Mercedes-Benz has long been one of the undisputed leaders in the luxury market, but few realize that the German automaker is also a force to be reckoned with in the sports car segment. While Mercedes-Benz’s stable of sporty models might not be the largest in the industry, they’re certainly some of the most exciting, offering the sort of white-knuckle performance that’ll have you searching for a more extended route home from the office. From the Mercedes-Benz SL Class—which has been ranked as the most comfortable luxury sports car in its class—to the 577-horsepower AMG GT 63 and even a veritable supercar in the $2.7 million AMG ONE, Mercedes sports cars have come a long way since the brand introduced it’s classic gullwing 300 SL coupe in 1954.
Join us as we take a look at that early 300 SL and see how the company’s stable of performance-minded models has evolved over the years. After tracking the brand’s process through the decades, we’ll close out with a review of the brand’s current sports car offerings and learn how Mercedes-Benz has developed a knack for brand loyalty that few automakers have been able to match.
From The Racetrack To The Road
Sports cars have been part of Mercedes-Benz’s DNA since the brand’s earliest days. While Mercedes-Benz had dabbled in the European racing scene since the company’s inception, it wasn’t until 1952 that the iconic company would return to the paddock with the W194 300 SL (short for “Super-Light”), which turned heads with some impressive podiums and trophies across the continental racing circuit.
Only 10 W194s would be made for the 1952 racing season, but after a slate of high-profile victories—including a double victory at Le Mans and quadruple crowns at the Nurburgring—Mercedes-Benz knew it needed to introduce a production-level version of the sporty new racer. That car was unveiled at the 1954 New York Motor Show as the 300 SL Coupe, also known by its W198 chassis code, and became a breakout star for several reasons. First, there was the coupe’s lightweight, tubular-frame construction, a relatively new technique that would grow to become hugely influential in the industry. This tubular-frame design made the W198 remarkably light, earning it the coveted “SL” designation and giving it a mouthwatering power-to-weight ratio. Speaking of power, the W198 had it in spades with a 3.0L six-cylinder engine that could churn out up to 240 hp and gave the coupe a record-setting top speed of over 160 MPH.
Yet the W198’s most significant selling point wasn’t its tubular-frame construction, monstrous engine, or its racing pedigree; it was its doors. Despite being Mercedes-Benz’s first-ever production sports car, the W198 is primarily remembered for its gullwing doors. While these eye-catching-if-impractical doors are largely reserved for supercars today, their inclusion on the W198 wasn’t some marketing ploy. In an effort to make the coupe as aerodynamic as possible, Mercedes-Benz turned to the tubular-frame construction, which, while effective, created a very small front cabin with structural components reaching much higher on the sides than normal. Much like on the W194, this constraint prevented the installation of standard doors, so Mercedes-Benz simply copied the racing model and gave the W198 its famous gullwing doors.
The W198 was an instant hit, with Mercedes-Benz selling more than 1,400 units between 1954 and 1957. The W198 was discontinued in its coupe form following the 1957 model year, but the automaker immediately followed up with a convertible roadster version. Gone were the gullwing doors, but the 300 S Roadster retained the W198’s tubular frame and was even a little more powerful to boot. Mercedes-Benz also switched out the rear axle for a new single-joint design, which significantly improved cornering and overall handling.
The W198 might have been a sensation, but it was also sensationally expensive. Ringing in at 29,000 Marks—roughly $92,000 today—the 300 SL was more than double the cost of Mercedes-Benz’s 200 luxury saloon. While this price point might cement the W198’s supercar status, it was a bit rich for the average customer, leading Mercedes-Benz to unveil the relatively bargain-priced 190 SL Roadster in 1955. Powered by a smaller 1.9L, four-cylinder engine, the 190 SL still had enough power to sell some 26,000 units within the first eight years of production.
Mercedes-Benz continued to perfect its sports car formula over the coming decades, rolling out the next generation of SL models that live on to this day. The famed automaker has also played around with some experimental designs, testing new technologies and seeing what works in an ongoing effort to build a better sports car. Next, let’s look at the brand’s current sports car offerings and see how, almost 70 years after the introduction of the W198, Mercedes-Benz has maintained its knack for building some of the world’s finest driving machines.
As the brand’s marquee sports car, the Mercedes-Benz SL has been around in one form or another since 1954. These days, the SL wears a familiar three-letter prefix that you’ll find on pretty much every high-performance model from the German brand—AMG. Short for Aufrecht, Melcher, Großaspach, AMG started as an independent engineering firm specializing in upgrading Mercedes-Benz vehicles with performance improvements. Mercedes-Benz bought a controlling interest in the company in 1999 and, in 2005, became the sole owner of the engineering firm. Today, only the finest—and fastest—Mercedes-Benz models earn the coveted AMG badge, and the SL is no exception.
Now in its seventh generation, the Mercedes-Benz SL-Class is as thrilling as ever. Combining the best in luxury and performance features, the SL-Class is a knockout with its bold, sporty styling and long list of premium amenities. Debuting in 2022, the convertible comes with a power soft top that replaces the retractable hardtop found on the previous generation’s R231 model.
The SL-Class comes in three trims, each with its own dedicated engine. The entry-level SL43 has a turbocharged 2.0L inline-four that produces 375 hp. That’s certainly not a bad start, but things really start to ramp up with the SL55. The mid-tier trim is offered with a 4.0L V8 that’s all the more powerful thanks to its twin-turbo setup, which gives the sports car 469 hp. The range-topping SL63 uses the same V8 as the SL55, but here it’s tuned for a whopping 577 hp, which is more than enough for a scintillating zero-to-60-mph time of 3.0 seconds. All three engine offerings are matched with a nine-speed automatic transmission, and the SL55 and SL63 both come standard with Mercedes-Benz’s all-wheel drive system and four-wheel steering.
