With a new look, more power and more technology, can the 2016 Mercedes-Benz SL still cement itself as the world's best grand tourer?
Over the last 60 years, the Mercedes-Benz SL has been the ‘benchmark’ convertible sports tourer. A car where the key ingredients of performance, comfort and technology are all applied in equal measure.
The 2016 Mercedes-Benz SL seeks to raise this benchmark even higher, by adding more power, smoother driving dynamics and a host of new technology.
The SL is the world’s longest-running passenger car nameplate. First launched as a roadster in 1957, there have been six generations of SL, with some models spanning decades. It’s an icon of the road, and perhaps even the most ‘Mercedes’ of Mercedes models.
When launched in 2012, the design of the sixth-generation R231 SL was met with mixed reaction. A squared off nose with big headlights, it was a look that arguably paid homage to the third-generation R107 SL, but ultimately didn’t gel with the proportions of the big roadster.
The new-look nose you see here, now much more inline with the design of the S-Class Coupe, is 14mm longer than the outgoing model and gives the SL more of the elegant and aggressive stance it deserves.
A large feature grille, which houses the three-pointed star radome and horizontal separator (as well as 209 hexagonal facets) is flanked by new intelligent adaptive LED headlights. The seemingly endless bonnet now includes a pair of bulging powerdomes, a hallmark of the original 1957 SL Roadster.
The SL family lineage is still there, but it now presents as a much more cohesive and modern looking car.
A minor change to the rear valance and new ‘all red’ tail lights improve the rear of the SL, but it still has a big back end that can seem a shade bulbous from some angles.
New for 2016 is the ability for the SL to raise and lower the Vario roof (at speeds up to 40km/h) when moving from a standstill. Especially handy when caught at traffic lights ‘mid-movement’, this feature still lags behind the E-Class cabrio which can initiate folding the roof while on the move. The Vario isn't what you'd call swift either.
Another neat update is the powered luggage cover that moves out of the way by itself, allowing you to safely stow bags while leaving enough room for the roof to fit on top. A small thing maybe, but you used to have to drop all the gear in your hand so as to move the cover manually when loading the boot. It might be erring to the lazier side of convenience, but it’s still a handy feature!
Australia bids farewell to the half-million dollar AMG SL65 V12 with this update. Upset? Blame yourself – only six have been sold since the R231 launched in 2012. We do receive the SL400, SL500 (both strangely called SL450 and SL550 in the USA – because America) and the Mercedes-AMG SL63 to top out the range.
With a 270kW/500Nm 3.0-litre twin-turbo V6 (up 25kW and 20Nm on the 2015 model), the SL400 is something of a hidden gem. Visually identical, and almost as well equipped as the pricier SL500, the V6 roadster makes a delicious, smooth purr when on-song and can shuffle its 1735kg bulk to 100km/h in under five-seconds.
It doesn’t quite have the punch of the V8 (more on that in a minute) but the acceleration is still impressive and at urban or cruising speeds, you’d be hard pressed to pick the difference over the '500 – aside from the trumpety smooth note from the exhaust.
At the other end of the scale, the AMG SL63 features a specific grille and front-end design that includes a lower splitter and side skirts as well as a carbon-fibre spoiler on the boot-lid.
The 430kW/900Nm 5.5-litre twin-turbo V8 is monstrously powerful and can explode the 1845kg roadster to 100km/h in a blur over four-seconds. Running the car in its SPORT+ or RACE modes encourages a vibrant and antisocial exhaust sound. It is more a subterranean eruption than the piercing whip-crack of other AMG V8s, but it’s still firmly satisfying.
From the IWC clock on the dashboard to the carbon-fibre centre trim pieces, the ‘63 has an interior that feels more impressive than its ‘lesser’ brethren. With an approximate $90k premium, it has a solid price jump over the ‘500 but the exclusivity and special nature of the AMG roadster almost justifies it… almost.
But I digress…
On the 550km drive-loop, we spent most of our time in the 335kW/700Nm 4.7-litre twin-turbo V8 SL500, predominantly because the SL500 makes up over 60 per cent of all Australian SL sales. It’s the iconic nameplate of the iconic car that has broadcasted the driver’s success for the best-part of three decades.
Slide on in, fire up the V8 with a distinctly sharp bark, and get ready to feel like a captain of industry.
Inside, the SL is largely unchanged from the 2015 model. The materials are expectedly opulent (carbon-fibre textured aluminium anyone?) and the cabin is plush and luxurious, but when compared to the S-Class and new E-Class, the SL feels a bit dated.
Where the newest Mercedes-Benz models feature twin, wide-screen LCD panels, the SL makes do with the traditional instrument cluster and recessed infotainment screen. The COMAND ONLINE software has been updated to include the latest dynamic information displays and menu array, and Australian specification cars will receive Apple CarPlay integration, but the system as a whole shows its age.
It works, but not as fast or as intuitively as other systems like BMW iDrive. We had issue connecting an iPhone for audio playback. COMAND suggested there were ‘no tracks available’ but still managed to play some Nirvana buried deep within my music library.
Our test car featured the optional 900W, 12-speaker Bang & Olufsen BeoSound system, with snazzy light-up tweeters on the dash top. Punching along with the top-down at 120km/h isn’t the best way to judge audio quality, but the Jackson Five’s ABC certainly sounded as sweet as disco should.
The Nappa leather seats are supportive and very comfortable, and easy to move into an optimal driving position. Our car featured seat heating and ventilation as well as the air-scarf function that keeps your neck warm on cooler, top-down drives.
Also fitted, was the massage function and active bolstering (hereby referred to as ‘cuddle seats’) that give you a little squeeze on the love-handles as you dip into a corner. More fun than necessity though.
