Mercedes-Benz attributes the success of their SL roadster — the two-seater, hard-top convertible, which they’ve updated for 2016 — to Southern California. It’s this land of temperate climate and curvy coastal roads that has ensured that a car seen as a novelty item (for the more pragmatic parts of the US) still sells. And Fletcher Jones Motorcars, which sits on a large corner lot between Jamboree Road and CA73 in Newport Beach’s back bay, is responsible for a lot of those sales. It’s the #1 Mercedes-Benz dealership in America by volume and, in many ways, prestige; it’s squeaky clean, ostentatious, and with the German cars glimmering in the sunshine, a perfect OC ideal. So, naturally, M-B chose to start a coastal and inland drive just down the road from their prized smile-state dealership, at the Resort at Pelican Hill. This past Monday, an entourage of convertibles circled the hotel’s expansive motor court, then pointed southward to explore what open-top driving can be at the peak of performance luxury.
“Everyone who starts the ignition has to get goosebumps; that’s our goal,” Simon Thoms, SL Product Management for Mercedes-AMG, told me later that night, in San Diego, long after we had put the convertibles to bed. And whose skin does Thoms see getting those bumps? “A car enthusiast, very affluent, very wealthy. It’s someone looking for a combination of two worlds — the combination of a sports car and the comfort of the S-Class family. That’s put together in the SL. Someone middle to end of their 40s, beginning of 50s…just, fulfilling a dream for himself or herself.”
Transmission: 9G-Tronic Automatic
Horsepower: 455 @ 5,250 rpm
Torque: 700 Nm @ 1,800-3,500 rpm
0-100 kph: 4.3 seconds
Max Speed: 155 (limited)
The drive, earlier that day, often felt like a dream. Like: an early morning stint on Silver Strand Road on the small spit of land between the Pacific Ocean and the San Diego Bay, ripping down the narrow road in the AMG SL65, top down, “Loud Pipes” by Ratatat at a volume low enough to be drowned out by the quad-exhaust. Or: climbing Palomar Mountain in a selenite grey magno SL550, a seat massage loosening the tighter sections of my lower back (carry-over from a non-SL lifestyle). And: powering through the curvy sections of the Temecula Vally in an AMG SL63, the V8 spritely out of the corners and the big, wide-based car holding tight on hairpin curves. Plus: taking it slow through the green hills on Campo Road with Tecate, Mexico on the other side of hillside, a steel fence dividing the two lands and our six-figure convertible, casually cruising over the nicely groomed American pavement. Dreams.
When the V12 rips open and a vortex of air swirls around my head of ample non-grayed hair, the Bang & Olufsen 900-watt speaker pumping out tunes and the guy at the red light asks, jaw at the floor, “What do you do for work, man?” the temptation to succumb to vice is too great.
Over two days and 300+ miles of driving, the SL in all its iterations — the SL450, SL550, AMG SL63 and AMG SL65 — proved to be a car made for long, fair-weather drives, curvy roads, and stops at quaint spots along the journey. As Thoms noted, “The DNA of the base vehicle allows long-distance drives at a high level of comfort. So even if you make the chassis a bit harder and more sporty and you put a lot of power into the car, it still allows a lot of long-distance comfort.” The AMG is harder, a bit stiffer, and Thoms and I were debating whether the SL550 offered the best of both worlds — a V8 engine good for 455 horsepower and a sensible auditory growl (the V6 is a bit too turbo-whiny for these ears), along with the comfort of a cruising suspension. That more harsh, yet more exhilarating AMG version may give me more pronounced goosebumps, but would it stand up to my long hauls from, say, Newport Beach all the way to my third home in Santa Barbara? Or, would the amply powered and more kindly set up SL550 do the job best?
To me, it felt like a conundrum. When you’re heading out on a long drive, there’s a time and place when aggressive performance needs to give way to comfort and cruising. The SL550, with the electrohydraulic roof down, and that new 9G-Tronic automatic transmission passing through silky shifts, is made for chasing the sun from dawn to dusk. Then there’s the AMG SL65, and when the V12 rips open and a vortex of air swirls around my head of ample non-grayed hair, the Bang & Olufsen 900-watt speaker pumping out tunes and the guy at the red light asks, jaw at the floor, “What do you do for work, man?” the temptation to succumb to both vices is too great. Gluttony and lust both lure.
Thoms didn’t see a problem. He swirled the wine a bit, smiled, and casually retorted what must run through most Fletcher Jones customers heads — “So you get two cars, of course.”