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Mercedes Benz SL600 Review – Grand Touring in the 12 Cylinder R129 SL

By   /  January 10, 2013  /  No Comments

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Mercedes R129 Mercedes SL600, SL600 V12

Given a new SL600 to test drive for two weeks, we thought (for 1/2 a second) about declining on the premise that our reader poll shows some preference for pre-’75 models. Another poll response sprang to mind that “great cars are the attraction, regardless when they were built, and M-B is still building them.” Anyone trying to phone our office during the middle weeks in September has an inkling what we did. We were “outta there” for 3,700 miles!

With development costs multiplying with each decade, the ability to bring low production products to market, at any price, has nearly disappeared. It is only by sharing body components with 500s & 320s (plus 420 & 300 in Europe) that 600s exist at all. While all perfectly maintained M-Bs are collectible, twenty or thirty years from now collectors will exercise their usual preference for top- of-the-line models with all authorized options. Only one 600 is built for every seven SLs with other power plants.

So what’s this future Milestone car like to live with? How does it compare to the SL500 & SL300 & other makes? Is it faster? Is it nose heavy? “Our” brilliant emerald 600 arrived with 2,985 miles. SEARS Imports, of Wayzata, did its 1st inspection & declared it “broken in”. M-B of North America maintains a press pool of selected models for automotive journalists and auto shows, so you might see this same car in Automobile or Autoweek before it is sold. North Central PR Mgr. Chuck Johnson, said that cars assigned to his department are usually passed on to interested M-B dealers before they reach 10,000 miles.

For a first day’s jaunt we decided to turn south out of Minneapolis and take in a show at Branson, Missouri. Leaving Minneapolis after a leisurely breakfast, we squeezed off 680 miles in 9.3 hours, plus pit stops in Boondocks, Iowa, and Horton, Missouri. Average speed: 77 M.P.H. Obviously we found little wrong with the way the car moves. Our list of complaints this first day was scant. For our height (6′), the sun visor turned down too low. Eventually we found a seat adjustment that put our head in the right place.

As might be expected the car’s most distinctive characteristic is its level of refinement. When the new 500SL was released (1990 model) we did a comparison test with SLs of three previous decades. We concluded that on a scale of 1 to 10 for 15 criteria, each decade of SLs has became more evenly excellent. The 500SL in our test did not have adaptive dampening suspension (ADS) and that was the only area in which it fell below a 9 or better (average of four testers scores was 8.9). The most apparent differences in the SL600 are its V12 & standard ADS. This car refused to be “flustered” regardless how it was driven. The quietness of the engine & body, composure of the suspension, and low R.P.M. torque give a peace of mind even to proverbial back-seat-drivers. The best testimony to the engine’s refinement was realizing that the only way I could determine if I was actually in high gear was a) glancing down at the tachometer, or b) looking at the shift lever. The sound of the engine is so smooth and mellow, that it does not reveal the 1,000 rpm difference.

Driving to Branson wasn’t actually a whim. We met four Gullwing Group members coming in from the East & Canada, and continued with them to the 26th annual gathering of 300SL owners in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

With Branson on the Arkansas border, our group entourage began with a quaint 150 mile route through the Ozarks, stopping in an amazingly preserved 1800s town called Eureka Springs (highly recommended). It has the winding mountainous streets of a Swiss village, with a strong vein of New Orleans & Victorian architecture. At the top of the town we found lunch in the 125 year old Crescent Hotel. Loved it. During this morning stretch of relaxed 35 to 65 M.P.H. driving, the 600 turned in 231/2 M.P.G. Incredible for a 390hp, 6 liter, V12. Credit the automatic engine retardation (cams and electronics) on deceleration. Branson’s street system is so poorly designed that we got our worst M.P.G. plodding through its NYC-type traffic: 151/2 M.P.G. Overall for 3,700 miles: 17.9 M.P.G. Do you know of any 6+ liter, gasoline powered car that can beat these numbers?

Putting the top down lowered mileage 1/2 gallon. We expected a greater difference. With top down & side windows & rear wind-screen installed, the A/C could pull temp. down. This kept us comfortable until outside temperature grew to low 90 degrees. The rear screen is a great innovation; talking is much easier, and air turbulence itself is cut by 70%. It attaches to the roll-bar, but goes up or down separately, & can be stored in the trunk. [450/380/500/560SL owners now also can enjoy these rear windscreens, available through any M-B parts specialists.] Back out on the road, we all made wonderful time across Oklahoma & New Mexico to rendezvous with twelve more 300SLs at Albuquerque. Two other groups drove in from the west coast. Some came across Arizona, while others came through Colorado & stayed in Durango. Everyone arrived safely in Santa Fe, where 4 days of camaraderie commenced. A 220 mile rally on Friday lead us to pueblo ruins and other unique New Mexico sights/sites. Longest distance driven in a 300SL was by Bill Martin of Toronto. Over 150 people attended the black tie optional banquet Saturday evening. The year’s co-chairpersons, Bob & Gayle Sirna of Michigan, and their assistants make the event a great success!

Before pointing back toward Minnesota we donned hiking boots for an afternoon near Red River, NM. Once on the highway, average speeds were again so excellent that we decided to continue up to Mount Rushmore, before turning east! The route took us right through Colorado Springs, so we stopped long enough for a tour of MBCA’s National Headquarters & spent a little money in the Club Store. Everyone was very cordial. Up in western Nebraska, on Hwy. 385, we stopped at “CARHENGE”, created by Jim Reindeaus and constructed on the family’s farm during a 1987 reunion. We hadn’t stopped in the Black Hills or Badlands for 40 years. They exceeded all our expectations. We’ll be back. It is every bit as historic & colorful as the “in” addresses we visited earlier on this trip. Find a few days in your life to browse in southwestern South Dakota. The owners of nearby Wall Drug Store (Wall, SD.) display the finest collection of privately owned western art we’ve every seen. Five large rooms of mostly oils, portray every aspect of early western life. It is a serious treasure!

Secrets of High Speed Driving: Our entire 3,700 mile loop averaged 76.75 M.P.H. without a single ticket. As odd as it sounds, we were also among the safest travelers on the highway. Our strategy endeared us to one of the SL600’s key features… silent high speed acceleration. Most accidents happen near intersections, in town or country. Slower drivers completely overlook or misjudge faster cars, while the faster driver takes his presence too much for granted. This leads to three principles we follow on the road: 1) staying smooth and predictable around other cars, 2) assume other drivers are not predictable and “about to” do something wrong, and 3) be wary of all junctions, from simple street corners & driveways to expressway entries & exits. This boils down to passing other cars (those going in either direction) and negotiating all junctions at very near posted speed limits. When the coast is clear, smooth, significant gains of M.P.H. will pull average speed up 5 or 10 M.P.H. fairly quickly. In lesser cars, acceleration generates tiresome wind & engine noise, & keeps passengers awake. Not so in the 600. The V12 has so much torque that major speed changes don’t require the intrusion of downshifting. At the slightest sign of other cars or junctions (or radar) we begin coasting, while further evaluating the scene. The engine immediately leans out to over 30 M.P.G. Only a few times in 2 weeks did we find a need to manually downshift the automatic & consciously retune. Once I recall was to overtake a plodding truck at a sadistically short passing zone.

Our complaint list gained a few entries, but on balance they don’t deserve mention. If you are in a position to have the best, and you love cars, you shouldn’t go through life without owning at least one of these Mercedes V12s. You shouldn’t.

By John Olson, editor and publisher of the SL Market Letter

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