Drop $150 k or so on a new sixth-generation Mercedes-Benz SL 550 and you will acquire the expected: a touring car of sleek looks and excessive power, guaranteed to provoke seethingly envious looks from the proletariat. You will also have to contend with a mystifying array of new buttons and controls. One of them, situated down by the stubby new automatic shifter, is labelled “ECO.”
I have no excuse other than stupidity as to why this did not occur to me immediately upon settling in behind the wheel of this enormous 1,800 kg two-seat convertible, powered by a twin-turbo 4.7 litre V-8 that generates 429 horsepower. But obviously “ECO” stands for “economy.” As it happens, the SL is set in ECO mode by default
It works like so. One moment, you are piloting the SL smoothly and nearly silently through traffic, coddled in an exquisitely comfortable leather seat, basking in the rays of the sun. Next, you come to a halt at a red light—and the engine cuts out. Lift your foot off the brake and it starts again.
In other words, in brief intervals during urban driving, your SL neither consumes nor emits anything at all. Yes, very briefly, its carbon footprint is zero. Then the light turns green and it is very much not.
Needless to say, the engineers at Mercedes did not build it this way because they were worried that a lot of extant SL customers were toying with a switch to, say, a Toyota Prius (from which the stop-start technology was poached). They simply wanted to lower the average fuel mileage and emissions ratings. And, given the circumstances, both are impressive.
But those circumstances are everything. There is something plain silly about buying a car of such smoothness and refinement, only to have it fall asleep and shudder back to life at every stop light. This is supposed to be a ne plus ultra luxury car—and luxury is not about conservation, but having what you don’t need.
In the case of the SL, that extends to something called AirScarf, which enables you to motor top down with your collar open in temperatures as low as 5°C—because when you push the button, fans and heated filaments get to work and blow hot air around your neck. It smelled slightly like a blow-dryer to me, but I’m sure the great dancer Isadora Duncan (strangled by her trailing scarf when it caught in the wheel of her lover’s Amilcar) would have gone for it in retrospect.
The car is a bundle of such wizardry, a rolling reminder that German automotive engineers are the best in the world—and also that they may not like talking to each other much. Even as one team was giving the car a much needed diet in the form of lightweight aluminium construction, others were adding the weight back with extra length, width, vibrating and vented seats, you name it. It feels a little conflicted. But the SL is still a lovely, fast way to get around.
2013 Coupes worth losing a scarf over