Saturday, April 09, 2016

Rental Bliss: 2015 Mercedes-Benz SL550

If one is presented with the opportunity to drive a brand new Mercedes-Benz SL550 (MSRP $108,050 before options) for a couple of hours, subject to the terms of a terrifying liability waiver, does one do so?


What does one learn, after driving said SL550 on unfamiliar roads with the Waiver of Damocles hanging over one’s head the entire time?

My first impression of this thing is the expansive list of matters that an SL550 handles for you:

  1. Locking and unlocking doors.
  2. Darkness, not only in front of the car, but also below and within. 
  3. Remembering how you like your seat and mirrors adjusted.
  4. Convertibleness; this car is both a convertible and not a convertible, according to your whim.
  5. Weather-appropriate clothing (on account of AIRSCARF).
  6. Deciding what information you need to know about. 
  7. Looking beside you while driving forward. 
  8. Looking behind you while backing up. 
  9. The fact that mirrors take up space.

The interior is beyond reproach in design, materials, and workmanship.

(Image credit: Autoblog)

Speaking as a motorist who still sees 2005 model year cars as “newish,” and electric windows as a cushy luxury, it’s a lot to take in.

Anyway, let’s move past that. How does it drive? Steering feel is numb, or even nonexistent. This is probably intended to be a feature, prominent on the list of things that are handled for you. But for your humble correspondent, it’s disconcerting.

Cornering at feisty-yet-waiver-compliant speeds on California back roads is absolutely rock solid. The thing is go kart flat, and yet the ride is butter-smooth. It’s feather-quiet, too. How does this 4,001-pound convertible with 18 inch wheels avoid any trace of body roll or tire noise? Quoting Mercedes,
The semi-active Adaptive Damping System continually adjusts to driving inputs and the road surface, and can respond at each wheel in just 10 milliseconds to sharpen handling while the ride stays silky. Comfort and Sport modes let you tailor handling response and ride firmness to your present driving style. Virtually all components of the 4-wheel multilink suspension are made of rigid, lightweight aluminum.
I’m usually skeptical of features that are described like this, in salesman-speak instead of engineer-speak. But this system works.

This obsessive computational optimization isn’t limited to suspension tuning, though. The car also makes value judgments about your passenger's weight!
Occupant Classification System (OCS) automatically turns the passenger's front air bag on or off and adjusts the air bag inflation rate based on the weight category determined by weight sensor readings from the passenger seat.
The engine is a 4.7-liter twin-turbo V8 (ahem, “biturbo” because Europe), rated for 449 hp and 516 lb-ft routed through a 7-speed hydraulic automatic transmission. Due to the whole waiver situation, hooning was limited to rolling 10-50 mph sprints, once in Comfort and once in Sport. In Comfort mode there is a distressingly-long turbo lag (one-Mississippi), followed by a quiet yet forceful whoosh, followed by a disapproving blowoff. In Sport mode the turbo lag is reduced, though still quite apparent, and the noise was a more pleasing purr. There’s absolutely no squat, wheel slip, roar, or really any other drama, which cuts both ways. The experience is less like a burnout and more like jumping to hyperspace.

The SL550 does just about everything well. It’s hard to imagine a more comfortable or stylish grand touring coupe. I wager it could out-track the fastest sports cars of 10 years ago and out-muscle the fastest muscle cars of 10 years ago. But I find myself struggling to understand why someone would ever buy one. If you’re in the market for an SL, price isn't an object, and an S-class would offer better comfort and storage on a road trip. Likewise, a modern supercar would track better and a Hellcat would drag better. The SL’s refinement and technology saps all the spectacle and danger out of mindless acceleration; flogging trashier, slower muscle cars is actually more fun.

The flaw in this thinking is the whole premise of evaluating a car like this on functional grounds. Cars like this are a “thing” for the same reason that trophy wives are a “thing.” You don’t buy an SL550 because you care about gearhead stuff like lap times and cubic feet of trunk room. You buy one for the bragging rights, for having a car that’s better than practically everyone else’s in practically every way. It demonstrates that you're inclined to scrutinize the "weight category" of the person at your side and factor that into important decisions. It demonstrates that you don’t have to handle things; things are handled for you. It’s a status symbol.

Would I ever buy one? Nope, at that price point I’d rather have a Tesla S for weekdays and a 4C or a Cayman for weekends. But I think functionally.

Did I mention that they made me sign a waiver?

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