Mercedes' iconic roadster now boasts an aluminium body - and it still offers both grace and pace.
The Mercedes-Benz SL, the German car maker's first production car with an aluminium body, has arrived in Australia.
It’s the sixth generation of the iconic roadster flagship and is larger, lighter, more powerful and more economical than the last SL that arrived here back in 2002.
The new uber cruiser comes with some intriguing new technology including a sound system with floor-mounted sub-woofers that are designed to transmit the bass through the front chassis members.
Mercedes-Benz Australia has also taken a knife to the prices, cutting them by between $20,000 and $30,000.
That sounds like a huge saving, but the SL range is still exclusive given the cheapest model, the V6 Mercedes-Benz SL350, costs $225,000.
The V8-powered Mercedes-Benz SL500 is now $304,500, while the performance-focused Mercedes-Benz SL63 AMG is an eye-watering $381,500. Sitting at the top of the range is the twin-turbo V12 Mercedes-Benz SL65, which will set you back a cool $466,500.
The SL morphed into a full-size roadster in the late 1980s and has grown larger again for the sixth generation, which only adds to its menacing presence on the road.
It is 57mm wider, for a total width of 1877mm, and 50mm longer, for a total length of 4612mm.
In order to prevent its big cruiser turning into a scale-crushing Big Bertha, Mercedes decided it was time for an intervention. It took the radical step of making the body and panels from lightweight aluminium. (The previous SL was made mostly from steel with a few aluminium panels.)
This significant measure resulted in an impressive 140kg weight saving and means the entry-level Mercedes-Benz SL now tips the scales at a respectable 1685kg.
The Mercedes body-shell engineering manager, Thomas Rudlaff, says it is “as if a heavyweight-class passenger had got out of the car".
Mercedes sources indicate all-aluminium bodies could appear in other high-end sports cars in the next few years, but not the mainstream cars for some time.
It has certainly helped this SL, which feels more athletic, with increased agility. The new body is also 20 per cent stiffer and that is certainly borne out in the test drive that took place on the twisty rounds around Victoria’s Daylesford resort town.
Bumpy roads didn’t bring any of the body wobble that you could reasonably expect from a big roadster with its roof down. You do feel notice some vibrations, but only when the sound system is turned up.
Interestingly, the Front Bass sound system features large speakers that would normally sit in the doors and places them in the floor so they feed into resonance chambers in the car’s skeleton.
All SLs get a Harman Kardon Logic 7 system, so it was always going to sound good, but the extra bass is just brilliant.
You can look long and hard for the radio antenna, but you won’t be able to see it. There are TV and radio antennas in both the windscreen and under the bootlid skin.
The new SL inherits the latest suite of Mercedes high-performance engines, including a uniquely tuned version of the small V8. They all use stop-start and some inconspicuous technology to drive down fuel consumption by as much as 2.6L/100km.
Kicking off the new Mercedes-Benz SL range is the new 3.5-litre direct injection petrol V6 that generates a healthy 225kW at 6500rpm and 370Nm between 3500rpm and 5250rpm.
The consumption stands at 8.3L/100km. This is strong engine and propels the SL at quite a pace; the official 0-100km/h sprint is 5.9 seconds.
It sounds sporty, with definite performance flavour, but is no V8. The engine seems happiest at about 5000rpm and will change up at 6500rpm. This is not a particularly torquey unit, but it doesn’t feel sluggish in isolation.
If you were to only drive the SL350, you’d think it was a nice cruiser with a punchy engine that sounded just fine. However, we also spent some time in the Mercedes-Benz SL500, which meant our impression of the V6 would be changed forever. This is simply because the direct injection 4.7-litre twin-turbo V8 turns the SL into a rocket ship.
There is 320kW on tap from 5250rpm and a mesmerising 700Nm of torque, which out-twists the 6.2-litre naturally aspirated AMG engines that are being phased out.
It doesn’t sound anywhere near as good as that glorious engine, which thundered like the more aggressive Norse gods, but still gives off a meaty and ear-pleasing eight-cylinder note. The muscular V8 soundtrack is perfectly suited to a massive and luxury two-seat roadster like this. Fuel consumption for this model comes in at 9.4L/100km.
