From the April 1993 issue of Car and Driver.
Her Majesty the Queen, Elizabeth II, is not revered for her sense of fashion, nor for her immeasurable wealth, nor even for her prowess at lawn bowling. Her subjects revere her for the impeccable breeding and heritage that she and the centuries-old British Crown represent (or at least once did). Where manners, refinement, and class are concerned—not to mention sensible shoes—the queen is the world’s leader.
Similarly, Mercedes-Benz’s new 600SL will not be appreciated for flashy styling, a huge price tag, or supercar performance, but rather for the understated and overengineered way in which these qualities are integrated. In terms of class and refinement, the 600SL is also a world leader.
Mercedes has taken the 500SL, a superlative two-place grand-touring convertible we likened to a modern-day Duesenberg SJ in our December 1989 road test, and infused it with smoothness, swiftness, quietness—or, in a word, “V-12ness.” SLs have always been lavishly expensive, and the 600 is no exception. Simply put, anyone reading this is only slightly less likely to ascend to the British throne than to own this car. Mercedes say nine hundred rich Americans will have the opportunity to write on the second line of a check, in tiny letters: One hundred thirty-two thousand, one hundred-ninety dollars and no cents.
That sum will, of course, include an integrated cellular telephone, a six-disc CD changer, Adaptive Damping Control, and heated seats, all of which cost extra on a 500SL. Only the lumbar-adjustable seats and choice of color remain as options.
These people will have The Best. More expensive Rolls, Bentley, and Aston Martin convertibles perhaps offer superior status in some circles, but vastly inferior engineering comes with them.
This Mercedes isn’t a conspicuous consumer’s car. There’s a 600SL badge on the trunk, two small V-12 emblems on the front fenders, and a longer front bumper—that’s all that distinguishes this car from a 300SL, which will impress the proletariat equally well for 68 cents on the dollar.
Inside, the V-12 SL is lavished with extra walnut veneer. Walnut roll-top covers conceal the console-mounted ashtray and cassette-tape holders, and the leather-topped shifter has a wood-covered shank. Mercedes’ singular ability to cover such complex surfaces with genuine wood is remarkable.
Inside and out, this is one of the most elegant and beautiful shapes on the road. Only a bare minimum of details adorn its long majestic hood and a short deck—the classic “cab-back” shape. The car is three years old, but its style will remain contemporary for years. Its snug-fitting aluminum top and incredibly complicated fully automatic soft top are benchmarks for the convertible industry. Still, the real “value” lies just beneath that long hood.
In moving Mercedes’ top-drawer 48-valve 6.0-liter V-12 from the S-class into the SL’s smaller quarters, revisions were made to the oil sump, the manifolding, the air filter, and the accessory drive. Fortunately, every bit of its 389 horsepower and 420 pound-feet of torque survived the move. To secure crashworthiness with the larger engine, the front bumper is extended subtly for two inches of additional crush space.
So what is it like to drive? Special. Like a nuclear-powered hovercraft. Like the Concorde, or the bullet train. Phenomenal. To talk numbers is to bourgeoisify the experience. Suffice to say that the Mercedes-Benz 600SL is quicker than a Ferrari 348tb, a BMW M5, and many other exotic sports and GT cars.
With an SL, it’s not the speed, but how well the speed is achieved that counts. Several editors here were shocked to hear the spectacular performance numbers, because the car is so smooth and quiet that it doesn’t feel like an ultra-high-performance car.
Push the accelerator through its long, linear travel to the floor, and without the screech of wheelspin you’re off. In the time it takes to speed-dial your broker, you’ll be over most speed limits. Before the answering machine picks up—and you’ll be able to hear it fine, as there is no multivalve banshee howl to drown it out—you’ll be nearing double the limits. By the time you’ve finished recording your sell-IBM order, if you’ve left your foot planted, the speedometer needle will have come gently to rest at its governed 155-mph limit. Your heart rate will not have risen appreciably and your palms will not be sweating, because without the aerodynamic lift or skitteriness that afflicts lesser 150-plus-mph cars at speed, the 600SL remains firmly planted on the road, the steering wheel resting calmly in your hands.
