550 may be, it is the SL55 that continues to amaze us most. This car isn’t simply more powerful, it is transformed by deft suspension tuning that turns the worlds greatest GT car into a super-car-eating, muscle-car-chomping, ricer-bashing, mother-of-all-that-is-holy road-devouring beast.
Few companies have the overall engineering depth of Mercedes-Benz and frankly there really isn’t anything like the SL55 offered by any other brand. Straight ahead acceleration is stupefying, the cornering grip’s shocking and all-out-hooliganism potential a solid 10-out-of-10. Turn the traction and stability systems off if you dare and the tail can be induced into lurid, as in egregiously sideways, smoky slides. The steering is much quicker and more direct than any other SL model and the ride, although firm, is still comfortable and the handling planted, neutral and secure. In fact the 55 is the only one you dare drive at 10/10ths. Its linear torque curve and quick steering make it easy to control up to and past its lofty limits. The SL550 is less inclined to behave this way and its non-defeatable stability control system won’t let you anyway. The twelve-cylinder turbo cars are less linear and predictable not to mention a lot heavier and somewhat unwieldy in fast transitions. Where they excel is in obliterating continents with their high – as in really high- speed cruising capability.
If acting like a 16-year-old isn’t your thing, the SL55, like every SL, cruises effortlessly top up or down. The amazing folding metal roof offers you a cozy, entirely coupe-like car when you want it or a calm buffet-free cabin with it tucked up in the trunk like metal origami. New last year was a feature that allows the protective shield, which must be used to cover baggage when the top is down, to be completely removed when it is up, endowing the SL with greater cargo capacity than before.
Interior refinements make the cabin plusher and even higher in quality than before. Most people probably couldn’t spot the most recent detail changes to the interior. That’s not to say they weren’t worthwhile, only that this is a process of refinement not re-design. The different SL models differentiate themselves with various uses of suede trim (AMG), wood (SL600) and leather to create either a sportier or more luxurious ambiance. AMG models get paddle-shifters for their automatic gearboxes and unlike most such paddles these are hewn from billet aluminum and click and clack as you use them. Wunderbar!
Of course the SL wouldn’t be a Mercedes if it weren’t for a plethora of safety systems. The SL comes with ABS, ESP, ABC, ASR and Parktronic – the first four keep you on the road (one way or another) and that last one just helps keep you from scratching your new SL. Other neat standard features are Bi-xenon lamps, rain sensing wipers and the TeleAid emergency calling system that either lets you call for help with a panic button or it calls automatically if the airbags have been fired. Cool.
We can’t help but feel sorry for the team that has to completely re-engineer the SL for the next generation car in a few years. We are at a loss to make any suggestion for improving it.
Manufacturer’s web site