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Affordable Classic Review: Mercedes-Benz SL 320 Roadster (Series R129) — Affordable Classic Car Reviews
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Affordable Classic Review: Mercedes-Benz SL 320 Roadster (Series R129)

Mercedes-Benz SL 320 Roadster (Series R129)

1996 Mercedes-Benz SL 320 Roadster

1996 Mercedes-Benz SL 320 Roadster

The SL has been the car that all would be Mercedes-Benz owners have aspired to for more than 50 years. While SLs from the 1950s and 60s have skyrocketed in price over the past 10 years putting them well out of reach of many casual car enthusiasts, there are several SL series cars from Mercedes-Benz that are quite affordable today and offer a huge fun factor in relation to their overall cost of purchase and ownership.

The R129 Series SLs from Mercedes-Benz built between 1989 and 2001 represent a lot of car for not a lot of money. They are more or less fully depreciated at this point and good ones can be purchased for a fraction of their original selling price.

The R129 was available with a variety of engine choices. Initially the two engines offered were a straight 6 cylinder in the 300SL and a V8 in the 500SL, by 1993 an SL600 12 cylinder model was available. In 1994 Mercedes-Benz broke with 40 years of tradition and changed the naming convention for their cars.

SL 320 straight six engine bay.

SL 320 straight six engine bay.

For the 1994 model year the SLs were changed to SL 320, now carrying a slightly larger straight six than was previously installed in the 300SL making 228 hp, the SL 500 V8 with 302 hp, and the SL600 12 cylinder boasting 389 hp. Of course horsepower isn’t why you buy these cars, they are grand touring machines, not drag racers. I would go as far as to say they’re not even sports cars, they’re comfortable grand touring cars that handle very well. If you want a car to auto cross or take to the track you should buy a Porsche or BMW.

The car pictured here is the SL320 model, while the smallest engine offered during this SL run, the straight 6 is smooth and more or less bulletproof according to Mercedes-Benz Master Technician Rick Engman at Feldmann Imports in Bloomington, MN.

“Nothing really goes wrong with that engine” says Engman, “you might have to replace the head gasket, but other than that, it’s a strong engine. It’s what they put in most of the E Class cars back then, you can also get it in the old C class, it’s a great engine.”

The R129 cars were a great leap forward from the previous R107 series SLs. The R107 series was produced for 19 years, and therefore holds the distinction of longest production run of any Mercedes-Benz body style. The handling of the R129 cars was a great improvement over the R107s thanks to its multi-link axle that replaced the R107’s diagonal swing axle. Engines improved greatly with variable valve timing, five speed automatic transmissions were available in the new generation of SLs giving them greater fuel economy.

Mercedes SL, looks good with the hard top on.

Mercedes SL, looks good with the hard top on.

The R129 series SLs are complex, modern cars. They contain the first fully automated soft top in the auto industry, no levers to move or mechanisms to unlock. You simply push the button on the console and the top disappears into the trunk of the car. R129 series SLs were equipped with detachable hard tops made of fiberglass. When looking for one of these cars yourself, be sure to get one with the hard top. It’s perfect for cold months, when fixed it’s like you’re driving a coupe, you’d never know you were in a roadster. There is virtually no road noise, and the car looks great with the hard top fixed.

Inside is neat and tidy, plenty of amenities.

Inside is neat and tidy, plenty of amenities.

The car pictured here was acquired locally in the Twin Cities for a client in Kansas. It’s a one owner car, with about 54,500 miles, originally purchased at Feldmann Imports Mercedes-Benz in Bloomington, MN as a new car back in 1996. It was purchased and driven to the owner’s second home in West Palm Beach, FL where it remained until 2002 when it was repatriated to Minnesota and driven as a “Summer car”. All the maintenance records were present with the car, it has a clean CarFax and is well known to the service writers and technicians at the dealership. They have gone to the owner’s home each spring and fall to take the hard top off and put it back on the car.

The straight six doesn’t make this an exceptionally fast car, but it merges onto the highway perfectly fine, you won’t want for more power. The straight six cylinder engine is plenty for cruising on the highway, around town and out on country roads. It is smooth and comfortable to drive, the cabin is intuitive and easy to understand, overall a great car to cruise around in on the weekends.

This car was purchased recently with a brand new set of tires and a completed major service for $11,800. Given the full book of records with the car, known history and it’s honest, original condition, in this case, the buyer did very well indeed. Is it a classic? That’s debatable at the moment, it’s only 13 years old, but there is no doubt it will be a classic eventually, after all, it is a Mercedes-Benz SL.

It certainly is affordable at this point, included in this car’s records was the original window sticker from 1996, $79,490! Purchased for about 15% of its original value, if the new owner maintains this car and drives it casually a few thousand miles a year he could easily sell the car for the price at which he bought it.

Original window sticker... big money in 1996.

Original window sticker... big money in 1996.

When looking for an R129 series SL be selective. Resist the temptation to buy that $5,000 SL “mechanic’s special” advertised on Craigslist. There are few things more expensive than a “cheap” German luxury car. There are plenty of these cars out there so don’t settle for a car if the buyer can’t produce a complete service history. Just over 200,000 R129 SL roadsters were produced world wide, about half of them came to the U.S. market. They will never be rare cars, or blue chip collectibles like their forefathers from the 1950s, but they are solid cars that can offer many years of happy motoring if you do your due diligence and find a well cared for example.


1 Ken { 11.14.09 at 4:45 am }

Excellent analysis. Very informative. Another reason I love about the old SL’s is that it does not have a complicated computer system like the new SL’s, which might be hard to maintain in the long run.

2 admin { 11.15.09 at 5:24 pm }

Well said Ken, my thoughts exactly. While complex for their day, the 1996 model SLs are far from the space ships being produced today with their multitude of sensors and complicated computers and should be more reliable and easier to fix in the long run.

3 matthew whyte { 03.26.10 at 2:39 pm }

Well said indeed these lovely mercedes sl’s are amazingly good value at the moment and as time goes on will if chosen carefully provide years of wonderful motoring pleasure and i cannot agree more there really isn’t anything more expensive than a cheap german car!!!

4 John Busby { 04.02.10 at 3:22 am }

A nice, succinct review David. Any thoughts on the relative merits of the pre- and post- 1997 facelift models. For the SL320, the M104 versus M112 engine seems to be the most widely debated issue. What’s your view and are there other significant considerations? I have a particular interest in asking, since I am looking to buy one of two cars, the first a 1996 SL320 with full dealer history and 57,000 miles the other a 1998 model with 44,000 miles and only partial history. The two cars are similarly specced (both with panoramic roofs) and are in immaculate condition.

Your views would be much apreciated.

John Busby

5 admin { 04.02.10 at 10:46 pm }

Thanks for your thoughts Matthew. Check back soon for more on late model SLs, I’ve got a few blog post ideas in the works.

6 admin { 04.02.10 at 11:00 pm }

Thanks for your interest here John. I’ll put some thought into your question this weekend and perhaps add a new post on the subject.

7 Fred { 11.23.10 at 3:26 pm }

I have a SL 320 1994. One problem I have is the interior plastic is deteriorating. Any suggestions on what to do?
My e-mail is fzero965@aol.com

8 Fred { 04.26.11 at 12:38 pm }

Took the advice from an e-mail and contacted MBZ and they worked with me and my local dealer and the plastic items were replaced by MBZ and the local dealer. Customer service is in the forfront with MBZ and I am a happy customer.

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