I’ll admit there’s more than a touch of indulgence in running a Mercedes-Benz SL roadster as a long-term test car. But there has to be; that’s why people buy these luxurious two-seat sports convertibles after all.
Equally, there has to be more than just hedonism behind the SL’s astonishing longevity, which stretches back six decades to the 300SL hardtop in 1954, and the 190SL convertible that followed shortly after.
Or is there?
Ask me again in four months. Normally, Wheels runs long termers for six months, but Benz was only willing to loan this $240K beauty for four.
The model I’m driving is the new SL400, freshly facelifted and receiver of a mighty heart transplant in January. Continuing Benz’s modern habit of ignoring synergies between badge numerals and engine size, the SL400 has a new 3.0-litre direct-injection V6, twin-turbocharged for 245kW and 480Nm, the latter kicking hard from 1600rpm. In this turbocharged age where performance and economy co-exist, the SL400 is claimed to hit 100km/h in 5.2sec and sip just 7.3L/100km.
That last number is the combined figure, one I’ve so far failed to get anywhere near. On my vastly reduced, 2015-spec, 4km commute to work – see ya Mt Martha, it was fun – I’m averaging closer to 20L/100km. You read that right. Makes sense, though, because that 4km takes about 12 minutes and involves lots of stopping and accelerating.
With a couple of freeway runs over Christmas to collect relatives from the airport – one at a time, please, and pack light – the SL400’s trip computer reported a more tolerable 10.9L/100km, but that’s still nowhere near the official average.
All up, our first few weeks and 454km together returned a mediocre 11.9L/100km. Next month’s trip to Phillip Island will give the SL a chance to demonstrate its long-distance prowess, and hopefully bring some country balance to the so far exclusively urban economy average.
I have to take some of the blame for the SL400’s sizeable thirst. The engine is a thruster! Sounds pretty good, too. Like a deep, distant earthquake, all thrum, boom and rumble. There’s even a deliberate cackle on lift-off in Sport mode, which is nice but far too subtle for my enthusiast ears.
This SL400 is the ‘entry-level’ model, the first step on a price list that peaks with the awesome twin-turbocharged V12 Mercedes-AMG SL65 at $481K. The SL400’s $229,000 ask is less than half that, and while the performance gulf between the two is considerable, the visual differences are not. Seems even shoppers perusing the ‘affordable’ end of the SL range like to look the goods while whipping wind through their surgically-enhanced coiffs.
This particular test car has a little help from the $9K Designo package, which adds some AMG body touches and 19-inch alloys, plus lashings of black and white leather inside – which subtly advertises my support of the mighty Magpies AFL team to other motorists.
The SL400’s ride is good on 19s, when the road is in a good mood. There is some shudder over joins, particularly with the roof down, but it’s quickly over, and far better than previous SL generations, some of which weighed more than two tonnes. This much lighter 1655kg model feels far more solid and planted.
The steering is a pleasant surprise; it’s quick and really makes the big roadster pivot into corners, a sensation accentuated by the driver’s seat being so far back in the wheelbase. Not a massive amount of feel for the road, but it’s hard to engage with the front end while negotiating school zones and shopping centres. Roll on next month.
The biggest challenge this SL400 faces is… me. On two fronts.
First, I struggle to see the allure of convertibles, especially in a sun-drenched country like ours. Most summer days, the sun is simply too intense to subject even my well-carpeted pate to a roasting. Nevertheless, in the name of science, I’ll go topless as often as possible.
Second, personal perception. I feel like an imposter driving this quarter-million-dollar roadster around town with the roof down, especially in peak hour. Like a G-list celebrity pretending to be an A-lister.
I wonder if the SL400 will change either of those perceptions?
With its folding-hardtop lid stowed away, the opportunity is there to enjoy the SL’s internal combustion soundtrack more than usual. The new twin-turbo six tries very hard to find a good aural balance between sporty and luxury, and almost succeeds.
Even so, it’s nothing like the raucous two-wheeled rocket-ship I once owned called a Kawasaki ZX-9R.
I put an aftermarket pipe on this sportsbike, which made it more characterful and louder – but not overly so – and unleashed an insane crackle, pop and burp on overrun. Evocative. Exciting. Delicious.
Took my enjoyment of that motorbike to new highs. Added a few horsepower, too, but for me the soundtrack alone was worth the price.
A more evocative soundtrack is on the Benz SL options list, but it comes with an AMG price tag attached.
This article was originally published in Wheels March 2015.