The Mercedes SL has long been the definitive luxury sportscar. So can this sixth generation version deliver that concept afresh for the modern era? Jonathan Crouch drives one
Ten Second ReviewLuxury sportscar buyers traditionally sold on the charms on a Mercedes SL will certainly be sold on this one, now improved with a pokier SL400 entry-level variant and AMG Sport detailing across the range. They'll like the lithe proportions and deft detailing, the powerful engines and luxurious technology. But there's so much more to this revolutionary sixth generation version than that. It is, in every respect, a landmark machine for its maker. As every SL should be.
BackgroundThere aren't many truly iconic cars in the modern motor industry - but this is one of them: the Mercedes SL. The fundamental thinking behind standard setters of this sort doesn't tend to alter very much, but here it's different. Over six generations spanning as many decades, everything has changed about this car - yet in many ways, nothing is different. For Three-Pointed Star buyers, it's still the ultimate expression of sporting opulence and remains perhaps the definitive face of this legendary luxury brand. Yet one that over more than sixty years has changed from supercar to sports roadster and from there through boulevard cruiser to autobahn bruiser. A design, in other words, that through its lifetime, has managed at different times and in different forms to define everything a sportscar should be.
Here, we have the sixth generation version, a car that, like the 1952 original, properly lives up to its name. 'SL', after all, stands for 'Sport Leicht' and this car, like that one, is made almost entirely from lightweight aluminium. Only this way, Stuttgart seems to think, can a modern luxury sportscar makes sense in the modern era and meet the contradictory demands of smarter speed and frugal fuel returns. Are they right? We're going to find out.
Driving ExperienceA touch upon the silver starter button reveals a muted muffled roar from beneath the enormous bonnet that stretches out before you, tonally tuned by the size of the engine you've specified. Perhaps the 333bhp 3.0-litre twin turbo V6 of the entry-level SL400. Or the 435bhp of the 4.7-litre twin-turbo V8 SL500. There are AMG options beyond this to try and snare the supercar set and act as stepping stones to the awesome SLS gullwing and roadster models: namely the 5.5-litre V8 of the SL63 AMG which can put out as much as 564bhp. Or if you really must, the 6.0-litre V12 of the SL65 AMG which, with 630bhp, is arguably the fastest thing Mercedes makes.
All the engines on offer manage faster yet more efficient figures than before, courtesy of lighter space-age aluminium underpinnings that also promise more of a lithe, agile driving experience than we've had from any SL since the Sixties. Whether you agree that it's been delivered depends, I suppose, upon your expectations. Dynamically, this car has always sat rather uneasily somewhere between a Porsche 911 Cabriolet and a BMW 6 Series, not as sharp as the 911, not as luxurious as the Six. With this sixth generation SL, the difference is fundamental. In this, thanks to lighter weight, a wider track and the clever semi-active adaptive damping, we no longer have a car that's neither one thing or the other but one instead, arguably able to offer much of the best of both worlds.
Design and BuildLet's start with the fineries of fashion - classic SL proportions that have evolved through six generations and nearly half the history of this famous brand: the long bonnet, the compact passenger cell set well back within the wheelbase and a muscular, racy-looking tail. But it's what you can't see that's important here. 'SL' may stand for 'Sport Leicht' but historically, this model has always been something of a sporting heavy hitter, big in bulk and to compensate, well provided for in power. It was a combination hardly in keeping with these eco-conscious times and when early development suggested that despite the engineers' best efforts, this sixth generation model would be even lardier, the Stuttgart board took a deep breath and decided to turn the clock back. The very first SL in 1952 was made from aluminium: so too, would be this sixth generation version. That, they knew, would make it expensive for the Bremen factory to build. But weight savings for mainstream models of between 125 and 140kg would also make them a lot less costly for owners to run.
Of course, this car could have been a lot lighter still if the designers had dispensed with the bulky electrically operated Vario metal folding roof that only Mercedes now provides in this segment. It eats into boot space and makes it impossible for this car to offer the pair of occasional rear seats you'll find in competitors from Jaguar, BMW and Porsche but it's also one of the things that most appeals about this car to city-based buyers. The mechanism is still slower than a fabric hood would be but in this model has been speeded up to raise or lower the elaborate metal panels in a respectably rapid 20 seconds. When up, if you've specified what Mercedes calls 'MAGIC SKY CONTROL', you'll get a neat system that uses electro-reactive particles to switch the roof panel from light to dark at the press of a button.
