It’s not easy describing modern cars without resorting to cliché or conjured-up fictions about their character and quality. So much of our perception of how a car looks and feels is shaped by carefully constructed marketing, leaving appraisals hopelessly muddied by the press briefing and brochure – not to mention the expansive hotel rooms, fine wines, blue skies and photogenic vistas. This shouldn’t be surprising. Carmakers have been colouring the way we think about cars since the early days of the industry, framing their products in such a way that they cannot fail to go down a storm with their target market.
Few contemporary cars are a susceptible to this elaborate back-story as the Mercedes SL. The recently launched sixth-generation model can trace its ancestry back to the 1950s, and it is a glorious family tree (arguably its lineage goes back even further to the company’s grand interwar grosser coupes, saloons and convertibles). Compact, relatively athletic and expertly engineered, the SL (standing for Sport Leicht) has always been one of Mercedes-Benz’s ’halo products’, an aspirational model inevitably pitched (and bought) by those who made it in life and felt like they should quietly reap the rewards.
The new car is more of the same. Like all big car-makers, Mercedes has a crowded portfolio and the days when the SL stood alone as the sole sporting offering have long gone. Today the SL is sandwiched between the junior SLK (originally launched in 1996 and now on its third generation) and the SLS AMG, a brilliant if rather awkwardly marketed ’supercar’ – not to mention the myriad AMG-fettled saloons and coupes that exist across the range. Even so, the SL still carries with it the whiff of old money and good breeding, the faint suspicion that those who buy it do so regardless of what else is on offer because of what it is: a Mercedes-Benz. Are there any other cars?
Other manufacturers - be them Porsche, Maserati, Aston Martin, Jaguar and even BMW and Audi - make very worthy competitors, it’s true. But without that three-pointed star on the bonnet they might as well be hawking wheelbarrows. A Mercedes buyer is loyal and true, if not necessarily the kind of ambassador for youth, vigour and forward-thinking innovation that all car companies must claim to be pursuing (and catching). The new SL is, to our eyes at least, better looking than its immediate few predecessors, blending Mercedes’ current design language with a few design cues that hark back to the bulbous wings and lavish chrome of the 1950s. The long bonnet, snug cockpit and sleek roof profile are all pitch perfect, without resorting to showy design tricks and vulgar detailing (wait for the aftermarket companies to sort that out).
Sitting as it does at the upper end of the five-figure list price, the two-seater SL has always attracted stately wealth, those unconcerned with mere details like performance statistics. For those who care, the new SL’s numbers are up while fuel consumption is down, thanks to the extensive adoption of aluminium in the body shell, a discrete stop-start system and other weight-saving gubbins. This car is as fast as you ever need it to be, even in the smaller-engined 350SL that wasn’t available to sample in Spain.
These days if you pay over £75,000 for a car, the chances are it can bang on its 155mph speed limiter all day long without mishap - handy for short stretches of de-limited autobahn but almost entirely pointless anywhere else in the world. The accelerative shove is most welcome, although to treat this car like a ragged go-kart, blasting past everything in sight at every possible opportunity, is to rather miss the point of the long-legged grand-touring ethos. Nonetheless, there are bound to be those for whom the SL’s ability around the bends and curves is going to fall a little short of a ’true’ sports car.
Mercedes describes the SL as a car that can do everything, an everyday driver for the kind of person whose heart would palpitate at the thought of flying coach. In this respect, the SL is a form of insulation, a metal carapace that filters out life’s little inconveniences and smoothes one’s progress through an often unsympathetic landscape. Did we mention that two golf bags fit in the boot (with the metal hood raised)? About that boot: someone at head office has come up with yet another gadget, a sensor that detects a foot-waggling beneath the rear bumper and automatically opens the trunk in response. Mercedes goes one louder than similar systems by letting you shin-kick the boot shut again (although surely someone else should be carrying your bags at this point).
In order to cement this impression of effortless ability and aristocratic lineage, the company’s Classic division laid on a fleet of old-school SLs, dating back from the 1950s right up to the 1990s. Mercedes’ rolling archive probably amounts to several thousand vehicles, all sequestered away in vast underground vaults back in Germany. In recent years, many long-lived marques have taken to handing out well-preserved treasures from the vaults so that journalists can feel the march of technology at first hand while simultaneously being seduced by the tactile and aesthetic qualities of an earlier era. A 1958 300SL is very much a flag-bearer for a lost era, being both a symbol of Fifties glamour and the modern, wealthy collector. It’s both a pleasure and privilege to burble along the dual carriageway that scythes through Marbella, soaking up jealous looks from the general population ensconced in their sterile modern cars.
There’ll be hardcore SL63 and SL65 versions out later in the year for those who feel the performance (and status) of the SL is lacking. But we guarantee they’ll mostly be bought for their flagship status and not the raw figures. The stock - if it can be described as such - SL is a hugely impressive car. Sure, if you’re in the market for this car there’s every chance you’ve owned an earlier model and your expectations are already high. But to those coming fresh to the SL experience, the new car will not disappoint.