Monday, 28 March 2011

Mercedes-Benz; Backwards to the future?

“Engineered like no other car” was Clint Eastwood's verdict after driving a Mercedes SL off a rooftop in buddy-cop thriller The Rookie. And he was right, certainly by 1990 standards. His were commercially lucrative words; the R129 generation SL was a brand new car; the previous R107 having been produced for an impressive 16 years. After such cosy familiarity, the new order would take some getting used to. The new car needed some heavyweight promotion behind it and Mercedes-Benz were delighted by this opportunity

In my previous article about the A-Class, I questioned the notion of Mercedes-Benz-ness. And, with unprecedented predictability, today's feature car sums up my view.

In my job as general dogsbody and occasional salesman for the Three-Pointed Star, my bottom spends a large portion of its life perched on the seats of Mercedes-Benz products. Saying that, I am more familiar with the wares of their most recent decade than the older, more definitive cars of its past. I shamefully admit that I have never driven a W123, for instance.

I have, however, spent countless miles at the helm of the current generation of Mercedes-Benz SL, from the entry level 300, a car whose towering price-tag is in stark contrast with its almost total lack of performance, right up to the 65 AMG, where 620 twin-turbocharged V8 horsepower do their level best to propel you into a new time-space continuum. My feelings about the current SL are mixed, but one of my conclusions is a constant; with an SL, the car and its relative performance are totally separate entities.

Today, after spending time behind the wheel of this well-preserved 1996 SL320, I have further evidence to back up this argument. Taken in as part-exchange against an extra-ordinarily well optioned but comparatively mundane E-Class, this car had been cherished during every one of its 101 thousand miles. The owner clearly had pride in his car, treating it to a set of enormous, doubtless very expensive, though in my opinion severely inappropriate split-rim alloy wheels. It has been dealer-serviced from new, still has its factory hardtop and has also been “upgraded” with an all singing, all dancing MP3 stereo whose output of flashing lights made it appear that Las Vegas had spawned a splinter colony in the lower console.

Aside from this, its age and mileage would give me an opportunity to put Dirty Harry's accreditation of Stuttgart engineering prowess to the test. Unfortunately, that the key-fobs had been mangled over time to the point of near uselessness was not a positive first sign. One key was bound with masking tape to prevent it disintegrating totally, the other had clearly gone the same way but had been jury-rigged back together with a scavenged wood-screw. The flick-knife style retracting blade, as found on the majority of '90s German car keys, was no longer spring loaded and the blade had to be prised from its housing for use. And the button was inoperative for the RF remote control central locking. I consoled myself with the knowledge that the key-fobs were very likely outsourced to a contractor, probably some big player in the Christmas-cracker novelty toy market.

The car itself looks magnificent. This is a car where the shape itself is far more significant than the detailing, but where those little flourishes set it off like subtle jewellery on a beautiful woman. Styled at the end of the 1980s, where such flamboyant statements of one-upmanship as the Lamborghini Countach and Ferrari Testarossa were automotive poster-children, Mercedes could have taken the route of crass, egoistic overstatement for their flagship model. They didn't. In fact they underplayed their hand with almost heroic restraint. 

The R129 SL is one of the purest shapes of the 1990s. After the R107 it was sneered at by naysayers and loyalists of that generation as being bland and overly conformist. By the standards of those baroque Italians, maybe; devoid of the distinctive prow and upright grille of the old car, certainly. But the longer you looked at the new car, the deeper it drew you in. The lines are tight and concise, making the curves where the wheel-arches flare all the more pronounced and sensuous. The slightly wedge-shaped profile hints at muscularity over the rear, driven wheels and the promise of concealed power.

The Mercedes-Benz grille is equally minimalist; gone is the usual brightwork surround of Mercedes past, instead the horizontals are embellished with simple chrome highlights. Expensive and distinctive, but not ostentatious. When you appreciate the shape as a whole, those stunning details begin to emerge, the fluting on the rear lamp clusters and those air-extraction vents after the front wheels. That final touch is, quite frankly, gratuitous. It's a very sexy looking car, this.

I you look past those stupid wheels, that is. They dominate the look of the car like how Scarlett Johansson would be defaced by a facial tattoo.

Turn the key in the lock because of the non-working remote fob and behold the, er, simplicity. On its 1990 launch the SL interior was heralded for all its technological wonders. Today we take features like digital climate control, electric memory seats and electronic odometers for granted. More impressive is the fact that all these features still work. And well they might, my Audi is only two years newer and everything works on that, er, except the climate control. And one of the rear reading lamps. But that's irrelevant, everything on this car feels like it will continue working for the next hundred years.

