Why Slow Sales Didn't Kill the Mercedes SL

·3 min read
Photo credit: Mercedes-AMG
Photo credit: Mercedes-AMG

Mercedes has just unveiled an all-new SL roadster. But the seventh generation of this icon—the longest-running nameplate from the longest-running automaker—enters a shifting marketplace. As recently as the early 2000s, Mercedes regularly sold around 13,000 SLs annually. Last year, just 1300 moved off dealer lots.

So what happened, and why does Mercedes continue to bother?

Well, for one thing, trucks and crossovers have devoured the market share of every vehicle category. "Of course the SUV segment is the one making huge progress year over year," says Michael Knoller, global head of marketing and sales for Mercedes-AMG, which developed the latest SL.

Mercedes's own model proliferation has also had a cannibalizing effect. "When you look at the U.S. market, I think you have to include, in addition to the core segment, we've offered the S-class coupe and cabriolet, and the Mercedes-AMG GT roadster," Knoller says. Two-door S-classes have been eliminated, and the GT will become even more of a purebred sports car, ideally leaving more room for the SL to fulfill its mission of patrolling the world's Rodeo Drives.

The re-entry into the market of a viable former competitor, in the form of the Lexus LC, has also had an impact. "As far as sales, the LC is going to come in around 3000 units this year," says Todd Blickenstaff, Lexus product marketing manager for the brand's strenuously handsome luxury-sport coupe/convertible. "That's up almost 35 percent from last year."

Interestingly, certain EVs have also consumed a share in this lofty category. "When we look at those who most seriously considered a Mercedes SL and then see what they purchased instead, Tesla comes out as the number one brand," says Alexander Edwards, president of Strategic Vision, an automotive research and consulting firm. "Tesla has changed the way that those with lots of money think about performance and so, if someone is going to add a performance vehicle to their fleet, Tesla has come into the consideration set and bullied the others aside."

So why exactly does Mercedes persevere? A good part of it is simply the marque’s ritualistic commitment to its heritage. "For us, it is important to have this SL in our product portfolio because, brand-wise, it’s one of the icons since the 1950s," says Knoller. "Every decade there is an SL that reflects the lifestyle of the time period."

But this decision is also predicated on servicing a particularly valuable consumer. "The SL customers are more loyal customers. So, it is not only marketing to keep an icon alive. But also to meet customer expectations to our portfolio," says Knoller. He adds, "And the household income is quite high." Edwards's data backs this up. "For the SL specifically, [the buyers] are older men who earn more than most mere mortals," he says.

Then there is simply the prestige of having a viable player in this field—particularly one that has been abdicated by other competitors. "A luxury coupe is really critical to a premium brand. It serves as a halo," says Blickenstaff. "The visibility of a coupe is far greater than the market volume would suggest in part because the loyalty of coupe owners make them really effective brand ambassadors."

Finally, as with all the best vehicles, the ownership decision is not entirely logical but driven by other, often more powerful forces. "There is the rational segmentation, seeing the SUVs increasing and taking higher market share. On the other hand, we have these special customers who really love to have this kind of roadster," says Knoller. "They have these special moments in life where they just want to have fun with their friends. So, we need a special kind of car to be able to give them goosebumps in those moments."

The stats back this up as well. "According to our 2021 Total Quality research study, the SL has a literal perfect score on delivering the emotional experience of fun," says Edwards. "And you don't get rid of perfection."

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