Since sorting out my 1997 Mercedes SL600 on the cheap, I’ve been enjoying this car way too much. In my twisted mind, I believe this V12-powered roadster is the closest I’ve come to automotive perfection for under $10,000, as there is so much to love about this car. Still, even though I’ve totally fallen for this aging Mercedes, I still have few gripes — which, combined with the fact that I’m an idiot, has me leaning towards selling this noble beast.
Now begins the very long love letter I’m going to write about this car — and it’s hard to not start with its importance. Each successive generation of SL was replacing an icon, and I believe this car, the R129 chassis, was the last to surpass its previous generation. Really, it wasn’t hard to achieve this by the late 1980s, as the old R107 model had been in production spanning three decades. By this point, it was like Mercedes was building brand-new antique cars, so the bar was set pretty low for the next generation. Despite this, the new generation of SL shocked the world, not just because of its wholly original design that defined a new decade, but also because of its technological marvels.
The interior is where some of the biggest advancements were made, and the most impressive part to me is the seats. The older Mercedes seats, with their manual adjustments and tufted upholstery, didn’t look much different from a Mercedes of the 1920s, but the seat in the SL600 looks more like it belonged in the space shuttle. The floating headrest automatically adjusts its height based on how far back the seat is adjusted, and the seat-mounted safety belt adjusts in concert with the headrest as well. The door panels are much thicker than previous generations, and despite the lack of excess gadgets and infotainment systems, it still feels modern even to this day. The only thing that really dates this interior is the car phone, but much like Bond’s Aston Martin DB5, it neatly tucks away behind a nondescript panel.
The V12-powered SL600 came to life in 1993, a few years after the introduction of the R129, and it hosted a number of improvements other than the engine. The already fantastic interior was improved even more, with a stitched leather dashboard, available two-tone perforated leather seats and a wooden steering wheel in the later models. Additionally, the SL600 came standard with ADS, an active hydraulic suspension system that matches the smoothness of the V12 engine. In the standard setting, it floats down the road like an old land yacht, but it can be stiffened up considerably if adjusted to sport mode. The suspension is also height-adjustable for clearing steep curbs, a much-needed feature that didn’t catch on with other more exotic brands for another decade.
The V12 drivetrain itself also boasts considerable advancements, with a more reliable coil-based ignition system, as well as an electronically controlled transmission. Previous generations of automatics were controlled by a spaghetti system of vacuum lines, and they never felt sporty. Having actual brainbox controlling the shifts behind the 389-horsepower V12 engine makes this the oldest SL that can be considered quick by modern standards. The quickness without seeming labored is another unique Mercedes V12 trait, as the engine is so smooth and quiet, and the acceleration so linear and effortless, that it’s easy to hit triple-digit speeds without realizing it.
While I’m not the type of person to drive at dangerous speeds on public roads, it’s not because I’m scared to with this car, unlike most old convertibles. In addition to the smart seat, the standard airbags and the crumple zones mixed with the old school, bank-vault style of construction, I also don’t have to worry about being decapitated thanks to the integrated roll-bar. This is one of the few convertibles with a roll-bar that doesn’t detract from the styling — and even doubles as a wind deflector. If you don’t like the way it looks, you can fold it down and still not worry about losing your head, as the system is designed to deploy at the speed of an airbag should the built-in gyros detect a rollover.
This same hydraulic system that controls the roll-bar also operates the power soft-top — which, for the first time, made dropping the top in a Mercedes SL a simple push-button affair. Installing the hardtop was also much easier than before, but this hydraulic system does tend to develop issues with age. Still, it’s much more serviceable than the next-generation SL, with its overly complicated Transformers-style retractable hardtop.
That’s the main rub I have with Mercedes cars that followed — and that’s why many think the dark ages for the brand began around the new millennium. It’s not just the exceedingly complicated electronics, or the noticeable dip in quality, but also the less exciting styling. The design language of modern Mercedes never impressed me much, as it started to blend in with everything else. Meanwhile, there’s certainly no mistaking this generation of SL600 for anything but a Mercedes.
So I should be thrilled to have such a nice example for such reasonable money, and I want to keep it forever — but I’m not. The biggest annoyance for me comes from the lack of a rear seat, and if I’m committing to a two-seat roadster for life, it needs to be way more fun to drive than this. A Porsche 911 is a much better choice for me in the sports car department, since it’s still comfortable, engaging to drive and has an acceptable rear seat for my 5-year-old daughter. If I’m looking for the ultimate luxury experience, nothing will ever match my newly purchased Rolls-Royce Phantom. As far as my Mercedes addiction goes, I already have a very fun 1995 Mercedes C36 AMG, as well as my very first car, a perpetually needy 1985 500SL, which also has a small rear seat. I am truly spoiled rotten with my current fleet of cars, so when someone offered me $15,000 for this SL600, I jumped at it.
It’s been a very long time since I flipped a car for a good profit, but the downside is I really can’t think of a more impressive car that would replace it for the same money. I guess I could invest the cash, but knowing me, I’ll probably end up spending it several times over on something incredibly stupid. Maybe I already have?