Getting More for Less
Mercedes’ entry-level SL450 roadster keeps up with more costly V8 models
The Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing coupe, which first debuted in 1954 and was the car that launched the company’s early domination of the luxury sports market, was initially powered by a 3.0-liter, six-cylinder engine. Knowledgeable car enthusiasts will quickly point out that those simple specifications hardly describe the powerful engine that resided under the 300SL’s sculptured hood. Among other attributes, it was fuel injected with a sophisticated system borrowed from aircraft engine design. And that engine thrust the super-lightweight SL to more than 160 mph — a tremendous top speed in the mid 1950s.
A Long Road Car History
The original SL Gullwing was quickly followed by a roadster version, and both models became the must-have vehicles for Hollywood stars. Of course, at a base price of $14,000 in 1954, only celebrities and business magnates could afford such indulgence. So Mercedes-Benz created the 190SL, a roadster with most of the 300’s style points, but with modest power from a four-cylinder sedan engine and an affordable price.
Succeeding SL models through the 1960s and early ’70s added removable hardtops and established the model line as stylish sports cruisers. Mercedes left the pure sports category to crosstown rival, Porsche. Beginning in the early 1970s, American SL models were much heavier and all V8 powered, which brings us to today, and Mercedes-Benz’s current range of six- and eight-cylinder SL roadsters.
Not Dad’s Cruiser
Somehow, I expected Mercedes-Benz to deliver a base SL450 model with a trim 3.0-liter six-cylinder power plant that would leave buyers wondering if they should have gone for a V8. Instead, this SL450 is the most alluring of the breed that I’ve encountered in decades. The big eight-cylinder rumbling exhaust roar is replaced with a sonorous growl that rises nicely with engine speed. That’s a pretty good attribute for a turbocharged engine, and evidence that Mercedes engineers wanted to add youthful sportiness to the formerly stoic two-seater.
Less May Be More
Years ago, I came across a 1975 320SL for sale. The bodywork was the same as the V8 models sold in the USA, but it was lighter, powered by a six-cylinder engine, and had a five-speed standard transmission. I loved the way it handled and its sporting characteristics, but it was a grey market car from Europe and its title was unclear. But that was a different era.
Today, with higher fuel economy standards mandated, the practical six-cylinder SL450 makes its reappearance in North America. There’s no stick shift option, but you can paddle the nine-speed automatic through all its gears, and twin turbochargers easily coax 362 horsepower from the willing 3.0-liter V6. The model’s lighter weight adds better handling and fuel economy. If that’s not enough incentive, the SL450’s base price is $23,731 less than the SL550 V8 powered version.
While the SL450 is my choice for sports entertainment and value, our test car didn’t lack a bit of luxury (of course, $13,890 in options tends to ramp up the posh factor). But regardless of price, this is my current SL pick for its balance of performance and economy. BRIAN DOUGLAS
Photography courtesy of Mercedes-Benz