It's regal, big and now a rocket. Paul Maric gets behind the wheel of Mercedes-Benz's entry-level 2017 Mercedes-Benz SL400 to see if it still has enough street cred.
The Mercedes-Benz SL has a long history as a convertible luxury grand tourer. The SL-Class moniker kicked off in 1954 and today sits in its sixth generation, benefitting from a facelift some four years after the sixth generation debuted.
The 2017 Mercedes-Benz SL400 in particular picks up minor styling changes, updated technology and a nine-speed automatic gearbox.
If you think it looks familiar, you're not wrong. In fact, the interior is almost identical to the pre-facelifted version and looks one or two generations behind the current crop of Mercedes-Benz luxury interiors.
That aside the SL-Class looks long, sleek and stunning. The giant front end sweeps through to the passenger cabin and wide rear. It features signature chrome hood elements, gills on the sides, a giant Mercedes-Benz emblem on the front and that trademark hard top.
Inside the cabin there's acres of leather and AMG-inspired components, such as the flat bottomed steering wheel and chrome-faced circular air vents.
Surprisingly, there's also a stack of storage. A generous glovebox and centre console teams with storage in the centre tunnel, behind the seats and in door pockets.
While some thought the red leather interior looked a bit gaudy, we thought it matched the car perfectly. Then again, I've never been the last word on style.
Despite the engine remaining fairly similar to the pre-facelift version, the gearbox has changed from a seven-speed to a nine-speed automatic gearbox. The 3.0-litre twin-turbocharged V6 engine produces 270kW of power and 500Nm of torque, going through 7.8L/100km on the combined cycle in the process. But, we didn't manage to get beneath 18L/100km during our week behind the wheel — granted most of it was city driving.
There's a stack of standard equipment at this price point including a cracking 11-speaker Harman/Kardon sound system; 19-inch alloy wheels; electrically adjustable steering; radar cruise control; autonomous emergency braking; blind spot monitor; keyless entry and start; front and rear parking sensors with rear-view camera; full electric seats; adaptive LED headlights with automatic high beam; lane departure assistant; heated and cooled seats; DAB+ digital radio with TV tuner and voice recognition.
Like most convertibles, there's limited boot storage with 485 litres on offer with the roof up and 345 litres with the roof down. But, unlike some convertibles, the SL has a feature that allows the entire roof mechanism to lift out of the way to add or remove luggage from the 345-litre cavity. Very cool.
Infotainment comes courtesy of a small seven-inch COMAND system that features Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, along with the Mercedes-Benz online feature suite. It really detracts from the premium feel of this car given its size hasn't really changed for years and that more modern Mercedes-Benz vehicles are now being fitted with giant infotainment screens.
Like we've mentioned in previous Mercedes-Benz reviews, the saviour of this system is the LINGUATRONIC voice recognition system which can complete almost all user commands such as entering full navigation addresses or even finding the most foreign of names (there's a few in my phone book).
Driving an SL is a very different experience. Why? It measures in at over 4.6 metres – around the same length as a C-Class – but only has two seats, meaning that from the driver's seat there's a long front end and sizeable rear. It genuinely feels like piloting a regal machine built for chewing up miles.
The seating position is excellent with all controls easily accessible. It's low-slung, which helps with a sporty feel but also improves the level of buffeting experienced within the cabin. Given it's an SL, we spent most of the time with the roof down soaking up the rays and living the SL lifestyle.
Sure, the interior feels old and the COMAND system is even less user friendly than in cars with the tiered controller (such as in the new C-, E- and S-Class), but it feels luxurious and stately, especially with the red leather interior and dashboard stitching.
Weighing in at 1774kg, it's 44kg heavier than the pre-facelifted model. That's partly due to the new nine-speed automatic gearbox that has helped increase power output, while claimed fuel consumption remains unchanged at 7.8L/100km.
The twin-turbocharged six-cylinder engine is an absolute cracker. Despite offering nine gears, the gearbox is always in the right gear and ready to kick down to the correct cog. Using the Dynamic Select system, the driver can switch between Comfort, Sport, Sport+, Individual and Eco with each mode offering a varying level exhaust sound, throttle response and steering weighting.
