SL, Speed, and Light: Mercedes Benz’s New Black Book

It’s a strange thing to say but not only are Mercedes-Benz products great—they’re typically better quality than their well-dressed competitors. Sure, they’re pricey and, sometimes, tiring to wear or operate, but there is an unspoken preference by the customer for machines with quality and a thoroughbred demeanor. Of course, the SL550 isn’t one of those—not unless you’re inclined to take it up as a replacement for a high-performance 1930, a 1956, a 1964—but I’ve often had comparisons to another that I carry with us in the “Black Book” at the hotel. That is, SLK350.

You might ask why go through the efforts of bulking up the SL to include this sleek new Jag-admiring hybrid that’s being tested by the mere few remaining elite who no longer drive cars: The Nürburgring. Mercedes thinks it’s a fabulous move, though even the company has to concede that it’s aiming at buyers of less elegant S-Class or CL550 cars.

A discussion about quality, follow by a brief description of the new car, with shots of this thing at full throttle. It’s about as perfect a moment as I have experienced in a car: very quiet, lots of engine horsepower and a certain cool feeling in the confident, safe direction. This is not to compare it to an Aston Martin or a Ferrari.

• • •

Back to the SL’s Big Day, with my gleaming new car up on the podium for the picture, its hardtop’s doors swinging open like a race car door and me basking in the light of its armor. “I’m safe out here,” I said at the front entrance. “I’m not freaking out,” the Sales and Service representative reassured me. “It’s an SL,” he said. It had to be he, in fact, who had told me in the drive-up car store that I could take a test drive once the details were final. “Boys will be boys,” was my go-to response.

I drove around the modern, lonely livery where its new drivers park their SLs before they raise the rear glass and sit and drive themselves. It was exhilarating. I wanted to prove to myself and my wife that I could go fast—and by driving like a ballplayer. “Do you have a glove?” my wife, Helen, laughed.

After a quick changing room line and into the rain and onto the racetrack, we were able to experience all of the SL’s roar: during the drive, at the Ferrari Verde, as I emerged from the spray on the outside. My wife, who knows everything about things that don’t exist, informed me that the Mercedes makes an incredible sound. The BMW 740i had been making the music of a Southern gym instructor, with a cantaloupe cap. The SL came to life as the engine roared to life from its delicious muffled burble. My wife, who drives my daughter frequently, told me that it was, for her, the perfect, “natural” aural experience.

I think she’s right.

• • •

When we entered the main arc and exited on to the back road there was no closing that space—no getting out. We hit that lap by turns that had an intelligible, thrilling quality. After that it was steady of the straight, its speed unsurpassed. We kept everything else in our minds except that this BMW couldn’t compare, and, generally, the S-Class. Of course we knew about the flagships. We could look them up.

It’s likely that, if we were among those last few in the line who’d taken the SL, we had not counted on its greatest trait: its eye for a kind of elegance and grace in everyday use that the best of the automakers seem to lose at the top.

In short, this SL was a great-driving machine with a great on-and-off-the-track personality—that of a Volvo or the Alfa Romeo 3C Spider without the obvious snub of suspension wings.

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