2003 Mercedes-Benz SL 55 AMG R230Anyone who doubts this car’s early pass into the classic hall of fame may not quite get what they are looking at. That may be understandable, as even in bad-ass black AMG’s spin on the R230 model, the SL 55 AMG hardly shouts ‘supercar’. But that’s near as damn it what it is. Only the arch-filling tyres and underplayed ‘V8 Kompressor’ badges hint there’s something special going on here.
The R230 was a nice enough replacement for the R129 – neat modern styling and a genuine step up in technology, with even a nod to the true meaning of ‘SL’ as they came out around 50kg lighter than equivalent R129s. But put into the hands of the engineers at Mercedes’ tuning arm, AMG, a legend was created. Starting with the awesome supercharged 5.4-litre V8 from the E55 saloon, a few tweaks added 22bhp to make this the most powerful Mercedes-Benz ever produced at the time of its launch in 2002. Try this for context – it was also more powerful than a V12 Aston Martin Vanquish, and produced more torque than a Ferrari 550 Maranello. So not just any old SL then.
AMG attended to the rest of the running gear too, setting up the self-levelling active suspension to cope with the new demands without overdoing it. I’d expected to experience something set rock-hard for Nürburgring blasts but found a level of compliance more in tune with a pockmarked B1052. A neat trick, accompanied by brakes that are nothing short of epic; apparently the front pads are twice the size of those on a stock SL 500. They feel like it, too.
I’m also impressed by the view ahead, which is computer-game clear thanks to the car’s wedgy profile, meaning that without actually doing so I feel I’m sitting quite high and the bonnet falls away from an already low starting point at the base of the screen. It helps me feel confident about going quickly quite early on. But the truth is there’s almost no other way to go in this car, it just eggs you on and, thanks to the massive torque that kicks in from remarkably low revs, even the slightest toe-flex has it haring off down the road. I have to tame it – tough when you want to keep hearing the engine note, a muted tribute to American muscle cars.
The feel and layout of the cabin tells me it’s from the same stable as the R129, though the seats are a little more embracing and there are more post-millennial shiny plastics in evidence. I also spare a wry smile for the twin-binnacle instrument pods that house the speedo and rev-counter and look like they’ve been lifted from an Alfa Romeo. Still, compared with the early SLs, the cabin does look sportier for them.
The best news is that you can buy into all this action for prices that are currently in the mid-teens for average examples, rising to high teens for smart ones with below average miles, of which there are quite a number about. SL55s seem to have been commonly bought as second car toys by people with the money to also look after them properly. That should be reassuring for a buyer, because any car with this potential and complication needs to be cared for and have the proof of that. I’d run scared from any example that didn’t have all the right servicing paperwork and stamps, but you’ll not struggle to find good examples. They appear to be at the bottom of their depreciation curve now, and some dealers are starting to price the best examples in the £20ks – and we don’t see those levels remaining speculative for long.
Main checks should be for water leaks into the boot (feel and sniff for damp), which causes all manner of knock-on problems, and operation of the folding electric roof, plus that of the central locking system. As with the R129 there can be issues with ECUs, so be wary of anything with even a hint of misfire, and walk away from anything with an illuminated warning light.
All these SLs have that intangible Mercedes thing that makes you feel special to be driving them. OK, even a £200 banger Merc can do that, but it’s multiplied by being able to drop the roof and aim for some bends. They all have their merits, and all five we tested have the potential to increase in value, even if only by sums that could cover enough of their running costs to make you feel even better about having bought one in the first place.
I’m tempted into buying an SLK simply because they offer so much for so little. It would have to be another colour than silver though. Pagodas are bewitching and the delicacy of the original 230 SL makes it hard to believe they remain cheaper than the later 250 and 280 models. Even after a lot of miles in the 350 SL I hadn’t tired of it, helped by that V8, and the SL 320 is even more tempting thanks to its cost/benefit ratio. But it’s the AMG SL 55 that’s left the greatest mark on me. An awesome car that really is worth raiding the piggy bank for.
Owning an SL 55 AMG R230
Former 280 SE 3.5 racer Peter Jackson has owned this since January. ‘It’s my latest in quite a range of Mercs,’ he says. ‘My wife has an SL 500 which is a lovely car so I had to have one too. While I was looking I saw this for sale and wondered what all the SL 55 hype had been about. When I drove it I had to have it. The difference between the SL 500 and the SL 55? They’re chalk and cheese. It’s now my everyday car, doing about 12,000 miles a year. You really have to keep on top of the maintenance, though. I have it looked after by IG Motor Services in Swaffham, and on top of servicing it has so far needed engine mounts and one new front strut. Oh, and a solenoid washer was leaking oil, so that was sorted too. It’s never going to be a cheap car to run, but it’s worth it.’
‘The difference between the SL 500 and the SL 55? They’re chalk and cheese’
TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS 2003 Mercedes-Benz SL 55 AMG R230
Engine 5439cc all-alloy V8, sohc per bank, SFI fuel injection
Power and torque 476bhp @ 6100rpm; 516lb ft @ 2650-4500rpm / DIN
Transmission five-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive, traction control
Steering Rack and pinion, power-assisted
Front: independent by wishbones, coil and self-levelling hydraulic springs, telescopic dampers.
Rear: independent with five-link axle location, coil and self-levelling hydraulic springs, telescopic dampers.
Brakes Front and rear: ventilated and cross-drilled discs, servo-assisted, ABS
Weight 1955kg (4305lb)
Performance Top speed: (limited to) 155mph; 0-60mph: 4.7sec
Fuel consumption 20mpg
Cost new £91,345
Classic Cars Price Guice £9500-£18,000