Mercedes adds an iconic roadster to its lineup with new SL models
When it comes to categorising the Mercedes-Benz SL roadster there are a couple of options — gran turismo or performance cruiser.
It’s a niche product for the brand but it’s also an iconic one as it is aligned to the 1955 SL Gullwing and the 1957 Roadster.
The sixth generation of the SL was launched in 2012 and now Mercedes and its performance department, AMG, have launched a facelift model in the apt setting of Southern California.
Half of the SLs globally are sold in the US, and most of them will end up in SoCal — thanks to its climate and convertible-suitable destinations. The international lineup includes the SL400, SL500, and AMG versions of the 63 and 65.
The SL400 and 500 get increases in power, the new nine-speed auto transmission and the optional addition of Curve control.
The SL400’s 3-litre, V6 bi-turbo engine has an increase to 270kW of power and 500Nm of torque while the SL500 now has 335kW and peak torque of 700Nm.
The AMG pair gain five-setting Dynamic Select programmes and an updated suspension system.
All four models gain an exterior facelift with a new bonnet and front grille, similar to the Mercedes-AMG GT sports coupe, plus an upgraded multimedia system including Car Play.
The rear also gets some attention with LED lights and an automatic boot separator (to make access to the luggage space easier), plus a roof that operates of speeds up to 40km/h, says Mercedes. To start the function the car must be stopped; it then continues to operate at speed.
With the hard top on, the SL gains a coupe appearance and has a relatively quiet cabin.
For the first time, Mercedes has introduced an all-aluminum bodyshell that cuts 110kg off the SL, giving it a not-so-shabby figure of just over 2000kg.
New Zealand won’t get the facelift models until June-July, with prices and specifications to be announced closer to the launch. The current price of the SL500 is $265,000; the SL63 is $335,000.
Mercedes-Benz NZ managing director Ben Giffin said the SL is “a true icon of our brand.
“For more than 60 years now, the SL has thrilled sports car fans around the world.
“The SL combines the best of both worlds — the elegant cruising capabilities of a roadster, with the dynamic and powerful performance of a sports car.”
But for AMG, with its sports performance mandate, the SL is categorised as a performance cruiser or gran tourismo, not necessarily as a sports car, AMG product manager Simon Thoms told Driven.
“The SL is not a car made for the racetrack,” Thoms said when asked how many owners would test its limits on a circuit.
“It is comfort-orientated. Most owners are not going to bring it to the limit as it is a cruiser.”
For most owners, it would be the third vehicle in their garage, probably alongside a Mercedes E-Class or S-Class sedan and a Mercedes SUV.
Competition includes the Jaguar F-Type roadster, Ferrari’s California, the BMW 6 Series convertible and even the new Mercedes-Benz S-Class convertible.
But to highlight the SL, Mercedes-Benz picked roads at the international launch that would not only test the roadster but, more importantly, show the car’s functions.
With the SoCal winter at a sunny 27 degrees, the roofs of the test vehicles were off. A windbreak behind the passenger seats kept hair in some semblance of order.
Leaving Newport Beach, Orange County, the first leg of 145km was in the SL63 with the 5.5-litre, V8 engine (430kW/900Nm) and 7-speed auto transmission, plus dial-in dynamic control that could alter the ride, handling, transmission and output. You could have economy (but why would you?), comfort, sport, sport plus, and individual mode.
While the freeway speeds of up to 65mph (105km/h) were effortless for the 63, the real test came when we headed inland to Lake Elnmore then, via mountainous roads, to Chrystal Ridge for a car swap at Temecula.
Dialing in sport plus mode (plus adding Mercedes’ excellent massage seat functions), it was time to enjoy the exhaust response from the V8 as the car changed down gear via the paddles on the steering wheel as we entered and exited tight corners at up to 80km/h.
With the roof off, it was exhilarating to hear the pop-pop-crackle from the exhaust — and the power that the V8 gave when carving through the roads.
While the route did accentuate the SL roadster’s performance, more importantly it highlighted that the vehicle is a tourer — with long distances enjoyable and relaxing, without having the vehicle snap and twitch as a pure sports car, like the GT or Porsche 911, would demand.
Instead Mercedes knows that it has a core market that wants a car to provide a delightful ride. While SL stands for Sports Light, these days it probably means Sports Luxury.
The second leg from Temecula to the night stop of San Diego was in the SL500 with its 4.7-litre V8 engine put to the test on a switchback mountain road that is often closed during inclement weather.
But with curve function a much-hyped addition to the range, it wasn’t until day two when we were able to snaffle a SL500 with the function to take us in a loop to the Mexico border.
Curve works by lowering or raising the chassis on either side to create a flat ride through a corner, instead of being pushed through a bend and feeling the G-forces.
Interior of the Mercedes-Benz SL63 AMG Roadster. Photo / Supplied.
To test it, first I tried winding mountain corners in comfort mode, which made you lean into the bend, then it was time to dial in curve. And what a difference it made: I could feel the car adjust to make me level. I drove through a corner, not around it.
Curve is a fantastic addition to the Mercedes arsenal and a suspension function that you can bet you’ll see in other vehicles in the brand’s lineup. While the SL is still an iconic car for the brand, if rumours are correct and the brand makes a convertible version of the GT, maybe customers will rethink their choice.