The people at Mercedes-Benz SA have many reasons to celebrate. Local sales have seen a steady increase despite challenging conditions abroad, according to the company’s marketing boss Selvin Govender. This is undoubtedly thanks to striking newcomers like the reinvented A-Class and the recently launched C-Class, which did not just seek to raise the bar but have rivals from BMW and Audi struggling to touch it.
Then there is the prospect of forthcoming products such as the unequivocally gorgeous S-Class coupe and the AMG-GT, which it claims will give the evergreen Porsche 911 a run for its euro.
You could almost describe the Mercedes team’s mood as smug at the recent launch of the SL400 and GLA45 AMG. They know they are well on the way to rekindling those glory days of the past where mantras like “engineered like no other” meant something. That iffy patch in the nineties and early noughties, where they seemed to drop the ball in terms of styling and quality, is over. First we hopped behind the wheel of the SL400, positioned as the entry-level derivative. Of course, with a basic asking price of R1,212,600 it is anything but.
It takes the mantle from the SL350, which was offered for a short while, but went away quietly after buyers failed to bite. And with reason: a dearth of power in a car that looks this good is a severe injustice. The new model employs a V6 mill, packing a pair of turbochargers. It is in stark contrast to its mighty V8 and V12 brethren, but over the sinuous and pretty layout of KwaZulu-Natal’s Midlands, I learned that it does allow one to have one’s red velvet cake and eat it.
You still get supreme performance, with 265kW and 480Nm eager to be summoned by the prod of your right foot. It dispatches the standstill to 100km/h dash in 5.2 seconds. Those who are better acquainted with the eight-cylinder models might miss the distinct rumbling tune at lower speeds but, with the accelerator mashed to the floor, the throatier snarl engineered into the downsized engine broke KwaZulu-Natal’s sleepy quietness.
Mercedes claims a fuel consumption figure of 7.1l/100km, which seems potentially attainable in the real world, although our spirited test stint did not allow for any economy run attempts.
Overall the V6 SL seems to have a different texture to its beefier counterparts. I would not say that it moves with a nimbleness that defies its size, as some colleagues opined. After all, it is a lengthy car. But it does feel lighter, livelier and more encouraging of exuberant driving. Calm cruising duties are handled superbly too, especially with the adaptive damping system guarding your rump from any jarring imperfections on the road surface.
Even with the top down, the SL manages a stellar job of shielding its privileged occupants from the elements. You will not be subjected to the indignity of a ruined hairdo, thanks to the mesh wind deflector, while neck chills are kept at bay with the nifty air scarf.
The single gripe I have is with the wheels of the AMG Line styling package. Its silver-on-black alloy wheels have an aftermarket air about them and I prefer the more elegant spokes of the non-AMG wheels. That aside, the turbocharged SL made a favourable impression and I think buyers at power-sapping reef altitudes might want to think twice before forking out extra for one of the normally-aspirated models.
The launch was not all about the SL, though. The madcap GLA45 AMG is the antithesis to the graceful SL. While the latter is clear about its role as an opulent, open-air cruiser, the GLA has other ambitions. It wants to be a track racer, a comfortable daily commuter and a tool for adventurous weekend pursuits.
Eyebrows were raised and sniggers were stifled when Mercedes representatives spoke excitedly about its off-road prowess. But knowing the cynicism of some of the land’s motoring scribes, they had a trick up their sleeves. We had a chance to give it a work- out on some fairly intimidating terrain. Sandy ruts deeper than Johannesburg’s potholes, axle-articulating obstacles and racing over dirt tracks proved the crossover’s surprising adeptness on surfaces other than smooth tarmac.
I sympathised with the test units, some of which had less than 800km on the odometer. It might have been a frivolous exercise, in that most owners will never venture off the road, but to know that it will not shy away should you decide to hit the dirt is assuring.
However, the circuit is where you really want to be. Just like its smaller sister the A45 AMG, this is an authentic supercar-slayer. In fact the claimed 0-100km/h time is just 0.2 of a second slower at 4.8 seconds. The mad GLA is a bona fide cure for grumpiness. Even the most jaded folks out there emerged from its cockpit smiling. In addition to the racy pace, the hearty belch that punctuates each gear upshift makes you giggle like a schoolgirl.
I also noted the greater degree of suppleness to the suspension compared to the A45, which has taken much flak for its harsh ride. The smidgen of body roll brought on by the additional ground clearance is negligible. And not once did it flinch at being chucked in and out of the twists at the technical Roy Hesketh track in Pietermaritzburg.
What might make you flinch is the price. It starts off at R755,000 for the standard model. And you will need to tick some boxes on the options list to distinguish your AMG from the humbler GLA models.