When I was a kid, in the 1990s, the Mercedes-Benz SL-Class was just about the coolest thing in the world. Really, it was. I remember when the "new" SL came out in 2003 with a retractable hardtop, and I saw one only a few months after it first went on sale; I was sitting in my mom’s Isuzu Rodeo while she was pumping gas, and the SL owner drove up next to us and, by coincidence, put down his top. It was an amazing thing, then, and I was truly mesmerized. Few cars on earth were cooler than this new $100,000 Mercedes-Benz convertible.
Fifteen years later, I’m not sure it even has a future.
Today I’m going to give my opinion on the SL-Class — namely that I think it may be headed for oblivion, cancellation or removal from the market. And I’m going to explain why, starting with a little history lesson: The SL really was once the coolest car in the world. Early ones had gullwing doors, and they sell for $1 million now. The 1960s model, affectionately dubbed the "Pagoda" after the shape of its roof, followed up on the smaller 190 SL and was the car of choice for Hollywood celebrities in the ’60s. Even the (in my opinion) ugly 1970s models kept the dream alive; it was the Mercedes everyone wanted to be seen in.
But over the last few years, two interesting shifts happened. One, the Porsche 911 got bigger and more luxurious. When I watched the SL drop its roof in that gas station in 2003, the current 911 at the time was the "996" model, which was still more of a sports car than a luxury car. Fight me all you want, but that’s no longer true: The 911 now has ventilated seats and an $8,000 sound system and leather air vent slats and blah blah blah, and the reality simply is that it now gives you more of a luxury car experience than ever before. And faced with an actual luxury car (the SL) or a luxury car that gives you the appearance of owning a cool sports car (the 911), who would pick the luxury car?
The other thing that happened is sporty cars, in general, have really taken off. Back in 2003, there was no Audi R8. There was no Jaguar F-TYPE. Everything was relaxed and sporty and luxurious, and the SL was right there with all the other luxury 2-door cars. It made sense. Fifteen years later, things have changed dramatically, and Mercedes-Benz has changed with it, adding the AMG GT sports car and a host of other new AMG models to their lineup. But the SL has soldiered on, even as all its competitors — the Jaguar XK, the Cadillac Eldorado and the Lexus SC 430 — have died off.
And now, it, too, is dying off.
To see this, all you have to do is take a look at the sales figures. Mercedes-Benz sold 13,700 SL-Class models in 2002, as they released the new 2003 model partway through the year. In 2003, they sold 13,300. Times were good.
And since then, times just haven’t been very good. In 2004, the number was 12,900. In 2005, 10,100. In 2006, it was 8,400. In 2007, just 6,100. And when the most recent generation came out for 2013, Mercedes-Benz managed just 7,000 sales — just over half the number of the previous redesigned model in its first year. Last year, with an SL-Class that’s just three years old, Mercedes sold a mere 3,700 units.
So sales are down (through this year, they’ve sold just 1,800 units in eight months). This is because demand is down, with buyers interested in SUVs or sportier cars. Mercedes-Benz is now focusing more heavily on both of those things, offering seven different SUV body styles and an AMG version of virtually every car in the lineup. And this begs the question: Is the SL fading into oblivion?
If you had asked me three years ago, I would’ve said no; I would’ve figured that Mercedes would keep it around just because they always had — even if sales got pretty rough. But now the AMG GT takes away sport-minded buyers, the S-Class Coupe and Cabriolet take away anyone interested in extra seats, and the E-Class Coupe and Convertible models are there to pick up the rest — with a theoretical AMG version broadening their appeal even more. So who’s buying the SL? And what’s the point of keeping it around?
I’m not sure, but I honestly wonder if we’re looking at the end of the line for the SL — or if, at least, the next-generation version will be the end of the line, should they decide to make one. Either way, this trickle of sales is a sad reality for a model that once stood as the beacon of the Mercedes-Benz lineup. Find a Mercedes-Benz SL-Class for sale
Doug DeMuro is an automotive journalist who has written for many online and magazine publications. He once owned a Nissan Cube and a Ferrari 360 Modena. At the same time.