Orange line markings and equally glaring marker posts signal the edge to shallow valleys below on our way to Lake Mountain, almost 1,500 metres above sea level.
The long-bowed bonnet of the black vehicle my colleague and I sit in cuts the fog like a ship back to her harbor. The clincher, on this five-degree-cold autumn day, is that the roof is down and we’re curiously warm; massaging heated seats and an ‘Airscarf’ projecting from the headrest behind our necks keep us cosy.
The $229,000 (excluding on-roads) Mercedes-Benz SL 400 is the entry model to a line of vehicles that express they’ll have their martinis shaken, not stirred. And if that figure makes you gasp, best not consider the $312,000 SL 500 or the line topping $481,000 SL 65 AMG.
SL 400 replaces the outgoing SL 350 with a smaller but more powerful twin-turbocharged V6 engine (3498cc, 225kW at 6500rpm, 370Nm at 3500-5250rpm versus 2996cc, 245kW at 6000rpm and 480Nm at 1600-4000rpm).
In reality, the on-paper specs deliver the goods. The engine is sublime. Torque is delivered early in the rev range, and from 3500rpm the cylinders sing through to 6000rpm.
From the exterior, or when the roof is down, the engine has a rhythmic rort that increases with substance as the right foot is lowered further.
With the roof up, there’s nothing offensive in the SL 400’s rumble; a testament to the fit and finish of the Benz’s cabin and exterior sound exclusion.
As expected from a car worth almost a quarter of a million dollars, the cabin is beautifully finished, with no rattles or squeaks. Multi-contour leather seats with a multitude of adjustments provide comfort when driving throughout a day in the sun (or fog). For the driver, perfect position is easily found with electronic tilt- and-reach micro-adjustments.
Exterior aesthetics are equally pleasing. Whether sitting in traffic or cruising through some country hills, the SL receives a lot of attention. Given it’s not overly aggressive in appearance, it’s a compliment to the classic, timeless styling cues developed on the SL-line over decades.
However the SL 400 isn’t built purely for looks. There’s a lot of power available through that cracking V6 engine, and it translates to a fast 0-100km/h dash in 5.2sec (nearly a second faster than the previous model).
The electronically-controlled damping allows easy switching between ‘comfort’ and ‘sport’, with the latter providing a firmer dampening response, although it’s still comfortable enough to live with daily.
As we head skyward to Lake Mountain’s peak, the road begins to glass over with precipitation and it’s at this moment the car feels a little hairy. It’s not exactly an environment that any car excels in, and is probably a conditional polar opposite to what most owners will experience in their boulevard cruiser.
At lower speeds the car feels reasonably nimble and maneuverable considering its 1730kg heft, however as the speed increases the steering remains light but adds a sense of detached feedback when turning in. On the wet road, the vague steering is met with some unpredictable loss of traction.
Not engineered to deliver knife-edge handling, SL 400 promotes understeer when pushed hard in corners. However the aluminum chassis does feel reasonably tight, especially for such a big roadster.
The brakes do a good job of stopping that weight when cruising, and after a brief sprint up a section of twists they haven’t lost much feel, however the pedal response is a little too soft for sports inspired driving.
On our way back down towards civilisation, the highway straightens and the SL 400 feels at home, offering plenty of torque for straight line oomph and a very comfortable ride with the suspension set to ‘comfort’.
At a rather steep price, the SL 400 is not for everyone, and there are other more suitable options if what you want is to go fast. But you won’t get the SL badge, and you probably won’t get the certain level of prestige it commands; an old 280SL Pagoda owner pulling up for a gawk, or the Aventador driver stopping in Hoddle street mid-traffic for a talk (sorry, couldn’t hear you over that cracking V12!).
The Mercedes SL 400 is a good looking, very comfortable cruiser with a great engine. Chassis-wise, it’s a boulevard cruiser. Unfortunately the handling isn’t a notch higher (there are AMGs for that), but for those who can afford the SL 400, that’s what a Sunday car is for.
|Specs||2015 Mercedes-Benz SL400|
|Price||$229,000 (plus on-road costs)|
|Engine||2996cc twin-turbocharged V6|
|Power||245kW at 6000rpm|
|Torque||480Nm at 1600-4000rpm|
|Power to weight||7.06kg/kW|
|Tyres||255/40/18 front, 285/35/18 rear|
- Great engine
- Supreme comfort
- Top-level fit and finish
- Limited handling
- Light steering feel
- Exclusive pricing too much for most