Despite always being clad in parkas and gloves, the people of Geneva love convertibles. During the little-over-48-hours that I was there in March, roughly 60 per cent of the cars I saw were convertibles and one hundred per cent of them had their roof still on. ‘Maybe the weather will get even better in a few weeks’, I told myself. The Indian guy I bumped into at the bar drove a Smart 2-seater with rather cool illustrations of Lord Shiva all over the car, in vinyl. He was 52, owned one of the oldest Indian restaurants in Geneva, would wait tables there when he was 19 and was quite enthusiastic about cars. He drove a Toyota which he sold for a pittance before he bought the Smart (by no means an enthusiast’s car, but it at least brought his cool quotient up by a mile), a good decision, since driving a Toyota in Geneva is like going to a nightclub in Bangkok for a bowl of stir-fried vegetables. And a bowl of water.
The Mercedes-Benz SL, in that backdrop, wouldn’t be considered awfully glamorous but it is by no means dull and lifeless. The SL tag has travelled from iconic to unbeatable and currently hangs around slightly overshadowed by everything with a V12 motor and at least one thousand horsepower. Still, the SL is aspirational, not the least bit thanks to its automotive equivalent of an ‘item number’ in the brilliant movie Dil Chahta Hai. Pass by a happy family with the roof tucked away into the boot and they’ll love you and want you to marry their most eligible daughter. Or at least that’s what I was hoping for when I put on a bit of a show for that Parsi family in a blue GL 350 on the Mumbai-Pune Expressway. The SL, with its top down, is the equivalent of Chitrangada Singh with hers. All right, she’s a bit old as compared to her contemporaries, but she’s got all the right bits, so you can’t help but lust after her. And I’m not just talking about the car, okay?
The new generation SL has been unveiled to the world recently and the one you see here is pretty much breathing its last in the country. Technically, the SL you see here is about 11 years old, although Mercedes-Benz has kept itself busy by updating it on a few occasions. Unfortunately, the SL feels dated and old-school when compared to the car on the (figuratively speaking) right – the BMW 640d. I have had the good fortune to pilot a handful of Beemers so far and while they’ve been utterly enjoyable, my lust for Mercedes-Benz cars has remained unaffected. I’ve been frowned at for almost blindly favouring the quite amazing cars from Stuttgart, but let me make this clear – this time round, it’s me struggling to come up with a brilliant enough justification to support the cause of the Mercedes-Benz.
Let’s face it, the BMW looks incredible. While the SL is old-school beautiful, the 640d is Teutonic, agile and has presence. The SL with its top down overshadows everything around it, but the 6 also comes with a foldaway roof (soft-top, however) on the bonkers 650i variant. If it were that car that were to compete against the SL, I would have begun the story with ‘BMW wins...’ rather than with a sneak-peak into the life of a middle-aged, married Indian man with an Algerian girlfriend in Geneva. However, here’s the question I’ll try and answer – two-seater, petrol engined hard-top convertible sports car or four-seater, diesel engined grand tourer coupe? Neither is a hardcore performance car by today’s standards, but if you were in the market for a fast, holiday car with bucketloads of appeal, you shouldn’t be looking much away from these two.
Let’s begin with the interiors. The SL, the moment you settle in, feels very dated. There are elements that look like they belong to 1999 and there are some more elements (like the aluminium effect garnish on the centre console) that look like they belong to a boat. From 1999. There are no plush, candy-floss controls and everything is a serious, hard-nosed grey. It’s functional, but whether it is appropriate on a Rs 1 crore car is highly questionable.
The Beemer, on the other hand, is at the other extreme of things. Layers, textures, sophisticated-everything – it is miles ahead! Be it the head-up display – great help when you’re doing 246 kph – or the rather excellent Bang & Olufsen audio unit, the Beemer is absolutely well-appointed and for this kind of money, feels completely value-for-money. Electronically adjustable seats that can be heated or cooled as per your wish (also present in the SL), classy lighting accents and generous storage compartments on the centre console make the Beemer as practical as any similarly priced luxury sedan. The rear seat is a comfortable place to be in, provided none of the four occupants is above 5’8”. The SL’s rear seat, on the other hand... oh shoot!... there is no rear seat. Just a couple of storage bins which can accommodate a glove each and some mints. Oh, and the Beemer’s boot is massive, while the SL’s with the top down clearly disappoints. Alright, let’s go driving now.
At 220 kph, the SL’s acoustics are in celebration mode. It isn’t as much about loudness as it is about the brilliance of the note. And compared to the Beemer, which is all tyre and wind noise, the SL clearly delights on the soundtrack front. Then again, not to lose focus, is that what you want from a car of this kind? If you do, and if you’ve got no friends (difficult, when you’ve a car that looks so timelessly beautiful), the SL is your best bet. If fast motoring with the B&O playing MC sounds like your idea of fun, the 640d is the car to buy. Buying decisions can go take a walk – these cars are fast, fun to drive and if you’re even mildly enthusiastic about automobiles, they will do funny things to your insides.
From standstill, the BMW is quicker to the tonne by, erm, over a second. That’s 6.2 secs versus a very 1999 7.5 secs. The latter isn’t slow by itself, but does seem strongly so in comparison to the Beemer. Gearshifts on the 640d are faster and overall, the Beemer feels more supple than the Mercedes. Where the 640d really triumphs is in its ability to be energetic even lower down the revs. One moment you’re cruising at under 2000 rpm, the other, blasting past unsuspecting road users at speeds you would get jailed for in a country with stricter speeding laws. The difference between the two is quite simple, really. The Mercedes is happy playing hotshot celebrity at 200 kph, while the BMW will do 250 kph all day and not move a facial muscle. The Dynamic Driving Control settings on the Beemer are well defined and you can feel the engine, gearbox and steering tighten up as you push the throttle pedal closer to the carpeting. The Mercedes feels a generation behind, though it is by no means sluggish.
It’s the same story on the handling front too. The BMW is effortless, immediate and yet not electronically alienated from the road. It changes character from ‘sporty’ to ‘relaxed cruiser’ with ease and thanks to the optional Adaptive Drive/Dynamic Damping Control, you can go from one extreme of ride quality to the other. However, the more agreeable extreme is still a bit harsh as compared to the SL. The Beemer runs higher profile tyres than the SL (225/55 R17 as compared to the SL’s 255/45 R17s) but still allows more road surface irregularities through to the seats. That and the Beemer’s lesser ground clearance means one has to be very cautious over bad roads, especially when on full load. The Mercedes’ steering is rather non-communicative and though it does the job perfectly well, is a bit stiff on the steering wheel end of things. The ride quality on the SL is a bit friendlier, though, and its higher ground clearance is less of a bother on broken tarmac.
If I were to get purely objective, here’s what I’d say: The Mercedes has the larger engine (3498cc V6 vs 2993cc straight-six), is heavier (1,825 kg vs the Beemer’s 1,790 kg), is more powerful (315 bhp vs 313 bhp), less torquey since it’s a petrol (36.7 kgm vs 64.2 kgm), not as quick and drinks the more expensive variety of fuel. Why am I even trying to fight? The BMW is contemporary, even futuristic, and is very practical and fuel efficient while at it. Until the new SL arrives in India, the BMW is pretty much in a field of one. It is absolutely VFM, looks great and is a much, much better car. However, and this is personal, the Mercedes-Benz SL, with its top down, did something at 220 kph that the BMW 640d couldn’t even at 246 kph. It made me smile to the point that, well...I’ll tell you another time.