You may have noticed this website tends to celebrate performance automobiles. While this predilection for dynamic distraction places us within the media mainstream, it doesn’t square with urban car culture. I'm sure you know that car owners who inflict double-dubs on their whips happily sacrifice ride and handling on the altar of, gulp, style. Even so, ladies and gentlemen, I’ve seen the light. Thanks to the Mercedes SL550, I now know middle aged white people can stunt and floss with the best (worst?) of them.
Whether it’s Compton or Carmel, when it comes to making a statement in the ‘hood, the ideal car has to have both class and flash. If you consider these characteristics mutually exclusive, consider the SL550. On one hand, the roadster’s purposeful stance, balanced proportions and delightful details create an endlessly elegant, brand faithful gestalt. On the other hand, it’s da bomb. Treasured trailer queens and in-yer-face Ferraris aside, no other motorcar offers onlookers such an irresistible expression of automotive joie de vivre.
Inside, well, it’s a bit serious in here, mein Herr. The SL550’s seats, door panels, under dash plastics and carpets can be dressed in your choice of Ash, Black or Stone– a color palette that seems carefully designed for fans of Ingmar Bergman movies. You can also sign-up for burl walnut wood trim– that’s almost as dark as it is slick. None of the SL550’s interior options can ameliorate the rest of the cabin’s “MIB uber alles” aesthetic. The unrelenting blackness of the car’s pervasive plastics and expansive dash cast a pall over the ergonomic excellence therein; button pushing is about as exciting as filling-out an insurance form.
God knows there are plenty of buttons to push: heated/ventilated/memory/massaging seats, dual zone climate control (that adjusts for driving speed, window and hardtop positions), trip computer, sat nav, telephony, stereo, cruise control, etc. While you can’t blame Mercedes for stuffing all the luxury car toys into one of their top-of-the-line models, the switchgear is a bit fussy, cheap-to-the-touch and serious-minded. If Audi can make it chic, if Maserati can make it beautiful, Mercedes should do both. Luckily, the best button is the best button: the silver switch that raises and lowers the roof.
Merc makes a big deal out of the convenience of the SL’s folding hardtop. Fair enough. Top-up and you’ve got chassis rigidity, tin top quiet, protection from box cutter wielding automotive terrorists and two front row tickets to a superb mechanical ballet. Top down, and you’re a star. Who packs light. With soft cases. BEFORE you put the top down. And remembers to snick the luggage protector into place even when the top’s up, because the roof won’t go down otherwise. Anyway, once you’ve stowed both gear and lid, you’re free to concentrate on the car’s true metier: cruising.
Forget autobahnery; the SL550 is best experienced at a walking pace. First, it’s the master of the mysterious metaphysical zone between rest and movement, commonly known as “tip in.” Gently press the go pedal and the SL550 gently proceeds, without any hesitation or unnecessary urgency. (Three-hundred and ninety-one foot pounds of torque @ 2,800 – 4,000 rpm can do that for a car.) Second, Merc’s sublime seven speed gearbox lets you control the world’s woofliest standard issue V8 (back to four valves per cylinder thank Gott) with infinite, mindless ease. And lastly, why would you want to rush past onlookers when you look so damn good ambling by?
Of course, there are those pistonheads who will continue to insist that a [nearasdammit] 100 grand 382hp German two door should be able to go like Hell– maybe even take a corner at speed– you know, from time to time. Obviously, there’s plenty of schnell on tap: the German roadster roars to 60mph in a shade over five seconds. Aside from a highly inconvenient pause and a nasty little driveline shunt, the SL550’s in-gear acceleration is similarly brisk. Not so obviously, the SL550 takes corners exceptionally well. No really. While everyone credits Porsche for creating a sharp-handling car with an engine positioned behind the rear wheels, how about a 4202 lbs. roadster that doesn’t wallow?
Did I mention that you can throw the SL550 around corners with glorious abandon, cackling with glee at mega-dB’s of tire squeal? Or that the SL’s brakes– 12.3 inch front and 11.8 inch rear discs– put the “will you cut that out RIGHT NOW” into indefatigable? Or that the gear-holding, roll-reducing Sport mode is plenty comfortable? Oops. There I go again. Anyway, forget all that high-speed driving stuff. The SL550 doesn’t need to be a stunt car– at least not in the Joey Chitwood sense of the word. It needs to be satisfying to drive, and be seen driving. That it is. As long as you leave the wheels alone.
[Mercedes provided the vehicle reviewed, taxes, insurance and a tank of gas.]