The first street example of a Mercedes-Benz 300 SL – the “gullwing” made its world debut in 1954, attracting a host of notable celebrities to ownership of what was admittedly, not exactly the most comfortable, but certainly one of the most spectacular and beautiful automotive art forms available of its day. It was powered by what was the world’s first series-production four-cycle, 16-cylinder, 215 horsepower engine with gasoline direct injection. The car was capable of achieving a sensational 155 mph – not bad for 1954. The SL designation stood for “super” and “light.” The gullwing was produced for only three years and it has since become a highly sought after and prized collector car.
Given the 1950s popularity of open-top two-seat sports cars, Mercedes-Benz made the decision to produce an open variant of the 300 SL “Gullwing.” The 300 SL Roadster was launched as a 1957 model with 1858 produced through 1963. The Roadster was just as fast and powerful as the coupe, and was the first series-production Mercedes-Benz available with safety belts – it even featured disc brakes beginning in 1961.
Sixty years later, the legend continues with the entry of the 2013 Mercedes-Benz SL 550. No longer a ragtop, the SL 550 is a power retractable hardtop convertible. For the sake of comparison, the Mercedes team had several classic SL models on hand to drive during the national press launch in Bel Air, CA, following a drive in the new 2013 SL 550 from LAX to the hotel. My classic pick was a Red 1960 300 SL Roadster, that had undergone a complete restoration recently by the Mercedes-Benz Classic Center, which was available for sale for a mere $800,000. Unfortunately, I left my checkbook at home. As gorgeous and collectible as it was, when factoring in the lack of power steering and power brakes, it really wasn’t a dream to drive. It was certainly not up to the level of performance and luxury of the new 2013 SL 550 – nor was it expected to be. In its heyday however, it ranked highly in both categories.
Despite the opinion and viewpoint of a certain buff-book journalist regarding the visual appeal of the new SL 550 who felt that the rear end was unnecessarily fattened for cargo, the front end high and bluff for pedestrian safety, with the grille and headlamps sitting on distinctly different planes. He even went so far as to rib a Mercedes employee that the car looked as if its front and back ends were designed by two different people. He further commented that it was quicker, lighter and more agile (finally an astute observation), but not better looking. This would be a clear indicator that he totally lacks good taste, if any at all.
In my opinion, the car is absolutely stunningly gorgeous and well proportioned. Obviously, today’s vehicular requirements by both consumers and governmental safety czars dictate the final build elements of any given vehicle, so if it doesn’t meet with everyone’s design ideals – so what. The rear track is 3-inches wider and the entire car displays strong definitive character lines and sculpted effects from the broad, athletic nose, over the straked hood and along the strong shoulder lines past the sharply raked windshield.
Today’s SL 550 draws its irresistible force from a 4.6-liter DOHC, 32-valve, twin-turbocharged and intercooled V8 with direct injection, that makes 429 horsepower at 5,250 rpm while generating 516 pound feet of torque in a range from 1,800-3,500 rpm. The engine is mounted longitudinally up front, and connects to a seven-speed automatic transmission with a manual shift mode that gears power to the rear wheels.
During the National press launch, I was given the opportunity to pilot a Mars Red 2013 SL 550 with a Premium Black leather interior featuring white piping and Black Ash polished wood trim elements. The base price was set at $105,500 but after factoring in the Black Premium leather; Premium 1 Package with rearview camera, PARKTRONIC with Active Parking Assist, Active ventilated front seats, AIRSCARF, Active multi-contour seats, Hands-free access, power trunk closer and Keyless-Go; the Driver Assistance Package with Distronic Plus with re-Safe Brake, Active Blind Spot Assist and Active Lane Keeping Assist; Magic Sky Control; wood and leather steering wheel; analog clock; illuminated door sills; 19-inch 5-twin-spoke alloy wheels; and destination and delivery charges, the final price as tested came to $119,315.
Nearly 89 percent of this lightweight 2013 SL 550 Roadster is made up of aluminum construction and features the largest single casting in a modern Mercedes production vehicle. It weighs in at 275 fewer pounds than its predecessor. The panoramic roof is made from polycarbonate material, and an available Magic Sky Roof filters out both the UV and infrared rays of the sun. Even the interior leather surfaces are coated with a sun reflective treatment.
From the point of entry, where one slides into the driver’s seat, behind the 3-spoke, flat-bottom steering wheel and presses the start button, there is immediately the realization that this is no ordinary motorcar. It is after all, the Mercedes-Benz of sports cars. It is chock full of technological developments and innovative ideas that enhance the experience of spirited motoring as well as of all-weather comfort and convenience. There are no less than eight individual safety systems at work, contributing to occupant and vehicle well being.
There’s a foot-operated trunk open and close feature, where simply passing one’s foot under the centrally-located sensor allows for hands-free operation. For more improved fuel economy (which represents a 14 percent improvement over its predecessors), there’s an Eco mode default setting that stops the engine when the car is stopped to save fuel. The engine starts up again when pressing the accelerator. The added efficiency results in the elimination of the Gas Guzzler Tax for the SL 550.
A brake hold feature is activated by tapping the brake a second time, and adaptive damping is standard fare. Active body control and spring preload ensure consistency in ride quality and comfort.
Acceleration is incredibly impressive, rocketing the car from 0-60 mph in 4.5 seconds with a top speed that is electronically limited to 130 mph. Push it hard into corners and it behaves with amazing and predictable stability. Other SL models are in the pipeline to appear in the near future for those who desire higher levels of performance, but they will come with an even higher price tag and they will be beyond the capability of all but the advanced and more accomplished drivers.
I had but one complaint with the SL 550 – it was with the exhaust note – it was pleasing, but for my taste, it could use a more raucous and melodious V8 rumble. Regardless, it comes across as a stellar grand sport touring car.