The Mercedes SL has come full circle. The fifth-generation SL finally recaptures the sports car soul of the immortal 300SL Gullwing of 1954. This new SL is a real sports car–full of technology, stunning to look at, deceptively fast, amazingly capable, and, most important, a lot of fun to drive. For much of its life, the SL was a boulevard cruiser for aging, affluent softies, but now it’s good enough and rewarding enough to challenge the Porsche 911. For the moment, SL fanciers will have to sate their appetites with the SL500, although other models will follow: a supercharged 476-horsepower SL55 AMG, an entry-level 220-horsepower SL320, and a range-topping V-12-engined 406-horsepower SL600.
We drove the SL500, which is tipped to be the best value of the range. Despite being loaded with new technology, it will be priced at a similar level to the outgoing car (at around $85,000), it is plenty powerful, and the normally aspirated V-8 will give it better balance than the two more potent but heavier engines.
Like the SLK, the latest SL boasts Mercedes’ patented hard-panel fold-away roof. The full-size droptop is now, like the SLK, strictly a two-seater, as every decent roadster should be. While the collapsible top converts the new SL into a weatherproof coupe at the push of a button, the absence of token rear seats provides valuable extra storage space, either inside two convenient lockable compartments or on top of them. Opening and closing the roof takes only sixteen seconds, bettering the SLK’s operation by nine seconds. There are some drawbacks, however, such as too much wind noise at speed and a cramped trunk that shrinks from 11.2 cubic feet to 8.3 cubic feet with the top down.
Virtually every function in the SL is motorized, power-assisted, or fully automatic. The trunklid pulls itself shut, the wind deflector rises at the push of a button, and there is even an “easy pack” feature that lifts the folded roof to improve access to the shallow cargo compartment. Of course, the driver still has to steer, brake, and accelerate, but even these basic functions have been made easier. The new SL is the first production car fitted with electrohydraulic brakes (see sidebar), and it also boasts Active Body Control (ABC) as standard equipment; speed-sensitive rack-and-pinion steering in place of a recirculating ball arrangement; an electronic throttle; and a five-speed automatic transmission that doubles as a self-shifter should the urge arise.
But the first thing you notice when you open the wide door to climb behind the four-spoke multifunction steering wheel is the car’s much more generous packaging. By extending the wheelbase from 99.0 to 100.8 inches, the designers have created a notably more spacious cabin: Legroom has gone up by almost two inches, and headroom has increased by an inch. Shoulder room is marginally greater, too. Also worth mentioning are the impeccable build quality and materials, something of a shock in this era of budget-driven Mercedes interiors. There are some ergonomic flaws, such as the complex A/C controls and the confusing array of pushbuttons around the gear selector, but these are minor glitches.
Settled into the cabin, it’s time for a blast across the Swabian Alps near Stuttgart. The familiar twin-plug-per-cylinder 5.0-liter V-8 has a subdued growl that turns into an angry roar whenever you blip the throttle. Filtering onto the A8 autobahn toward Munich, it’s obvious that this is far and away the best steering ever fitted to a modern Mercedes. Our second impression is that the gearbox responds lazily to kickdown, and the accelerator pedal travels a long way before it eventually hits the firewall. Set against that, the chassis feels solid as a gold bar and instantly inspires confidence. We are going to have fun today.
Redlined at 6000 rpm, the 5.0-liter V-8 needs to be worked hard, because the roadster weighs 4068 pounds. The electronically limited top speed of 155 mph can be reached in fourth or fifth gear. Apart from the lazy kickdown, the manual tip-shift function is suspiciously slow and lacks the convenient thumb-switch controls fitted to the AMG version. Although the new SL is more slippery than the old (the drag coefficient has come down from 0.32 with the hard top fitted to 0.29 with the roof up), our test car consumed fuel at the rate of 10.6 miles per gallon, sucking the 21.1-gallon tank dry after only 224 miles. The official combined fuel consumption is a more environmentally friendly but less realistic 18.5 mpg. [Caveat: Georg does have one of the heaviest right feet on the planet–Ed]
Customers with fat wallets are invited to cram their SLs with all sorts of gadgets, but the truly important innovations are free of charge. Take the new four-link front suspension or the all-aluminum multi-link rear end or the electrohydraulic brake system Mercedes calls SBC (Sensotronic Brake Control). Sensotronic is more responsive as well as more efficient than a set of conventional binders, cutting emergency stopping distances from 75 mph by three percent. It was put to the test by the driver of a slow-moving Fiat who decided to sway from the crawler lane to the fast lane in one dumbass swoop. The SL grabbed the tarmac fast and hard, squashing speed. There was surprisingly little dive but a lot of squat. Electrohydraulic support also has made Brake Assist–whereby full braking is applied when sudden foot movement is detected–more powerful. This all-four-heels-to-the-tarmac attitude is particularly obvious on a straight stretch of road, as stability takes precedence in a corner.
