From the February 1989 issue of Car and Driver.
This is a title match, heavyweight two-seater division. The undisputed champion Mercedes-Benz SL is stepping into the ring yet again, one more time in its amazing eighteen-year-long career. This time the challenger is the brash young Cadillac Allanté. “Palooka,” says the scuttlebutt. “The Allanté is all hype and no punch. Look at its record in the showrooms. This is gonna be another Mercedes KO.”
For sure, the champ has built a career on knockouts. The contenders look good on paper, but they always come up short. What most ringsiders don’t know, however, is how hard this challenger has been training for 1989. We previewed the toughened Allanté at a recent workout, and it showed us some impressive new moves.
Still, the SL’s record is formidable—the envy of all the prestige-car makers. Sales results for 1988 are not complete as this is being written, but Mercedes sold 11,964 SLs stateside in 1987 and 12,530 in 1986. For a car that’s always been priced in the stratosphere, that kind of showroom success is astounding.
That kind of success, it must be said, is also exactly what brings out the challengers. The 1989-model 560SL lists for $64,230. If past sales continue, that amounts to a nice little three-quarter-billion-dollar-a-year business. Would other carmakers like a bite of that? Do sharks like steak tartare?
We’ll tell you how much one particular German maker wants a piece of the SL’s action. Have you seen the recent print ad for the Porsche 928S4, the one with the headline that reads “Think of it as a Mercedes with Tabasco sauce”? Huh? Is there any way you can squint your mind’s eye so that the fastback-sleek and enormously powerful 928 comes across as some kind of spicy Mercedes? We can’t either. But if the champ were beating you up in the market—really hammering you despite your best offensive efforts—perhaps you’d blurt out whatever desperate thing came to mind, too.
How bad is the champ killing them in sales? Worse than you’d think. In 1987, Porsche sold 1967 928s, and 1988 is off about 30 percent from that. In a good Porsche year, Mercedes moves about six times as many SLs.
Jaguar does better in the high-buck two-seater business. In 1987, it sold 5380 XJ-Ss, and 1988 sales are close to the same number. But the SL still outsells the Jaguar by more than two to one.
All of this evidence is being piled on the table not to show the weakness of the challengers—they are hardly unattractive machines in our estimation—but to dramatize the overwhelming success of the Mercedes-Benz 560SL. This car was introduced to the U.S. market in 1972 as the 350SL, priced at $10,500 (that was a stiff ticket in those days, but in constant dollars the car is far more expensive today). Since then it has been facelifted, refined, and upgraded, but it’s still easily recognizable as an evolution of the 1972 model. Unlike most cars, which slow in sales as they age, the SL has trended upward to today’s awesome total. The Mercedes-Benz SL convertible now defines the class. When seriously affluent Americans think of a chic sporter for two, most of them think of this car.
And if the customers regard the SL as the standard, then so must the challengers (and so must we). The Allanté was created with the SL in mind. Cadillac never said that exactly, but it did point to the customers it wanted—and they were all heading for their local M-B stores. How could they be intercepted? Showing them a better SL was the obvious strategy. Cadillac held nothing back with the Allanté. It even confronted its own Not Invented Here Syndrome, admitted that outside help was necessary, and hired Pininfarina to design and manufacture the bodies and help with general development. Cadillac, you must understand, didn’t just roll another model out the door: the Allanté is a premeditated and carefully executed move to sock it to the champion SL.
How’s it going so far? Not badly, we’d say—despite what you may have heard about weak punches in the showroom. In model-year 1987, the introductory year, Cadillac reported 1651 Allanté sales, followed by 3502 sales of the 1988s. Admittedly, this is not heavy traffic and it didn’t cause much sweat at Daimler-Benz.
Nonetheless, we think the Allanté made a respectable showing. We say that for two reasons: (1) its over-$50,000 introductory price was twenty grand more than anything else wearing the Cadillac label, which means there were no customers predisposed to over-$50,000 Cadillacs, and (2) the Cadillac label gets no respect in the ultrahigh end of the business. Moving the iron against that sort of head wind is necessarily slow going.
But so what? Champs aren’t made in a year or two. Look at the SL. It has secured its lock on the market over eighteen years. There’s only one question: Is the Allanté a better car? If it is, the sales will come in due time.
ls the Allanté a better car? That is the question, isn’t it? And that’s the reason for this title match. Why wait years for the vote to come in when a few days of driving and a few trips to the test track can serve up the answer immediately?
The Weigh In
At the weigh-in, the SL and the Allanté showed the similarities you’d expect from closely matched opponents. In external dimensions the Allanté is chunkier, about two inches shorter and three inches wider, and stands on the road with a widespread stance: its wheelbase and track are each nearly three inches greater than the SL’s.
