It’s always exciting to have a convertible in the spring when the sun is shining and the temperature starts to climb. With a Mercedes, you can actually enjoy top-down driving even if the temperature is in the 40s thanks to heated seats, good aerodynamics that help push wind around the passengers, and the Airscarf feature. Airscarf is a pair of heat vents at the bottom of the headrests that can blast warm air on your neck, which really takes the chill off a cold morning or evening. It’s a bit of a gimmick, but the results are quite nice for those who like to drive with the top down as much as possible.
Not everyone is as fond of the Benz brand, though. While I was waiting at a red light yesterday afternoon, a man climbed off his bicycle and started hassling me for buying a Mercedes. I didn’t have the chance to explain I was only reviewing the car before he told me that I should have purchased a car with a manual transmission. When I replied that Mercedes offers only an automatic, he told me I bought the wrong car. Perhaps he never had a chance to experience a transmission like Mercedes’ seven-speed, so he wasn’t aware of how well the unit performed. In a car like the SL, a large touring roadster, an automatic feels perfect. You really aren’t going to be racking up track days in it anyway, and the automatic allows the driver to relax and indulge in the luxury experience.
Ironically, I attended a Hyundai event the next day and learned that only 23 of the 19,000+ 2011 Hyundai Sonatas sold so far have been equipped with manual transmissions. Obviously the Sonata and the SL play in very different segments, but the fact is Americans aren’t interested in manual transmissions unless they want to save a few hundred bucks. When the sticker price is beyond $100,000 even before options, saving a few hundred dollars certainly isn’t a concern.
Phil Floraday, Senior Online Editor
As you might imagine, I’m always quite happy to get behind the wheel of a Mercedes SL roadster. And why not? There’s lots here to like, as well there should be for an as-tested price of $114K on our lavishly optioned car. I’m not a fan of hard-top four-seat convertibles, as they compromise rear-seat and trunk space too much, but in roadsters like the SL and its little sibling, the SLK, they make more sense. The SL’s top is particularly well packaged, is a cinch to put down or up, and even when down permits a decent amount of cargo space. Our particular tester’s sharp nineteen-inch AMG wheels are just the icing on the cake here.
Joe DeMatio, Deputy Editor
The SL550 is a great-looking, highly impressive status symbol. But honestly, I can think of several much less expensive convertibles that are more fun to drive and I’d therefore personally rather own, primarily the Mazda Miata and the Porsche Boxster and secondarily the Ford Mustang, the Audi S5, and even the Porsche 911. Sure, the SL has some fabulous top-down assistants such as Airscarf, hot heated seats, and an integral wind deflector that Phil already mentioned and which shouldn’t be ignored. I love convertibles in general, but I prefer them to be more nimble and light feeling — and with windshield headers that are not so close to the driver that his view of the open sky above is significantly obstructed.
I tend to think of the SL as less of a sporty toy and more of a luxurious grand-touring automobile that happens to have a top that can be lowered. To that end, the SL has a compromised trunk thanks to its folding hard top, but it still offers considerable space behind the seats and features well-wrought straps to fasten down a suitcase or two (Mercedes offers fitted luggage for the SL’s shelf, of course).
The SL550 steers and handles well and is plenty fast for a base-engined model, but I was disappointed by how much I could feel the chassis flex over rough roads. That optional panorama roof is definitely worth the extra $2000, though.
Rusty Blackwell, Copy Editor
It’s somewhat disingenuous to call the SL550 a competitor to Porsche’s 911. It goes without saying that the 911 offers a raw, engaging experience for the driver, while the Benz luxuriously coddles its occupants while effortlessly whisking them away at high speeds. The 911 may be far more fun on the road course, but for long topless roadtrips, there’s almost no besting the SL.
That’s not saying the SL isn’t any fun — despite its size and heft, the Benz more than holds its own in a corner, thanks to the immense grip offered by the wide 285/30ZR19 tires out back. Punch the button for Mercedes’ active body control, and the air suspension does an impressive job of negating body roll. Steering is rather quick and precise, although its weight errs on the side of lightness.
This car may be aging (and Mercedes-Benz is readying its successor), but I can find few substantial faults. If anything, I hanker for a little more power, but those who share my thirst can always spring for the SL600, or the AMG-tuned SL63 and SL65.
