Mountain Wheels: What to drive: Mercedes’ sleek and sexy SL550
Ryan Summerlin September 1, 2012
Certain automobiles bring with them an instantaneous image, wrong or right: You can guess that the driver of a bright yellow Corvette may have been in the Air Force in the 1980s, while anyone who’s ever bought a 6-Series BMW is clearly either an orthodontist or a plastic surgeon.
The all-new, 60th-anniversary version of the iconic Mercedes-Benz SL roadster too is a little pre-loaded with a pretty image-heavy series of pre-expectations about the kind of folks who’ll be driving them, mostly in the summer, largely to be valet parked at golf courses.
And with a price tag that skirts the $120,000 range for an automobile with the same level of practicality as a Mazda Miata, it’s clearly a top choice for a noble few.
But the squishy and soft, rich-old-guy friendly persona of recent SL two-seaters has been significantly transformed in the totally remade 2013 edition of the car. This one looks a bit more brutal, with an almost Batmobile-inspired nose and flanks, and the sound and the fury of a massively powerful 4.6-liter twin-turbo V8 means completely high-altitude-worthy boost that’s rather astounding in every circumstance. (That engine, by the way, is 20 percent smaller than the old V8 but produces more power and frightening amounts of torque, as well as 24 highway MPG.)
I was very lucky to drive the new SL550 back-to-back with the equally beautiful but polarizing Porsche Panamera and I’ll be darned if the Mercedes wasn’t faster and sleeker. It doesn’t have quite the race track-tuned intensity (or the rear seat) of the similarly priced Porsche, but … again, there’s a certain market out there seeking the best in two-door, hard-top convertible luxury, and the Mercedes is going to have its fans.
This newest SL, the sixth generation of the car, has both grown and shrunk in important ways: It’s two inches longer and wider than the old model yet it lost 200 pounds in the process, thanks to tons of aluminum in the design.
Credit the supercar-level SLS for inspiring the update in design and setting the benchmark for much of the SL’s retro-futuristic interior and range of technology, as well.
All of that aluminum stiffening creates an automobile that can be more than a tad jarring on less-than-perfect urban pavement, with the painfully wide optional 19-inch high-performance tires giving you great intimacy with the road.
Put that connection to work in a racier setting and it’s remarkable, especially as there doesn’t seem to be much to slow the ferocity of that loud, explosively responsive engine and intuitive seven-speed automatic transmission. A simple tap, even at higher-than-highway speeds, consistently summons more boost.
In summery round-the-town cruising, SL’s tricked-out, fully-automatic roof is probably the best mechanical system I’ve ever seen – folding effortlessly into the trunk like a beautiful metallic insect. And it’s got the hilariously titled Magic Sky Control, a glass sunroof panel that will electronically darken when you want it to do so, which is just super-freakin’ cool.
Those less-snowbound Germans have also designated the SL550 a winter-worthy machine, with heated seats and a fancy neck-level heating system.
Up here, it’s probably not going to work as a substitute to a GL SUV in the winter, but the summery positives are certainly many, including ventilated seats, as well.
In a mild nod to increased efficiency, the SL is standard equipped with an automatic stop-start system which kills the engine while stopped in traffic. I preferred to leave that particular doodad off and cultivate the full, ridiculous off-the-line whomp the car can deliver.
It’s certainly a charming beast on the inside, with real walnut trim, illuminated door sills and a mix of details including a 1950s science fiction-inspired analog clock and instrument gauges, an optional wooden steering wheel and improved, hand-friendly controls for the navigation system.
The innovative, standard-issue harmon-kardon stereo system has the subwoofer speakers mounted in the firewall of the engine so the sound can be astoundingly intense, when desired.
Not satisfied with a paltry 429 horses? SL’s upgraded AMG sisters take the same package and outfit it with either a 590-horsepower 5.4-liter V8 or a completely insane 6.0-liter twin turbo V12, making 738 horsepower. Quite inconceivable, really.