The Accidental SL550 Test Drive

6 minute read

Is there a better way to spend a sunny California day than to drive a 911 Carrera S up to wine country? Probably not. But there are better ways to spend an evening than driving back into the city after a day of wine tasting, so the smart thing to do is stay overnight.

For this adventure we decided to stay at Solage in Calistoga. While it’s rather expensive, even the Best Western in Napa can run into the $300 per night range - so comparatively in this strange world of $200 bottles of wine, it’s not outrageous. As it turns out, the hotel is a complete steal. Factored into the price of a night’s stay should be the use of of a fleet of Mercedes Benz’s that are available free to guests. Any of these cars would typically go for hundreds per day from a rental car company. As promised, parked out front of the hotel was a GL450, a GLA250, and two E550 Convertibles.

At first, I wasn’t interested in taking any of these cars for a drive, since I had a 911 at my disposal. But the hotel staff was very insistent about reminding me they had these fantastic cars available. Since I was paying quite a lot for the room, I figured I’d give it a shot and went into the office to fill out the required paperwork promising that I had insurance, and that I would eventually return with the car. Without asking me which car I preferred, the man behind the desk grabbed the GLA250 key. I’m not one to turn down the free use of someone else’s car - but it was gorgeous day, so I asked for one of the convertibles instead (meaning the E550s, but I didn’t say “E550” though, thankfully). He retrieved another key and took me outside, right past all of these cars to the back of the parking lot, where sat an SL550. He pointed it out and said “this was the car you wanted right?”. My jaw wanted to drop but I held it together and said “oh yes, of course.” And so begins the story of how my 911 sat in the parking lot while I spent the evening in a younger, topless model.

This wasn’t my first time in a Mercedes convertible. Shortly after moving to California in 2007 I bought an SLK32 AMG. That was a great car, though I did manage to get a wicked sunburn with the top down one day. Eventually I wanted something with a bit of cargo space and a couple extra seats. Furthermore, the transmission on the SLK32 AMG wasn’t quite fast enough for my liking and that really limited the experience of an otherwise fun ride. Every time I drove it I wished it was a manual. But I did remember how nice it was to drive a rather overpowered Mercedes. So I was eager to spend more time behind the wheel of a forced induction Benz with a much newer transmission.

Not every car is an emotional experience. When you get into a Nissan Sentra (sorry Nissan) you don’t feel much of anything. This car made me feel something immediately. The cabin is meticulously crafted. The warm glow of the dull orange light, immediately luxurious. Someone paid attention to details such as the levels of the lighting and how it will feel at night. Not so bright on your eyes as to be painful once they’ve adjusted to the night. Although the brightness of the main screen was somewhat out of proportion to the rest of the well crafted cabin. I’m sure there’s a way to adjust it, I just didn’t find it. I was more interested in driving than fiddling with instruments, especially since this car has a twin turbo V8.

Apart from the wood trim, this interior is gorgeous

People spend too much time writing about zero to sixty times. To me, the only thing that matters is whether or not the engine can push your stomach against your spine and give you the impression that you’re rushing downhill on a roller coaster. This car definitely has that capability. From around 40 to 85 mph I nearly wanted to throw my hands up in the air. If a car can reach that point of acceleration force it becomes a binary designation. I probably can’t tell the difference between a car capable of a 4.0 and a 4.5 seconds 0-60 without a stopwatch, but I can answer that yes or no question. Yes, yes, and yes. I did try it at least three times, just to be sure. Some reviews now say the SL450 may be the new sweet spot of the SL range, but I’m skeptical the car would have been as enjoyable down a hundred HP.

Handling wise, the car is not a light nimble vehicle, but it does a surprisingly good job of keeping body role to a minimum, though I didn’t exactly have road conditions to really push it to the limit. The adjustable suspension didn’t feel appreciably different in regular or sport mode either. It’s really more of a GT car, meant to provide a supple comfortable ride, and just enough straight line acceleration to remind you what’s under the hood.

Airscarf. I love this. Why is it restricted to convertibles? All heated seats should gently blow warm air across the back of your neck. It was a cool night in the low 50s, but Airscarf made it a perfectly comfortable experience with the top down under the stars. It’s similar to sitting by a an outdoor firepit at night, you’re both aware of how cool the air is and yet warm at the same time. My old SLK32 was miserable with the top down at night in the cold. This car had all the right aerodynamics to keep the wind out of my face even with the windows down.

The side bolsters hug you in reaction to cornering, inflating the opposite side to keep you in the middle of the seat. The first time it happened, I thought the seat was malfunctioning, or my arm had hit the seat controls (which Mercedes likes to keep on the door in view instead of out of sight on the lower side of the seat). It’s a neat feature, but after a while, I would have preferred the ability to turn it off. It’s something that should only be active in sport mode.

The night view screen lets you see basically in the dark. Driving with it seems a bit distracting at first. Then I figured I could just look at the screen and drive instead of looking out the windshield. In that regard it feels like a video game, since the screen is a bit small and low resolution (especially for such a high end car), plus the effect of the grayscale night vision made it more like a 90’s pre-HD 4:3 square TV sort of game. After commenting on this out loud, I was cautioned to not drive like it’s a video game by the person sitting next to me, who has seen me play GTA and Need for Speed. Perhaps the screen should also show the current speed, or since it’s so visible from the passenger seat, perhaps not.

Sometimes the best way to appreciate a car is to just happen upon a random opportunity to drive it. No time for anticipation, or to read reviews or specs (beyond what you might or might not be able to recall depending on how encyclopedic your knowledge of cars is). Just get in and drive.

Eventually it was time to find my way back to the hotel, aided by the navigation system, which was competent yet a bit dated looking. The SL550 was parked, and the next day I was comfortably back in the 911 (which is in nearly every regard a superior automobile), but I often think back to that magical one night in the Mercedes.