Once upon a time, I thought that the SL roadster was less than stellar. I’d driven a facelifted 2009 R230 back-to-back with an SLK roadster and thought the SL to be nothing more than fat, heavy and an uninspired driver. A few years later, I took the wheel of a new 2012 R231 and I suddenly had a change of heart.
I quickly realized that week that the SL is not meant to be an agile or sharp point to point roadster. That week, I regaled and discovered the feeling that one gets when everything seems right with the world, and one’s car. The power, the comfort and the poshness swiftly made me understand how such a car must be appreciated; it’s a cruiser. Right around the same time, I briefly drove an Aston Martin V8 Vantage S roadster followed a short while later by a Jaguar XK-R convertible. As exciting as these cars are and were, they lowered my blood pressure, and made me feel good.
The Mercedes SL is undoubtedly one of, if not the, best high-power luxury drop-tops in the world. And no matter what Merc does to it, it has always been, and always will be, a staple of the genre.
Take a moment and look up pictures of all six generations of the SL. What do you see? Gorgeous, collectable and desirable automobiles, is what. Much like the Porsche 911, no generation of this car was a miss. If Porsche has the 996 to more or less apologise for, Mercedes could feel the same for the 5th gen, pre-facelift R230 but in both cases, I suppose I’m being somewhat harsh.
The 2016 update for the SL has sharpened creases, and increased its definition. The proportions are perfect, the bonnet is huge and overhangs are abundant. This is a beautiful car. And this applies from the 450 all the way to the AMG 65, without exception.
The cabin lovely as well, if not a little dated. The clump of button mounted on the center stack is all Mercedes, busy, but functional. The dashboard itself is lovely, brilliantly assembled and with the finest materials. The sole sore spot, if it can be considered one, is the small-ish non-touch-sensitive screen.
The SL roadster is first and foremost designed to be comfortable. The incredible seats hold occupants with a firm and loving hand. Said hands will even massage you at the touch of a button. Both driver and passenger have plenty of room, top up, or top down.
As far as carrying gear is concerned, the SL’s got numerous storage areas behind the seats and in the center console. The trunk is fairly voluminous and access is fully powered when the roof is stowed.
As an icon of motoring, it is difficult to say that the SL is worth, or not, the money. At about $105k, the base 450 is well heeled but still lacks a little equipment. This is especially true in my as tested $136k 2017 550 with Premium and Intelligent Drive packages. The most notable missing item is a heated steering wheel which is available in cars well under $30,000.
But hell, this is a Mercedes SL roadster and there’s a premium to be paid if you want the privilege of calling one your own. This is the case with most luxury cars including the Porsche 911.
The price still gets you the massaging seats, the Magic Sky control roof (variable opacity), Harman Kardon audio, active body control, the V8 and the 9A transmission.
The SL 550 can, if you want it too. It can hit 100 km/h in 4.3 seconds, reach an indecent top speed and pull some hard Gs on a twisty road. It can be fun to experience this on occasion but the SL modus operandi is to cruise briskly, in comfort and in style.
Standard on the 550, optional on the 450, is Mercedes’ Active Body Control. In a nutshell, a series of sensors send signals to a pair of micro-computers that in turn control a hydraulic pump. The sensors measure each strut’s travel and through the pump, preserve a level ride height at all times. This system limits lean in all direction all the while maintaining comfort.
The SL rides beautifully, especially when the active dampers are in comfort mode. In fact, the Dynamic Select mode of choice is comfort, or a variation of comfort and sport through the Individual setting. This way, the powertrain and steering can be kept sharp in sport and the ride, cosseting.
Whatever the selected drive mode, the twin-turbocharged 4.7-litre V8 is a sublime piece. Upon a cold start-up, it’ll clear its throat with a muscular sound but will quickly settle into near silence. Torque is what is immediately noticed when throttle is applied as 516 lbs of it are available from 1,800 to 3,500 rpm. Actually, so healthy is this engine that the AMG 63’s 664 lb.-ft. of torque can only shave 0.2 seconds off the sprint time.
The V8 never sounds or feels rushed. As the pedal goes down, the thrust piles onto itself. The 449 horses glide in at 5,250 rpm but by that time, speed limits will have been crushed. In the course of all this happening, one experiences a perfectly tuned 9-speed automatic transmission. It too loves to casually swap cogs but when the driver wants more, it’ll gladly dispense with monster shifts.
My time with the SL 550 was good, to say the least. Most cars I drive with relatively high-powered engines usually have me worried about what I might do with them. The SL not only has massaging seats but is akin to a soothing hot bath where worries are tomorrow’s problem and I live in the moment. Yeah, it’s quick and I know it, and that’s good enough for me.