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.
Some people have proclaimed the new SL as more or less ideal, but for one flaw. The funny thing is, each person perceives a different flaw. One might point to the incongruous black plastic background of the grille-mounted badge (it's that way because it houses sensors for the intelligent cruise control). Another will cite the grille itself. Sure, the nose's styling doesn't seem so well executed as the one it replaces. However, for anyone more interested in the driving experience than aesthetics, it's the exhaust note (not even a note, more a drone) that's the blot on the new SL550's copybook.
No such quibbles with the SL600 (although the heavier engine seems to weigh the front down somewhat) or the SL63 AMG, a car that's been thoroughly worked over by Mercedes' 'wild man' division. Packing a peaky, rev-happy, 6.2-liter, 525-hp V8 that forces 464 lb-ft of torque into a beefed-up, fast-shifting, seven-speed auto trans, the SL63 even has a launch control-sending the car to 60 mph in a whisker below 4.6 seconds. AMG also puts its own wrinkle on the ABC system, configuring the double-wishbone front/five-link rear to a more track-appropriate setting.
Despite the prodigious wealth of power and talent at the top end of the SL range, with a car so capable-that comports itself so beautifully-it's a tough argument to convince someone that spending a pile of cash on one of the upper-level models is a good idea (the SL63 will be about $132,000). Especially since the entry-level car gets more kit for the same money as before. Buying an SL550 and installing a decent-sounding aftermarket exhaust seems like a perfectly good way to go.
2009 Mercedes-Benz SL550
Longitudinal front-engine, rear-wheel drive
5.5-liter V8, dohc, 32-valve
Peak Power: 382 hp @ 6000 rpm
Peak Torque: 391 hp @ 2800 rpm
0-60 mph: 5.3 sec. (mfr.)
Top Speed: 155 mph (limited)
*What we like
The combination of power, control and pose value
*What we don't
Where's the growl?