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More than a (gull)wing and a prayer

Tue, 28 Aug 2012

They make up just six percent of Mercedes car sales in the United States—but nothing preserves and proliferates the top-shelf, seductive image of a Benz like a sports car.

This is a point that's been driven home to me in a wide array of circumstances this year: Mercedes sports cars are still rock stars. I'll admit, I've often been a skeptic. As a born and bred Detroiter, I have always been unabashed in my lust for Motor City muscle, preferably something from the '60s. Plus, as a buff book guy, there are always the gorgeous Ferraris, Jaguars and buttoned up yet balls-out BMW sporting machines. At times, Mercedes gets lost in the shuffle.

Perhaps that's due to the excellence of its sedans and the profitability of its SUVs. AMGs are fire-breathers, for sure, but they're so exclusive most Americans would have trouble differentiating them from mere mortal Mercedes.

But in everyday driving, a Benz sports car does drop jaws—as they have for generations. That was reinforced for me as I rolled to and from work recently in an SLS Gullwing. A commuter car? That's an understatement. The sounds this thing makes, the roar of the omnipotent 563 naturally aspirated horses—wow. People stared. It looks like a submarine, and squeezing off downshifts via the paddles makes you feel like a fighter pilot. Oh, and it was dressed in a hue called Le Mans red.

Obviously, it's a cool car. For more than $215,000, it's the cost of a colonial in the suburbs. It should be superlative.

Rewind a bit, however, and I actually received somewhat similar reactions for the latest generation of the SLK. I dropped the top and hit Woodward for the Dream Cruise, attracting looks and a fair share of attention, considering I was competing with some of the world's greatest hot rods and muscle cars on one of the most famous streets in automotive lore. Mind you, this thing only puts out 201 hp from a 1.8-liter turbo I4—that's a lawn mower compared to some of the Chevelles and Chargers on Woodward. Still, the SLK was quick and fun. And it looks sexy.

I rolled around Europe late this winter in the newest iteration of the SL, another subtle yet striking execution of the modern Mercedes sports car. For a six-figure sticker and 429 horses derived from a twin turbo V8, it should be impressive. It felt fast and planted. When combining styling cues that have roots in the 1950s with modern weight-reducing technology, it exuded confidence. The SL had, and still has, gravitas.

Driving cars like this forces the keen editor to develop a skeptical eye. They're good products, but a lot of competitors offer excellent sporting models. Not all of them drip with this kind of heritage, however, which is evidenced by my final Mercedes example: a 1961 300SL roadster.

I test drove this thing on the streets of Marbella, Spain. Frankly, it was the most invigorating, nerve-racking, memorable experience of any of the Benzes. The mid-century classic is worth an estimated $700,000 to $900,000, making it half a million more than the modern AMG Gullwing. Factor in that I don't know the streets of Spain and couldn't read the signs, plus there were no seatbelts, and my anxiety was further elevated. Obviously, the expensive car wasn't the only source of my nerves. In fact, it helped calm them. The '61 SL remains a stunner with an excellent, even intoxicating, inline six-cylinder unit putting out a modest 215 hp. Summoning power to the rear wheels and operating the surprisingly agreeable four-speed manual, this was the definition of sport and luxury at speed.

So, I've been lucky to drive four such decadent automobiles in the span of about five months. Obviously, I liked them, but I was prepared not to; perhaps judging them as overhyped or overpriced. In a way, some of them are. How can a car live up to such lofty prices and reputation? But, in real-world driving in a variety of situations, the Mercedes magic remains for driver and observer.

Greg Migliore is news editor of Autoweek. Follow him on twitter at @gregmigliore.

Photo by Greg Migliore
The 1961 Mercedes SL retains its magic, 51 years later on a morning in Spain.

By Greg Migliore