An amazingly rigid body and two and a quarter tons of road-hugging weight help provide the smoothest, most supple ride of any 99-inch-wheelbase convertible extant. However, asking those 4524 pounds to change direction quickly makes for bad physics. Running a gymkhana in the 600SL would be like asking Her Majesty to run a boot-camp obstacle course. Gradual high-speed corners are navigated with aplomb, however, and the big brakes are well up to the task of shedding speed prior to entering the tightest corners. The 600SL has the S-class computer-controlled brake system, which reduces rear brake pressure during cornering to prolong limit-braking prior to ABS intervention.
The 315-horsepower 500SL is arguably the better car for the pure driving enthusiast. At the track, it is roughly a second slower to 60 mph, but it tips the scales 300 pounds lighter, which makes it feel much more willing to hustle down twisty mountain roads. The V-8 inherently emits a less smooth, more visceral and sporty-sounding exhaust note, which adds to the driving fun and further highlights the different mission of the “cheaper” $107,660 SL.
Is the 600SL a perfect car with no room for improvement? Is the queen infallible? Heavens no. The cockpit ergonomics remain Germanically unintuitive, requiring a thorough study of the owner’s manual to completely comprehend; in the winter, the climate-control system blows cold air with gusto until the heater core warms up (most systems today are intelligent enough to wait). Part-throttle upshifts are rather abrupt, some buttons and switches require very high effort, and the seat backrests are too flat and hard.
Clearly, there can be no reasonable rationalization for owning a car like this. But it’s The Best, and being rich means never having to rationalize. There is only one queen of England, and there is only one 600SL. God save the queen and the little red car.
The 500SL provides every automotive indulgence known to man, including the world’s most effortless convertible top. What makes the 600SL $24,000 better? How about effortless speed? The 500 is fast, but the 600 is faster and it never breathes hard. The V-12 provides sharp getaways from rest without any jerky first-gear kickdowns. And on the freeway, a gentle squeeze of the right pedal provides more pull than most cars offer when you try to punch their accelerators through the floor. I’m not sure it’s worth 24 grand, but it sure is nice. —Csaba Csere
I have some difficulty bringing my emotional response to the 600SL in line with my objective realizations. I mean, the SL hardly needs a six-liter V-12 engine just to move two people, and the marginal performance increases over the 500SL can’t justify the big engine or the higher price of this extravagant transplant. But it only takes a day in this splendid vehicle to smash those sensible arguments to dust. The smoothness, solidity, power, and mechanical harmony of it is gloriously intoxicating. Despite the price, I bet Mercedes moves them all. —Barry Winfield
I keep thinking what a sacrifice Barry Bonds will have to make to pay for his 600SL. He is going to have to play three whole baseball games! It’s going to cost him six or seven hours and maybe sixteen at-bats! But hey, on the short list of cars to kill for, I’d get in the ring with Mike Tyson for this one. (Did I say cars to kill for, or cars to be killed for?) I gotta fill up this space, cause describing this car is a one-word exercise: perfection. Okay, if you want a niggle, for 132 grand the shelf behind the seats should be lined in something other than cotton carpet. Like, how about gold fleece? —Steve Spence
1993 Mercedes-Benz 600SL
Vehicle Type: front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, 2-passenger, 2-door convertible
Base/As Tested: $132,190/$132,190
DOHC 48-valve 6.0-liter V-12, aluminum block and heads, port fuel injection
Displacement: 365 in3, 5987 cm3
Power: 389 hp @ 5200 rpm
Torque: 420 lb-ft @ 3800 rpm
Suspension, F/R: struts/multilink
Brakes, F/R: 11.8-in vented disc/10.9-in disc
Tires: Michelin MXM
Wheelbase: 99.0 in
Length: 178.0 in
Width: 71.3 in
Height: 51.3 in
Passenger Volume: 50 ft3
Cargo Volume: 8 ft3
Curb Weight: 4524 lb
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 5.5 sec
100 mph: 13.6 sec
1/4-Mile: 14.1 sec @ 102 mph
130 mph: 25.2 sec
150 mph: 38.8 mph
Rolling Start, 5–60 mph: 5.8 sec
Top Gear, 30–50 mph: 3.2 sec
Top Gear, 50–70 mph: 3.5 sec
Top Speed (gov ltd): 155 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 177 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft Skidpad: 0.83 g
C/D FUEL ECONOMY
Observed: 16 mpg
EPA FUEL ECONOMY
City/Highway: 13/18 mpg
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