The other significant dynamic advantage is ABC, which is standard on the CL500, the CL55, and the S600. This system reduces roll, dive, squat, pitch, and yaw and keeps the SL flat and stable all the way to the limit. It takes a bit of time to get used to a setup that’s so neutral and fuss-free: Speed becomes strangely relative, because you are always going faster than you think and yet rarely fast enough to challenge the car’s true potential. Especially in the tauter sport mode, ABC’s ability to iron out the vagaries of the road is almost surreal. Even when pushed hard, the new SL continues to handle with un-mitigated precision, shrugging off ridges and expansion joints, filling in potholes, and smoothing over manhole covers. The cornering grip is little short of sensational, turn-in is brisk, and the steering is always full of life. This is a true revelation, because recent SLs have been particularly lifeless around the dead ahead. Deactivate the ESP stability control, and you can drive the new SL like a real sports car, complete with power oversteer if that’s what floats your dinghy.
Through the mountains, the Mercedes maintained its composure at all times. On such tight and twisty roads, a Porsche 911 would keep your attention, a Jaguar XKR would be all over the place, and a Maserati 3200GT would be sliding broadside through every second bend. In sharp contrast, the new SL500 simply went where we pointed it, with as little drama and as much efficiency as is mechanically and electronically possible. You might think that this efficiency would rob the car of driver involvement, but you would be wrong. What the SL provides is a different type of driver involvement, somewhat akin to going to the highest level of a video game. The challenge with this car isn’t physical, it’s mental. You need to pace yourself, time your inputs well, be particularly careful when judging speed and distance, and drive smoothly and not too aggressively. The Merc won’t punish you for braking in the middle of a bend or for readjusting your line at the limit of adhesion. But if you trust its superb chassis and the instant-on controls, it will really reward you. At the end of our day, we climbed out, bubbling with enthusiasm, big smiles plastered to our faces. It’s admittedly a rather introverted way of being quick and slick, but it is hugely enjoyable.
The actual straight-line performance isn’t going to blow too many supercars away. On a dry surface, the SL500 will accelerate from 0 to 62 mph in 6.3 seconds, a time that’s bettered by the Porsche 911, the BMW M3, and even the Subaru Impreza WRX–but they can’t match the Merc’s midrange oomph, a massive 339 pound-feet of torque that is available between 2700 and 4250 rpm. This elastic torque band is the reason the SL explodes forward above 70 mph, barely running out of urge until the electronics kick in at 155 mph. Although the 24-valve, SOHC, all-aluminum engine is at its best when using that fat midrange torque curve, it doesn’t object to high revs. For optimal acceleration, you need to nudge the shift lever to the left and hold it there until the computer has selected and–patience, please–engaged the lowest possible gear.
Despite its low-slung stance and standard seventeen-inch wheels and tires, the new SL rides remarkably well, even on undulating and broken pavement. Like the coveted 300SL Gullwing, this is a classic gran turismo, a compelling all-rounder. While most of its rivals are either tuned for maximum grip or for a particular handling style, the SL500 wants to be all things to all people. It holds the road like nothing else this side of a Porsche 911 Carrera 4, it’s refined, and it remains stable in the most unstable conditions. And, as if these virtues were not enough, the SL comes with a comprehensive list of standard equipment. On the passive safety side, standard equipment includes two adaptive air bags, two head-and-shoulder side air bags, seats with integral belts, and a pop-up roll-over protection bar. The body shell itself is twenty percent stiffer than its predecessor and has improved crash performance. The new SL is also 57 pounds lighter than the outgoing model, thanks in part to the use of aluminum for the doors, hood, trunklid, and front fenders and magnesium for the door inners. For active safety, the new SL adds four tire-pressure monitors and high-intensity-discharge headlamps to the aforementioned Senso-tronic brakes, ABC, and stability control. Among the comfort and convenience options are massaging and ventilated seats that use eight fans per chair. Optional eighteen-inch wheels and tires will make the car look even sexier.
The fifth-generation Mercedes SL is the new dream car for well-to-do grown-ups who want the best of all worlds: a coupe in winter, a roadster in summer, and a totally satisfying drive whatever the season. The latest temptation from Stuttgart is hardly cheap–but the only Mercedes that comes close to it in spirit, the 300SL Gullwing, would require an even bigger investment. A new SL is a rare event, and this one provides a rare experience.