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Tuesday, March 26th, 2013

WTF or: Chris Harris Drives Some Mercedes SLs

My personal jury's always been out on YouTube car-review sensation Chris Harris: there are some people I really respect who like the guy, and I would personally love to meet him and figure out how to make my job a little more like his, and he can clearly drive the proverbial snot out of whatever he's sitting in...but to me, his videos too often miss the mark in various ways, notwithstanding their million-kabillion views.

To wit, I just watched his "Mercedes SL Driven: New & Old" video (above), which proceeds from the premise that "the best way to understand the new SL is to trace its heritage"—and I cannot fathom why it features every past SL except the two modern ones, i.e., the R129 and R230 models.

Harris begins his historical survey from the driver seat of the original SL convertible, a W198 300SL, and I like this part. Thumbs up. Wouldn't change a thing. He even gives us a nice clip of the engine at full throttle somewhere in the Spanish countryside, commenting that it sounds "like a[n Aston Martin] DB5 having its bits fondled" (2:22).

Did I mention that I want to make my job more like his?

Next, he hops in a W113 230SL, and that part isn't bad either, although Captain Obvious makes an unwelcome appearance when Harris informs us that "compared to a 1968 Porsche 911, this feels much more the cruiser" (3:34). You don't say.

I'd also object that he doesn't deliver on his promise to "give you some noise" at 4:06—whatever he lifted off at, I'm pretty sure it wasn't redline—but maybe the 230SL's owner imposed a conservative rev limit. Anyway, fine, I'm not too cross yet.

Then comes the R107 generation, represented by a manual-transmission 300SL. He cheats us again on the "lovely straight-six noise"—oddly, the scene ends right when he downshifts to demonstrate said noise (6:27)—but still, we get some cool footage of a damn cool car. Can't really complain.

And then, at 6:46, we see...wait a minute, that's the new R231 SL! A 2013 Euro-market SL500, to be precise, the one that we saw in the video's opening sequence. I learned something here, by the way: turns out the "SL500" nameplate lives on overseas, even though it denotes the same twin-turbo 4.7-liter V8 that powers our SL550...and even though the U.S. hasn't seen an SL500 since model-year 2006, when the 5.0-liter M113 V8 breathed its last.

But I digress. The point is, What the hell happened to the R129 and the R230?!

Because you positively cannot "understand the new SL," in Harris's phrase, without considering the very SLs he neglected to drive for this video.

The R129 (1990-2002), known the world over as the inspiration for 500Benz.com, was quite simply the first modern SL. It's run by computers, its engines were state-of-the-art (witness the 500 Benz's 32-valve DOHC V8), its top speed had to be limited to 155 mph, it boasted the world's first fully automated soft top, and it came standard for much of its run with side airbags, stability control, and a stupendously powerful Bose stereo. It even offered an Adaptive Damping System (ADS), which my car doesn't have, thankfully, because it costs a fortune to repair. The R129 is the bridge between old and new, the linchpin that holds the SL portfolio together. You can easily trace the new SL's heritage back to the R129; it's the earlier cars, the ones Harris drove, that are now genealogically remote.

As for the R230 (2003-2012), well, it practically is the R231, as signified by the incremental gap in model specification. The chassis is largely the same (yes, the R231 SL65 AMG ran a ridiculous 70.3 mph in Edmunds.com's slalom test, but the R230 SL63 AMG did 71.3 mph), the straight-line performance is largely the same, and although the R231 has a slew of new technology features, let's face it—the R230 was already stuffed to the gills with that sort of thing. Of course, the R230 was also the first SL with a folding hardtop, a tradition that the R231 carries on. Leaving the R230 out of an SL retrospective is like skipping straight from the C4 Corvette to the C6.

Actually, given that Harris also left out the R129, it's like he skipped straight from the C3 Corvette to the C6. Seriously.

Turning to the substance of Harris's R231 review, he shares early on that the new SL500 is "bigger, longer, but...lighter" (7:01)—yet the previous car in the video is the R107, and the R231 is most definitely not lighter than that. It is lighter than the R230, so that must be what Harris meant, but again, the R230 isn't part of his narrative, so we're left to connect the dots ourselves. (The R129, incidentally, seems to weigh about the same as the R231.)

Then he says the 2013 SL500 has "a level of effortless performance that was just missing in the previous [unintelligible] car. You stroke this thing along in Drive...and it's really, really fast" (7:37). But as noted, the R231 really isn't much faster than equivalent R230 versions, and as far back as the R129—six-cylinder models aside—"effortless performance" had already become an SL hallmark.

Next we're told that this 2013 SL500 has "the lovely seven-speed wet clutch transmission that AMG call 'SpeedShift'" (8:28). Unfortunately, the SL500 comes with a conventional seven-speed automatic, as it's not an AMG car. Oops. In Harris's defense, Benz's seven-speed slushbox really is quite good. I could see how it might fool...well, alright, you'd hope it wouldn't fool the king of one-man YouTube car reviews.

Oh, and "the noise is sensational" (8:38)...except he doesn't let us hear it, and furthermore, the R231's mandatory turbos arguably muffle much of the V8 burble that helped give previous V8 SLs their distinctive character. (Note that the only V8 SL Harris drove for this video was the R231 SL500, even though the SL has been offered with a V8 for over four decades.) To my ear, this new twin-turbo V8 sounds like it's choking on itself relative to, say, the R230 SL550 or my own 500 Benz. The same can be said of the twin-turbo 2013 SL63 AMG versus the previous, naturally aspirated SL63, despite AMG's best efforts to force some rumble past the turbos.

Well, you get the point. And to Harris's credit, he fundamentally gets it, too, in his summary of the SL500's appeal at 8:50. Let me repeat: I'd love to meet this guy and pick his brain. Let me also say that I admire him greatly for having reached the peak while I'm sitting here staring up from base camp. Salutations, Mr. Harris, sir.

But if you can't do justice to the iconic Mercedes SL in a video for which you clearly had access to all of the well-kept machinery you wanted...yeah, I've got a few questions to ask him about that, too.

posted in: Driving Impressions  Videos  


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