Review: The Mercedes-AMG SL rediscovers its sporting roots

After all these decades, considering what the ‘S’ in the name stands for...
by TopGear.com | Jan 22, 2022
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Even for a marque as venerable as Mercedes-Benz—it pretty much invented the motor car—the SL badge still packs a significant emotional wallop. Most histories suggest it stands for ‘sporty’ and ‘light,’ two commodities cherished by car fans, but that have been largely forgotten in the 21st century technological arms race. Touchscreens trump pretty much everything else, obviously.

It’s certainly been a while since the SL could truthfully claim to be sporty or light. The new car is the seventh generation and aims to redress the balance. The bloodline is mostly that of an automotive aristocrat. The original arrived in 1952, a postwar competition car whose signature gullwing doors and radical engineering presaged a thrilling road version, and then a slightly less thrilling one.

The model that followed, known colloquially as the ‘Pagoda,’ was as effortlessly elegant as any car in history. The third generation arrived in 1971, more of a lover than a fighter, and soon to be enshrined in camp American television behemoths such as Dallas and Hart to Hart, though Richard Gere’s American gigolo matched his with the finest Italian tailoring (Armani, since you asked). The late ’80s-into-’90s car remains a modernist masterpiece, and one of the best cars that esteemed Merc design supremo Bruno Sacco presided over.

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Since then, well...maybe not so much, saddled as it was with an unwieldy folding hardtop roof and a lardy chassis. Lately, the SL has had the aura of fallen hero, pushed to the margins of the sprawling Merc range and left to brood. Now it’s centerstage once again.

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What’s new?

Pretty much everything. This is the first SL to be developed under the aegis of AMG, which is proof that the ‘sport’ part of the equation is being taken seriously. Its 1,950kg curb weight, on the other hand, suggests that someone in Affalterbach needs to invest in a new dictionary. Or maybe some new scales.

Moving on...

The SL features an all-new chassis that borrows nothing from any existing Mercedes-Benz, and throws all-wheel drive (a first for the SL) and an active rear axle (up to 2.5 degrees) into the mix. It also employs the latest MBUX interior user interface from the S-Class but with some SL-specific twists, including a distinct cockpit feel, a low-slung driving position, and central display that tilts to avoid reflections.

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The exterior is the work of the German carmaker’s California design studio. It has shortish overhangs, big wheel arches that eat hungrily into the front wings, slim ‘digital’ headlights, a long hood/short tail silhouette, and a body whose form has shades of Porsche 911. It’s good to see the return of the old-school soft-top: As well as a pert rear end, it imbues the SL with a more classically sports-car character without being remotely retro. Opening and closing the roof takes 15sec and can be done on the move at speeds up to 65kph.

“This is the first SL I’ve designed despite being at Mercedes for so long,” design vice president Gorden Wagener explains. “The 300 SL Gullwing is the blueprint, the car I had in mind when we worked on the new car. That was a UFO when it first hit the market, you know? We started with a blank sheet of paper, so we were able to define everything. The SL was always a mirror of the decade it existed in, and this one is the SL of the digital age, an age of transformation. It was important to pick up on the heritage, but also make it very technical and forward-looking.”

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But no electrification?

Not yet. Instead, the new SL arrives armed with two versions of Merc’s vigorously internally combusting 4.0-liter twin-turbo ‘hot V’ V8. The SL 55 makes 469hp, delivers 699Nm, gets to 100kph in 3.9sec, and can do 295kph. The SL 63 has 577hp, 799Nm, takes just 3.6sec to dispatch 100kph, and tops out at 314kph. The entry-level car is the SL 43, powered by a 385hp 3.0-liter V6, good for 519Nm. A plug-in hybrid and a fully-electric version are incoming, although there will be no EQ-badged SL.

On the road

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“We wanted the new SL to return to its origins. It’s a sports car, so AMG took over the task of developing the architecture,” Philipp Schiemer, Mercedes-AMG’s chairman of the board, tells Top Gear. “But it had to be comfortable as well. We had to create the right combination. AMG’s guys are driving dynamics freaks, but the SL has to be completely usable as a daily driver. There’s also a lot of innovation in this car.”

Much effort has been expended. Various modifications have been made to the V8 for duty here: There’s a new oil pan, repositioned intercoolers, active crankcase ventilation, and reworked intake and exhaust. It also benefits from liquid-filled active engine mounts to isolate unwanted vibrations and promote a more relaxed demeanor. The SL’s cooling system has three tiers to manage the engine, turbos, intercoolers, transmission, and engine oil. AMG’s nine-speed MCT gearbox now has a wet clutch rather than a torque converter, which reduces weight and has lower inertia to deliver faster shift times.

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That’s quite extensive. Anything else?

Merc has also been on to the Formula 1 guys, so there are various aero widgets to improve stability, reduce drag, and optimize cooling. The front apron contains a wing and splitter to reduce lift and target airflow, there are aero-optimized brake ducts, and a two-piece active aero Air Panel uses electronically actuated louvers to hustle air either into cutting drag or into maximum cooling mode. At the rear, there’s an active rear spoiler that can adopt five different positions. An optional aerodynamics package is available for even greater efficiency, and there’s a choice of aero-optimized 20- or 21-inch alloy wheels.

