State of the Art -- The All-New 2013 SL550

Gary Anderson
Greg Jarem for MBUSA
Three days in L.A. -- where you are what you drive -- cruising the boulevards or carving the canyons proved the SL550 is the right car.

State of the Art --The All-New SL550
 
Los Angeles has never made any sense to me. However, my last visit was a total revelation. This is a town where images are established by automobiles, and where opportunities to drive – from boulevard cruising to canyon carving – are exceptional. If you are driving the right car, it all makes sense. Three days in L.A. proved the SL550 is the right car.

The new car is an important achievement for Mercedes-Benz in America. Since the first 300SLs established a beachhead in the significant U.S. market in 1955, the SL has been the halo car that defined the image of Mercedes-Benz. Sixty years after the W194’s introduction in 1952, the sixth generation carries on the tradition. Stylish, comfortable, competent, and at the leading edge of technology, the SL550 ticks all the boxes while honoring the best traditions of its predecessors.

Beauty is definitely more than skin deep on the SL550. As with the first generation, SL again means “super light.” Using a completely new structural design, the SL550 is 89 percent aluminum by weight, which reduces the car’s weight by 275 pounds over its predecessor, taking the SL below 4,000 pounds for the first time since 1994. In fact, the unibody uses steel only for the windshield frame that doubles as part of the cockpit roll-over protection (see technical sidebar).

Though some of my colleagues at the Hollywood press launch found the new design a bit fragmented, I saw nothing of the kind when seeing the press fleet of  SL550s lined up on the roof of the airport parking garage. The engine vents in the front fenders, signatures of the SL, are now the anchors for cove-like styling features that extend back across the doors to the rear fenders, reminiscent of the fender vents and eyebrows over the wheelwells of the original 300SLs.

SL roadsters have always had dismountable hardtops, and the latest retractable version lends a tautness to the design when it is up. But we were in sunny Southern California, and even with a panorama roof made of lightweight polycarbonate, or optional “Magic Sky Control” with elecronically tinting glass, I wanted the top down. At the push of a button in the console, the top folded neatly under the rear shroud and trunk lid in approximately 20 seconds while leaving space for the benchmark set of golf clubs. A second button raised the draft shield to keep the wind from mussing my hair. I was already thinking Hollywood.

With the sun now illuminating the interior (all materials have coatings to protect them from sunlight), I could enjoy the overall impression of high style as well as the many carefully executed details. One can’t be in L.A. without wanting to make a style statement, and there is a wide range of materials available to create just the right look, from opulent living room to postmodern stealth. And with the new M-B Apps available through mbrace2 on the screen, I could find that new restaurant on Google, confirm its Street View, check Yelp for ratings, and make reservations while buckling my seat belt.

Sliding into the multi-contoured seats that seemed to have been molded specifically to hold me in place, I briefly rested my hands on the leather-wrapped steering wheel, flattened on the bottom – now becoming standard in all high-performance Mercedes models – and a modern re-interpretation of the folding steering wheel of the first 300SLs.

Wheeling the convertible down five levels to the exit, I could appreciate the elecro-mechanical steering boost and variable-ratio steering. Only 2.2 turns are necessary to go lock to lock, but with a higher ratio and more assistance at extreme angles and low speeds, the car was easy to maneuver in tight spaces.

Out on the L.A. streets, we drove north through Santa Monica next to the ocean, then wound through some of the most luxurious neighborhoods of Los Angeles on Sunset Boulevard. I couldn’t help surreptitiously noticing that everyone – from gardeners to grand dames – seemed to be giving my dark blue SL550 the eye as I drove through Brentwood,  Bel Air, and Beverly Hills.

At the stoplights, the eco-stop shut down the engine, and a double-pump of the brake pedal set the parking brake, allowing me to relax and enjoy the music coming out of the Harmon/Kardon, 600-watt, digital surround-sound system. Lower tones were accentuated by the Frontbass speakers behind the front firewall, reverberating through openings in the front firewall, with the hollow front-frame members serving as resonance chambers.

