A mere 60 years young, the Mercedes-Benz SL has become one of the most coveted sport and grand touring cars around.
Slowly evolving but rarely off the mark, the SL has been reborn for 2013 with the hope that it will become an object of desire for a completely new generation.
Is it a car just for wealthy retirees, or is it still the real deal? We decided to spend some quality time with the latest version of of Stuttgart's finest, the 2013 Mercedes-Benz SL550.
What is it?
The genesis of this sixth-generation SL (for Sport Leicht
or Sport Lightweight
) started out as a race car that quickly garnered a legendary reputation both for its performance and the for drivers who excelled behind its wheel. Names like Hans Herrmann, Sir Sterling Moss and Juan Manuel Fangio, to name just a few, helped to cement the concept of "win on Sunday, sell on Monday," and that was before marketing types even realized that's what they were doing.
Sixty years later, we find the SL is still a stout performer. Powered by a 4.6-liter twin-turbocharged and gasoline direct-injection engine, it manages to make 429-horsepower at 5,250 rpm and 516 lb-ft of torque between 1,800-3,500 rpm. And yes, we know that Mercedes has tossed their previous naming conventions to the wind. Back in the day, an SL550 meant the car was packing 5.5-liters. Today, a 4.6-liter is under the hood. Chalk it up to new math, perhaps? Though the engine measures 20 percent less in displacement, it produces more horsepower and torque than the larger mill it replaced.
A new start/stop function is incorporated that Mercedes says reduces fuel consumption by 14 percent. Braking at a stoplight shuts the engine down. Pressure on the accelerator refires for an instantaneous restart. All the individual fuel savings techniques join together to help the SL avoid a dreaded Gas Guzzler tax with its 16/24 mpg rating.
Weight has been shaved by almost 250 lbs., and what remains is nearly 90-percent aluminum. But reduced weight doesn't mean the SL550 is light on technology. A harman/kardon audio system uses open portions of the floorboard and firewall as a bass chamber - or, as we call it, a subwoofer.
What's it up against?
The convertible field is fairly crowded, but only the Jaguar XK Convertible
and the BMW 6-Series
Convertible really measure up. Both have comparable power ranges and price tags, give or take 10 large or so.
Unlike the SL, the XK and the 650i have small rear seat areas that may from time to time be pressed into duty, mostly as a cargo shelf and quite possibly sometimes, as an actual seat. If making an entrance matters, neither will have the local valet jockeys snickering as you drive up at the country club.
How does it look?
Although a direct descendant of the original Mercedes-Benz Gullwing, that historic car has more in common with the current SLS AMG than with this new SL550. Starting with the "star in the grille" to the venting on the hood and the fender sides, this SL cuts an imposing figure.
While the headlights on nearly all of the previous generations sported rather passive appearances, the LED-enhanced lenses are downright aggressive. Adaptive Highbeam Assist is now a part of the equation: Not a high/low system, instead, it measures the oncoming darkness and adjusts its output accordingly.
An ultra-slick Magic Sky roof gleaned from the late and lamented Maybach goes from clear to darkened tint in a matter of seconds. Using electrically charged particles, it acts like an auto-dimming rear view mirror to keep bright sunlight at bay with the touch of a button.
And on the inside?
While we have seen most of the fitment in the SL550 before, we have never experienced it in such a tasty combination. In addition to the milk chocolate dyed hides, we were treated to some of the most beautiful woods ever to be found in a vehicle of any sort.
A satin-finished poplar trim covers the dashboard, steering wheel, center console and door panels with a look found on some of the most dazzlingly expensive guitars in the world, like those from C.F. Martin, Traugott, and Jol Dantzig. Although the steering wheel packs a $600 surcharge, the overall poplar treatment is a no-cost option.
The flat-bottomed steering wheel is finished with an elegantly engraved vintage-style Mercedes-Benz script logo.
Our favorite seats in the automotive world continue in this SL550. Active ventilated and contoured seats offer heating, and cooling as appropriate, while dynamic bolstering holds occupants in place when rounding turns.
But we're not done yet.
A massage function offers the full Magic Fingers workup with slow, fast, gentle and aggressive treatments. And the piÃ¨ce de rÃ©sistance is the AirScarf, which blows warm air down the back of your neck on a chilly night. With weather routinely in the upper 90 degree range during our testing, there were cobwebs on the switches.
Aiding convenience is a hands-free trunk that opens and closes with a sweep of a foot under the bumper.
As one might expect at this price point, materials selection and fit and finish were top notch - and that's something we haven't always been able to say about SLs.
But does it go?
A starter motor stirs, causing the twin-turbocharged 4.6-liter V8 to roar to life. Once things settle down, a gurgle-like purr emanates from underhood, giving only a hint of the power that lurks behind the faÃ§ade.
The acceleration of the 4.6-liter twin-turbo V8 continues to show why it is one of our favorite engines. Smooth and linear but always there to give good grunt, it just manages to keep on diggin,' as they say in NASCAR, putting power to the pavement.
We wish our SL550's seven-speed automatic had alloy paddle shifters rather than the plastic set that ,while effective, don't measure up to the surroundings of the cockpit. Regardless, the 0-60 mph times of 4.5 seconds and a top speed of 155 mph are nothing to sneeze at.
The seven-speed skips gears while downshifting for quicker response. Torque vectoring, or selective wheel braking, shortens the turning radius of the car. The end result of all this tech was seamless execution and a remarkably nimble, lightweight feel. For those liking it rough, there was a button near the gear selector that allows toggling through from Comfort, Manual and Sport settings for transmission shift points.
The electromechanical power steering, appearing here for the first time, made slow speed maneuvering an easy job, especially when weaving through shopping center parking lots. It's when you pull into traffic that the ability to whip wheel becomes apparent. An ease in turning at slow speed gradually increases in tension as the SL550 increases in speed.
A Grand Touring machine with incredible acceleration would be just another muscle car if it couldn't handle. In this case, the SL didn't disappoint. With multi-link suspensions front and rear, handling was firm, or with the flick of a switch, as comfortable as we desired. Braking was stellar with 13.5-inch platters taking control of the situation in front while 12.6-inch disks took care of the rear.
Overall, we appreciated the manual-style control of our tester compared to the Active Body Control-equipped SL we tested recently
Why you would buy it:
A muscle car for the modern age, it has your name written all over it.
Why you wouldn't:
Because your Corvette might become jealous.
Leftlane's bottom line
Sixty years of heritage has done nothing to age the 2013 Mercedes-Benz SL550.
Sure, it has a supercar price tag when optioned as ours was, but it manages to answer every need and desire an owner could ever imagine. It rides in a group comprised of a very select few.
2013 Mercedes-Benz SL550
base price, $105,500. As tested, $120,140.
Diamond White Paint, $795; Premium leather, $900; 19-inch wheels, $500; Illuminated door sills, $350; Wood steering wheel, $590; Magic Sky Control, $2,500; Premium 1 Package, $4,900; Driver Assistancec Package, $2,950; Special Order Charge, $250; Destination, $905.
Words and photos by Mark Elias.