If you can get the power down, which is not easy in the wet, the SL500 is capable of running from 0-100km/h in just 4.6 seconds. The seemingly endless acceleration of this car is just remarkable. The turbo-boosted torque band seems as fat and wide as you could imagine. It is the kind of acceleration that pins you back in the seat and makes your stomach feel strange, and it just doesn’t stop until the transmission snatches the next gear.
Is this engine (and some extra kit) worth the $79,500 premium over the V6-powered 350? For most of us, the answer is no, but if you had the money it certainly would be.
Both the SL350 and SL500 get a seven-speed automatic transmission with a regular torque convertor, which can be controlled by wheel-mounted paddles. This is the best solution for a car like this. The shifts are not as fast as those of a dual-clutch transmission, but they are quick enough and the gearbox is still smooth and not jolty in stop-start conditions.
It beggars belief that a customer may not be satisfied with the performance of the SL500, it is just so fast, but this is Mercedes and it always has something extra for the customer with the fattest wallet.
We didn’t get to drive them, but there are two AMG SLs with even more punch. There is the Mercedes-Benz SL63, which has a 5.5-litre twin-turbo V8 making an incredible 395kW and 800Nm, and the range-topping SL65 with a twin-turbo V12 producing an almost absurd 463kW and 1000Nm.
The first thing you notice when you slide behind the wheel of the new SL is the improved interior. It now looks like a much classier cabin than before. The stylish ‘metal’ climate control outlets give an air of class, in a Jaguar-esque way, along with the more elegant instrument cluster and dashboard that features the 7-inch screen.
There is a new, smaller transmission shifter with SL stamped in the leather that looks expensive, and a new flat-bottomed sporty steering wheel and wrap-around seats are covered in soft leather.
It’s not perfect, though. There are some blank buttons behind the gearshifter in the SL350. This suggests the owner is too tight to afford all the features and is not something you expect to see in a $225,000 car.
The information screen does not respond to touch, which seems so old fashioned in the age of the smartphone. The driver or passenger instead has to use the clumsy control dial system.
A heads-up display, which projects speed and navigation information onto the windscreen, is also missing in action.
The cupholders are not ideal and our 600ml water bottles moved around as they were too narrow. We’re told the cupholders were designed for larger American bottles and cups. At least it has cupholders, as they were conspicuously absent from the previous-generation SL.
Other features somehow managed to skip the last-generation Mercedes-Benz SL, including the fully equipped adaptive cruise control which works anywhere from 0-200km/h and a reversing camera. Both of these are now standard, along with a heap of gear that is expected at this price point, including keyless entry and start, a boot that opens if you wave your foot beneath the rear bumper, heated and chilled seats and an electronically controlled wind deflector that pops up behind the occupants.
All the cars now have something called Magic Vision Control, which sounds awesome but is really just a fancy window washer system. It does have lots of little jets on the wiper blades which only squirt in the direction they are sweeping, which is more efficient and means the wiper bottle is 1.7kg lighter, but the ‘magic’ title is probably a bit of a stretch.
The standard Mercedes-Benz SL350 wheel is 18 inches, while the Mercedes-Benz SL500 gets a 19-inch rim. These cars get standard dampers with Sport or Comfort settings, although the difference is not huge out on the road.
The ride is generally comfortable as a rule, but the odd harsh rut or pothole can bounce or jar the body.
Its steering is as light as you would expect for a high-end Mercedes although you still get adequate resistance at speed through bends.
The body sits flatter than the relatively plush ride would suggest and the driver can have some fun, but the width and size of the vehicle is noticeable, even if it feels relatively light.
Wind noise is low, but not stunning, with the roof down and the climate control (including neck air vents) and heated seats ensure you can run with the roof down in temperatures as low as 10 degrees without an issue.
Mercedes has retained some of the design cues from the last SL including the bonnet fins that form part of the view from the cabin. They add a sporty flavour.
The wide, extremely expensive-looking stance is even more striking than before. Its new front end, with a more masculine nose and wider headlights, is not pretty or even attractive, but it is imposing. In fact, it looks rather menacing as it approaches in your rear view mirror.
The latest-generation Mercedes-Benz SL is a great car, even if not perfect. It blends performance, luxury and presence just as this icon always should.