It’s easy to assume the Mercedes-Benz S-Class sedan is the company flagship, and the SLS AMG is the brand’s top-tier sports car. Yet it’s the SL sports car that holds the title as the most significant vehicle in Mercedes-Benz history.
Dating back to the brilliant 300SL “Gullwing” of 1952, there have been more than 500,000 examples built to date over six decades and five previous generations.
Each iteration introduced innovation and style, allowing it to last far longer than the usual four-year life cycle. In fact, the third generation SL was in production from ‘71-89!
By the time the SL reached its fifth generation in ’03, it had become the go-to choice of entrepreneurs and businessmen. And now, in 2012, to celebrate the model’s 60th anniversary, Mercedes has released a new SL.
With the history lesson over, we should address the elephant in the room – the exterior design, particularly the front fascia, is slightly questionable (remember the “Bangle Butt”? Well, here we go again!).
Partially due to European crash regulations, the upright nose has yet to be perfectly executed on any car. But regardless, the awkward headlamps set far in each corner don’t imbue the same elegance as the previous generation.
The exterior is roughly 2" longer and wider, and this shape is slippery. With a drag coefficient of just 0.29, it’s the most aerodynamic in its class.
Beneath the sheet metal is a new unitized body made almost entirely from aluminum, so is 275 lb lighter than before. The retractable roof also gets fancy materials, with magnesium saving 13% in weight.
Under the hood, the $105,500 SL550 packs a high-tech V8 that’s both more efficient and more powerful than its predecessor. Boasting two intercooled turbos, multi-spark ignition and direct fuel injection (a “modern” technology first used on the 1954 SL), this 4.6-liter powerplant is 20% smaller than previously, yet its 429hp and whopping 516 lb-ft blow away the 5.5L in the previous car.
Keeping fuel consumption in check is the new ECO start/stop system. Thanks to this technology and the latest seven-speed adaptive automatic transmission with selectable drive modes, the new SL550 manages to escape the gas-guzzler tax with 16/24mpg (city/highway).
The SL is loaded to the hilt with cool equipment, including all the audio, comfort and convenience features you’d expect from a six-figure luxury vehicle. But it also has some unique goodies, like the optional Magic Sky Control, which adjusts the tint level of the glass roof, or the standard Magic Vision Control wipers, that include adjustable washer nozzles in the blades – leave it to the Germans to over-engineer the wipers!
For those with hands full, the SL allows fully automated trunk operation merely by swinging your foot underneath it. The list goes on…
Likewise, Mercedes is touting the 2013 SL as “the world’s safest convertible.” A glance at the safety features confirms it, especially when equipped with the Driver Assistance Package, Adaptive Highbeam Assist, active curve illumination and the mbrace2 connected assistance system.
A top-level Mercedes is expected to be well equipped, but there’s plenty to add as always. For starters, the Premium 1 Package ($4900) adds things like keyless operation, automated parking and the leg-swinging trunk deal. The Driver Assistance Package ($2950) includes active safety features like a full-stop-capable cruise control, blind spot assistance and lane control. The simple Sport Wheel Package ($2000) pairs a set of 19" wheels with a sports brake system. There are also of individual options, like active suspension ($4090), the Magic Sky Control ($2500) or pricey B&O sound system at $6400 – but we preferred the Harman Kardon system.
So how does the 2013 SL550 drive? Well, it’s fast. Very fast. We’re talking about 500 lb of twist, available practically from idle. And thanks to the vault-like silence in the cabin, it’s not unusual to look down and find you’re going faster than you thought.
The optional Active Body Control (ABC Active Suspension) also impressed by completely eliminating dip, squat or roll, keeping things planted in the twisties.
And thanks to the SL’s diet, the new generation is lighter on its feet, although the steering was very light so the car never felt in its element when hustled.
As such, it remains a grand tourer, not for joyrides. Perhaps a disappointment for hardcore enthusiasts, but it should prove suitable for SL buyers.
With a six-figure starting price, each new SL has big shoes to fill. All told, the sixth generation is an acceptable successor.
While it’s not as revolutionary as previous SL generations, it certainly doesn’t disappoint in any significant way.