Some things just work. They have an inherent 'rightness' about them. And usually that's because someone put an inordinate amount of time and effort into making something work, making it all seem so effortless-that's the paradox/irony/duality. The Mercedes-Benz SL-Class is one of those things.
Having been around since 1954 and gone through five long-lived generations, there's been plenty of time for this icon of the motoring world to head toward perfection-if there was any such thing. The 2009 model is not a completely new iteration; this is a mid-cycle re-vamp. But the additions and re-workings have resulted in improvements on a car that was one of the finest things on wheels in the first place.
For once, something isn't as easy as ABC. The new SL's second-generation Active Body Control system is a complex arrangement that uses hydraulics, electronics and mechanical parts to contest physical laws and keep the car's attitude pancake-like through corners. If a normal SL were equipped with a conventional suspension, its body roll would be greater by 68 percent. Cycle among the three settings and the differences can be felt, although it never approaches hardcore stiff.
The SL550, the lowliest model to go on sale in the United States, gets a seven-speed automatic transmission (that allows sequential manual selection). This makes kick-down easier and quicker. As one expects from Mercedes, it moves from gear to gear with all the violence of a baby's kiss.
Something that will be making an appearance on the 2010 model-year SL is a variable-ratio steering system. This isn't like BMW's Active Steering that tends to get a little weird and floaty. Mercedes calls it Direct Steer. Around dead center, it feels stable (yet a tad more informative than previous SL helms). Beyond the first five degrees of steering angle, it morphs into a higher gear ratio so the wheel doesn't need to be tugged so much during cornering. This is achieved by using a worm gear in the rack that incorporates a variable pitch. After some acclimatization, it's a good thing.
The 5.5-liter V8 in the SL550 remains untouched. It's quick and punchy enough, especially for traditional SL buyers. The next model up, the SL600, enjoys a 5.5-liter twin-turbocharged V12 that boils up 510 hp at 5000 rpm and twists to the tune of 612 lb-ft, from as low as 1900 rpm. The 600 is mated to the same five-speed auto as before, which also functions sweetly and has no problems whatsoever dealing with such mighty torque.
The cabin is as sumptuous as always. It's easy to spend a lot of time in it (or at least want to). There are heated/cooled/massaging seats available, the new neck-warming Airscarf feature and an updated audio system that can handle USB sockets, SD memory cards, iPod and Bluetooth connectivity, plus a few other navigation- and DVD-related bells and whistles. It takes a mere 16 seconds to transform from quiet coupe to refined roadster. Some versions of the car now have the option of carbon fiber trim
The AMG look has become standard throughout the range. Potential customers will have to make up their own minds on the styling, but the rear is only mildly tweaked. Two power domes have sprouted from the new-for-2009 hood. The front fenders now have 'gills' reminiscent of the original 300 SL Gullwing and the SLR McLaren, while the single bar in the grille again evokes the SL's pedigree.