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Expert Reviews 1 of 4
By David Thomas
July 28, 2008
What's not to like about the 2009 Mercedes-Benz SL550? If you have $96,000 lying around, there are a lot worse ways to spend it than on this superb retractable hardtop roadster. It's fast, stylish, luxurious and even has decent trunk room. That's practical, right?
Perhaps not practical, but if you're looking to rationalize a purchase such as this, the SL550 has a long list of pros to back up your decision. Yes, there are many cars out there for this much money. Some are better performance machines, some are better luxury barges, but few marry the two as well as the SL550. Looks For 2009, the SL got some plastic surgery in terms of a new nose and slightly revised rear. Both were altered to make the SL fall more in line with the newest machines in the Mercedes family, namely the new C-Class sedan and GL-Class SUV. Both feature a huge Mercedes emblem front and center on a more angular design, and guess what? So does the SL550.
I like the new look on all three vehicles, but the SL's new front bumper treatment makes it a bit blocky on each side around the new headlights. This used to be a curvaceous line. The newly flat surface looks awkward from some angles and was probably the only off-putting element of the car's looks.
Side vents that hark back to the very powerful Mercedes SLR McLaren supercar are flashy and received many positive comments from friends who mysteriously showed up to be taken for a ride. The back end gets a subtle redo and remains classy. Even with the top up, the lines flow quite well.
The SL550 might not stand out like other $100,000 vehicles — it's no Audi R8, nor does it have the flash of even a Jaguar XK convertible — but it certainly has more style than BMW's 6 Series droptop. Perhaps the only car that really matches — or exceeds — the SL's blend of style and performance is the Porsche 911. The Carrera S Cabriolet convertible is similarly priced to the SL550 but does not feature a retractable hardtop.
As for the SL550's hardtop, my test car had the glass top option, meaning this retractable top that drops in a dozen seconds or so has a glass ceiling. It was a $1,950 option, but it's quite snazzy and well worth it in this price range. However, some of the mechanical parts that lower the top are visible from inside the cabin. Those are something most competitors, especially at this price, have hidden. Performance Under the hood is a very straightforward 382-horsepower V-8. There are no superchargers, it's simply a nearly-400-hp V-8 that did not fail to impress me when driving it hundreds of miles over my test.
I've driven plenty of powerful cars, and 400 horses is about the point at which things become ludicrous, or too powerful for most driving conditions. The SL550, however, tames the power quite well. A seven-speed automatic with shift paddles delivers smooth acceleration. It's silky, yet you can still blast away from a stoplight like a bat out of hell. It's just effortless. Using the shift paddles isn't necessary to enjoy the get-up-and-go, but they work seamlessly in moving to higher gears. Downshifting is always a trickier exercise, but they still did the job with minimal jolts.
I've driven faster cars, but the SL550 has enough power that an owner will not be left wanting for exhilaration. It should be noted the SL550 is the least powerful trim level in the SL line. I detail the others below, but honestly, if you're looking for brute performance over all other attributes, this probably isn't the right car for you. If you just want a throaty note from your exhaust, the Jaguar XKR offers that. The SL is a bit more understated with its power.
The SL550's sublime acceleration is accompanied by some precise handling; this roadster can hug corners with the best of them. The planted feeling really delivered confidence, and that's what distinguishes it from the XKR. The Jaguar is surely a competent car, and I've taken it on the track as well, where it held up to the tightest of corners. It just exhibited more body roll than the SL and didn't feel like a sports car. It felt like a very good, sporty luxury car with decent steering. The Mercedes, on the other hand, had flypaper on the tires, keeping it stuck to the asphalt wherever I went, and the steering wheel felt like an extension of my arms. Interior Mercedes gave a slight update to the interior of the SL, much like it did to the exterior. Not a full redesign, manufacturers make upgrades like this so a model will look all-new to keep it on shoppers' lists. While not much has changed inside, what is new is pretty significant.
