2013 Mercedes-Benz SL 550: First drive review
The sport and luxury icon turns 60 with grace and even more grunt.
The SL roadster has been a serious star for Mercedes-Benz going on nearly six decades, and for good reason — regardless of the model year, it has always been thought to offer the ideal combination of style, performance and luxury.
This spring the automaker unveiled the roadster's sixth generation, the vehicle's most comprehensive and significant transformation to date. The SL now features a new body structure made almost entirely of aluminum and a new twin-turbocharged, direct-injection 429-horsepower V8 engine. The aluminum makes the car hundreds of pounds lighter, yet larger and stronger than its steel predecessor, and the V8 makes it substantially thriftier without any sacrifice in performance. In fact, the car is more agile and athletic than it has been in decades.
But are the changes revolutionary? Well, they certainly bring the car closer to the original virtues that begat its initials: sport and light.
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The new roadster's styling was greatly influenced by the flagship SLS AMG. Most obvious is the more assertive, vertical front grille dominated by that giant iconic star with silver-colored crossbars on each side. The plowlike chin spoiler undoubtedly makes a strong contribution to the SL's aerodynamics, but is quite aggressive for a car that will likely see more country clubs and posh boutiques than a pit alley at a racetrack.
Nine exterior colors are offered, including the Shadow Grey matte finish on the SL 550 driven by MSN Autos. You also get to pick between nine combinations of leather trim and choose between genuine burl walnut or black ash moldings. With the SL 550's plentiful standard equipment, its character is defined by optional elements and packages. You build it a la carte, as it should be for a luxury roadster of such standing.
The most effective option is the $4,090 Active Body Control (ABC), which reduces body roll as much as you wish by jostling with hydraulic, electronic and mechanical components monitored by computer every 10 milliseconds.
A premium package ($4,900) combines keyless entry and start, a rear-view camera with parking sensors, heated and cooled seats with active bolsters, the Airscarf neck-warming system for top-down running on cool days, and a new system that lets you open and close the trunk lid hands-free with a swing of a foot under the bumper. Savvy Mercedes-Benz marketers have combined Distronic Plus automatic cruise control with blind-spot and lane-keeping monitoring systems in a $2,950 package.
Under the hood
The SL 550's engine is a star and often steals the show. Even a moderate prod of the throttle surprises at first, raising a deep growl and pressing your torso resolutely into the seat back. We were acquainted and impressed with this twin-turbocharged, direct-injection 4.6-liter V8 from its first engagements under the hoods of the CL 550 and CLS 550. Its overall performance is even more convincing and enthralling in the lighter SL.
With a higher maximum output of 429 horsepower and 516 lb-ft of torque, acceleration seems relentless, laced with simply glorious sound. SL 550 feels quicker even than the claimed 4.5 seconds for the zero-to-60-mph sprint. The more efficient engine, a 7-speed automatic gearbox, and standard stop-start yield mileage ratings of 16 mph city/24mpg highway, a 14 percent improvement that eliminates the $1,300 gas-guzzler tax of the previous model.
Cabin design was also inspired by the SLS, with a pair of silver-faced main gauges, a quartet of large, circular vents framed with polished aluminum rings, and a flat-bottom three-branch steering wheel. Stitched leather abounds with superb fit and finish on the seats, instrument panel, doors and console. A meshlike windscreen rises behind the seats at the touch of a switch and spans almost the full width of the cabin. It keeps things virtually bluster-free if you also roll up all four side windows.
Small adjustments to the air-conditioning system are still made with too many flat buttons, and a large knob on the center console, surrounded by four switches, lets you navigate through the still-convoluted assemblage of menus on a thankfully clear color screen. Turn signals and wipers are still controlled by a single lever to the left that is now finally slimmer and actually nice to use.
The wipers themselves are now part of what the automaker emphatically calls Magic Vision Control. Tiny holes have been cut by laser along each arm to spray fluid directly in front of the blade. Electronic control units change the flow as the arms change directions, modulate fluid volume according to speed and temperature, and reduce it when the top is down to avoid spraying passengers. Ah, Mercedes-Benz!
A notable innovation is the patented FrontBass system that structurally integrates 8-inch subwoofers in front of each passenger's feet. The standard 16-speaker, 600-watt Harman/Kardon system is a treat and frankly makes the Bang & Olufsen system, a $6,400 option, superfluous from our experience with both. Frontbass was codeveloped with Harman.
On the road
The various benefits of the SL 550's lighter body structure are obvious immediately. Gone is the persistent impression of great mass and weight of the last few generations. The newfound agility, balance and pleasant ride are most welcome. The new shell, totally exempt from flex and shake even on some especially gnarly pavement traversed at speed during the preview, plays a great part in this. So do the sharp, variable-ratio "electro-mechanical" steering and the sound suspension.
The optional Active Body Control system all but eliminates body roll and pitch, with sweet ride characteristics as a bonus. The standard suspension uses electronically modulated dampers and does a fine job.
You can glide along effortlessly on boulevards, and the SL 550 is smooth and exceptionally quiet at highway speeds, but it will just as confidently hustle down a twisty road with gusto. The sport steering wheel is nigh perfect, and the satin-finished aluminum paddles behind the rim let you switch gears at will. It would be nice to have a more prominent button next to the electronic shift lever on the console so you could toggle between the manual, sport and comfort modes without looking.
Right for you?
The SL 550 has a suggested base price of $105,500. With this new SL 550, the sixth generation of the SL-Class has made a grand entrance. It has been given quite the makeover for its 60th birthday.
(As part of a sponsored press event, the automaker provided MSN with travel and accommodations to facilitate this report.)
A professional auto journalist for more than 25 years and the founding editor of Sympatico / MSN Autos, Marc Lachapelle is a two-time winner of the Canadian Journalist of the Year award from the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada, an accomplished photographer and licensed racer.