Under the long hood is a sophisticated and potent engine. The small cabin is just right for two adults. The tapering trunk is roomy enough to carry golf clubs, or the accouterments for a long weekend in Monaco or Montecito. A convertible top completes the package.
This formula dates to 1954 for the Mercedes SL, a two-door roadster that is the longest-running nameplate in Mercedes-Benz’s production car history. (The initials stand for super leicht, or super-light, a German superlative for sportiness.)
Mercedes recently unveiled an all-new SL, the seventh generation of this model, true to its roots, but with significant modern updates.
“At Mercedes, an SL is pretty much the biggest icon we can get,” said Gorden Wagener, the global chief design officer for Daimler, the parent company of Mercedes-Benz. “Next to the S-Class, it is at the core of the brand — probably even stronger than the S-Class,” he said, referring to the brand’s benchmark luxury sedan.
This new SL is the first to include all-wheel-drive, as well as four-wheel steering, enhancing stability, performance and maneuverability. It is the first to be developed from the ground up by Mercedes’s go-fast subsidiary, AMG, which helped design the chassis and will provide, at introduction in the United States, a twin-turbocharged 4.0-liter V-8 with output of 480 horsepower (in the SL 55) or 560 horsepower (in the SL 63). Pricing for the SL 55 is expected to start just around six figures, and the extra horses should cost about 20 percent more.
The new generation is also the first to promise a plug-in hybrid option, which will arrive later in the product cycle and be based on Benz’s Formula 1 race technology, privileging performance over efficiency. And it is the first in decades to feature a power-folding fabric top, instead of a space-robbing retractable hardtop. This freed up room for another long-lost SL feature, a two-plus-two seating configuration, with small rear buckets appropriate for accessories, like hand luggage, or small children.
Many of these elements are intended to help return the SL to past glory. “I’m a big fan of the 300 SL Gullwing,” Mr. Wagener said, referring to the initial model in the lineage, a hard-core sports coupe derived from a winning racecar. “With the new car, I wanted to make it as close as possible to the very first one and try to infuse that DNA into the new model.”
In addition to reflecting the past, Mercedes emphasized a vision of the future — “to make it a very modern SL, a digital roadster, the car that represents the transformation that the industry is going through,” Mr. Wagener added.
This means that the new SL is laden with sophisticated technology. It has an LCD dashboard, and a nearly 12-inch, tablet-like central touch screen that tilts and adjusts for better viewing when the top is down and light is plentiful. It features a navigation system enhanced with augmented reality, which projects directional animations onto the windshield within the driver’s view. Its braking system uses cameras and sensors to detect oncoming traffic during turns. It can even change lanes and park itself (when instructed to by the driver).
Mr. Wagener hopes that this whiz-bangery will bring fresh enthusiasts into the SL’s demographic. “The SL has a very established clientele, but I think that with the new model, we will acquire a lot of new customers, also younger customers,” he said.
Such an injection seems necessary. The SL has long been shorthand for a kind of pinnacle of success — stars including Clark Gable, Sophia Loren, Audrey Hepburn, John Lennon, Burt Reynolds, Bob Marley, Tina Turner, Jennifer Aniston and Jude Law have owned SLs. But as luxury consumer tastes have shifted away from sports coupes (and every other category of vehicle) in favor of sport utility vehicles, sales for the SL plunged. In 2003, Mercedes sold over 13,000 SLs in America. Last year, it sold around 1,300.
A shifting product portfolio might offer some assistance. The new SL’s platform will also be used to support the next generation of Mercedes’s more serious sports car, the AMG GT coupe and roadster. And the marque will be eliminating the two-door versions of its S-Class, a move that Mr. Wagener hopes will push “many customers that formerly were driving the S-Coupe and Cabriolet to get into the SL.”
Fortunately, resilience and adaptability are among the SL’s many qualities. “It’s one of those cars that’s always evolving to be a reflection of the era it came from,” said Brian Rabold, vice president for automotive intelligence at Hagerty, an insurer of collectible vehicles and a standard-bearer in their valuation.
The W198 “Gullwing” SL of 1954-63 is a futuristic outlier, a Sputnik-like marshaling of Mercedes’s efforts to regain prestige after the ignominy of its collaboration with the Nazi regime during World War II. (The smaller, similarly styled but far less innovative W121 of 1955-63 is a bit of a stepchild of this generation.)
The W113 “Pagoda” SL of 1963-71 is a delicate midcentury modern construction, with sleek unadorned sides and a subtly ornamental concave roof that earned it its nickname. The R107 “Panzer” SL of 1971-89 is “Me Decade/Greed Is Good” testament to stolid, chrome-slathered personal luxury, forward looking but baroquely moored in tradition. The R129 SL of 1989-2001 is sharp edged and technical, an overbuilt tour de force representing the glorious terminus of the analog age.
The R230 of 2001-11 is somewhat amorphous in appearance. With scores of real and virtual buttons required to work a fiddly in-dash infotainment system, and an overly complex collapsible hardtop, it was inspired by the possibilities of digital design before it caught up to the abilities. The R231 of 2011-20, while quick and comfortable, hosts awkward proportions that don’t quite align; even Mr. Wagener called them “not really appealing.”
According to Mr. Rabold, many of these cars are collectible. High-quality first-generation SLs have long been blue-chip seven-figure vehicles. Second-generation cars have had significant appreciation over the past five years, rising 20 percent in value, with excellent examples reaching the six-figure mark. Top-notch third-generation cars, especially 560SLs from the end of the run, are approaching this level as well, having risen in price as much as 47 percent in the last year alone. Interest and values are increasing even for fifth-generation cars, as they reach the 20-year-old mark and begin their transition from used cars to collectibles.
But it is the fourth generation that has experienced the most significant increases. According to Mr. Rabold, top-of-the-line, V-12-powered models have jumped over 150 percent in value since 2016, and even more run-of-the-mill V-8 models have had price increases of more than 75 percent. This surge is due in part to their elegant design and stout engineering, but mainly to the generational whims of the collector car market, which sees each cohort chasing and buying the cars of its youth. With Generation X in its peak earning years, cars of the ’90s are hot.
Mercedes has trotted out some of the nameplate’s past stars to lend luster to the new SL. This further renews interest in cars that people may have forgotten about.
“It always brings new attention back to the old models, especially in a brand like this and a nameplate like this, where it’s drawing from such an established history,” Mr. Rabold said. However, he warned, “It doesn’t always follow that increased interest translates to increased dollars.”
While this extensive heritage lends prestige and prominence to the latest model, it can also exert significant pressure.
“It’s always a big responsibility to do the next SL,” Mr. Wagener said. “You don’t want to be the one to mess up the SL.”