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2013 Mercedes-Benz SL550 - First Drive

Reinventing an icon.

Anthony Gelinas
Aug 1, 2012 SHARE
Epcp 1209 01+2013 mercedes benz sl550+cover Photo 1/5   |   2013 Mercedes-Benz SL550 - First Drive

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).

Epcp 1209 04+2013 mercedes benz sl550+side view Photo 2/5   |   2013 Mercedes-Benz SL550 - First Drive

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.

Epcp 1209 05+2013 mercedes benz sl550+interior Photo 3/5   |   2013 Mercedes-Benz SL550 - First Drive
Epcp 1209 01+mercedes benz sl63 amg+full view Photo 4/5   |   2013 Mercedes-Benz SL550 - First Drive

SL63 AMG

Mercedes-Benz flirted with their mid-century roots by re-imagining the 2013 SL550 as a lighter, more powerful ride. But the ballsier SL63 AMG catapults the decades-old country club cruiser into supercar territory with meaner looks, more focused performance, and a leaner power-to-weight ratio.

The SL63 comes at a $41195 premium over the more pedestrian “Super Leicht” and the extra bucks go toward the twin-turbo 5.5L V8. The bigger mill is hand-built using AMG’s “one man, one engine” philosophy. Churning out 530hp and 590 lb-ft of torque, the powerplant is capable 0-62 mph in 4.3sec.

Tick the “Performance Package” box and turbo boost is increased to 18.5psi, producing 557hp and 664 lb-ft. The option skims 0.1sec from that sprint, and top speed is extended to 186mph – for a $9000 premium.

Sharing the SL550’s aluminum body and magnesium roof, the SL63 adds a carbon composite trunk that ditches 11 lb – chump change on a two-ton car, but every bit helps, adding up to a total of 275 lb over its predecessor.

A multi-clutch seven-speed transmission achieves sportier shifts in as little as 100 milliseconds. Active Body Control is standard on the AMG version but options abound, conspiring to boost the price tag towards $200k: a B&O sound system runs $6400, the Premium Package with keyless entry, rear camera and Airscarf heater depletes your account by $4300, while carbon/ceramic brakes will bleed $12625 from you.

Our drive through hills overlooking Saint-Tropez’s Côte d’Azur revealed addictively swift acceleration that begged for repeated downshifts, followed by launches towards the horizon.

While the SL550’s exhaust offers subtle hints of turbo whistle, the SL63’s subsonic sounds boom sublimely. Like a high-watt, low-distortion tube amp, its acoustic qualities are melodious and easy on the ears.

Handling with the suspension on its stiffest setting is eerily flat. AMG claims it eliminated 95% of body roll, leaving the remainder for feedback – and indeed, there’s a steep dropoff in grip when the tires finally give up. But until that point, the SL63 maneuvers imperturbably.

Epcp 1209 02+mercedes benz sl63 amg+interior Photo 5/5   |   2013 Mercedes-Benz SL550 - First Drive

Less involving than, say, a Porsche 911, the SL63 nonetheless feels potent and nimbler than you might expect. While the electro-mechanical steering felt disconcertingly numb on-center, head of development Tobias Moers assured us there was plenty of time to resolve the problem…

Our other gripe pertained to the seven-speed’s delayed response in manual mode, a recurrent issue for all Mercedes-Benzes of late, even the C63 AMG Black Series.

For what it’s worth, the gearbox performs flawlessly in Sport + mode, shifting quickly with impeccably rev-matched downshifts. Equally impressive are the carbon ceramic brakes.

Punchier, prettier and more involving than the SL550, the SL63 AMG manages to entertain with its kick-in-the-pants acceleration and superb soundtrack.

Second Opinion SL550

Mercedes-Benz stated “controlled efficiency” was its approach to commotion and consumption, but there’s also an element of controlled lunacy. This becomes especially evident In a canyon.

Having enjoyed 429hp to spring from the last corner to the next, there are two aspects of the new SL that detract from the fun The first is the brakes. They slow the car down, but there’s no “bite”, no confidence from the pedal.

There’s no sensation from the electrically assisted steering either. And that’s an even bigger shame, because the SL could probably take a bend much faster than most drivers would dare. Unfortunately, it’s hard to gauge when the front tires are going to understeer. And smacking a $120,000 car into the guardrail will spoil anyone’s day.

Nevertheless, the SL remains calm and composed as its nose changes direction and heads toward the apex. Then something strange happens. With no extra input, the tail seems to shimmy a fraction, as if there was four-wheel steering. It does have a semi-active suspension as standard, or there’s the optional Active Body Control, but this phenomenon occurs in both versions.

The shimmy could be the result of various sensors measuring steering angle, road speed, weight transfer and yaw rate, feeding it back to the central computer, which then performs a calculation and stiffens the suspension in a fraction of a second.

Mercedes-Benz wanted the SL to be more athletic, and it succeeded. Perhaps more by high-tech trickery than old-fashioned chassis tuning, but the result Is about the same.

Magic Vision Control, for example, uses tiny jets in the wiper arm to replace nozzles that splash washer fluid onto the windshield. Their introduction means visibility is preserved, as well as dryness when the top is down. It also uses less water, allows a smaller reservoir, saving 4 lb. This kind of obsessive attention to weight would be expected from Lotus, but is no less welcome from a luxury marque.

2013 Mercedes-Benz SL550
Layout
longitudinal front engine, rear-wheel drive
Engine
4.6-liter V8, DOHC 32-valve, direct-injection, bi-turbo
Transmission
seven-speed automatic
Suspension
four-wheel independent, multi-link with torsion bar
Double-piston, 13.5" vented and perforated rotors (f); single-piston, 12.6" vented rotors (r)
Performance
Peak Power: 429hp @ 5250rpm
Peak Torque: 516 lb-ft @ 1800-3500rpm
0-60 mph: 4.5sec.
Top Speed: 130mph (limited)
Wheels & Tires
18x8.5", 255/40 (f); 18x9.5", 285/35 (r)
Dimensions
Length/Width/Height: 181.8/73.9/51.8" Wheelbase: 101.8" Curb Weight: 3947 lb
MSRP
$106405

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By Anthony Gelinas
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