But the best was still to come. The SL550 would be just another L.A. poseur if it couldn’t handle the world-famous canyons and crests through the Angeles Forest north of the city. These winding roads test the mettle of crotch-rocket riders and allow driving enthusiasts to enjoy the feeling of guiding a high-performance automobile through inimitable scenery.

On the curves, the lightweight but ultra-stiff aluminum body exhibited its advantages, with the only flex coming from the combination of soft springs, classic anti-sway bar, and stiff two-stage shock absorbers. The sport setting on the shocks tightened up the response, but was hardly necessary. At speed, the variable-ratio, variable-assist steering system was in its element, gently nudging the car into graceful transitions similar to the knees of a dressage rider on a thoroughbred. I would encourage journalists who criticize the Mercedes-Benz steering system to spend more time with the system. It’s definitely different from other high-performance automobiles; it’s better.

Even at high speeds, the new sound system provided an audible soundtrack equal to any Hollywood movie over the muted depth of the exhaust note. We never pushed the car to its limits – the SL63 and SL65 are the true track cars in this family – because the SL550 is designed to please rather than thrill, and a more pleasant feeling of smoothness and control would be hard to imagine.

There was only one test remaining – driving the car at night on Mulholland Drive overlooking the lights of the Los Angeles basin on our way to a club on Hollywood Boulevard. Here the car displayed one more of its new technical tricks as the headlights swiveled 15 degrees each way every time the steering wheel was turned, lighting our way around the curves, while the infinitely variable intensity of the headlights lit the road the maximum distance ahead without blinding drivers of oncoming cars.

From their inception, the SLs were intended to be the best boulevard cruisers, canyon carvers, and long-distance grand-touring cars of their generation. The 2013 SL550 proves Mercedes-Benz is still at the very top of its game.
 

SPECIFICATIONS
2013 MERCEDES-BENZ SL550

Engine: 4.7 liter Bi-Turbo V8  
Transmission: 7-speed auto
Power: 429 hp @ 5,250 rpm   
Torque: 516 lb-ft @ 1,800-3,500 rpm
MPG: 16 city/24 highway  
Acceleration: 0-60  4.5 secs
MSRP: $105,000    
On Sale Now
 

A TECHNICAL MASTERPIECE

Mercedes-Benz designers and engineers were challenged in the design of the new-generation SL to offer leading-edge technology, and excellent performance with no trade-off between comfort and versatility within a stylish high-performance package.

The challenge has been answered with an all-aluminum unit body that sets new industry standards for torsional rigidity and light weight, a new retractable hardtop that provides both top-down delight and coupe weather protection, comprehensive industry-leading safety systems, environmentally aware fuel efficiency and emissions control, and a variety of technologies that enhance enjoyment of the car.

 Aluminum unit body

The sixth-generation SL is built around the first unitized aluminum body mass produced by Mercedes-Benz. Key features include high-pressure-formed front longitudinal frame members, hollow-cast, chilled longitudinal rear frame members, and a thin-wall, double-plated, hollow-profile main floor. Though the extensive use of aluminum for unit bodies has been explored by Audi and Jaguar, Mercedes has advanced the technology in several ways, including the use of large, single cast-aluminum pieces for the A-pillar bases, B-pillars, and the firewall that forms the center of the structure, the largest single aluminum casting used in the industry.

With the use of aluminum for the unit-body, as well as the front hood, fenders, and doors, the car is 89 percent aluminum by weight, though steel has been used for the windshield frame which, along with the pop-up rear roll bars, provides substantial protection to the occupants in the event of roll-over accidents. The extensive use of aluminum has enabled Mercedes to reduce the car’s overall weight by 245 pounds while increasing its length and width by several inches for added ride stability.

The aluminum unit-body provides 20 percent more torsional rigidity, well beyond that of most other open roadsters in the industry, so that the car is as stiff and rattle-free with the top down or up.

The rigidity is a major factor in the excellent and predictable handling of the car in higher-speed curves and weight transitions. With less vibration and noise transmission, the car also requires less weight in sound-deadening materials.

The trunk lid is one exception to the aluminum structure. Constructed of an outer panel of sheet-molded plastic over an inner frame of steel, the trunk lid conceals many of the car’s various audio, communications, and GPS antennas.

