The new SL550 is a state-of-the art performer
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If your goal in life were to maintain a monument or nurture a legend, likely you would try to hew as closely as possible to the original.
That would work with the Lincoln Memorial or the story of "Sleepy Hollow" and the headless horseman. But in the automobile world, where change is imperative, it would be a prescription for failure.
Consider the 1960 Mercedes-Benz 300SL roadster, driven briefly as background for this review. Along with its predecessor and garage mate, the 1950s-era 300SL gull wing, it is among the most sought-after automotive collector's items on the planet.
The 52-year-old 300SL roadster provided by Mercedes was bright red, in showroom condition, with an estimated price tag of $800,000. That's okay for a wealthy collector, but if you were buying a sports/luxury car to drive every day, it would be no go.
You'd pick its descendent, the 2013 Mercedes-Benz SL550, which exists as both a coupe and a convertible because of its new retractable hard top.
There's no question that the original SL is a gorgeous work of art. Moreover, given the era, it was an avant-garde performer -- the fastest production car available. With its 3-liter six-cylinder engine and a four-speed manual gearbox, it ticked off a zero-to-60 acceleration time of 10 seconds -- respectable even now -- with a top speed of 155.
But by today's lights it is rude and crude mechanically, though you can't escape a turn-the-clock-back feeling of sensuality and excitement behind the wheel.
The new SL550 also is a state-of-the art performer. In today's world, that means a zero-to-60 acceleration time of 4.5 seconds, with a governed top speed of 130, while also earning a city/highway EPA fuel economy rating of 16/24 miles to the gallon, evading a government gas guzzler penalty.
In the Mercedes pantheon, the SL550 is the sixth generation of the expensive two-seaters with the SL designation, which originally stood for "super light."
That part no longer applies. Despite the fact that 89 percent of the new car now is constructed of aluminum, and weighs 275 pounds less than its immediate predecessor, it still tips the scale at nearly two tons, and more than that with a driver, passenger and luggage aboard.
That's at least 600 pounds more than the 1960 model. Of course, modern automobiles must meet stringent safety requirements, all of which add considerable weight.
The SL550 makes up for that with 429-horsepower from its twin-turbo, 4.6-liter V8 engine, which sends its power to the rear wheels through the unobtrusive, slick-shifting Mercedes seven-speed automatic transmission, which also can be shifted manually.
All of it works seamlessly, whether you want to do some low-speed cruising past the big-bucks designer stores on Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles, or whether your preference is for some high-speed wheel slinging around curves in the hills near Hollywood.
Power comes on instantly, with no turbo lag, and the SL550 settles into whatever attitude the driver dictates. It is not the most capable sports car available at any price, but it comes close.
Because it is a luxury as well as a sports car -- perhaps the old "super light" designation should be redefined as "sport luxury" -- the SL550 offers a host of features to appeal to the fat wallet brigade or, at a minimum, to deliver bragging rights.
One is a sensor that opens and closes the trunk with an abbreviated extra-point kick under the rear bumper. Mercedes touts it as an exclusive, and it is in this class of car. But it also is available on the plebeian 2013 Ford Escape.
The Mercedes engineers and product people also are proud of the fact that they were able to build "Front Bass" resonating chambers into the aluminum structure behind the firewall to enhance the audio system's output. The bass notes come through as particularly powerful.
But virtually all of the audio sounds as if it's coming through the floorboards and the dash, and there's no fader adjustment to balance the speakers fore and aft. There's a balance adjustment, as well as one for surround sound, but the vibes are all in your face.
Nevertheless, the system contributes to the ambiance of exclusivity, which also includes an available "magic sky" roof panel that can be adjusted for different light levels and "magic vision control" windshield wipers that squirt washer fluid directly on the glass as they swing through their arcs.
Obviously, none of this comes cheap. The tested SL550 had a base sticker price of $106,375. With options the bottom line sticker came to $123,610.
Model: 2013 Mercedes-Benz SL550 two-seat coupe/roadster.
Engine: 4.6-liter V8, twin turbochargers, 429 horsepower.
Transmission: Seven-speed automatic with manual-shift mode.
Overall length: 15 feet 2 inches.
EPA passenger volume: 51 cubic feet.
Trunk volume top up/top down: 10/7 cubic feet.
Weight: 3,947 pounds.
EPA city/highway fuel consumption: 16/24 miles to the gallon.
Base price, including destination charge: $106,375.
Price as tested: $123,610.