First Drive: 2013 Mercedes-Benz SL 550, When “SL” Really Means Sport Leisure

 

With a new Mercedes-Benz SL 550 coming to the states, “Snap” shares the realities of the new car, as well as its importance to Daimler.


The new SL body is lighter and more rigid, which should translate into better dynamics and sheer fun in a sports car. Call me another stupid, presumptuous journalist, I guess.

In mothership Daimler’s global business case, the Mercedes SL two-seater sales chart satellite pod is not really that important to the broader bottom line universe. (See how I tied in all that space stuff? Sweet.) The car’s value has always been more as a company image tool for attracting those who want to live the easy life of moneyed people who have nothing better to do. Or who at least want to drive something that tells others that message – whether it is actually true or not.

This “R231” SL is the sixth generation of the Mercedes playboy franchise and the theory to it remains essentially similar to recent versions: a sleek and stretched-feeling two-seat Riviera cruiser with an all-weather folding hard top.

But this SL 550 I drove is a full 275 pounds lighter than the fifth-generation “R230” that got that ugly facelift in 2008. How this is possible is through a very Audi-like emphasis on a new fully aluminum body. These lost pounds should absolutely lower the center of gravity and make this new SL a dynamic wonder.

Neither thing happens, however. The instant I started driving my fully optioned SL 550 unit, my expectations of what this car was supposed to do for me changed a lot. Well, essentially my expectations returned to the old SL mode: the SL is not a very satisfying true sports car and it remains realistically a socialite car for rich men’s wives or a leisurely GT reward/toy for a slightly greying man who made the millions, or at least one million. It is best kept on less challenging roads and at speeds up to only 125 mph on straight roads.

The SL 63 AMG, its Black Series mate, and the monstrous old school SL 65 AMG V12 are what I want when I want an SL, damnit. For the vast number of buyers, however, we have the SL 350 (just not in North America) and SL 550.

Am I being tough? I don’t think so; I’m just being realistic since it is clear to the seat of my pants and my inner ear exactly what Mercedes has in mind for this model. If you keep your SL 550 (or 350 V6 which was not here to test yet) driving within the limitations I just mentioned, the car is absolutely wonderful. There are few finer things to use while plunking along easily on the waterfront at Nice or Cannes or Santa Barbara or Marbella – and this test drive actually took place in Marbella, Spain, and over the famed hilly driving roads around the town. While at sea level on the boulevard and in Eco mode and with the optional Active Body Control (ABC) chassis and adaptive damping in Comfort, things felt just right.

Up in those curve-covered hills, however, the SL and I both felt like fish out of water, no matter how Sport I calibrated everything to be. A C 350 four-door with Sport Packet would have handled itself better even though the sheer power and torque of the SL 550 would certainly (hopefully) have placed it far ahead of the C sedan with six-cylinder by the end of the day. But just getting to a place earlier is rarely the point in a road-going performance car.

You need dynamics that bring a huge smile to your face. That maybe even require you to stop occasionally, take in the gorgeous view, and revel in the incredible drive leg you just had.

By contrast, my SL 550 in Manual mode with the shift paddles, and then with ABC in Sport, frequently was worrying me and my co-driver whenever we would try pushing the car harder over these amazing Spanish roads. Eventually I had to give in and just drive more easily and less ambitiously. And, of course, as I’ve said already, driven calmly and steadily the SL 550 is terrific.

Yes, I am clearly struggling with myself inside, trying to lower my sports car expectations and evaluate the new SL for all that it is good at when driven by its typical buyers. But…

I am in southern Spain and on these roads and in this style of car. A car which in a couple of months will let me drive its 63 AMG version in southern France, too. So, while I understand the need for a difference between the 350/550 level of SL and those AMG monsters, what I do not understand is why the difference has to be so vast. No other premium manufacturer handles it quite this way – and I am not personally comfortable with a company that makes its “civilian” models so basically girly, saving the actual dynamics for the cars that cost a lot more.

Having driven this SL 550 with all the options, including the ABC and now standard electro-mechanical Direct Steer, it took me a while to calm down and accept the reality as stated by the sales and marketing department in Stuttgart: the SL in baser trims will never be able to be a sports car. It will be a very expensive (the SL 550 starting at $105,500) Jaguar XK convertible style, or even Lexus style, cruiser for clients who are not that passionate about how their car could drive if pushed harder. You push such cars really hard on open, technical roads with curves only at your peril. Better a closed circuit with no tight lefts or rights.