Retractable hardtop with panoramic view

The new SL continues the feature of a retracting hardtop introduced on the fifth-generation SL in 2001. The roof can be switched from top-down excitement to top-up comfort in fewer than 20 seconds, but even with the top up, the polycarbonate roof panel with manually operated roller blind provides a panoramic view of the sky. The optional Magic Sky Control features a glass roof panel that changes electronically from transparent to heavily tinted at the touch of a button.

Even with the roof stowed, the Easy Pack feature lifts the roof panel with the trunk lid, providing access to enough space in the trunk for a weekend’s luggage or a standard golf bag.

Industry-leading safety systems

The new SL adds the safety and convenience of Magic Vision Control, with controlled distribution of windshield washer fluid through the wiper blades, to standard Mercedes-pioneered safety systems. These systems include new automatically swiveling and dimming bi-xenon headlights, ABS anti-lock brakes, traction control and ESP stability control, Attention Assist, Pre-Safe collision mitigation, pop-up roll bars, and a full complement of eight airbags. In addition, customers can add Distronic-plus adaptive cruise control, Active Blind Spot Assist, Active Lane-Keeping Assist, ABC active suspension, and Keyless Go.

Comfort and convenience

Befitting its exclusive clientele, the SL is equipped with standard two-zone automatic climate control, AirScarf neck-level heating, top-down draft control, heated and cooled seats, a sophisticated Harmon/Kardon audio system with Frontbass®, GPS navigation, and multi-color ambient interior lighting. The SL will be the first Mercedes-Benz to offer online conveniences through mbrace2. Comfort-enhancing options are available, including high-power audio, seating controls, and a hands-free system to open and close the trunk lid by moving a foot under the rear bumper.
 

SL63 AMG
Is there ever too much of a good thing

Never one to disappoint customers looking for high performance as well as cruising competence, Mercedes-Benz designers didn’t stop with the top-of-the-line SL550, which is electronically capped at only 130 mph. Why should they, when they could twist the knob to 11 by allowing in-house-tuner AMG to install one of its hand-built, dual-turbo 5.5-liter direct-injection V-8s into the trick new super-light aluminum body, upgrade the suspension and brakes, and substitute some high-performance body panels?

A colleague had the opportunity to drive the new SL63 AMG in France only a few weeks after we drove the SL550 together in Southern California. Here are excerpts from his notebook:

“We’ve seen the 5.5-liter AMG engine before, but that doesn’t make it any less impressive. It may be exclusive, but this satisfying new warhorse is being installed in every AMG model sporting the 6.3 badge, from sedan and coupe to drop-top and urban assault vehicle.

“Similarly, power is transmitted to the wheels through the standard AMG Speedshift, a 7-speed transmission with wet-clutch start-up and the ability to shift gears in as few as 100 milliseconds, depending on whether you turn the performance control knob to comfort, sport, sport-plus, or manual.

“Horsepower on the standard AMG SL63 exceeds the magic 500 number, and torque is nearly 600 pound-feet. But wait, there’s more. Check off  ‘AMG Performance Package’ on the order form, and the ECU bumps maximum boost to 4.3 psi, pushing power to 557 horsepower, torque to 664 pound-feet, and top speed to a 186 mph, a limit that few mortals will ever reach without risking the $160,000-plus purchase price. Using AMG Race Start, the base AMG can reach 60 mph in around 4 seconds, or 3.9 seconds with the Performance Package. 

“Of course, with all that power comes a responsible AMG-specific suspension that lowers the body and widens the track under the AMG valance, and widened skirts and the improved brakes that allow AMG to increase the EU-required max-speed nanny controls.

“The power and suspension settings on the console aren’t just for looks. On the road, the comfort settings soften everything to appropriate levels, though one click on each to tighten suspension and performance is fun on back-country curves. The second click pumps the car up to track-only levels that most customers will probably only rely on for bragging rights.

“And if even that isn’t enough, the V-12 SL65 AMG with 621 horsepower will be out next year.”
 

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