The 2013 Mercedes SL is a stunner underneath.
For only the third time in my life, Mercedes-Benz is debuting a new SL roadster. Three times in almost four decades isn’t much. In fact, the R107 SL went on sale before I was born, and by the time it was replaced, I owned a car myself.
The car that replaced it in 1990, the R129-chassis SL, was not only Bruno Sacco’s design masterpiece, but also a rolling technology showcase. I remember driving one for the first time in 1994. It was a 1990 500SL, with the 32-valve V8, and I’ll never forget nailing the gas out of my friend’s parents’ driveway and almost crashing because I had never experienced acceleration like that. And then I realized that the ol’ slushbox started out in second unless you hit the kickdown switch. The next time that SL started moving, it was in first gear, with its rear tires screaming only slightly louder than I was.
That SL wasn’t about speed, it was about technology. I had possession of an SL myself at the time, a R107-chassis 1985 380SL. My red-on-gray SL was but nine years old, but it might as well have come from the Paleolithic era, and I realized it the second I walked up to the 1990 model. The R129 did things no other open car did—like roll down the road with (almost) no cowl shake. It opened its roof at the touch of a button (my SL required a friggin’ wrench to unlatch the roof!) It had a pop-up rollbar that would deploy if you, say, jumped it over a railroad crossing (whoops) and it had seatbelts mounted directly on the seats in case you actually rolled it. The rearview mirror was electrically adjustable—which sounded like wretched excess until I realized it was part of the seat memory system. It had eight thousand storage compartments that all locked when you pressed the button on the infra-red key. It was like something from the future.
And then the R230 came out a couple years later. It was just another car. Technological innovations? I don’t remember any, to be honest. I’m sure there were a couple. But while we remember the first SL for being a Gullwing, the second because its hardtop looked like a Pagoda, the third for having a 19-year life, and the fourth for being all of that cool stuff I mentioned, we’ll remember the outgoing SL for being just fine and dandy.
Fine and dandy doesn’t cut it for an SL.
Which is why I am so pleased that I just got to see the new R231 SL fully naked. It’ll make its debut early next year, and I’m not yet allowed to tell you what its body looks like. I can, however, tell you that underneath, it’s the most beautiful roadster Mercedes has ever built.
It’s the first aluminum Mercedes, too. Sure, there are other aluminum cars, but this thing is a breathtaking work of art. I’ve never seen so many different types of aluminum: by weight, it’s 44 percent cast aluminum, 28 percent aluminum sheet, and 17 percent aluminum sections (oh, and 8 percent steel, 3 percent magnesium and other stuff.)
The R231 looks to me like a return to old-school Mercedes engineering: a wholesale rethink and anal-retentive analysis and re-analysis of the status quo. Bonded, riveteted, screwed, MIG welded, and friction-stir welded, the chassis just plain looks like a Mercedes, even though no Mercedes has ever looked like this. There’s no doubt in my mind that the new car will set the standards for stiffness, crashworthiness, and NVH for years to come. It couldn’t not; it’s so unbelievably well thought-out and packaged.
When you look at these pictures, try not to imagine what the final product will look like. Look instead at the detailing: the seven-section extruded door sills that look ten times stronger than a skyscraper I-beam; the sandwich-construction, three-layer floor that’s stir-welded together from individual sections; the front firewall that’s cast as one enormous piece; the longitudinal rear suspension mounts, which are hollow chilled cast and then attached to everything in seemingly every way possible; the holes and dips and wave-forms placed into the sheet aluminum to keep NVH under control.
Along with the two other innovations Mercedes is showing off (wiper blades that spray cleaning water only on the leading edge of the wiper and subwoofers built into the firewall), it strikes me that I don’t care what that final car looks like… I just can’t wait to experience what it’ll be like from behind the wheel of the new SL. I’m betting I’m going to feel flabbergasted the way I did the first time I drove that R129.