An opulent cruiser that packs one hell of a punch
There really is nothing else out there quite like a Mercedes SL and, given the small numbers in which it sells, you might rightly conclude there is a good reason for that. It is a car of contradictions: it has just two seats, which shouts sports car, but a complex and heavy folding metal roof that smacks far more of all-purpose cruiser. There are four engines available, two of them snarling V8s and one a 6-litre twin turbo V12 that, combined with its aggressive styling, should certainly speak to monied young guns. Yet when you look at those who drive them in the US – far and away its biggest market – you’ll find the hair belonging to its driver grey, white, largely absent or hiding beneath some kind of hat.
Featuring styling intended to recall the W194 prototype 300SL that won Le Mans and the Carrera Panamericana in 1952, this facelifted model perpetuates the conundrum. More sharply shaped than ever, its appearance belies its character.
Normally this would annoy me. I don’t like cars that promise one thing then deliver another, especially when the former is more exciting than the latter. But the SL has always been the exception: I know exactly what it’s going to be like and know also what it offers cannot be replicated by anything else.
The entry level SL400 has been much improved by being given a slug more power but really, and ever since the Bobby Ewing days, an SL has needed a V8, and I don’t mean ‘or a V12’ because that monster is massively expensive and its weight fundamentally unbalances the car. But the SL500 and SL63 are perfect examples of the SL art, the smaller-engined 500 giving away remarkably little in terms of character to its AMG-powered stablemate despite costing more than £30,000 less. Really it is the one you should have.
And yet it was to the SL63 I was drawn again and again, and not just because of its 577bhp output. More persuasive to me was that this is one of the very last AMGs to use its ageing 5.5-litre twin-turbo motor, which has survived into this generation of SL merely because this a mid-life tweak. When the entirely new SL comes along in about three years it will have the brand new 4-litre V8, and very good I am sure it will be. But that deep bass thunder of the old engine provides one of the all-time great automotive soundtracks. Its ability to surge forward on just the twitch of a toe, or else explode out of the blocks if you tread a little bit harder, is not just enticing but irresistible.
Best, it plays exactly to what I love most about the SL, that sense of a horizontally laid back boulevardier possessing, coiled up deep within, the potency to blast anything this side of a bona fide supercar clean off the road. It’s a strength you may go your whole life never feeling the need to use, but you will enjoy the knowledge of its presence every time you climb aboard.
Mercedes-Benz will already have decided what kind of car the next SL will be, and it’s a fair guess than it will be both lighter and faster than this. But it needs also that sense of heft, luxury and quality that instils in its driver a will not to rush anywhere for anyone other than him or herself. Without that, however good it might otherwise be, it’s not an SL.
Engine 6.2 litres, 8 cylinders, turbocharged
Power [email protected]
Torque 663lb [email protected]
Transmission seven-speed paddle shift, rear-wheel drive
Power to Weight 129bhp per tonne
Top speed 155mph