As the big three premium German auto makers plumb new depths to invent more ornate sports-crossover-coupe-activity-niche models for ‘discerning’ modern buyers, isn’t it odd that some glaring holes in the premium market remain unplumbed? The sixth-generation Mercedes-Benz SL for example was launched in SA exclusively in 500, 63 AMG and 65 AMG guises. What about a (more) affordable, efficient, six-cylinder SL for the Sandton jet set that slots below the eight- and twelve-cylinder models but looks just as jaw-dropping as the big boys, and is as taxing to drive as a Tuesday morning mani-pedi?
Better still, what if Mercedes-Benz could forego the stodgy 3.5-litre normally aspirated V6 SL350 (Europe and the UK’s star’s best-selling SL) and develop a new six-cylinder powerplant that benefits from Merc’s latest advances in suck, squeeze, bang, blow tech; featuring twin turbos and direct-injection? Well, that car has come among us dubbed the SL400 and after a blast round the KZN Midlands and the historic Roy Hesketh race track in Pietermaritzburg I can vouch it’s about 20 per cent better than it already sounds on paper. As mentioned, the new M276 3.0-litre V6 engine is boosted by bi-turbos, as Benz like to call them, and produces 245kW/480Nm. That doesn’t sound like a lot compared to the anabolic eight-cylinder efforts in the range but combine it with the 7G Tronic Plus auto tasked with cog swapping duties and the end result is a genuinely creamy drive with a smooth Jaguar F-Type-sounding V6 howl. The SL400 feels like a genuine sports car.
This is odd because despite the widespread use of aluminium to make the sixth-generation SL 120kg lighter than its predecessor, it’s never behaved like a genuine sports car. And the SL AMGs, well, those just feel like hard charging, grand touring muscle cars. With the V8/V12 up front they feel big, heavy and intimidating on road, with Benz’s adaptive damping system unable to cope with the snatchy response from the big force-fed engines. But lob a lightweight, revy engine upfront with reassured shift points and all of a sudden the SL’s moniker – ‘sport licht’ – sounds more like a credo than wishful thinking. The SL400 weighs in at 1730kg versus the SL500’s 1785kg kerb weight, and on the move, with the V6 howling away, you’d swear you were in an SLK-sized car. The SL400 pulls off that lovely trick of shrinking around you at speed. It feels balanced, composed, sure-footed and you don’t need to worry about how you’re metering out power like you do in the power-crazed SLs. In the SL400 you plant the throttle with intent and the chassis copes by nailing all of the available power and torque, as demanded, to the ground via the rear wheels.
The SL400 provides adequate performance, too, with a zero to 100kph sprint time claimed in 5.2sec and a top speed limited at 250kph, and there’s great in-gear response and an amiable spread of torque between 1600-4000rpm which makes it a delight to drive hard. Adaptive damping comes standard on the SL400 (as it does on the SL500) so you choose between comfort and sport modes and it does its level best to keep you cornering fast and level, altering damping force infinitely every millisecond. Despite some light and finger-tippy steering response, it feels much more chuckable on a B-road blast than the hard-charging V8 SL500. Then on the motorway or around town it settles down and does the high street posing thing just as convincingly. The only issue is the price. At R1 212 600 it’s far from the best value car in the world and for that kind of money there are plenty of serious performance cars staring it square in the face, but it makes more buying sense than a R1.55m SL500. Sure, if you like having more power than a third-world dictator, there’s still lots of top-dog appeal to the SL AMGs, but for a well-heeled buyer looking for an open-top two-seater that loves to lap up a bit of open-taps motoring – the baby SL400 is a quality item. You can forget your compact crossovers with four doors and a sloping coupe roof line, this is a niche Mercedes-Benz needing filling and it’s done so with aplomb.
By RAY LEATHERN
NEED TO KNOW
Mercedes-Benz SL400 AMG Line
PRICE R1 212 600
ENGINE 2 996cc, Bi-turbo V6 245kW @ 6000rpm, 480Nm @ 1600-4000rpm
TRANSMISSION Seven-speed 7G Tronic Plus auto, rear-wheel drive
SUSPENSION Double wishbone front; Independent multi-link rear
PERFORMANCE 5.2sec 0-100kph , 250kph, 7.7ℓ/100km, 178g/km
ON SALE Now