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The chassis mixes aluminum, steel, magnesium, and carbon-fiber composites to promote greater rigidity while keeping things—theoretically—light. The windshield uses high-strength, hot-formed tubular steel for maximum rollover protection, and there are cast components in critical areas. Merc says that the SL’s transverse rigidity is 50% higher than on the AMG GT, which is no mean feat. Overall, the bodyshell weighs 270kg; it’s a shame Mercedes couldn’t get the rest of the car on a diet.

There’s much to absorb here, not least where the new SL sits relative to its AMG GT sibling. First impressions are that the V8 in the SL55 is such a charismatic engine, it threatens to overwhelm the whole car, especially in Sport mode. It’s all blood and thunder and egocentric exhaust note. But pretty soon, it’s apparent that the SL is a much less frantic and frenetic machine, a whole lot more compliant without being ungainly.

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How has it managed that?

The 55 uses a revised version of AMG’s ‘ride control’ steel suspension with adaptive damping and new lightweight coil springs; the 63 gains active antiroll stabilization with hydraulically connected dampers. There’s also a new five-link front axle to improve kinematics, with a similar setup at the rear, and the key components are made of forged aluminum. There’s a palpable commitment to ride comfort and refinement here; the SL is much less of a muscle car and more of a GT than the, um, Mercedes-AMG GT. There’s excess wind noise around the door mirrors and at the top of the A-pillars, though.

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It’s also highly configurable. The transmission’s Dynamic Select has no fewer than six different modes: Slippery, Comfort, Sport, Sport+, Individual, and Race (the latter is an option on the SL55 but standard on the 63). Mercedes-Benz has also added its version of side slip control in the form of AMG Dynamics, which has Basic, Advanced, Pro, and Master settings to deliver “agilizing interventions,” according to the carmaker. An electronically controlled limited-slip rear differential is standard on the SL63 and available on the 55 as part of the AMG Dynamic Plus Package.

We drove the 55 on a predominantly wet day during which it remained completely unflappable despite some truly nasty conditions. Fortunately, drier conditions prevailed during a stint in the 63, which is naturally more of a handful but no thug: Both versions turn in with impressive keenness without quite matching a Porsche 911 for steering feel or that delicious dynamic precision the SL’s rear-engined German rival is so famous for. The nine-speed dual-shift gearbox is as seamless as ever, although in this sportier context, you do find yourself checking which gear you’re in more often.

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Both 55 and 63 use steel composite brake discs with a diameter of 390mm and six-piston calipers at the front, 360mm discs with single-piston floating calipers at the rear. Ceramic composite brakes are an option. There’s also the same vast suite of driver-assistance programs as you’ll find on other high-end Mercs, although the lane assist is much less intrusive than elsewhere. Merc is gearing up for autonomy throughout its range, but the SL is a car you won’t want to cede control of to a bunch of algorithms.

On the inside

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Inside, it’s AMG GT meets new S-Class. Aviation influences are everywhere, with a wing-like structural concept bolstered by four galvanized turbine nozzle air vents. The 12.3-inch display ahead of the driver has a clever cutout section at the top of it, the display itself featuring some SL-bespoke graphics and readouts. AMG’s Track Pace data logger is standard on the 63: It can record more than 80 data parameters, and you can add your own circuits to sit alongside those already stored in the system. This is an SL that you might even venture onto a circuit in, although the steering wheel is seriously busy: As well as the haptic sensors for the main display, the SL adds two further AMG drive-mode controls at the bottom.

The cabin is dominated by the 11.9-inch portrait format central touchscreen, which can be electrically adjusted from 12 degrees to 32 degrees to avoid reflections when the roof is lowered. The display is mercifully easy to use and lovely to look at. The door panels are cleverly layered and the whole setup looks particularly good at night. Points are deducted for the capacitive door-mirror buttons that don’t work if they get wet. And, as on the S-Class, the pop-out door handles can be irritatingly fiddly to use.

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The seats are sculpted to appear lighter than they actually are with a headrest that’s integrated into the backrest; most important, they’re fabulously comfortable. Airscarf is standard on the eight-cylinder SLs.

Note also that the new SL returns the car to a 2+2 seating configuration for the first time since 1989’s R129 model, although it’s strictly for kids, shopping, or someone you don’t like. Apparently, the 240-liter boot can swallow two sets of golf clubs, but it couldn’t accommodate our over-square suitcase.

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Final thoughts

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The SL is a Mercedes-Benz of typically impressive bandwidth, incredibly intelligently engineered but not unemotional, as befits its hedonistic remit. It’s arguably the most genuinely sporting SL since its ’50s forebear, and reverses the model’s decades-long drift into gently opiated waftiness. Although much less aggressive than its uncompromising AMG GT sibling, the V8 engine is still such a presence that it’s possible the less vocal six-cylinder engine might actually be the best bet (we haven’t driven it yet).

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Regardless, the SL has successfully recaptured its stylish essence, while tapping into Merc’s universe of connectivity and tech.

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NOTE: This article first appeared on TopGear.com. Minor edits have been made.

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