There is good storage, with a twin-USB compartment under the centre console, reasonably sized door bins, a pair of cup-holders below the centre stack, a third cup-holder and storage tub at the rear of the console and little cubbies behind the seats.
The biggest issue we found with the interior though, was the ergonomics.
Changing driving modes in the SL400 and SL500 is done with the dynamic-select button on the console. It’s hard to reach on the move, forcing you to extend your shoulder right back, or even reach across with the opposite hand. Pressing it cycles through the five driving modes, meaning to get from COMFORT to ECO for example, you need to go ‘via’ SPORT, SPORT+ and INDIVIDUAL. Press one too many times, and you have to cycle through again.
Given the Sport modes change the dynamic inputs of the car, means your throttle feel goes from soft to sharp and back again – it is not really ideal if changing modes on the move.
The AMG SL63 uses a rotary dial for this function, which is much more user friendly.
Accessing the COMAND interface is also something that requires ‘eyes off the road’ to make sure you tap the right button, and the steering-wheel buttons to control the multi-mode display on the instrument binnacle have never been a model of intuitive design.
Foibles aside, the two-seat cabin of the SL-Roadster is a hugely pleasant place to spend time. Wind buffeting is minimal, even without deploying the integrated diffuser, and we found it easy to hold a conversation at speeds above 100km/h with the roof down.
Close the top, and the SL seals up exceptionally well. Interior sound was measured at 70dB at 100km/h – about the same as a Jaguar XE sedan.
In the default COMFORT setting, the SL500 is a predictably comfortable sports-tourer. The car feels firm enough to translate the road, but is compliant and light enough to pilot effortlessly through the beach-side streets of Southern California and off into the winding mountain roads.
With a soft whistle under gentle acceleration the only hint to the resource of power available, the big V8 responds instantly, but always smoothly throughout the rev-range. The response is directly related to your throttle inputs. Squeeze gently and the car squeezes back. Nail it, and all 445 horses hit the ground running.
The SL500 builds pace almost frighteningly quickly. It’s not so much a forward detonation like the AMG SL63, but more an unstoppable rush that feels unhindered by physics.
Shift to SPORT or SPORT+ and the focus tightens. The car stiffens mildly (Australian specification cars will all receive the ‘even firmer’ AMG suspension package) and every twitch on the accelerator becomes another step above the (substantially relaxed) speed limit.
Overtaking is effortless. Cruising is effortless. Braking hard and turning in to a corner with a tightening radius, to then power out from the apex, is again, effortless. There is so much car in reserve that you never feel it won’t come to the party when you need it to.
Over the generally smooth Californian roads, the SL links turns with ease, all while providing a pleasant activation massage and gentle cuddle from the seats.
Select the new (optional) CURVE mode and things change again.
It’s a concept that was developed on high-speed passenger trains some years ago. Where the car (or train) would naturally tilt into the corner, the vehicle reacts and adjusts the roll of the body to lessen the impact on the occupants.
To explain simply; enter a left-hand bend and the right-side of the car lifts slightly. Straighten up and the suspension levels out.
The on-board effect is that of driving a straighter road. You feel as though the corner is a lesser angle than it is as your body simply doesn’t move as much. It’s not a performance package, but a comfort one – and not available on AMG models for that reason.
Throughout all this, the new nine-speed 9G-Tronic automatic transmission shifts smoothly, maintaining the harmony between response and economy. Cruising at 100km/h in ninth-gear sees the engine barely ticking over at 1000rpm which enables the SL to achieve a claimed combined fuel consumption of 9L/100km.
We saw it sit under the 12L/100km mark, impressive considering the regular changes to driving style and throttle input.
You can opt to manually change gear using the lovely aluminium paddles on the steering wheel. Time things right and the enjoyment of the experience is amplified, as the nine-speed box smoothly changes ratios to your command. Miss the moment though, and the changes can feel quite sharp. This is pronounced at low speeds in the SPORT drive modes, where the sensitive throttle and mountain of torque need you to concentrate to ensure a smooth drive.
Down-shifting the ‘500 doesn’t have the same snap-crackle-pop reward as the AMG – nor even the SL400, which produced some impressive over-run audio when chasing down a rogue BMW M3 through one section of road…
Dropping back down from the Santa Ana mountains (there’s an embarrassing Belinda Carlisle related story that I’ll avoid for now) and onto San Diego, the SL was at its most relaxed and commonly driven state.
This is where the SL shines. Not on a hyper-tight hillclimb, but at a cruising pace with the top down and a destination in mind. The usual array of Mercedes-Benz safety technology working with you to ensure the journey is completed without fuss or incident, further testament to the SL’s status as a world-class tourer.
We entered the city at dusk, which I find the most enjoyable time to be in a convertible. You don’t worry about the sun or the heat, and the holistic and all-encompassing nature of the SL makes you feel every part the success statement the car makes.
The sticky, salty air and crisp wind just added to the experience, as the SL500 casually and classily idled its way to the final rally-point on the cost.
With only two seats, the SL sits largely alone in its class. Everything from the BMW M6 cabriolet, Maserati Gran Cabrio, Ferrari California and even Mercedes’ own S-Class Cabrio offer rear passenger space – but the SL doesn’t care.
It has unapologetically forged a path without proper rear seating for 60-years. The SL continues to be a motoring icon, flaws and all.
Local pricing and specification is yet to be finalised, but Mercedes-Benz Australia have suggested that prices will sharpen on all models. That will see the SL500 dip well below the $300k mark for the first time in over a decade.
The 2016 Mercedes-Benz SL continues to offer a niche product to a niche market, and yet it has a future regardless. The world at large may be changing, but as Mercedes-Benz itself says, there will always be the SL, as there is only one SL.
Click on the Photos tab for more images by James Ward.