This First World question is posed to me frequently: Which Mercedes-Benz convertible should I purchase as my daily driver?
It’s a tough question.
High-quality examples of the Mercedes-Benz R107 are seemingly doubling in value overnight.
The R129 Series is doing what it was designed to do, which is spray hydraulic fluid from the top actuators everywhere — and cost you an arm and a leg for parts and repairs.
So, it makes financial sense — for those who want a fun, fast and reliable open Mercedes — to consider the R230 Series. While there were several V8 and V12 variants, the most refined of the model line is the SL550. If you need a little more, the AMG variants will do.
Falling like a feather
If you want a Mercedes that will give you excellent daily service — and you’re dead set on all the creature comforts of a new car — the R230 SL550 is a great choice.
Not that its predecessor — the SL500 — was a bad car, but if you’re going to purchase a depreciating asset, buy the best one you can afford.
This being said, out of my fanaticism for older Mercedes, I will mention you can drive a 1986–89 560SL for about the cost of an SL550. It’s really a matter of preference.
The good news about the newer R230 is that its depreciation curve is soft and gentle. While the 2008–12 SL550 and its variants have lost 60% to 70% of their original purchase price, it turns out that a good one is still going to cost you nearly $40,000.
One way or another, buying a similar 560SL and sorting it to the nines will cost you about the same. If you’re going to spend that much on a classic SL that you can’t finance, it is going to hurt you emotionally to put wear and tear on it — especially when it gets its first shopping-cart ding or when you roll the odometer up to 75,000 miles.
In contrast, an R230 is a more carefree ride in a world full of dangers.
When an errant golf ball whacks your R230 — or, inevitably, when a cell-phone-wielding West Palm Beach high school student driving an SUV rear-ends your car — you will emerge unscathed, and the damage to your Mercedes won’t make you wail in emotional and financial agony.
More importantly, the R230’s visual details beg the operator to drive the heck out of it, which a 560SL doesn’t do.
So what does that make the R230 SL550? An iconic Beater Rocket Sled.
The most affordable car in its segment
What do the BMW Z8, Porsche 911 convertible, Ferrari F430, Jaguar XK and Aston Martin DB9 have in common?
Well, they are all high-performance European convertibles. They will cost well over $40,000, with the exception of a heavily used 911 or Jaguar XK.
Finally, when one of these cars breaks, it’s going to hurt.
The SL550 and SL55 AMG fit comfortably among these “exotics.”
It’s not easy to find qualified technicians for the Aston, the Ferrari and the Jaguar. The BMW is the most expensive of the lot. In this group of cars, the Mercedes-Benz SL550 is the most affordable, serviceable and reliable. I would encourage anyone looking for one of these vehicles to consider a Mercedes first.
For those of us who want a sports car for daily use, the choice is obvious. While there are still issues here and there — as with any high-performance European car — dealing with the SL550’s quirks entails far less drama.
Granted, choosing an R230 is like meeting your dessert craving by walking into Albertson’s and grabbing a carton of exotic vanilla ice cream, but when it comes to sinking $40,000 into a used sports car, uncomplicated might be best.
Doing what Mercedes does best
I was asking myself how the SL550 qualifies for the concept of an Affordable Classic — and then had one of those moments where I realize just how old I am getting. The R230 was released when I graduated from high school (back then, I drove a 1985 300SD and a 1974 240D).
Admittedly, it’s hard for someone in my age bracket to recognize a car designed in the 2000s as a classic. But the quality that gives the R230 staying power is Mercedes-Benz’s undying commitment to provide us with a safe, reliable open sports car.
While these cars look so subtly modern — even in the face of the newest SL class — they aren’t some recently contrived gimmick with a bunch of outsourced “up to date” technological headaches.
Mercedes planned, designed and built everything in the R230. This car is usable in bad climates. It holds its own in the face of materialism. No one will make fun of you for having one.
If someone hits you — even at very high speeds — you will probably walk away without injury.
While the control modules won’t last forever, you’ll be sick of the car before it actually becomes too expensive to repair. And if you have several collectible older Mercedes, it fits in nicely.
When we compare the SL550 to its aforementioned peers, it looks like a great deal. If you consider the hefty price tag of the BMW Z8, suddenly the just-as-potent R230 looks like a super deal. The Porsche, is, arguably, just as good as the Mercedes. I feel no need to comment on the rest.
If you’re considering the purchase of a classic Mercedes, I would encourage you to stick with your decision. Those cars appeal to certain people and have a bright future.
If you must have a modern sports car — with the right genetic map — and you have a low financial pain tolerance, the SL550 is a proud, no-explanations-needed choice.
As the Barenaked Ladies say, “Vanilla is the finest of the flavors.” ♦