Friday, 22 June 2012

First Impressions:- Mercedes W231 SL

I've not driven one of these yet. My heart wants; nay, prays it to be a revelation; if any of the SLS's spirit has trickled down to the new SL then it should be a great ride. I sincerely, desperately hope it is, because when I saw the transporter-lorry full of these turning up, my excitement lasted for little more than the blink of an eye. As soon as I had seen it, the anticipation was gone. The new SL has landed, and it's well; alright.

How can this car possibly represent nine years of product development?

 OK, it probably doesn't help that the car in the photos is a entry-ish level machine, and in one of the less dramatic hues they come in. But there's little hiding the lack of showroom drama the W231 holds in its contours. Before we look at the details, lets see an official MB publicity shot.

It's perfectly nice. It looks expensive. It looks like a big, expensive Mercedes; which is what it is. It looks powerful, probably fast. It looks heavy. Looks like it likes going on long, fast drives. Styling-wise, though, it does nothing clever. And that's something of a pity. It doesnt even have the broad, muscular shoulders of its little brother, the SLK.

The details, then. The taillamps; well, they're very similar to the ones on the previous generation, and I didn't like those much. The way they droop down to the centreline of the car is a bit, well, Lazy. Compared to the horizontal rear lights of the W172 SLK, for example, they look almost thoughtless.

The headlamps follow the current squared-off Mercedes trend, and are full of features and technology, including LED waveguides and lots of swirly identification points. But there's no great integration with the rest of the car. It's like the headlamps were developed separately for millions of Euros, and then just attached to whichever car Mercedes were designing at the time. They're nice; but not artistic.

Speaking of integration, or lack of it; the grille and its enormous three-pointed star. Proudly displayed as per Benz tradition, but again, no real effort at integration. The front lower air-dam and bumper mouldings don't flow into the grille, nor vice versa; they just sit there like competing items in a shopping list.

The air extractor vents on the top of the bonnet; they carry shades of the SLS and the SLR about them, but are rather too heavily embellished with chrome in a desperate fit of "I'm here!". They'd be far better in plain black or body colour. They don't add anything to the design. Why not just be honest and keep them as understated, functional items? It seems like another nod in the direction of the box-ticking school of design. No doubt the upcoming AMG versions will also have extra kilos of glued-on ephemera to distinguish them.

As does the new SLs signature feature; this is probably going to be my most controversial snipe at the new car, and will make sure that my name is struck from the M-B Christmas card list. The air-extractor gills ahead of the doors; no doubt an homage to the original and iconic 300SL of the 50s. I guess they have to be there; Mercedes probably had to feature them for reasons of historical continuity and common sense. But there's something about them that doesn't convince me.

It's not the fact that they're not legitimately necessary for engine cooling or aspiration reasons, it's not the fact that they're obviously only there for style and image reasons. No, my reason to question them might be influenced by the colour of the photo car or, even, by the slightly off mood I was in earlier. But today; for whatever reason, they didn't half remind me of that other legendary Benz creation, the Chrysler Crossfire....

The derivitive-ness of that car is echoed in the interior, which is nice enough and built from pleasant materials. But, again, it isn't very special. Whole chunks of the switchgear look to be common with lesser Mercs; the controls for the COMAND navigation system, for example. The air vents, too, seem to be common to the Merc SLK and the latest generation B-class.

But my biggest problem with the new SL is as follows: Being as it eschewed the temptation to be an interesting, forward thinking step into the unknown; being that it has done absolutely nothing to reinvent itself or further its appeal to a new audience, and being that the admission charge is north of seventy grand  for an entry level machine; I, personally, would take the SLK instead; it looks similar (but better from the rear three quarters, it costs less than two thirds as much, and it does virtually everything the SL does without making you look like a premier league footballer.

Almost as annoying when you think about the SL is that you know exactly which people are likely to buy it. This isn't a car that will be bought by a car enthusiast; rather an image enthusiast. It'll be a second car for somebody who, likely, already has a Mercedes GL or a Porsche Cayenne for family duties; or it'll be bought as a retirement treat for some silver-haired ex-investor. I can imagine it being particularly popular in Florida. Go back up to the MB press photo above and check the driver out. Hardly young Jack McThrusting, is he?

I stand to be corrected on all this; the SL could turn out to be absolutely masterful. But that said; it's massively expensive and has 125 years of Mercedes heritage behind it, so it ought to be nearly flawless.

I do apologise for this, well, it's turned into a rant. But it annoys me when a car company has a chance to create something really special and turns it down. It's highly unlikely that the SL will be a bad car. It'll probably be terrific. But, looking as it does, it can never be a magical one. It can't possibly advance the state of the art. It will not be a pivotal step in the development of the car. It's merely another product for wealthy status-hounds to impress each other with.

Sorry, Mercedes.

Please, please show me I'm wrong.