You see how I feel, okay, okay. The basics of the SL that are really worth knowing are that the body is now 90 percent in aluminum and is actually sensationally stiff; the chassis and its damping – with ABC or without – are clearly left over from the old models and they feel disjointed from the body as I sit in it; there’s a stereophonic thing now from Harman Kardon called Frontbass which I don’t care about; there are the new Magic Vision Control windshield wipers that spout warm water all along the blades and they work fine.

The “M278” 4.7-liter V8 with two turbos is one of my favorite big GT engines and here it has 429 horsepower at 5,250 rpm and 516 pound-feet of torque between 1,800 and 3,500 rpm. In Sport or Manual modes of the 7G Tronic powertrain, the throttle is hugely responsive to the point where I worry for the women who’ll be driving the car, but the chassis sadly cannot comfortably handle it too well. In Eco mode, the throttle is soft and that actually felt best, as though the SL has been designed to take it smooth and easy like this. With max power up 12 percent, torque up a nice 32 percent from a 0.8-liter smaller engine, and weight down, the potential here is so great. But then the center of gravity has not lowered at all, according to SL development boss Michael Sheer, and in curves I felt top-heavy all the time and needed to back off. Plus side? Fuel consumption is down by 22 percent in a car that can thunder to 60 mph in just 4.5 seconds or less.

Oh, crap! Yes, the new design. Frankly, I do not like the looks either. Both the headlights and taillights are way overdone, and, once again, Mercedes styling has removed me one more decisive step from what used to be a pretty sexy car. This SL just feels cold to me and out of step with the times, as though it was created and frozen about ten years ago. The grille, on the other hand, and its very retro aero star treatment with single silver slat running the full width actually appeal to me. There are all sorts of good bits to the design, but it feels like too many cooks were in the kitchen having these good ideas.

Both shoulder and elbow room are up significantly versus the last SL and the overall treatment of the passenger zone is pretty swellegant. I did bother to crank the tunes through the high-end optional stereo with its Frontbass (I always thought “Frontbass” meant the lead fish in a school of bass. All I know is I’ve used it in Scrabble.), but I failed to feel any dramatic sonic difference that makes the hoopla worthwhile. Give me a Fender system in a Passat any day.

And the roof goes up and down quite well, to be sure. You can get a solid roof, the see-through polycarbonate glass roof, or the Magic Sky Control version. The magnesium frame on these can save anywhere from 13 to 35 lbs off the weight of the last-generation car. Roof open and in a long tunnel while on the throttle in Sport setup…now that was the cause of much happiness for me at last.

Then I even tried an SL 550 without the dreaded ABC. The suspension now was the standard and slightly less adaptive steel setup with Sport calibration, always on beautiful 19-inch wheels dressed in soft summer tires from Continental. I honestly still felt completely removed from the driving experience happening beneath me. Whereas the electro-mechanical steering on many new Germans – the 3 Series and 991 911 included – is really good, this version on the SL is so damned soft and numb that it gives me no sense of security in curves taken with any heated intent. To repeat repeatedly, I felt forever compelled to back way off in many places where other two-seaters would have cheered me on and rewarded me handsomely for it.

So, just drive easily if you really have to have this SL, and then you’ll be extremely happy with your purchase. And meanwhile, I wait for my SL 63 AMG drive soon and know that it will feel like coming home again to a beautiful place where cars actually want to communicate something to me besides the weather.

[Photo car: Mercedes-Benz SL 500; Review car: Mercedes-Benz SL 550]

{Mercedes-Benz SL 550}

Price: $105,500

Motor: 4,663 cc, 4-valve, twin turbocharged

Power: 429 hp

Torque: 516 lb-ft

Transmission: seven-speed automatic 7G Tronic + shift paddles

Fuel capacity: 17.2 gallons

Fuel efficiency: 25.9 miles U.S. gallon average (not final EPA figure)

Performance: 0-60 mph 4.5 seconds, top speed 155 mph

Length x width x height: 181.6 x 73.9 x 51.8 in

Wheelbase: 101.8 in

Curb weight: 3,935 lbs

Baggage volume: 17.8 cu ft

[Billy “Snap” MacGilicutty – SL 550 text, pics; pic help from Andreas Lindlahr]

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    Woah. It seems there’s nothing to hate about  the SL new body. It’s so classy and looks high-quality all over. The engine looks nice too.