Hitting the Road in the New Mercedes-Benz SL450
Taking Benz's reboot of the classic's divorcee two-seater for a spin.
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I always gauge the enthusiasm for a car’s styling by the way my neighbors respond when it shows up in my driveway. Sometimes there’s no response at all (sorry, Malibu hybrid, that’s you); other times, I pull up in a test ride and people stream from their doors as if hot underwear models were in my driveway asking for help applying sunblock.
Which brings us to the 2017 Mercedes-Benz SL450 roadster. The whole SL lineup got a facelift for this model year. The SL450 is the most affordable, and likely to be the volume leader for the line. There’s an all new front end and headlight package, among other changes. My test ride in cardinal-red metallic paint draws a crowd, and I find myself lecturing on how parts of this car’s front half is styled almost exactly like the first-generation 300 SL roadster from 1957—one of the all-time great motoring icons. Great care went into making the grille and the hood—with its parallel twin ridges running lengthwise, what M-B calls “powerdomes”—look like the original 1957 SL’s. You have to hand it to the styling team for so carefully presenting the original SL's DNA in so thoroughly modern garb.
It’s a beautiful car and a blast to drive. But this vehicle does have one flaw (though, truthfully, it’s not the car’s fault). Let’s dig in.
IN THE REARVIEW
The SL was originally created as a race car, in 1952, as the 300 SL (for "super light"), with a 3.0-liter inline six. It conquered the world, winning races—most notably the 24 Hours of Le Mans—wherever it traveled. When the customer coupe (the 300 SL gullwing) and roadster (the 190 SL) first appeared in 1954, at an auto show in New York, they blew the doors off the competition—not just because of their beauty, but because the SL (the coupe in particular) was as quick as any car money could buy. Celebrities had to have these machines: Clark Gable, Sophia Loren, Zsa Zsa Gabor, and Tony Curtis all owned one.
Since then, Mercedes-Benz designers and engineers have toiled to keep the SL franchise all that it should be. After the gullwing and the 190 SL, M-B unleashed the 300 SL roadster—a true motoring masterpiece—in 1957. (I have driven one, and I can assure you of this claim.) After that came the codename W113 generation SL, from 1963 to 1971. This machinery was embraced by jet-setting buyers as much for its pulchritude as its performance, .
By the 1970s, however, the SL had lost some cache. These SLs were cool, quick cars, but they looked like just another vehicle in the Mercedes lineup, rather than global icon it once was. Ditto with the SLs of the 1980s and onwards. These automobiles lost sight of the original SL’s idiosyncratic but glorious design language, and the SL reboot in 2013 didn’t wow car fans, either. For me, this most recent reboot is the first to bring back some of the sophisticated lines that made the franchise a star in the first place. The SL450 looks like a modern classic—exactly what the SL has to be.
When you climb into the vehicle, you’re struck instantly by the interior. Polished aluminum, stitched Nappa leather, aircraft-inspired AC vents. The interior door handles look like they belong in the Museum of Modern Art. For my money, supercars aside, Mercedes-Benz puts out the best car interiors in the world, and it’s evident here.
My week-long test drive took me through the Sierra foothills of California, those dynamite roads with swooping elevation changes and very few smokies. I love the fact that this engine displaces 3.0 liters, just like the original SL roadster of 1957 (today’s V6 versus the old inline-six), only this new one has a pair of whooshing turbo-chargers. MB rates horsepower in the SL450 at 362, and torque at 369 lb-ft. That’s 34 horsepower more than the previous year’s base SL, but it feels like a lot more. If I hadn’t seen those numbers before I hit the road, I would have estimated horsepower at 425.
Manu-matic transmissions are now de rigueur, even in affordable family cars. But this one features nine—nine!—gears. The Dynamic Select switch gives you a choice of driving modes: Comfort, Sport, Sport +, Individual, and Eco. Throw this baby in Sport +, drop it down into third gear, and throttle into a fast uphill bend with a late apex, and you experience the full power of motoring enjoyment. Put the car in comfort mode and let the transmission do its own work, and you can cruise along enjoying the full 20 mpg city / 28 highway fuel economy. A button allows you to instantly tint the glass sunroof, or un-tint it to allow sun to flood the cabin; M-B calls this Magic Sky Control. For topless driving, the whole roof tucks instantly into the trunk at the push of a button. A Harman Kardon stereo comes standard, so you can allow Eddie Van Halen’s guitar to do battle with the twin-turbo V6’s song for peak volume while you motor, joyfully infuriating everyone else on the road.
As an added bonus, my tester came with the Premium Package and the Driver Assistance Package. Active seats move when you’re cornering hard to cup you against g-forces, making you feel like you’re in the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon. With Parking Pilot, Steering Pilot, and Distance Pilot Distronic, the car will do a lot of the driving for you autonomously, if you wish. To employ a cliche accurately, this is truly how the better half lives.
As beautiful as this car is, and as much fun as it is to drive, you have to wonder: Who is buying this automobile? MSRP starts at $86,950, and with options, my test car yanked itself just over six figures. And those numbers are for the base SL, not an AMG model. These days, buyers of these expensive and impractical two-seaters have come to be a stereotype. You see them in wealthy retirement communities, and you get the sense that the car is far less a performance machine for these drivers than it is a status symbol. You get the feeling that the driver of this car has no idea that Mercedes is dominating Formula 1 right now, or what a silver arrow is. That the driver of this car bought it because he (or she) wants you to know he can afford it.
But there’s another kind of buyer for this car: A person who loves this auto because he or she truly loves motoring, because roadsters offer a kind of motoring joy that other cars cannot, and because this specific SL is magnificent to drive and aesthetically pleasing. This car buyer knows that Nico Rosberg is eight points ahead of fellow Mercedes team driver Lewis Hamilton in the F1 standings right now, and that the front end of this new iteration of Mercedes-Benz SL has been carefully designed with those cool powerdomes to mirror the classic 1957 300 SL. If you’re that guy or gal, than maybe you are better than everyone else on the road. All the power to you.