Market and ModelPrices start from around the £72,000 mark for the entry-level SL400 AMG Sport, with a £10,000 premium on top of that if you want to go from V6 to V8 and get yourself the SL500 AMG Sport variant that we tried. If you want your SL with an enormous AMG-tuned engine, you'll need a suitably enormous wallet. The V8-powered SL63 AMG is priced from around £110,000. The V12-engined SL65 AMG variant meanwhile, costs around £170,000.
Pricing then, that at least at the bottom end of the range, isn't unreasonable for what you get. You'd expect to pay a premium, both for a metal-folding rather than a fabric roof - and for the legendary history and segment-leading hi-tech lightweight aluminium design and technology of this car. Especially as so many equipment features you might expect to have to pay extra for are included as standard. All models get the AMG Sports package that runs to 19-inch alloy wheels, lowered sports suspension with revised damper settings and AMG bodystyling. You also get adaptive dampers, a powered glass sunroof, Parktronic with Active Park Assist, a voice-activated HDD satellite navigation system and intelligent bi-xenon headlamps with auto-dipping full beam.
That's in addition to a rosta that runs to 18-inch lightweight alloy wheels, metallic paint, heated leather seats, a multi-function sports steering wheel finished in Nappa leather and a COMMAND online infotainment system that, depending on the apps you load upon it, will be able to tell you anything from weather reports to car park locations - and even share prices. More conventionally, it allows acess to a 6-disc CD autochanger, an eight-speaker surround sound stereo and a Bluetooth interface. Plus of course, you get the Vario electric folding metal roof and the silky-smooth 7-speed 7G-TRONIC auto gearbox.
Cost of OwnershipIf you're thinking of buying this car, then you probably won't be worrying too much about its running costs - but Mercedes has. Efficiency comes courtesy of an aluminium structure, making this one of the lightest cars of its kind ever made as well as being one of the most aerodynamic, with a slippery Cd factor of just 0.27. Combine that with the benefits conferred by an adjustable radiator shutter, an eco-gearshift programme for the 7G-TRONIC transmission, intelligent alternator management and a start-stop system that cuts the engine when you don't need it, stuck in traffic or waiting at the lights, and you've the potential for huge reductions in CO2 emissions and fuel economy improvements of up to 30%. Not bad, considering that across the sixth generation SL line-up, power and torque figures have increased by as much as 32%.
The result of all this efficient thinking is that the SL400 manages 36.7mpg on the combined cycle and a CO2 figure of 178g/km, scarcely believable figures from a 1.7-tonne luxury convertible sportscar capable of sixty in under six seconds. It's a variant I'd be very tempted by as it doesn't lose much in performance to the biturbo V8 SL500 yet is much more efficient to run. SL500 buyers are promised a combined cycle fuel return of 30.7mpg and a CO2 figure of 214g/km. Of course, you'll need slightly deeper pockets to run one of the AMG models and though the V8 SL63 AMG version's combined cycle 28.5mpg figure is better than I expected, the 231g/km CO2 showing, though much better than before, is still nothing to write home about. Better though than the 24.4mpg and the 270g/km you'd get in the V12 SL65 AMG flagship model.
SummaryThis is a very special car - and not only because it's the first large-scale production Mercedes-Benz with an all-aluminium body. Like its predecessors, the sixth generation SL offers a unique, fascinating and in some ways contradictory interpretation of sportscar motoring. It's not really suited to a track, yet it's more than just a very grand GT, a combination that won't suit if your preferences lie at either of these extremes. For many though, this will be the perfect way to reward themselves for a lifetime's endeavour, a car that feels genuinely coupe-like with the roof up and roadster-ready, top-down.
Nothing else in this segment manages that quite as well. Nothing else can offer the security of a hard-top folding roof and, rather surprisingly, nothing else comparable is either as well equipped or as efficient to run. All compelling reasons to support an expectation that this modern instalment in SL history will be as successful as its predecessors. This is then, an enduring but very modern take on luxury sportscar motoring. And every inch a Mercedes-Benz.