A fast luxury cruiser with the driving style of a top-down sports car, the Mercedes-Benz SL enjoys a long tradition of combining upscale comfort with a subtle blend of silky performance.
The SL Class traces its lineage back more than a half century to the 1954 300SL Gullwing coupe, a race-bred classic that gave rise to the 300SL convertible in 1957. Today, these are primo collector's items.
For 2009, Mercedes-Benz tunes up its premium roadster with some styling tweaks that reflect the heritage of those early 300SLs and show off Mercedes' latest design trends.
SL550, along with its high-performance variations, loses the organic front-end look of the past few years in favor of harder-edged headlights and a bolder grille that incorporates a huge tri-star emblem. The side vents behind the front wheels are more pronounced, and squared-off exhaust tips are integrated into the rear bumper.
The revisions create a more purposeful look, although some of SL's distinctive style is ditched for a more mainstream design. Still, a great-looking machine that lets the world know you've arrived.
The retractable hardtop continues as a defining feature, with the test car including the optional glass moonroof. Its fabric sunshade is woefully inadequate under the Arizona sun.
The SL550 is the least powerful of the SL Class, with "only" 382 horsepower from its 5.5-liter V-8. That pales besides the SL600 with its 510-horsepower turbocharged V-12; the SL63 with a 518-horsepower V-8; or the real bad boy of the group, the SL65 AMG packing a 604-horsepower turbo V-12 and a price tag approaching $200,000.
All well and good, but the SL550 should be plenty for those wealthy drivers who can forego the bragging rights of the faster versions.
Vehicle type: Two-passenger two-door convertible, rear-wheel drive.
Engine: 5.5-liter V-8, 382 horsepower at 6,000 rpm, 391 pound-feet of torque at 2,800 rpm.
Transmission: Seven-speed automatic.
Wheelbase: 100.8 inches.
Overall length: 180.4 inches.
Curb weight: 4,220 pounds.
EPA rating: 13 city, 21 highway.
HIGHS: Beautiful styling, silky performance, advanced high-tech features.
LOWS: Obnoxious headrests, heavy feel, especially pricey with almost $10,000 in options.
PERFORMANCE: The 5.5-liter V-8 launches the big roadster with a solid whoosh, hitting 60 mph in 5.3 seconds, Mercedes says. Speed freaks who want more must pony up even bigger bucks.
The seven-speed automatic, which electronically adapts to driving style, provides smooth performance and refinement.
Fuel mileage is poor enough to provoke a $1,300 gas-guzzler tax.
DRIVABILITY: Sharply maneuverable, with excellent steering and brakes, SL still feels too heavy. This is a 4,200-pound sports car, after all, and no amount of technology or engineering can hide that.
Mercedes should look at lightening the load for better handling and economy.
Naturally, SL550 comes with an impressive array of high-tech safety and convenience gear. The revamped navigation/audio interface is much improved.
STYLING: Two parallel bulges in the hood and the various strakes and louvers evoke the style of the old 300SLs. That huge tri-star emblem seems a bit showy.
INTERIOR: A luscious cabin with the scent of leather and wood, and it's well insulated from the outside world. The mechanical workings of the retractable hardtop are visible, which seems weird in this range of price and sophistication.
SL is rich with luxury and technological features, more than I can list here.
I found the blocky headrests to be annoyingly uncomfortable.
BOTTOM LINE: Another beautiful SL that drives like a dream, guaranteed to be exclusive because of its scary price tag.
Base price: $96,775.
Price as tested: $106,160.
Premium package with multi-contour, ventilated seats; electronic trunk closer; Keyless Go, $3,750.
Panoramic sunroof, $1,950.
Premium leather seats and trim with leather-and-wood steering wheel and shifter, $1,510.
Gas guzzler tax, $1,300.