Now in its sixth generation, Daimler-Benz’s long-running two-seat hardtop convertible, the SL-Class, is in a class of its own, seamlessly blending sportiness and top-drawer luxury like no other. And for 2017, the SL-Class gets updated with some rhinoplasty that channels the storied 1955 300 SL of Mexico’s Carrera Panamericana road race. There’s a new diamond-studded grille that’s wider at its lower edges than at the top, and torch-shaped intelligent LED headlamps now flicker down the sides of the fenders. Twin power domes top the hood, and the SL’s side vents are enlarged. An AMG-inspired front splitter and side sills add some attitude.
2017 Mercedes-Benz SL-Class Road Test and Review
Photo Credit: Mercedes-Benz
The SL is exclusive; only a few thousand come to these shores each year. Epicurean and cossetting, no Mercedes is more expensive on a per-seat basis. And yet the Beverly Hills shopping cart, as it is affectionately known in some quarters, verges on the ubiquitous in the more affluent zip codes of Southern California — its best market.
From a durable goods standpoint, the SL stands apart from its near-exotic British and Italian competitors because it can leverage powertrain, chassis and electrical pieces it shares with the much higher-volume Mercedes-Benz E-Class and S-Classsedans. Power domes and side vents aside, the Mercedes-Benz SL is no sports car in the vein of a Porsche 911 even though it costs as much. Tipping the scales near two tons (this despite a stiff all-aluminum structure), it offers up the near quiver-free, hewn-from-granite feel of a proper Mercedes sedan, albeit one custom tailored for two. As well it should. The SL is almost as wide as the S-Class sedan and nearly as long as the C-Class sedan, and there’s something familiar and old-school comforting about the SL’s driving manners.
SL Bandwidth: from V6-powered SL 450 to V12-cranked AMG SL 65
The SL may represent a tiny fraction of Mercedes-Benz’s U.S. sales, but the company offers a wide selection of models to suit individual buyer’s tastes. Hence, an all-turbocharged engine lineup for the SL starts with a base 367-horsepower (up 33 from 2016) 3.0-liter twin-turbo V6 for the 450 SL. Moving up to the 550 SL nets a 449-horsepower 4.7-liter twin-turbo V8. From here, it’s limited-production AMG models, including the SL 63 with its 577-horsepower 5.5-liter twin-turbo V8 and the very exclusive SL 65, powered by a 621-horsepower twin-turbo V12, one of the last twelve-cylinder offerings left on the planet.
Fuel economy may not be a major purchase consideration with SL buyers, but Mercedes needs to keep the SL from being a big drain on its Corporate Average Fuel Economy rating. Environmental laws on the books in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere are driving automakers to reduce engine size while customers, especially in the luxury sphere, look for ever-improving performance. Ergo the new-for-2017 9G-Tronic wide-ratio 9-speed automatic transmission that replaces last year’s 7-speed unit, enabling the 2017 SL 450 to scoot from rest to 60 mph in well under five seconds but still expecting to deliver an EPA window label at least as efficient or better than the 2016 model’s 20 mpg city/27 mpg highway rating.
While the SL’s primary mission is to immerse its lucky passengers in leather-lined luxury, its road-holding abilities are impressive. The SL 450 and 550 now come with a Dynamic Control button on the console that tailors throttle response, shift points and shock damping with selectable Eco, Comfort, Sport, Sport Plus and Individual modes. Standard carriage on SL 450 and 550 includes steel springs, continuously adjustable shocks and 18-inch rubber (staggered with wider rear tires on the 550), but available as an option on SL 450/550 and standard on the SL 63 and 65 is Active Body Control (ABC), which replaces the steel springs and anti-roll bars with oil-filled cylinders that are computer controlled to counteract body roll, dive and squat. Additionally the SL 450 and 550 are available with a ride-comfort-improving curve setting that banks the roadster, motorcycle-like, into a turn and does it with so much subtlety, you don’t really notice anything other than the SL tracks flat around corners drama free—as if it’s on rails. All of it is pretty seamless.
The AMG-modified SL 63 and 65 elevate the roadster from luxury cruiser to road warrior status. Ride height goes down, ride stiffness and tire sizes go up, and the tweaked powerplants work through 7-speed transmissions as before. The AMG Speedshift 7-speed dual-clutch automatic in the SL 63 offers rev-matched double-clutched downshifts and launch control for NHRA Pro Gas-worthy launches from rest. The Speedshift 7-speed can be jerky in stop-and-go traffic and low-speed transitions and takes some getting used to. Also, ride quality and impact harshness in the AMG SLs can’t match the polish of the SL 450/550 — our test car already had developed some squeaks, buzzes and rattles uncharacteristic of other Mercedes products.
Photo Credit: Mercedes-Benz
The 30-Second Makeover
The SL’s defining characteristic is its retractable hardtop, an endangered species these days. Push the roof button (hidden under the console armrest) and inside of 30 seconds the SL’s electro-mechanical choreography transforms the two-seater from a metal-roofed coupe to an al fresco roadster. Or vice-versa. One finger push does it all. It’ll even accomplish the transformation at speeds up to 25 mph provided the task is started while the SL is at rest. There are, however, some cargo-carrying consequences. Neat as it is, the sectional roof folds into the trunk, dropping luggage space from around 14 cubic feet to 8.5 when the top is dropped. While that’s plenty of space for small stuff — say, shoe boxes — you’ll just have to have that big-screen television delivered.
Among premium luxury roadsters, the Mercedes-Benz SL is the strong, silent type, with big shoulders, pampering lucky interior occupants with the best fitments Stuttgart has to offer. All SL variants feel like solid, well-built durable goods with surprisingly good handling despite substantial heft. Semi-autonomous technology — rampant elsewhere in today’s luxury offerings — is limited mostly to distance cruise control, lane-keeping and automatic braking. We’re thinking most SL buyers prefer to drive the car themselves.
At full pucker, the AMG-modified SL 63 and SL 65 increase the entertainment factor, but in terms of performance you can actually use without shredding your driver’s license, they’re not much quicker in everyday driving. Within the SL-Class realm, the base 450 SL achieves the seemingly contradictory status of a luxury bargain. It delivers well over 90 percent of the day-in/day-out performance of the 621-horsepower AMG SL 65 for about half the price. Even if you’re shopping at Rodeo Drive’s pricey boutiques, just think of all the shoes that savings might buy!