Mercedes being Mercedes, there will always be some bespoke surprises in store. The brand has extended its Manufaktur speciality program to the SL for the 2024 model year, allowing drivers to customize their ride with a limited-edition paint scheme and two unique upholstery options. The SL63 Manufaktur Big Sur sees the SL-Class painted in a fiery Orange Flame Metallic hue with a Mystic Red and Black Nappa leather interior set off by orange contrast stitching. It’s certainly not the most understated sports car on the road, but the segment has never been one for the demure.
Those shopping the used market might also run across the Mercedes-Benz SLK-Class, a more budget-oriented version of the SL that ceased production in 2020. Built in the same spirit as the 1955 190 SL Roadster, the SLK-Class might not be as powerful as its big brother in the SL-Class, but it still provides a sporty, engaging ride that’s all the more enjoyable for the luxury features that come with it.
AMG GT Coupe
The Mercedes-AMG GT represents the company’s other major sports car offering. In production since 2014, the two-door grand tourer is about to launch its second generation going into the 2024 model year. Originally offered in three variants—the GT, GT S, and GT3 racing model—Mercedes-Benz also launched high-performance GT R and GT4 versions in 2017. These roadsters fared well over their first decade on the market, but Mercedes-Benz has never been one to rest on past success.
The AMG GT’s second generation will see Mercedes-Benz launch a coupe version of the popular sports car, but it might have more in common with the Mercedes-Benz SL-Class than the previous AMG GT model. Built on the same platform as the 2023 Mercedes AMG SL, the new AMG GT Coupe is longer and wider and boasts a more stretched-out wheelbase than its predecessor. The coupe is certainly not short on power, but it’s the inclusion of the Mercedes-Benz all-wheel drive system that is perhaps the model’s most significant selling point. Widely praised for its suburb control and handling, the all-wheel drive system gives the AMG GT Coupe all the traction it needs for a hair-raising day out on the track. The AMG GT Coupe has never had an all-wheel drive system before, making the sports car an even more enticing option for those seeking a dynamic driving experience.
Offered in GT55 and GT63 trims, both versions of the AMG GT Coupe come with rear-wheel drive and are paired with a twin-turbo 4.0L V8 and a new nine-speed automatic transmission. In the GT53, the engine puts out 469 hp and 516 lb-ft of torque, but the GT63 is the one to watch out for, with those figures climbing to 577 hp and 590 lb-ft of torque. There have also been rumors about a possible hybrid version of the AMG GT Coupe that could potentially beat the model’s previous 720 hp record (set by the 2021 Mercedes-AMG GT Black Series), but no details have emerged yet.
Mercedes-Benz has tweaked the design of the AMG GT Coupe compared to past models, shifting the engine forward to create a slightly roomier interior. The all-wheel drive system should also aid in acceleration, though the predicted 3.0-second zero-to-60 MPH time sounds plenty quick as it is. An electronically-controlled limited-slip differential gives the driver traction when and where they need it. Still, those seeking to throw the balance completely out of whack are in luck, as the automaker has included a feature that allows all the power to be routed to the rear axle in the name of burnouts.
The AMG SL and AMG GT Coupe aren’t the only sports cars on offer from Mercedes-Benz, but they are the only ones that cost less than $2.7 million. For those with a small fortune to burn, the Mercedes-AMG ONE is the quickest way to part with it. The limited-production plug-in hybrid sports car wouldn’t be out of place on a Formula One track. In fact, the supercar boasts a full slate of F1-derived technology and was even unveiled by seven-time F1 world champion and Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 driver, Lewis Hamilton. Hamilton participated in the car’s development, test-driving prototypes, and helping to work out the kinks.
So, what does $2.7 million get you? 1,063 hp, to start. The supercar’s hybrid drivetrain features four electric motors and a 1.6L, turbocharged V6 engine. With a limited top speed of 219 mph, seven-speed single-clutch automated manual transmission with four-disc carbon racing clutch, five-link aluminum coil-over suspension, hydraulic AMG carbon-fiber ceramic high-performance composite brake system, and an entirely carbon fiber chassis that gives the AMG ONE a curb weight of just 3,737 lbs, the sports car wouldn’t be out of place racing alongside Hamilton, Verstappen and the rest.
The AMG ONE will be offered with six distinct drive modes, allowing drivers to feel like they’re rounding a corner at Spa or ripping through the streets of Monaco. From Race Safe and Race to EV, Race Plus, Strat 2, and a custom Individual mode, the AMG One is about as smart and race-ready as they come. The supercar can speed from zero to 60 MPH in under three seconds, but it’s the AMG ONE’s 7.0 second zero to 124 MPH time that really caught our attention. With only 275 units planned, the AMG One will surely achieve legendary status in no time.
From the W198 and other early 300 SL models to the SL-Class, AMG GT Coupe, and the no-holds-barred supercar that is the AMG ONE, Mercedes-Benz certainly knows how to hold its own when it comes to sports cars. The brand might be more well-known for its refined, luxurious sedans, tech-heavy SUVs, and versatile vans, but the sports car segment has long allowed the German brand to flex a little of its engineering muscle. There’s nothing quite like the challenge of creating a sports car that blends the best aspects of performance, luxury, comfort, and style. If Mercedes-Benz’s resume is any indication, they’re more than up for the challenge. While three sports cars might seem like a relatively modest stable for a brand of Mercedes-Benz’s stature, the company is known to round out offerings like the SL-Class and AMG GT Coupe with plenty of limited edition models like the Mercedes-AMG GT Black Series that allow every driver to find the right vehicle to fit their needs, taste, and budget.