At 3681 pounds, the SL outweighs the Allanté by 163 pounds. It also has a far larger engine: 5547cc, versus 4467cc for the Allanté. Horsepower is 227 for the Mercedes, 200 for the Cadillac. Both cars are two-seater convertibles with removable hard tops. Neither is suitable for a third occupant behind the buckets; indeed, riding back there would be virtually impossible in the Allanté.
Both are powered by V-8 engines coupled to four-speed automatics, but here the first significant difference appears. The SL is rear-drive; the Allanté’s V-8 powers the front wheels.
Both have independent suspension and disc brakes at all four comers, and both have anti-lock brakes as standard equipment.
Round One: First Impressions
Boy, you can really tell the champ from the challenger. It’s old versus new. The SL has an instrument panel full of white-on-black gauges positioned high on the dash where you can get a close look at them. The Allanté has a glowing all-electronic cluster—arranged in ersatz dials and bar graphs—that shows you a palette of red, blue, green, gray, and yellow. For traditionalists, a proper needles-and-numbers cluster is available on the Allanté at no charge, but Cadillac has always maintained that the luminous electro display was the right way to monitor this car’s soul.
The different approaches to instrumentation provide the first indication of an age difference between the two cars, but there are plenty of others. The SL, amazingly, still has bright-metal (instead of black) windshield-wiper arms and a Florsheim-shiny material stretched across the top of the dash. Both reflect sunlight excessively. The SL’s cockpit is notably chromey, and the grain of its upholstery, particularly on the door panels and the console, has a bygone-years aura about it. You also see plenty of fine-furniture-quality wood trim.
There’s no wood in the Cadillac. Instead, it greets you with a “bink, bink” key warning and a “plink, plink” turn-signal indicator, both electronic synthesizer sounds. Your eye falls on smoothly molded shapes with non-glare finishes. The dashboard buttons—dozens of them—are systematically arranged in rows and columns, and there are power assists for everything, including the complex seat adjustments.
The SL is a stark contrast, still reflecting the thinking of two decades ago when power seats weren’t necessary, electronic displays didn’t exist, and Mercedes decided that a power-adjustable mirror was something installed only on the right side-where the driver couldn’t reach a mechanical adjuster.
Round Two: On the Road
The SL’s cockpit is that of a traditional two-seater, which is to say it’s intimate. You sit near the floor, and everything around you is sports-car close, including the dash and the windshield.
The wider Allanté, on the other hand, is cavernous, a room with two chairs in it. The windshield is well forward and the doors are so far away that the armrests are nearly unusable.
The cars respond differently to your touch, too. The M-B feels a bit ponderous. The throttle moves a long way before anything happens. You get used to that but not to the slowness of the transmission’s downshift decisions. Full-throttle kickdowns at city-traffic speeds are a matter of much deliberation—and of too much lunge.
The Allanté is quick and crisp in traffic. Its engine is somewhat louder, mostly exhaust actually, and the note is okay if you like that kind of thing. The M-B sounds more refined and quieter at low speeds, changing when the revs top 4500 to the hard metallic song of purposeful machinery. This car has subtle ways of reminding you that something pretty wonderful resides under the hood.
Because these are convertibles, we made a point of checking them for the body shakes and quivers inherent in topless construction. Daimler-Benz pioneered the use of special latches that transform the doors, when closed, into structural panels. For the same reason, notably solid clamps attach the SL’s hard top. This car was a marvel of convertible rigidity when it was new in 1972.
Our comparisons focused on soft-top and top-down driving because these are the worst conditions for shake. The jittery feeling imparted by Los Angeles freeways seemed a bit harsher in the SL, while the Allanté showed more windshield shake. At cruising speeds with their soft tops up, you hear wind roar in the SL, exhaust roar in the Allanté. While the cars were definitely different in the way they responded to road inputs, we judged them to be equal—and very acceptable—in their annoyances.
Round Three: Convertibility
These are casual sporters, not high-performance GT missiles, and top-down motoring is a big part of their attraction. So how are they as convertibles?
One way to judge is to ask, How easily do the tops go up and down? (Neither is power-assisted.) This question is complicated, of course, by what level of closed-car perfection each car is seeking when the top is up. The Allanté has a hard glass rear window with integral de-icing. The SL has a plain old plastic-film window complete with vision-distorting waves when you look through the inside mirror; in other words, a little behind the times even for 1972.