A three-point steering wheel and restyled gauges are the most noticeable changes. The biggest improvement, though, is the center stack of navigation and entertainment controls. An entirely new navigation unit is clear and easy to read and ranks among the best of its kind. The stereo is also integrated into the same center unit and is much easier to use than the outgoing models. A small slot above the CD loader actually takes SD memory cards, like those used in digital cameras. This extra input alleviates the omission of a USB port for iPods or other MP3 players; but with a relatively inexpensive SD card you can easily rival the space found on today's top flash MP3 players. I loaded a 1GB card to test the system and found it to work very well with full artist, album and track information listed. Sound quality was quite good but not up to the level of expensive upgrade systems found in some Audis. Convertible Driving One thing that wasn't overly impressive about the SL550 was its basic reason for existence: the convertible top.
Where to start? Quite a bit of wind intrudes into the cabin at speeds above 40 mph. That might sound like a no-brainer to the casual driver, but thanks to their improved aerodynamics, modern convertibles have drastically reduced the hair-whipping, ear-numbing impact of wind rushing into the cabin. A recent BMW 3 Series convertible I tested had almost no wind coming around the windshield at 55 mph. The SL, on the other hand, does, even with the manual wind diffuser in place behind the passenger compartment. I wouldn't say this amount of wind is a deal-breaker, but you would have to be a real convertible enthusiast to actually enjoy the feeling. I think a casual top-down fan can find a number of more comfortable options.
When the top is up, the mechanical parts are left uncovered. This isn't very noticeable, but once you see the exposed metal pieces, you'll never think of the SL in the same way.
The top folds down automatically quite easily and quickly. However, the mechanism you need to pull and push to engage the top is made of flimsy plastic that feels like it could break off in your hand. No other control in the cabin is made of this material, and I'm not sure why a simple button couldn't do the job.
Mercedes also promotes its Airscarf technology in the SL550; it's part of a $3,750 option package and is supposed to shoot hot air around your neck, keeping it warm like a scarf would. On a highway drive in 55-degree weather, I had the Airscarf on at full blast with no noticeable warmth coming my way. Off the highway, at speeds around 35 mph, I could finally feel the warm air, but it did not make me as comfortable as simply turning on the heated seats. One problem: The heated and cooled seats are part of the same option package as the Airscarf.
One tremendous achievement for Mercedes is the usable space in the trunk. At 7.2 cubic feet with the top down — 10.2 with it up — you can store at least two carry-on-size bags and probably more. Competitors like the XK have similar numbers, but the space isn't as usable. I even did a Costco run for a holiday-weekend BBQ and had plenty of room to spare. There are even well-placed nooks for grocery bags or a gallon of milk on either side of the trunk. The BMW 6 Series offers a larger trunk, at 12.4 cubic feet with the soft-top up and 10.6 cubic feet with it down. For comparison, a Mercedes-Benz C-Class sedan's trunk is 12.4 cubic feet. Other SL Models There are three other trim levels for the SL roadster: The SL600 adds a twin-turbo V-12 engine that produces 510 hp and, heck, I'll even use Mercedes' own term here, a "staggering" 612 pounds-feet of torque. It also adds some to the cost, starting at $136,975.
If that is somehow not enough power for you, Mercedes' high-performance AMG series features two versions of the SL. The SL63 AMG features a 518 hp V-8 and costs $132,875.
The SL65 AMG is the most extreme of the bunch, with a version of the twin-turbo V-12 that produces 604 hp and 738 pounds-feet of torque. It'll hit 60 mph in 4.2 seconds. That's quick, but I'm not sure it's worth $191,575. At that price you can get yourself a SL550 and a much-quicker Corvette ZR1. SL550 in the Market Even though its underpinnings are aging, the SL550 still remains a relevant, downright sexy roadster for the well-off. In this class, only the Porsche 911 Carrera S Cabriolet really has the combination of power and handling necessary to best the SL, but you give up some of the sleekness of the SL, and that nifty retractable hardtop.
The Jaguar XKR is flashier and has a more brutish, supercharged V-8, but it doesn't handle as well as the other two and just isn't as livable as the SL. What will make up buyers' minds? Well, Mercedes has a loyal following despite often-poor reliability in many models, including the SL. Porsche buyers probably won't jump ship no matter how good the competition, but anyone new to this realm — who doesn't care if the car hits the shop every once in awhile — would be happy with the SL550.