The Mercedes SL 63 AMG is a model that successfully bridges the gap between luxury roadster and outright sports car. Andy Enright reports
Ten Second ReviewThe SL 63 AMG is a model that never got the recognition it deserved. The mainstream models always sold more while the SL 65 AMG got the headlines. Don't let that deter you. This latest 537bhp car is the best SL that Mercedes have ever made.
BackgroundSome cars gain themselves a reputation that's out of all kilter with their talents. Overrated, overpromoted and overachieving, they pull a confidence trick, trading short term revenue gains for long term reputational damage. It's a bargain many manufacturers are prepared to take. Then there are the cars that work the opposite way. They offer a bigger reward to the owner than their billing suggests. The Mercedes-Benz SL63 AMG has long been such a car.
This model's problem was that it was originally introduced to 'replace' the mighty turbocharged V12 SL65 AMG and the normally aspirated V8 could never generate the numbers to do this adequately. The SL 63 AMG quickly gained a reputation as a car that was an environmental sop, cheaper and without the necessary backbone to head up the SL range. Never mind the fact that it was fantastic to drive, with an engine far more characterful than the big V12, the public's perception seemed immovable. Now we have a clean sheet SL and the 63 AMG is back. It's time for re-education.
Driving ExperienceThe big news is that the screaming 6.2-litre V8 of the 'R230' series SL has been replaced by a twin-turbocharged 5.5-litre eight cylinder unit. Power has crept up from 518bhp to 537bhp in the process but that's not the half of it. Where the old engine needed to be revved like crazy to give of its best, the blowers on the 5.5-litre unit serve up instant urge at almost any engine speed. The soundtrack is different, but Mercedes' engineers have amped up the drama from both intake and exhausts to deliver some aural fireworks. How fast? Get it on a really grippy surface in perfect conditions and you may just dip below 4 seconds to 60mph. Still not enough? The AMG Performance Package increases peak power and torque outputs to 564bhp and 664lb ft. It also massages the electronic speed limiter's 155mph barrier out to 186mph. A limited-slip differential and red brake calipers are also part of this rather serious package.
This car is far lighter than its predecessor thanks to extensive use of aluminium in the chassis and the addition of a carbon fibre bootlid. Mercedes quotes a figure of 125kg, but that still means this is an 1845kg car that needs to be managed around a corner. The 'Speedshift' MCT 7-speed transmission is a very smart unit, better suited to a car of this type than the old 7G-Tronic system and while it's quick to ping up through the box, it can occasionally refuse a downshift. Like the rest of the SL range, the 63 AMG gets electro-mechanical power steering. Some manufacturers have got such systems almost up to the feel of a good old hydraulic system. Mercedes hasn't as yet, but it's getting there.
Design and BuildThe styling of the latest SL has met a mixed reception and it might be a little while before it really beds in on the eye but the SL 63 AMG's more athletic stance is undeniably purposeful. Its body styling comprises a front apron with big air dams, AMG-specific LED daytime running lights and a silver chrome lower cross strut. Then there's the AMG radiator grille with a double louvre in silver chrome, the side sill panels and the "V8 BITURBO" logos on the vent grilles with fins in silver chrome. Moving to the rear you'll spy an AMG spoiler lip, four chromed tailpipes for the sports exhaust system and a diffuser-style rear apron with a body-coloured insert.
The interior has come in for some budget too. Standard fitments includes sports seats in single-tone or two-tone nappa leather with a unique V8 seat upholstery layout and AMG badges in the seat backrests, a multicontour function and seat heating as well as carbon-fibre trim, illuminated door sill panels, ambient lighting and an IWC-design analogue clock. The instrument cluster includes a TFT colour monitor, AMG start-up display and RACETIMER function. The folding Vario roof now operates in only 20 seconds and features three different versions: painted, glass or with the unique panoramic Magic Sky Control. The transparent roof switches to light to darkened glass at the push of a button.
Market and ModelThe SL 63 AMG sits above 'regular' SL models like the SL 350 and the SL 500 but, in a move that took most of us by surprise, it's not the flagship model of the range. The mighty 630bhp SL 65 AMG has been resurrected, this time with a 6.0-litre V12, for those that feel that 537bhp is somehow inadequate. Does that compromise the 63's appeal? I'm not sure it does. With less weight in the nose, the V8 is always going to be the driver's choice, although at around £120,000, it would be a brave driver who stretched this car to its limits.
Equipment levels are as generous as you'd expect when paying well into six figures. Some technical details are intriguing. 'Magic Vision Control', billed as an intelligent and efficient wipe/wash system. The washer fluid jets out of the wiper blade directly in front of the blade lip, in both directions of wipe. As a result, no water is splashed onto the windscreen during spraying to disrupt the driver's visibility, and you'll never fire it onto your passenger when the roof is down. You can even specify a heated wiper blade to prevent snow or ice forming on it in winter. The other feature that speaks volumes of Mercedes' lateral thinking was the Frontbass system which utilises the free spaces in the aluminium structures in front of the footwell as resonance spaces for the bass speakers. It gives a much cleaner sound than a door-mounted speaker and is even waterproof in case your footwell gets flooded during a rain shower.
Cost of OwnershipIt's de rigueur for manufacturers to announce efficiency savings and the SL 63 AMG adheres to this party line, but it's never going to be the sort of car you'd buy with one eye on economy or emissions. That said, a combined fuel consumption figure of 28.5mpg isn't bad at all, helped by a start/stop function, a Controlled Efficiency gearbox mode, good aerodynamics and that helpful weight reduction. These measures also contribute to a creditable 221g/km emissions showing.
Depreciation is always going to be the big ticket item for a high end petrol roadster, but SL owners tend to offset depreciation somewhat by owning their vehicles for longer than average and thus also enjoy the benefits of the less vertiginous section of the car's depreciation curve. A more mature ownership profile also helps with insurance cover.
SummaryIt never helped that the original Mercedes-Benz SL 63 AMG was launched straight into the teeth of a recession, but it's nevertheless instructive to note that in its four years on sale, it shifted 5,000 global units. Its V8 AMG predecessor, the SL 55 AMG, sold over 21,000 in the seven years it was available. While these would appear to be some disastrous numbers for Mercedes, the latent demand to move those big numbers is still there. It just needs to make the buying proposition more compelling.
The latest 537bhp SL 63 AMG makes a pretty good fist of exactly that. It's quick, beautifully engineered, efficient and can perform a dual role like few other big roadsters. Does it run the risk of being overshadowed once again by its twelve cylinder sibling? Possibly. Educated buyers will know that big numbers don't always equal big rewards. Finding the sweet spot in the SL range might require a little homework but the payoff is well worth the effort.