AUTOpsy: Mercedes-Benz SL (R231)

It it takes a lot to bring one of the most revered models in automotive history to the brink of extinction. Yet this generation of Mercedes SL’s got what it takes. 

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Despite having possessed neither quality in ages, the Mercedes Sportlich-Leicht has been a car for the ages, and, on certain occasions, even age-defining.

The original 300SL was one of the first motor cars ever to be described as a classic and remains exactly that. Its Pagoda (W113) progenitor still ranks among the most elegant vehicles of all time, establishing the concept of the European open top boulevardier. The indefatigable R107 SL acted as proof of life of the sophisticated European convertible from 1971 to 1989 and became a fashion statement almost a decade after its launch. The SL to eventually succeed it, dubbed R129, turned out to be both icon and swan song to the highest German product design values.

23 years later, the SL is still with us, but has lost any sense of relevance. The former benchmark has become an obscurity, which cannot be explained simply by changing customers’ tastes.

Of course, this R231 was preceded by another SL, the Steve Mattin-penned R230. Unquestionably a statement car upon its unveiling in 2001, hindsight and a facelift of such cack-handed quality that it appears to have been outsourced to Fiat’s Centro Stile have seen to its stature deflating over the past decade-and-a-half. Given these circumstances, it could be argued that R231 was up against the odds of marking a true return to form for a slightly dulled badge upon its introduction in 2012.

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Not up to interpretation is R231’s perception by the media and prospective customers though, which was hardly enthusiastic initially and hasn’t improved since. In an imploding sector of the market that it now truly owns, this SL hasn’t managed to leave any mark at all.

Most if this is to do with its styling. The market may admittedly have fallen out of love with the folding hard top convertible in general, but this feature is the least of R231’s issues. For the list of R231’s aesthetic shortcomings is almost as long as the SL model’s history.

First of all, R231 perplexes, courtesy of its awkward stance. In contrast to both its immediate predecessors, this SL suffers from an obviously excessive front overhang to which unnecessary additional visual weight is added by the bluff frontal silhouette. In addition, even high-spec examples appear somewhat under-wheeled.

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With its body thus overwhelming the chassis, R231 comes across like a pretend performance car à la Alfa Montreal, despite the fact that it shares many components with the thoroughbred SLS sports car. This ineptitude of stance goes hand in hand with the R231’s bodysides appearing to be at their widest towards the top, exacerbating the issue of the car’s poorly judged stature.

These fundamental issues aren’t helped by the coarse details that beset R231’s body. Aiming for a cleaner appearance than its unashamedly ornate predecessor, R231 ends up combining the worst of both worlds: lack of sophistication with ungainly, attention-seeking flourishes.

Unlike the, at first glance, simple, but rich surfaces of the VH/HA Mercedes models designed under Bruno Sacco, R231’s appearance suggests a hasty styling process that didn’t involve an excessive amount of work on full-scale clay models. For here, what appears to be simple truly is simple, as in: lacking in sophistication.

None of the creases and swage lines on the bodywork impress through the virtue of being expertly crafted. Yet they are not even superficially striking either, despite the grille’s surrounding and the arrangement around the fake side vents suggesting some intended ‘showy’ effect.

Of course, R231’s trademark detail must be its headlight design, whose most prominent feature is the Fackel (torch) indicator, which has since become a mainstay of Gorden Wagener’s Sensual Purity mantra. R231 incorporates it in a way that just about works from certain angles, but doesn’t do so at all from most others.

The idea to align the behind-the-glass graphics with those of the grille outline, while simultaneously having the light unit’s basic shape seemingly clash with the grille, may have seemed like a clever idea in certain drawings, but doesn’t work in three dimensions. What this error achieves is to distract from the lamp unit’s confused graphics, which fail to coalesce into a coherent whole.

Speaking of lamps, it must be said that their design at R231’s rear doesn’t fare an awful lot better. Seemingly influenced by the BMW E60 (front light) design, they suffer from a confused basic silhouette that fails to integrate the different creases and a weak swage line coherently. This might have been a decent approach, if there wasn’t that slight indent flanking the boot aperture. Its soft form suggests a striving for elegance that is at odds with this SL’s overall design and turns a dull rear end into an irritating one.

To add insult to injury, the lamps’ graphics are poor. There’s a half-hearted attempt to reprise the ribbed Mercedes tail light design of yore, but it’s as carelessly executed as the graphics, with LEDs dotted about in careless fashion. No amount of Mercedes-Benz badges can therefore distract from their cheap appearance.

Speaking of Mercedes trademarks, it must be mentioned that in recent years, the most consistently applied trope have been the ovoid door handles that are also present on R231. Since their introduction with the W220 S-class in 1999, they have turned out to be the staple of Mercedes-Benz design, rather than proud three-pointed stars, corrugated rear lights or even torches. In R231’s case, their application appears to be particularly poor, as their ovoid outlined is at odds with the straight crease that is supposed to bisect them.

On top of all these shortcomings, R231 also speaks of the general change of attitude that had taken place even before this car’s design process (which started about a decade ago). For R231 is full of fakery, pretend this and faux that.

Of course, neither fake exhaust tips, nor fake mesh are the sole domain of Mercedes-Benz. But that this formerly proud, most-engineering led of companies would not just bow to trends, but apply these tropes in the sloppiest, most offensive fashion is rather telling. The designers in charge of this car (reportedly Frank Pfisterer and future Nu-A-class stylist, Mark Fetherston) apparently thought little of the cognitive abilities of prospective customers if they thought such conspicuous Mummenschanz would do nicely.

In that sense, R231 incidentally serves as an excellent homage to Peter Pfeifer’s reign in charge of Mercedes-Benz’ stylistic fortunes. Without his less than assured hand, neither Mercedes-Benz, nor the world would be ready for the kind of Sensual Purity Untertürkheim now indulges in.

The author of this piece runs an obscure motoring site of his own, which you may or may not choose to visit at www.auto-didakt.com