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Mercedes-Benz SL350 review - School cat

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The SL350 got me into a fair amount of trouble, you know. Friends called me after my school reunion and said, “My child’s asking my husband why we can’t have a cool Transformer car like Pablo’s. You’re such a rascal!” I have to say that I received all this with a smile on my face, partly because it was all said in jest, but mainly because I appeared to have achieved my objective — rock up to the reunion in the SL, create a bit of a stir, have a party and leave in a cloud of tyre smoke. This kind of out-there behaviour is highly unusual for me, I hasten to add — in any large gathering, you’ll usually find me in a quiet corner, nursing a beverage and minding my own business. This, however, is the kind of car that makes even a wallflower like me want to preen a bit.

The SL is one of the truly iconic cars and one that has a special resonance at Business Standard Motoring — Sameer Kumar and Param flogged the previous generation SL500 to within an inch of its life, making for a memorable story, and Srini put the SL63 AMG alongside the fabulous 300SL roadster for his ‘retirement’ piece. When I began making plans to attend the 50th anniversary celebrations of my beloved alma mater, the Blue Mountains School in Ooty, I decided that I wanted to drive up, and not just in any old car — the steed had to befit the occasion, and the SL immediately put its hand up. Sure, the SL550 or an AMG would have been the icing on the cake, but this car is certainly no shrinking violet.

 

It created an instant sensation wherever I drove it, and why not? The current generation car, introduced in 2008, is a looker, especially when viewed head-on and from the front three-quarters — look closely and you’ll see cues from the original 300 SL, in its large grille and the 3-pointed star placed very prominently in the middle of it. The twin ‘power domes’ on the bonnet also hark back to the 300SL (Sport Leicht, or Sport Lightweight), and although I personally think they’re a little overdone, they were a hit with the general public.

For a car that’s almost four years old, the SL has aged remarkably well — the muscular, aggressive styling, with its sharp creases, swept-back headlamps and above mentioned grille, looks absolutely contemporary, and it’s only the rear end where there’s a curious drop-off in musculature, with things getting a little too softly rounded, that one can nitpick about. Try telling that to my pals at school, though — they were floored down to the last man, woman and child, especially when I dropped the folding hard top (the ‘Transformer’ tag appeared here, unsurprisingly).

Quote unquote: “Can I also drive?” — Ethan Chen, age 4, son of Awanti, batch of ’95

The SL’s cabin is straight out of the Mercedes-Benz template — classy, uncluttered and very well built. If you’ve just stepped out of, say, a Porsche 911 or even the new SLK — well, I’d like your bank balance. Jokes aside, the cabin isn’t quite as up-market as the cars I’ve mentioned, but there’s really no room for complaint (except for the slightly fiddly entertainment system, using older COMAND controls) —everyone raved about the seats (“beautifully crafted and very supportive”) with a multitude of adjustment options, the Start/Stop button on top of the gear selector went down a treat (“awesome, just awesome!”), the Harman Kardon stereo system is excellent and there’s plenty of leg and head room for two fully-grown adults.

 

The rear ‘seats’ are strictly for pet hamsters and/or circus midgets, though; however, they’ll fit a couple of extra bags in addition to the two large pieces of soft luggage that the boot holds. They also come in very handy when you have to give joyrides to hyperactive 3- to 5-year-olds, I can tell you. (Tip: have another adult in the passenger seat at all times, to prevent said 3- to 5-year-olds jumping out of the car in sheer excitement). Speaking of safety measures, the SL is crammed with them — ABS, ESP, traction control, a full complement of airbags and a pop-up rollbar in case of a rollover.

Quote unquote: “Some day, some day…” — Ketul Patel, batch of ’93

This may only be the ‘basic’ SL, but I certainly wouldn’t throw it out of bed, even though more power is never enough. The familiar 3.5-litre V6 puts out a healthy (if somewhat quiet) 311 bhp@6,500 rpm and an equally respectable 36.7 kgm@4,900 rpm, figures that are more than sufficient for most human beings. Mated to a 7-speed 7G-TRONIC transmission, the engine makes the SL350 a car that is equally comfortable being a boulevard cruiser and a B-road hustler.

On the great hill road leading up to Ooty, with the top down and in Sport mode, I gave the car a bit of a thrashing, and it was equal to the task, downshifting quickly enough for corners and holding revs at the 7,000 rpm redline. Above 5,000 rpm, the engine develops a satisfying snarl, best experienced with the top down; below 4,000 revs, it’s very civilised-sounding indeed, and could have used a little more ‘nasty’ in its soundtrack. It’s also a little lacking in the initial get-up-and-go side of things, its hefty 1825 kg kerb weight putting it at a disadvantage here.

On the highway, in Comfort mode, the SL is a wonderful tool — indeed, it’s almost as much of a grand tourer as it is a roadster. It holds high triple-digit speeds effortlessly and covers long distances almost before you realise it. The gearbox isn’t the most responsive one around, especially in Comfort mode, and though it becomes a lot better in Sport mode, it still lacks the razor-sharp responses of, say, Porsche’s PDK unit. Even with enthusiastic driving, the SL returns 6.5 kmpl, which gives you a range of just over 500 km with its 80-litre tank — that’s about as ‘practical’ as this car gets.

Quote unquote: “Aaaiieeee! This is too fast! Stop, stop!” — Name withheld, batch of ’86

 

“Does this car have Airmatic suspension?” “What kind of steering setup does it have?” “What’s the ground clearance like?” Sound like reasonable questions, right? They were, except that they were being asked by a group of kids between the ages of 10 and 12; this was certainly far removed from when I was growing up — I would have said something like “Is it an Ambassador or what?” Nevertheless, the answers I gave to those kids were “No, there’s no Airmatic.” “It’s a speed-sensitive rack and pinion steering”. And, “Pretty impressive for a sportscar”. This SL, by nature, is more a fast cruiser than a hardcore sportscar — the more powerful versions are doubtless harder-edged, but the SL350 strikes a nice balance between performance and comfort.

With coil springs and stabilisers front and rear, power transferred to the rear wheels and a steering wheel that feels great in the hands, the SL is a car that is just on the right side of ‘effortless to drive’. Pushed hard, you get the feeling that it’s got your back, no matter what — that’s a pretty reassuring feeling, and the Active Body Control contributes no end to it. It dives into and out of corners with composure, without quite being a hooligan; the steering feel is nicely balanced as well, with little effort required to pilot the car at slow speeds and a satisfying amount of feedback when driven hard. The ride quality is excellent for such a low slung car and it has enough ground clearance to survive most potholes and speed-breakers.

Quote unquote: “Sir, can I have your autograph?” — A current student, age 13

I signed seven autographs in all for the kids, by the way, and none of them had anything to do with my magnetic personality — it was all down to the car. The SL350 is an enticing prospect — it looks great, is plenty fast, offers good ride quality, is driveable on an everyday basis and is relatively ‘frugal’ for a sportscar. There are other cars out there offering much sharper handling and face-whitening performance, but the SL ticks so many boxes that it’s hard not to recommend it.

Quote unquote: “I plan to spike your drink tonight so that I can steal your car” — Zameer Vahanvaty, batch of ’90.