Mountain Wheels: Modernized Mercedes-Benz SL still king of the open road (review) |

Mountain Wheels: Modernized Mercedes-Benz SL still king of the open road (review)

Andy Stonehouse
Mountain Wheels

The latest edition in a very long-running evolution of the world's most graceful sub-exotic roadster throws an amazing range of technology at a machine with some credible year-round chops, though I still saw myself cruising around Santa Barbara whenever I got behind the wheel.

Since 1952, Mercedes-Benz's SL family has been the ultimate in two-seater, open-top glory, and the 2017 rendition is not only more attractive than the vehicle has been in years but more powerful.

The broad, long and low-slung nature of the SL certainly makes it seem ideally suited for a V-8 engine, but the new SL450 makes a pretty compelling argument for the smaller twin-turbo 3.0-liter V-6. It's been boosted to 362 horsepower (up 34 HP) and even gives off a bit of a throaty snort when you fire it up.

On a long and leisurely drive up to Estes Park, the SL demonstrated that it's still best suited for calm and composed motoring — wave to onlookers as much as you can — though it will also go at an alarming pace and stick competently in corners when asked.

At 3,826 pounds, the V-6 has got a lot of real estate to push around (the car's 182.3 inches long, seemingly all hood), but it's easy to summon the extra power, and a new nine-speed transmission very smoothly allowed quick access. As well as a commendable 30 miles per gallon overall. A small and perfectly rational, console-mounted gear shifter also beats the incomprehensible fondue-fork gear selector stalk on other M-B models.

Those who see the fuel-friendly V-6 as an aberration can of course still go for the SL550 and its 449-HP V-8; others with deep pockets and plans on blowing off Corvettes can get AMG versions that top out with a $220,000-plus V-12 model that features 621 scary horses. Ouch.

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Minus that monster, the SL's role in the Mercedes-Benz food chain is generally one of sophisticated shock and awe. A new, blacked-out grille bejeweled with tiny shining hexagons is a bit of a nod to the beloved 300 SL Panamericana racer, and the chrome-streaked, manta ray-shaped features on the hood and sides of the body are strikingly old-school themselves. New headlamps with over-extended LED running lights also make it one very impressive car, heightened with the optional 19-inch 10-spoke wheels.

Press the key fob and you can get the SL450's "vario-roof" to automatically unfurl with the most beguiling combination of panels, flaps and motors, turning the hardtop coupe into a splendid open-air machine. The roof function is also supposed to work at up to 25 MPH, though I had to come to a complete stop to get the Transformers deal to occur when rain became serious.

That hideaway top also includes maybe the coolest feature I've seen in a long time — the Magic Sky Control, which automatically darkens the sunroof panel, like Tyrell's office in the original "Blade Runner." Add the new "Magic Vision" windshield wipers which build the wiper nozzles into the body of the blades themselves, and we really have embraced the future.

The SL450 is not an inexpensive vehicle, even more so with a considerable load of options, so the laundry list of goodies is quite deep. My test vehicle was done up in the company's deluxe "Designo" finery, including a cardinal red metallic paint job and a decadent black and white leather interior with black ash wood trim, with very deep-set but comfortable sport seats whose side bolsters inflated during cornering, to at least give the impression of very speedy travel.

A hard top, heated seats and the "air scarf" system to blow warm air down your neck all seem suited for those nippy fall days on the Central California coast, though the rear-wheel-drive SL is certainly hearty enough for some Colorado winter use.

It's certainly a low-set automobile, however, and the primarily summer-oriented motoring is accentuated through a five-mode dynamic select mode system that firms or softens the dampers, adjusts ride height or even micro-adjusts the curve tilting as you boot around corners.

Mine had the entire Driver Assistance safety package and it's all next-generation in accident avoidance, though a particularly self-aware active lane keeping system did awkwardly wrestle with me at all times.

My suggestion is to immediately drop the roof (and don't worry about crushing your luggage, as the sometimes cumbersome trunk separator is now automatic), re-aim the jet engine-styled AC nozzles and crank up the 900-watt Bang & Olufsen speaker system. Then drive around like you own the place. In an SL, it sure feels like you do.

2017 Mercedes-Benz SL450

MSRP: $86,950; As tested: $108,385

Powertrain: 362-HP 3.0-liter twin-turbo V-6 with nine-speed automatic transmission

EPA figures: 23 MPG combined (20 city, 28 highway)

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