2009 Mercedes-Benz SL63 AMG

2009 Mercedes-Benz SL63 AMG

It's early Thursday morning, and we have bleak weather, a bright red example of the newly face-lifted SL roadster, and many miles ahead of us as we speed from Germany to the Cte d'Azur in search of this year's first tan. Mercedes-Benz designers ran the scalpel extra-deep on this top-of-the-line AMG version, with mixed results. The single-bar grille looks generic despite the three-pointed star; the L-shaped headlamps used to be exclusive to the CLS; the chin spoiler is cluttered; and the rear diffuser is a big, ugly piece of black plastic. First impression: thumbs down.

Second impression: thumbs up. Why? Because now the engine is fired up, and we're on our way. Kudos for the promising intake rasp, the serious punch, the awesome new transmission, and the improved ride. This is going to be fun.

Google Maps will tell you that the most direct route from Stuttgart to Monte Carlo is through Switzerland, but the nearly $40 Swiss autobahn toll is blatant highway robbery, and the Swiss cops strictly enforce the 75-mph speed limit. That isn't exactly the ideal habitat for a Benz powered by AMG's 518-hp, 6.2-liter V-8, so we divert eastward through Austria and reach Innsbruck by lunchtime. Instead of tiptoeing down the heavily traveled Brenner Pass, we take a scenic shortcut through the Dolomites, the perfect playground for the new AMG Drive Unit. Say what? The Drive Unit is a small knob next to the shifter that controls the seven-speed MCT gearbox.

MCT stands for multiclutch technology, which is AMG's lingo for a low-inertia, high-efficiency wet multiplate clutch that replaces the torque converter. The Drive Unit lets you choose from among four modes labeled C (comfort), S (sport), S+ (sport with anger), and M (manual). C is fine for stop-and-go traffic, but it's too relaxed anywhere else. S speeds up the shift times by twenty percent; S+ gains an additional twenty percent. The M setting holds the selected gear no matter what and is almost brutal in the way it juggles the ratios, flashing a big red warning light whenever the V-8 approaches its 7200-rpm redline.

Unlike the pleasantly straightforward C63 AMG, the SL63 is the exact opposite of the "one setting fits all" philosophy. Therefore, you need to choose the suspension setting next. Is it C for compliant or S for stiff? The stability control can be calibrated, too: on, off, or ESP Sport, which gives you a little more room to play. The next option is Race Start, otherwise known as launch control, closely followed by the mysterious AMG button, which will store your favorite transmission, stability control, and chassis settings. In our case, we asked it to memorize S+, ESP Sport, and ABC (active body control) in S.

Although the SL63 AMG is a compelling mix of sprinter and long-distance runner, in some ways it's overshadowed by the SL55 AMG it replaces. After all, the high-revving, normally aspirated V-8 can't quite match its predecessor in terms of torque (465 lb-ft at 5200 rpm versus 531 lb-ft at 2600 rpm) or claimed acceleration (0 to 62 mph in 4.6 seconds versus 4.5 seconds). Then again, the SL63 performs over a wider rev band and responds more eagerly to throttle orders.

Credit is due to the magical transmission, which automatically blips the throttle during downshifts and can drop directly from seventh gear to fourth gear, or from fifth to second. Praise also goes to the neatly balanced ABC suspension, the reassuringly powerful and yet easy to modulate fourteen-inch brakes, and the meaty steering that's stoic enough to hold course at 155 mph and quick enough to catch the car's wayward tail.

On the should-do-better list, we note the hefty curb weight (about 4350 pounds), the high-speed fuel consumption, the ever-more-complex ergonomics (the SL still doesn't have the S-class's single Comand controller), the noisy but not particularly tuneful engine, and the garish AMG livery.

Friday's lunch is al fresco in Monte Carlo, and we're keeping a watchful eye on our SL63, which hums an end-of-journey curbside tune - exhaust crackling lightly, engine sizzling, leather and plastic audibly expanding and contracting at random. The sixteen-second folding hard top is still a great roof, because it anoints the SL with instant Grand Touring status. But as soon as the panels disappear into the trunk, the AMG version in particular morphs into a hard-core roadster that's ready to snap at the heels of any supercar whose path it might cross. Quite frankly, we could have done without this face-lift for both the SL63 and the lesser SL models, and we can't quite forget the SL55 and its 5.4-liter supercharged V-8, which was a breakthrough car for AMG, finding some 21,000 buyers. But on aggregate points, on all-around talent, and on universal appeal, the SL63 AMG once more marks a step forward in the colorful history of the iconic two-seat Mercedes-Benz sports car.

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