Few cars have the history, panache and high expectations of a new Mercedes-Benz SL. Why? Well, given that they all are direct descendants of the gullwing model of the mid-‘50s, one of the most successful racing and sports cars of its time, there’s plenty of pressure for the company to get them right.
|1. A new twin-turbo 4.7L V8 makes 429 hp and 516 lb-ft of torque for a 0-60 time of 4.5 seconds.
2. A new aluminum chassis helps the SL shed 300 lbs of weight.
3. Pricing starts at $105,500 plus a $905 delivery charge.
For 2013, the ‘new’ SL is here, replacing a version that had – with a couple facelifts – been around for 11 years.
Let’s see how ‘Benz has done.
Regardless of its name meaning sporty and light in German, the SL certainly isn’t the latter. Although its curb weight of 3,935 pounds is 300 less than before, the two-seater is dense and needs all the help it can get to feel responsive and enjoyable.
It does the smooth-riding look-at-me-stuff very, very well. The new styling was essentially previewed by the latest SLK, which is pretty much a seven/eighths-scale SL. A bigger, bolder and more upright front grille is flanked by larger and brighter headlights with embedded LED ‘horseshoes’. The lower grille is split into three like most ‘Benz products and features the ubiquitous LED accents where traditional foglights normally reside. More LEDs are found in the reshaped rear lamps, which complement the re-profiled trunk lid.
However, for the first time, those body panels aren’t steel, they’re aluminum, while high-strength steel and magnesium used in structural supports help bring down the new car’s mass even more.
Also all-new is the 4.7-liter twin-turbocharged V8, here putting out 429 horsepower and – wait for it – 516 lb-ft of torque. Those are big improvements over the previous generation, which ‘only’ had 382 horses and 391 lb-ft from a naturally aspirated 5.5-liter V8.
Using the same seven-speed automatic, the new SL550 does the 0-60 mph run about a second faster than before, meaning it’s right on the 4.5 second mark. The twin-turbos' insta-torque also seriously cuts down passing times too; no need to wait for the engine to hit its stride here.
The crash diet and ‘modern’ engine – which also uses an automatic stop/start system – means fuel economy is better too: it now ekes out 17 mpg in the city and 25 on the highway compared with only 14/22 before. However, those people willing to spend a tick over $105,000 on a two-seat roadster probably weren’t bothered too much before.
The steering isn’t the most feelsome, but given the SL is designed to be more a grand-tourer than out-and-out sports car, that’s fine. Our 550 tester rides on no-cost-optional 19-inch AMG wheels with 255 wide tires up front with 285s out back to better handle the engine’s upgraded horsepower. When, inevitably, the rubber breaks loose, there are dozens of computer driver aids to keep things in line: traction and stability control, an electronic rear differential, torque-vectoring brake control, and plenty more besides.
Although its natural habitat is more top-down cruising in swanky cities, everything works reasonably well when you dial in some more spirited roads. Benz’s optional active body control (ABC) uses variable suspension parts and computer-controlled anti-roll bars to keep the car flatter during cornering. The front and rear track in every SL are wider, which helps handling even more, although the easy money suggests anyone who prefers even more g’s on their commute should opt for the more focused SL63 AMG.
Although the sheetmetal might lack grace, one part that’s undeniable is the quality and refinement of the cabin. Top-shelf materials cover the dash, seats and console; real woods and metals, soft leather on the seats and other touch-points. The optional climate-comfort seats – i.e. both heated and cooled – also come with the Airscarf system that blows a similarly comfortable breeze around your neck, extending top-down driving seasons.
Speaking of tops, the retractable metal hard-top is into its third or fourth generation now, and takes less than 20 seconds to completely stow away. Open-air driving is exactly what the SL550 thrives on, even with its newfound reflexes. The turbocharged V8 doesn’t have the same throaty burble of the old car, but its whoosh has enough character to make up for it.
A hundred grand buys a lot of standard toys, including 12-way power seats, dual climate control, hard-drive-based navigation, a harman/kardon LOGIC7 audio system with integrated Bluetooth. But our tester also came with the Premium 1 package (almost all of which should be included in a vehicle like this), which includes a rear-view camera, parking sensors, the awesome upgraded seats, and keyless ignition for $4,900, Active Body Control for $4,090 and the Driver Assistance Package with radar-based cruise control, active blind-spot assist, and active-lane-keeping technology for $2,950.
The as-tested price of just under $120,000 is pretty shocking to us mere mortals with five-figure salaries. But given its epic clientele, we’d guess the SL550 will once again become completely ubiquitous in places like Beverly Hills and Miami.
Competitors? Well, the BMW 650i Convertible starts about $10,000 less than the SL, but can be optioned similarly, as can the Jaguar XK; both of those also have high-performance M and R versions, but neither is a ‘true’ two-seat roadster. The Aston Martin V8 Vantage Roadster is another more left-field option, but even the ‘base’ V8-powered drop-top starts at $137,000. A Porsche 911 Carrera S Cabriolet would probably be the default choice given its pedigree and $110,000 asking price.
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But really, regardless of its price or how controversial its styling, the SL550 will sell simply because it’s an SL. Mercedes-Benz has decades of history on its side and regardless of how uncouth it appears in its latest go-round, that three-pointed star is still a magnet for big money.