Having said that, the SL’s soft top was easier to put up and down, even though it required the use of several special tools. The Allanté took more tugging and grunting to make latches meet, likely because the car was so young (only 52 miles showing when delivered) that the fabric had not yet taken its stretch. Probably once you’ve been through the procedure a dozen times to learn the quirks, the two are about the same.
For hard-top removal, however, they’ll never be equal. The M-B’s top weighs a hefty 96 pounds, versus 58 pounds for the Allanté’s. In the SL’s handbook there is the polite suggestion that maybe this is a job for the dealer. For some owners, it surely would be.
A second way to judge the joys of convertibility is to ask, How drafty is the cockpit with the top down? Here the Allanté is vastly superior. Pininfarina’s aerodynamic tweaking paid off. In what is admittedly a highly subjective comparison, we concluded that the “windiness” level felt in the Allanté at 60 mph was equaled by the SL at 47 mph, give or take a little. The Allanté delivers fully on its open-air promise.
Round Four: The Mountain Road
Racetrack performance is not the point of these casual sporters. Far more important to ask is, How are they on that mythical mountain road? The Allanté has new tricks for 1989 aimed at just this sort of driving: 16-inch wheels with Goodyear Eagle VL 225/55VR-16 tires, power steering that increases in effort as speed rises, and shock absorbers that automatically (no cockpit switches) increase damping with speed. In addition, the shocks stiffen between 0 and 5 mph to reduce front-end lift during acceleration; and, to limit dive, they firm up with any brake application above 35 mph.
The result of these chassis advancements is a profound change in the demeanor of the Allanté. The quick-reflex tires and always-right shocks transmit a tight, in-touch-with-the-road sensation that used to be pretty much the exclusive property of German cars.
The SL, with its more conventional underpinnings, feels like the traditional Detroiter. Its ride is less harsh. Its body rolls more in the turns. And its shocks feel floaty over the bumps.
In the twisties, the Allanté has crisper steering response and the self-firming shocks do a very nice thing—they resist that nose-down, tail-up pitch that comes when you pull back on the power as you pick up the turn’s arc. As you rush into the turns, the Allanté feels secure. In the SL, you feel the tail rise, then tip to the outside, followed momentarily by a side step of the rear tires. It’s a bit messy.
The Allanté got messy on one particular bump, which set its rear wheels to dancing. We tried this disturbance a number of times in both cars, and the SL barely noticed.
Although front-wheel drive is usually not the preferred choice for sporting cars, the front-drive nature of the Allanté is apparent only in low-speed turns—intersections, for example—when you’re accelerating hard. Out on the twisties, at speeds appropriate to these casual runabouts, it was undetectable.
These speeds did reveal different approaches to seat design, however. The SL has typical M-B firm-but-flat cushions topped by a backrest that’s curved, as you look down on it, to cup you in place. The Allanté has a cushion with high side bolsters and a relatively flat backrest. In effect, the SL tries to keep your upper body from sliding sideways; the Allanté tries to hold your butt in place. The SL’s seat works less well, we think, but the door is so close that it’s easy to brace against it. The door is too far away in the Allanté, which means you brace your upper body against the wheel. Opinion is divided about which system works best.
Round Five: Pedal to the Metal
The drag race was inevitable. Line ’em up and let it happen. The big-engined SL, pulling fiercely to its 6000-rpm redline, made itself small in the Allanté’s windshield. No surprise.
What was surprising, however, was the opening stages of the race. The Allanté has gained 30 horsepower for 1989 from a much-revised engine (an extra 380cc is just a small part of the package). Off the mark it opens up a car-length lead and holds it until the M-B is about halfway through second gear. Then the German’s superior power takes over and the race quickly becomes no contest.
The M-B wins if you hold the pedal down long enough, but in traffic the Allanté is quicker. Its shrewdly chosen ratios and its quick-to-downshift transmission use the smaller engine to best advantage. The fact that the M-B hesitates so long before reaching for a lower gear means that, once the cars are rolling, the Allanté will always win the jump. And at urban speeds, it stays ahead.
The Decision: It’s Unanimous
The judges say no KO. But they are unanimous in their decision. The victory goes to—ta-dah!—the Allanté.
The SL is powerful, it’s nicely screwed together, and it oozes prestige. But it’s old. Its reflexes are slow. Its cockpit lacks comfort (compared with the Allanté’s), and driving it seems more of a burden.
The Allanté is unfailingly hospitable and feels delightfully quick to the touch in normal driving. It ends up being more likable.
Daimler-Benz has not been asleep, of course. For years, spy photos of a new SL have been slipping out of Stuttgart. The company now confirms that the replacement will be here in time for the 1990 model year.
For now, though, it’s time to update the tip sheet: this new kid, the Allanté, has been hugely underrated.
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