Man, in his primal form, is designed to be one with the elements. He is wired to be out and about, seeking fun and adventure in his natural surroundings. So when early man graduated from walking and running to different modes of transport, larger-than-life pace and the exhilarating feeling of wind in the hair played a significant role in shaping his choices. Whether it were horses or early topless motor cars like the Ford Model T, Cadillac V16 or the Bugatti Royale, the prospect of travelling fast while taking in the sun and a blast of air had man captivated. That’s why even today, a car sans roof is considered the purest form of motoring. But just as there are horses for courses, these roofless machines, whether you call them roadsters, convertibles or cabriolets, are separated from each other by subtle nuances. In essence the formula might appear the same, but more often than not, things couldn’t be more different than two drop-tops, much like the Mercedes-Benz SL 400 and the Porsche 911 Targa 4S we have here.
Both cars carry the huge responsibility that comes with having an illustrious lineage. Not many badges on sale today can boast the kind of legacy that the SL and the 911 nameplates claim. Starting life in 1951 as the 300 Super Light, the SL was all about lightness and dynamics at the outset. Built around an aluminium and magnesium tubular frame, the 300 SL made its mark at many races including the Mille Miglia, Le Mans, Nürburgring as well as the Carrera Panamericana in Mexico. Having had a baptism by fire, it was adapted for the road at the behest of US importer Max Hoffman, and the road-going 300 SL Gullwing was born. Considered by many as the world’s first true supercar, it was also the fastest production car of the time. However, the current iteration of the SL doesn’t carry the sporting spirit of the original 300 SL. While that mantle has been ably worn by the SLS AMG and the Mercedes-AMG GT, the R231 SL 400 is more of a spiritual successor to the tamer, softer 190 SL roadster.
The 911 Targa also traces its roots back to the original envisaged by Ferdinand ‘Butzi’ Porsche in 1959 as a larger, more comfortable replacement for the 356. The Targa specifically was the result of Porsche anticipating a blanket ban on fully open convertibles by US authorities in the mid-Sixties. To counter the strict safety rules in the US market, Porsche came up with a roof mechanism that comprised a panel that could be removed, leaving a full-width central roll bar for passenger safety. It was sort of a semi-convertible. It had a wraparound rear window that was also removable. This window, which was made of plastic initially and changed to glass later, quickly became a signature styling element of the Targa. What started off as nothing more than a preemptive move against certain legislation, and ironically was considered ungainly at one point, has now ended up being the most stylish version of the 911.
Talking of style, both the SL and the Targa have it in abundance. In fact, the profusion of panache is what makes them what they are. Both have been refreshed recently, too. Although the R231 SL was launched in 2012, it was given a mid-cycle facelift last year, with a steeply raked ‘diamond’ grille that has apparently taken cues from the iconic 300 SL Panamericana racing car up front, along with an ‘A-wing’ front apron, and power bumps on the bonnet. The profile remains the same; the quintessential SL proportions dominated by a long, sweeping bonnet and a short rump featuring an AMG rear apron with side air intakes and a diffuser. If you hold back the urge to judge it in reference to some of its stunningly gorgeous ancestors, the SL, from most angles, is a good-looking roadster.
The Targa, meanwhile, looks like no other drop-top car on the market today. It is a much more sophisticated-looking car than the 911 Coupé and Cabriolet. The distinctive silver-hued Targa bar takes the place of the B pillars, separating the retractable roof section over the front seats from the wraparound rear window, also doing away with the C pillars. It features all the styling elements from the standard 911 range, including headlights with four-point daytime running lights, rear decklid with vertical louvres, and new taillights. Furthermore, the Targa variant is distinguished by a light strip that connects the taillamps, enhancing the broader appearance of the rear, which in fact is wider by 44 millimetres compared to the rear-wheel drive models.
While they look very different from each other, there are some similarities in what lurks in the engine bay. Mercedes has introduced the new 3.0-litre twin-turbocharged V6 to the SL range, which, mated to a nine-speed auto ’box, makes 362bhp and 500Nm, and helps the SL 400 from nought to 100kph in 4.9 seconds. Porsche has also replaced the Targa 4S’s old 3.8-litre engine with a brand-new 3.0-litre twin turbo. Mated to a seven-speed PDK, it sends 420bhp and 500Nm of torque to all four corners in the 4S. And the 0-100kph sprint is despatched in just 4.2 seconds.
The Targa is a good 110kg heavier than the 911 Coupé and 40kg bulkier than the 911 Cabriolet. However, despite this added heft, the 911 Targa 4S is a ruddy brilliant sportscar. The Coupé’s chassis is stiffer, and the Targa’s suspension and damper rates have been tweaked with a bias towards more relaxed cruising. Hardcore Porschephiles might disagree, but in my view, this makes the Targa a more complete 911 than the rest of the range. Agreed, the chassis responses aren’t as sharp and precise as those you get from other 991s, but unless you are Walter Röhrl, or have sensors attached to your derrière and hands, the chances of you gauging any noticeable difference in handling dynamics to the other 911 variants are slim. At any rate, this car has more performance and greater dynamic abilities than what your average driver can exploit. It’s pretty much the same with the SL as well. It is unashamedly a luxury-oriented car, which is not meant to be driven hard. It’s a pure grand tourer, offering levels of serenity and tranquillity in the cabin that can only be matched by a two-door S-Class. Although it has different driving modes ranging from Comfort to Sport to Sport Plus, I would recommend leaving it in Comfort always, and instead of trying to control it via the paddles, letting the car’s computers pick the cogs for you. This way, you sit back and immerse yourself in the wide, plush leather seats and watch the world go by.
And the good thing is you don’t have to keep the roof up to enjoy the calm and quiet of the SL’s cabin. Even with the metal folding roof down, the SL manages to keep road and wind noise at bay, even at highway speeds. And the top folds back gracefully in less than 20 seconds and at up to speeds of 40kph.
Meanwhile, the way the 911 Targa’s roof mechanism folds and unfolds is quite a sight in itself. It is a spectacular display of electromechanical wizardry that has not hitherto been seen in the automobile world. At the press of a button, an unbelievably complicated, yet totally enchanting sequence is set in motion, which lifts the wraparound window and bits of the rear bodywork up, then the front fabric roof, stows it neatly behind the rear seats and elegantly brings the window back in place.
Both these cars are engineered for the open roads, meant to be driven by free souls looking to meld with the machine and the elements alike. They both satisfy man’s instinctive urge to blend seamlessly with nature, and just as more eyes would have been drawn towards someone riding a thoroughbred stallion in olden times, the Mercedes-Benz SL 400 and the Porsche 911 Targa 4S will guarantee you a steady wave of attention wherever you go, roof down or not.
These two cars represent, by their very different yet comparable means, the most sophisticated, erudite and stylish way to say, “Look at me!”