Take a pew on the anatomically perfect drivers seat. Take a moment to electrically position the the seat and the steering wheel just how you like it. Survey the world that surrounds you and take a minute to consider what you see. The answer to that is nothing at all that shouldn't be there. Every single thing you see is perfectly placed and perfectly adequate. The plastics are, at first glance, nothing special, but tap them, feel their weight and observe that they are all still perfectly aligned and screwed together. The glovebox still opens gracefully and closes with submarine hatch precision, and that mysterious felt-lined compartment above the A/C vents still revolves open with balletic fluidity. The leather, though in dire need of a clean, looks as thick and inviting as it did when it was freshly tanned. For visual appeal it has less glitz and glamour than a Luther-era Bronx block-party, but as a piece of enduring 20th century architecture it's hard to beat.

The 320 was towards the sophomore end of the range, making do with a Camry-like 224hp, this in a car weighing 1830kg was never a recipe for rocketry. Indeed, 8.4 seconds to 60 allows you time to compose a sequel to Wagner's Ring Cycle. And that really doesn't matter in the least. Why do we really need to accelerate faster than that? Is life really that short? My time behind the controls was one of the most tranquil periods of my life. It was never slow enough to be frustrating, never fast enough to cause breathlessness. The cars persona feels beyond all that.

The SL is a way of life. There were higher powered models available, a 500 and a 600, and AMG got their evil clutches on the car for those who like chilli sauce on their caviar. The relative performance of these cars is totally irrelevant, it's just an added feature you can choose to deploy if you really want to. The SL is in its element when being driven swiftly but gently through beautiful countryside, savouring every moment of efficiency and competence, and not getting bogged down in the minutiae of acceleration and lateral G. Being hustled along also features on the cars resume, but it's down under the heading of “other skills”. There is, in truth, hardly anything this car can't do, except perhaps deliver heart-stopping excitement; although there was an extra cost package for that if you wanted it. In the paragraph above when I described the cars looks, I nearly described its wry smile as looking smug. Seriously, it has every right to be.

With the current generation of SL Mercedes had a go at redefining it as more of a sports car with a view to taking sales more directly from Porsche and Ferrari. In doing so they lost sight slightly of what the car was best at. All current SLs have a firm ride, not uncomfortable but far less pliant than the old car. This makes it feel more focussed towards sporting driving, but more tiring and far less, well, dignified. Inside, too, the environment has morphed into an aerospace style cockpit, very driver-centric and purposeful. It's a superb car to drive, if you want to drive. It's more immediately fun than the old car, more likely to deliver instant thrills, even in the smaller-engined versions. But it doesn't quite have the same feeling of being able to cope, though, with anything you throw at it.

Nothing demonstrates it better than the roof-folding mechanism. The electro-hydraulic Vario-Roof (as they call it) is a miracle of automotive origami and still hypnotic to watch in action. Starting as a true open-top roadster, a button press and twelve seconds of mechanical theatre later the car is crowned with an elegant, glass topped coupé roof. For showmanship and effect it is superb, as a stand-out feature as a car in this sector I have no doubt that it serenaded a lot of new customers. In a way, though, I feel that it was contrary to what the SL was all about.

The previous solution to the question posed by having an open-top car without a fragile canvas roof had been to supply the car with a separate hardtop that could be easily fitted when going topless wasn't practical. In the winter you therefore had a cosy coupé but, at the first sign of spring you could bask in the sunshine, with an electric soft-top for when shelter was needed, while the hardtop was safely exiled to the garage. This suited the demeanour of the SL as a rewarding yet nonsense-free car you could enjoy in any circumstances. This included occasionally carrying passengers in the back; the rear seats were optional and vestigial at best but it was at least a nod in the direction of practicality. 

The current SL makes no such concession. That incredible roof mechanism takes up far too much space to allow it, making the car only enjoyable by one or two people, further emphasising the cars status as an expensive indulgence. And this, to me, is the antithesis of what a Mercedes-Benz should be all about.

“Engineered like no other car” used to be almost a mantra for Mercedes, but today it plays second fiddle to flashiness, power, technology and image. Until fairly recently the company's excellent reputation was based on the simple fact that their products were very, very good. Today, they still offer a range of excellent machines, but that's now a secondary feature behind the sheen of their fashionabilty. Once upon a time you might choose a Mercedes because it was the best. Today, you buy one because you want it. The vast majority of Benzes are sold for the name; only this can explain the popularity of the CLC, a car hopelessly outclassed in a great many ways by other, less “prestigious” competitors.

Today, all cars, including Mercedes, are about headline figures and owning the zeitgeist whereas, a few decades ago, Mercedes used to write those headlines. They used to define what a quality vehicle should be. Today they are involved in a constant industry fight to prove superiority, or, in many cases, mere equality. If you own a 20 year old SL today you will be seen by the world as an enthusiast. I'll bet that if you own today's SL in 20 years time, you'll just be seen as driving an old car.