In the days when automotive journalism was exclusively printed on dead trees you didn’t need to see the date on a cover to know that spring was in the air. Early April would bring an inevitable crop of ‘is it time to buy a roadster?’ features, their drivers wearing both shirt sleeves and frozen grins on the cover shot - the photoshoot had inevitably taken place in the depths of winter
Even the most optimistic weather-watcher is unlikely to see this as an obvious time to buy a summer-friendly toy with a folding roof. Which is exactly why this might be the moment given the pendulum swing of supply and demand on such things. So meet this week’s exceptionally brave offering: an R230 Mercedes SL55 AMG.
While regular readers may feel that Pill has already featured an example of this high watermark of tempting peril, Enzo the hamster emerges from the database clutching punch cards to assure us that this is actually the first example. We have previously Pill’d the SL500, SL600 and SL65 AMG, so this one is completing the set. But while our previous R230s have been tempting, none has managed to look as tidy as this one, while being offered with an enticing £12,995 asking price.
That’s right – just 13 grand for this with enough change left over for half a shandy in a London pub. While the values of other sports cars from the nineties and noughties are rising, and some are soaring, the R230 continues to bump along the bottom of what is turning into a decade-long plateau. They also often take a long time to sell, even with bargain pricing: this is clearly a club that not many people are anxious to get into.
On a dull, rational level, that’s entirely understandable. Even a lovingly cherished SL 55 AMG is always likely to turn into a financial minefield, with one misstep potentially landing you with a bill worth a substantial percentage of the car’s value. The ‘55 frequently went expensively wrong when it was new and covered by a warranty, but now the most recent examples of the R230 are at least 11 years old so the risk has grown exponentially. Let’s be honest here, any SL 55 AMG is going to have issues, and very few of those problems are going to be cheap to fix.
I was once commissioned to write a buyer’s guide for the SL 55 AMG and approached a well-regarded specialist to give some advice. When asked what goes wrong with them he sucked his teeth and responded “it would probably be easier to list what doesn’t.” The good news is that the engine is reckoned to be one of the toughest components, with the 476hp 5.5-litre supercharged V8 a sturdy thing if well looked after. With bodywork substantially made out of aluminium they don’t seem to rust either – which removes another frequent killer of old Mercs from the list of concerns. But the electrical and electronic systems more than reset the balance of peril, from the folding hardtop to the many bork-prone control boxes that manage the R230’s long list of complicated and expensive systems.
The most feared of these are the ABC Active Body Control and SBC Sensotronic Braking System, both famed for causing frequently terrifying bills when they check out. But there are plenty of other things to go wrong, too – and getting a neglected SL55 AMG back into order is going to be a slow, frustrating and undoubtedly very pricey process.
Yet there is plenty to like about our Pill beyond its enticing price. It’s an early car finished in a jazzy shade of purplish blue, this contrasting quite nicely with a buttoned-down grey interior. The dealer selling it uses the word ‘stunning’ in the advert, which I’d normally put down to the hyperbole common to wanting to unload things, but it really does look good in the pictures. You could buy this car for the full asking, slap an ageless registration on it and I reckon that at least 90 per cent of people would reckon it was at least twice as expensive as it was.
Our Pill’s 88,000 miles certainly aren’t scary for a car entering its third decade, nor is the MOT history. Granted, there have been some bad years, with a couple of failures that were seemingly caused by electrical issues of various sorts. (No duchesses have swooned at this revelation.) The most recent of these was an SRS failure light indicating an airbag fault in March this year, although the SL got a clean pass the following week. Further back, in 2018 there were some intermittent lights and an “exposed starter battery positive connector”. But pretty much everything else is the sort of tyres, brakes and suspension component advisories that I’d be more surprised not to see on the list.
More concern is, potentially, likely to be caused by the spec panel’s revelation that this SL has managed to clock up eight former keepers. Again, not an outrageous figure when divided by the number of years it has been around for. But still one that suggests some of its owners might've been trying to move it on as soon as possible. Back to the positives, the advert promises nine services with the last three all carried out by Merc main dealers. The presence of what is claimed to be a matching set of brand new Pirelli P-Zero tyres is also a big tick; this definitely isn’t the sort of car you want to find rocking a set of Ditchfinder Supremes.
While this likely isn’t peak SL-buying season, the R230’s folding hardtop makes it an almost-coupe during the cold months, and using the clip-in air deflector actually makes it pretty snug top down even when it’s cold. It’s not like the massive engine is ever going to be short of the ability to make heat. Yes, it is a relatively cheap car with what will certainly be disproportionate running costs. But it’s hard to imagine it’s going to be worth much less going forwards; the total cost of ownership for a half-decent SL 55 should still be less than funding the depreciation on something newer.
Or you could buy an SL65 AMG now, run it during the winter and then sell it to somebody looking for brave and brawny roadster thrills in six months’ time.
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