Mercedes SL & SLC – Little and Large
We drive the face-lifted Mercedes roadsters.
Few words in the automotive industry vocabulary worry me more than the term ‘facelift’. While these scheduled mid-life changes are mostly successful at improving designs not fully resolved at birth, history has also recorded instances of near perfect designs adulterated by the customary facelift.
Bruno Sacco’s classic W124 E-Class was beautifully face-lifted for the 1994 model year with a new bonnet that rounded off the hard edges of the original headlamps and set the stage for the integrated grille of all Mercedes models that would follow.
Conversely, the elegant wedge shape of the R230 SL, which debuted in 2001 and still looks good today, was ruined by the aggressive, squared-off nose imposed on it in 2008 as a knee jerk reaction to slowing sales in the depths of the last recession. This revised nose from the R231 SL that was to replace the pretty R230 model was designed in the twilight months of Peter Pfeiffer’s experimental design era. The R231’s debut had been pushed down the road by weak market conditions, and its bulbous nose did not sit well on the sleek R230.
Featuring a lighter and stiffer all-aluminium structure and body, the all-new R231 finally arrived in 2012, along with fresh twin-turbo V6 and V8 engines and a raft of new assistance technologies. In a nutshell, it was a better car dynamically, but a far less aesthetically appealing one in a segment where good looks are at a premium.
Needless to say, in an evolving market where expensive two-seat roadsters were fighting a losing battle for a diminishing slice of the pie, the ungainly new SL did not exactly fly out of the showrooms.
Fast forward to the 2015 LA Motor Show, and Mercedes debuted their facelift R231 in what is traditionally the SL’s largest market. At first glance, it is clear that Design Chief, Gorden Wagener and his team have done a sterling job of trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. But is it enough to draw buyers back into the showrooms?
Perhaps the real reason for the lower sales numbers of two-seat roadsters these days is fashion, which ironically is always the first thing to go out of fashion. Fast Rewind to 1989 when the buying public, parched by years of the roadsters absence from showroom, were suddenly confronted with the cute, affordable, and dynamically impressive Mazda MX-5 Miata. This was the traditional British roadster re-interpreted and done right, and the people lapped it up.
The Genie of the two-seat roadster had been let out of the bottle again for the first time in years, and buyers were hungry for more. Affordability was key, and the rash of roadsters like the BMW Z3, Mercedes SLK, Porsche Boxster, and MG-F were all lapped up as fast as they could be minted.
Off the back of this roadster revival, major manufacturers began to produce more open versions of their Coupe and hatchback models, and these more practical four-seater convertibles have no doubt stolen many a sale from the pure roadster genre. As has the Porsche 911 Cabriolet, that stalwart open sportscar, whose +2 rear seats are more often used for carrying shopping!
Slightly further up market, the Bentley GTC offers two more spacious rear seats, so it is no wonder that Mercedes was quick to offer a Cabriolet version of the new S-Class Coupe, which took over the mantle from the CL.
Since 1954, the ‘SL’ moniker has represented the very foundation of Mercedes two-seaters as Grand Touring sports cars par excellence. Resonating across the ages, the SL is one of the very pillars of the Mercedes three-pointed star and how it is perceived. There is a legend to live up to here.
While the SL genesis was built with straight-six power, there is no question that the V8 motor that arrived during the R107 era has always produced the most inspirational of the 21st Century SLs in terms of performance, handling and soundtrack.
Installation of the V12 engine, which began with the flagship 600 SL (R129) of 1993 created quite a different animal. With 394hp and a mountain of torque, the 6.0 litre M120 V12 from the W140 S-Class gave the SL seven league boots, and a reputation as an autobahn stormer par excellence.