Evan McCausland, Web Producer
Prior to driving the Mercedes-Benz SL550, I was under the impression that this car was only for the misguided souls who think a price tag measures a car’s qualities. After spending a night in this drop-top, though, I wholly understand the appeal of this vehicle. While the price tag and refinement of this Benz may be far above that of the Chevrolet Camaro, the formula for the two cars isn’t all that different. Both cars look phenomenal, smoke the tires in a stop-light launch, and act as status symbols.
The Airscarf and heated seats were a perfect complement to a clear, cool spring morning. As a relaxed and comfortable tourer, the SL550 is the car for the Sunday driver who doesn’t need to be a tire-squealing hooligan at every corner. The SL550 turns in nicely and handles predictably. This is more than enough performance for what any normal and responsible person would ever use on public roads. As a big burly car without the high-maintenance personality, the SL550 is fun and unique.
Eric Tingwall, Associate Editor
If you want a Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG Gullwing, but are just a poor working schlub who has only $114,175 to put down on a two-door car, the SL550 may be a good substitute. I recently had the good fortune to spend some time with the Gullwing in Mexico, and the lack of Federales aside, this SL550 feels rather similar in terms of the way it steers and the smoothness with which the V-8 builds power. Obviously, the Gullwing has a bit more cache, but then it can’t yet put its top down (unless you’re brave enough to ride with the doors open).
David Zenlea, Assistant Editor
I always forget how good the SL is. Yeah, it’s expensive, but it’s also impeccably engineered and executed. The 5.5-liter V-8 in the base SL550 is an absolute monster – it’s all the power anyone needs. (The twin-turbo V-12 SL600 and SL65 AMG suffer from too much lag, and the chassis can’t cope with the torque. The SL63 AMG needs loads of revs to deliver more thrust than the 550, so unless you can’t live without its sound, it’s just not worth the extra money.) I just wish the exhaust weren’t so wheezy – “Hey, that thing got a Hoover under the hood?”
Active Body Control (ABC) never ceases to amaze me with its ability to completely eliminate body motions. It’s an artificial feeling, mind you, that makes you feel like you’re in a go-kart… but it results in some pretty stunning performance capability.
AirScarf is awesome; I just wish the seat heaters were as powerful. They’re weak, and worse, they automatically drop down to lower settings after a few minutes. I want BMW-style butt-roasters for this kind of money.
The SL’s electronic brakes still irk me with difficult modulation. And if you try to drive the SL quickly through traffic, you’ll find the 7-speed automatic recalcitrant and slow to react. But driven not in anger, there are few convertibles more elegant than a Mercedes-Benz SL.
Jason Cammisa, West Coast Editor
2011 Mercedes-Benz SL550
Base price (with destination and guzzler tax): $104,775
Price as tested: $114,175
5.5L V-8 engine
7-speed automatic transmission
Direct-steer speed-sensitive power steering
Active body control
Retractable hard top
Power adjustable tilt/telescoping steering column
Comand 40GB hard drive GPS navigation
10-speaker Harman/kardon Logic7 surround sound
HD digital radio, in-dash 6-disc DVD/CD changer
Sirius satellite radio
Enhanced voice control for audio, telephone, and navi
iPod/MP3 media interface
Dual-zone automatic climate control
Electronic cruise control (ESP)
Auto-dimming rear and driver’s side mirrors
Bi-Xenon HID headlamps with active curve illumination
Headlamps washing system
Electrohydraulic braking system with ABS and BAS
Electronic stability program
Tire pressure montitoring system
Options on this vehicle:
Premium package — $3850
– Heated and ventilated front seats with massage
– Electronic trunk closer
– Keyless go
Sport wheel package — $2000
– 19-inch AMG 5-spoke wheels
– High-performance tires
– Sport steering wheel
– Dark-tinted headlamps and tail lamps
– Silver front brake calipers
– Perforated rear brake discs
– Manual shift mode
Panorama roof with sunshade — $2000
Full leather seating package — $1550
– Premium leather
– Wood/premium leather steering wheel and shift knob
Key options not on vehicle:
Distronic adaptive cruise control — $2300
Parktronic (front and rear sensors) — $1170
14 / 21 / 16 mpg
Size: 5.5L 32-valve V-8
Horsepower: 382 hp @ 6000 rpm
Torque: 391 lb-ft @ 2800-4800 rpm
7-speed electronic touch-shift automatic
Curb weight: 4220 lb
Wheels/tires: 19-inch AMG 5-spoke wheels
255/35ZR19 front; 285/30ZR19 rear Pirelli P Zero summer performance tires