I recently had the chance to drive a brand-new 2018 Mercedes-Benz SL450, which is a luxury convertible that continues the 60-plus year lineage of the famous Mercedes-Benz SL-Class. The SL started way back in the 1950s, with the beautiful 300SL Gullwing, and it’s continued through today after several redesigns of varying success.
Unfortunately, that success seems to be on a downward spiral. For the last 15 or so years, Mercedes-Benz has seen declining sales for the SL, just as most automakers have seen declining sales for nearly all convertible models. The Porsche Boxster, the BMW Z4, the Audi TT — all are slowing down, as shoppers seem to be moving towards SUVs, rather than droptops.
For now, the SL is weathering the storm, but things don’t look so good. Back in 2005, Mercedes-Benz sold more than 10,000 SL models. Last year, they didn’t even crack 3,000. Even after the latest redesign in 2013, the SL barely broke 7,000 sales — half of the car’s sales figures from its last redesign a decade prior. Shoppers just seem to be moving away from convertibles.
And it isn’t just a general trend away from convertibles that’s causing problems for the SL — it’s also the sheer volume of vehicles in the Mercedes-Benz lineup. The SL was once the brand’s most desirable high-performance droptop, but that honor now goes to the Mercedes-AMG GT Roadster. Instead, the SL has trended more towards luxury, but Mercedes also has in-house rivals there, too, with the E-Class Cabriolet and S-Class Cabriolet, both of which feature four seats, making them more practical than the 2-seater SL. Indeed, the SL just seems to be falling out of favor.
Which is a shame, because the SL is actually a tremendously nice vehicle. I rented the SL I drove using Turo, which is a service that lets you rent other peoples’ cool and interesting cars instead of regular, boring rental cars, and I have to admit I think it’s just fantastic. One reason is the powertrain: in a desperate (but failed) attempt to spur sales, Mercedes-Benz added a base-level V6 to the SL for the 2015 model year. That model is now called the SL450, and it’s the one I drove — and the V6 is excellent: it has 362 horsepower and it feels barely slower than the 419-hp SL550, even boasting the typical low-end torque you’d associate with a V8. The SL450 is smooth, powerful and torquey, and I wouldn’t get any other engine.
The driving experience, too, is pretty nice. The interior is beautiful, with luxury appointments and comfortable seats, and the car is smooth on the road — though I’m disappointed to report that bumps are a little too sharp for the SL’s "luxury car" status, while handling is a little too soft to make the SL a "sports car."
And, indeed, that’s the problem: the SL is just a compromise. It’s fun to drive, sure, but the AMG GT Roadster is more fun — and it’s the one I’d get if I was considering a Mercedes-Benz convertible. It’s luxurious, sure, but the S-Class Cabriolet is more luxurious — and it’s the one I’d get if I was considering a luxury convertible. The SL’s two seats are also a penalty, since most 2-seaters, like the Jaguar F-Type, are sportier than the SL — and some sportier vehicles, like the Porsche 911, offer four seats.
So the SL lives in its own world — an anachronism in modern times, where other, more specialized models do a better job with what it used to do so well. It’s still great, but only for the small percentage of drivers who want what it can provide: a luxury convertible with a $90,000 starting price, without much "sport," without four seats, without a Porsche badge. It’s a small pool of buyers, and it’s getting smaller — and I wouldn’t be surprised if that ultimately means the SL’s days are numbered.