First Drive: 2013 Mercedes-Benz SL63 AMG

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Automotive journalists have a slightly warped view of the high-end sports car market. While we feeble automotive scribes pine for a Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG Black Series or for Porsche to offer a 911 GT3 RS with manual cloth seats and an A/C delete option, most real buyers aren’t interested in such compromise for ultimate performance. The truth is that many customers simply want a sports car that’s fast, a convertible, sounds good, and one that their significant other will actually ride in. Enter the Mercedes-Benz SL63 AMG that we recently drove in the south of France.

We’ve already told you about the latest SL550. It’s all-new including a near-300 pound diet and stiffer structure as a result of extensive use of aluminum. The SL63 adds to this package the M157 AMG twin-turbo 5.5-liter V-8 developing 530 hp and 590 lb-ft (the optional AMG Performance Package bumps those numbers to 557 hp and a staggering 664 lb-ft of torque while also adding a limited-slip differential, red brake calipers, and a bump of the speed limiter from 155 to 186 mph). As with the last SL63 AMG, out goes the torque converter from the seven-speed automatic, replaced with a wet clutch. The chassis upgrades include an AMG-spec ABC active suspension setup with two settings, electromechanical constant-ratio steering, and upgraded steel brakes (with carbon ceramics offered as an option). All this comes together with a goal of raising the performance level of the SL without dramatically sacrificing the comfort of the SL550.

Tackling the roads outside Saint-Tropez, one of the first things we felt was the impressive grunt of the turbocharged V-8. It adds an old-school supercharged SL55 AMG-like level of torque while minimally sacrificing the aural brilliance of the outgoing 6.2-liter normally aspirated engine. The growl and pops through the exhaust, especially in the sportier settings of the transmission are glorious. We actually found the standard, less powerful SL63 the superior setup. The AMG Performance Package tuning is less linear and acts more like a traditional turbocharged engine. The added power really isn’t needed or actually befitting of the focus of the SL63. Either way, the new engine is an excellent setup for larger AMG models like the SL, CL, and S-Class though we will miss the 6.2-liter in cars like the C63 AMG once it goes away due to the continued push towards lower emissions and increased fuel economy.

Speaking of fuel economy, we then come to that efficient new electromechanical power steering system. While the linear-rate SL63’s steering is miles better than the inconsistent variable system in the new SL550, it still isn’t good enough. It’s quite precise and accurate once you get used to the slightly too quick steering ratio but it is devoid of any real feel and is far too light, especially for a car with an AMG badge. When asked, head of AMG vehicle development Tobias Moers quickly agrees with our assessment and says that the steering system needs further tuning and will be sorted for production cars by the time they arrive in July.

The AMG-tweaked suspension setup is luckily better than the steering and exhibited good body control and impressive overall handling over the smooth roads in southern France. Mercedes-Benz USA smartly decided that the even stiffer, fidgety AMG performance suspension option would be special-order only in the U.S. We drove both setups in France and agree 100% with that decision. No matter what the setup, the SL63 is not an overly communicative sports car. It’s incredibly fast and extremely capable but slightly too synthetic as it goes about its business at a very rapid pace.

Then we come to styling. The new SL isn’t what you’d call pretty. This AMG version doesn’t change that but at least some of the extroverted add-ons dull the non-cohesive nature of the basic design. The interior of the newest SL is far better than the exterior and a welcome upgrade compared to the old car. It’s just a shame that each new generation SL seems to be less impressive to look at going down the road than the last. You can excuse the SL for not being the most focused sports car to drive but it needs to at least be beautiful.

As we wipe a tear for the loss of yet another normally aspirated engine application, there is no doubt the new engine offers a wider and more usable powerband that perfectly fits the demeanor of the SL63 AMG -- especially in the standard state of tune. If anything, the torque of the turbocharged engine makes us wonder why anyone would spend the extra money on the forthcoming SL65 AMG. Do you really need more power and likely less-impressive handling with the heavier V-12 engine? When we asked that to an AMG engineer, he explained that it is not a question that needs to be asked or answered. Quite simply, they have buyers that want an AMG V-12 SL so they will build an AMG V-12 SL. Seems logical.

Purists won’t be surprised that despite the phenomenal performance, the SL63 AMG won’t pull at their heartstrings. Potential buyers may be surprised to hear that the $9000 AMG Performance Package as well as the $12,625 carbon ceramic brakes are options to skip unless their ego can’t handle it. The SL63 AMG is not a track car and it’s not supposed to be. The AMG SL’s character makes further sense when you remember that Mercedes now offers the SLS AMG Roadster for those looking for a more focused (and normally-aspirated) two-seat convertible. Putting over $20,000 in options onto the $146,695 SL63 AMG just pushes it that much closer to the $196,675 SLS AMG Roadster. The SL63 AMG can easily dust most cars in a drag race in either state of tune and handles tidily while still allowing top up or top down motoring in impressive comfort. For many buyers, that is all that matters.

Sideways the Seven
I seriously think this may be the ugliest SL yet. It HAS to be fast to get away from all the people hurling rocks at it.

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