This engine has completely transformed the entry level SL. Prior to the 400 was the 350, a naturally aspirated six-cylinder petrol, which took forever to wind up and was a relative slug in comparison. The twin-turbocharged setup in the SL400 gives the SL virtually lag-free motoring thanks to both direct injection and parallel turbochargers.
Both turbochargers act in unison and spool at the same time with one working on each bank of cylinders. The end result is acceleration unheard of in previous entry level SLs. It produces a cracking 500Nm of torque from just 2000rpm and it pulls all the way through to its generous redline before grabbing the next gear working all the way through nine of them.
Arguably better than the acceleration is the exhaust note. Think Jaguar F-Type V6 — just not as raucous. It's perky and AMG-like in Sport and Sport+ modes with crackles and pops on the overrun, which turns heads – not something you'd normally associate with an entry-level model.
It will shoot from standstill to 100km/h in just 4.9 seconds, which is damn quick for a car this size.
While the Sport and Sport+ modes offer plenty of response and intuitive gear management, drivers can take over gear shifts at any point with the steering wheel mounted paddle-shifters.
Slipping the car into Sport or Sport+ increases suspension firmness thanks to variable dampers. It doesn't make the ride uncomfortable, but certainly makes it firmer than the comfort mode.
While the SL-Class doesn't use air suspension, you can option Active Body Control, which is a hydraulic oil system that drives pressure to each corner of the car to eliminate body roll. This technology could be handy in the AMG models, but it's not needed in models like the SL400 that already ride well and have limited body roll.
During spirited driving the Sport mode offers a nice balance between firmness and steering weight, allowing the car to be driven like a much nimbler sports car. The body remains fairly flat and the 285mm wide rubber at the rear offers plenty of grip.
The turbocharged six offers enough torque to unsettle the rear, but generally works well with the stability control to keep things trucking along. The handling is impressive given that it weighs around the same as a Commodore Sportwagon.
Stopping the car is a set of cross-drilled front rotors that offer plenty of feel through the brake pedal. The car can dive a bit under brakes but settles quickly, partly thanks to the weight of the roof mechanism in the rear.
Around the city, the comfort mode is perfect. It absorbs even the worst of Melbourne's road surfaces and doesn't crash over bumps like some hardtop convertibles. The steering is light enough for parking and visibility is generally quite good.
We spent time driving both with the roof on and off and found that the SL doesn't scuttle shake anywhere near as badly as it once did. I remember some time ago in the previous generation where a bump at highway speeds on one side of the car would jiggle the body for what felt like an eternity. It's far more settled now and feels rigid enough for strength, but soft enough for comfort.
With the roof down and the electric wind diffuser up, it's possible to make phone calls at highway speeds, which is pretty awesome. The low-slung driving position also prevents wind buffeting within the cabin area. Chilly nights are a thing of the past thanks to heated seats and AIRSCARF, which pumps warm air on to your neck – the only time something like this doesn't feel creepy.
For hot weather, the seats are perforated and cooled, which means you won't need to peel yourself off the seat during summer months.
The roof can be retracted on the move in under 20 seconds, but speeds need to be walking pace for it to work.
Running a Mercedes-Benz SL400 isn't that expensive thanks to capped price servicing. Service intervals occur every 12 months or 25,000km (whichever comes first) and total $2580 for three years. The warranty period is three years/unlimited kilometres with a three year inclusive roadside assistance package also included.
While the SL-Class is starting to feel a bit dated now, the new six-cylinder engine in the SL400 has totally transformed the entry level offering. No longer do you need to fork out mega dollars to get driving enjoyment behind the wheel of an SL.
If you're in the market for a classy grand tourer, there really is no better option. An F-Type may look better, but it's less practical and doesn't have the cachet of an SL. If you have a bit more money to spend, we'd wait for the S-Class Cabriolet, which offers far better technology and four seats and it's effectively an S-Class with a retractable roof.
Now if you see an entry level SL on the road, there's no longer a need to scoff at the driver for picking the cheap one.
Click on the photos tab for more images by Tom Fraser.