Any car that can trace its heritage to the Mercedes 300SL Gullwing is an instant classic – and that’s the lineage this SL 350 belongs to. Quite why Merc decided to switch the order of the letters and numbers is probably a question best asked of a spotty teenager in their marketing department, but the SL is still there – it stands for Super Light.
The original W198 300 SL was a pure racing car with a highly tuned and fuel-injected 3-litre straight six engine, and a host of advanced technical features never seen before on any racing or road going vehicle. As expected, it was very successful on tracks and in SLR form in famous races such as the Targa Florio, Mille Miglia and Le Mans 24 Hours.
Mercedes didn’t plan a production model, but Max Hoffman, the Mercedes importer for the USA, was very persistent and insisted the car could be a sales hit if offered as a road going version. The company was reluctant, but in 1954 it introduced the Mercedes 300 SL Gullwing.
The Mercedes SL continued in various forms over the following decades, moving from the Gullwing to the W113 Pagoda cars from 1963, through the R107 from 1971 to 1989, when the R129 took over.
The R129 would survive until 2002, but by 1996 a replacement was well underway. The R230 remained an accomplished grand tourer like SLs before it, but unlike the 113, 107 and 129, this SL was designed to poach buyers of established sports cars.
It’s not that the R230 SL moved away from the luxury and convenience of previous generations, it’s just that it offered luxury and convenience while keeping up with a Porsche 911 on properly twisty roads. Just like its predecessors, the R230 SL set a new benchmark in automotive engineering.
Merc decided the launch model should make a statement, so the first offering was not an entry-level model, but the SL 500 with 306bhp. In the autumn of the same year, customers were able to order an even more potent SL in the form of a supercharged SL 55 AMG with a whopping 476bhp.
A multifunction steering wheel – which was also electrically adjustable – was part of the standard specification, as was the memory data for the seat adjustment stored in its key. The automatic climate control was also standard on the R230.
The design was all-new. While the R230’s predecessor was classically designed, Bruno Sacco liked clear timeless lines. This new SL was a child of its time. A curved, slippery silhouette and those quad headlights. While thoroughly modern, there was also a throwback to Mercedes heritage with a vent located in the front wings, just like the 300 SL Gullwing.
All 230s have automatic transmissions, just like Mercs of old, but the R230 could be had with the new 7G-Tronic transmission, which transferred the power to the rear axle like a turbine without any noticeable shifts. It had the additional benefit of delivering lower fuel consumption.