Editor's note: This review was written in August 2012 about the 2013 Mercedes-Benz SL-Class. Little of substance has changed with this year's model. To see what's new for 2014, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years.
The Mercedes-Benz SL-Class retractable-hardtop convertible was substantially upgraded in 2007, but the 2013 model year marks its first complete redesign in 10 years. Constructed almost entirely out of aluminum and equipped with a new drivetrain, the SL550 is now 285 pounds lighter and more efficient. (See the new and old generations compared.)
The 2013 Mercedes-Benz SL550 is quick — as is its signature retractable hardtop — yet it shines as a luxurious touring roadster.
Mercedes' flagship roadster competes in principle with two-seat models like the BMW Z4 and Porsche Boxster, but its $100,000-plus price tag puts it in league with the Porsche 911 and alleged four-seaters like the BMW 6 Series and Jaguar XK convertibles. Being a retractable hardtop, the SL-Class arguably competes with coupe and convertible versions of these cars, though the others all have soft tops. See them compared.
The SL-Class includes the SL63 AMG, but we tested only the SL550.
Exterior & Styling
The 2013 SL is 1.2 inches longer and 2.2 inches wider than the 2012. The new model ditches the L-shaped headlights, which were more common on previous Benzes, for standard bi-xenon headlamps with articulating lenses.
The car's design has drawn criticism from many, including our editors. The front end is more aggressive than the previous generation's, and I find it overly festooned with fake vents — and more ribs than a rack of lamb.
Some observers also point out that the conservative rear end is out of character with the bedazzled front, regardless of which you prefer.
The powered top opens or closes within 20 seconds at the touch of a single button — about two-thirds the time of most hardtops. Though the trunk lid tilts backward in the process, it requires very little space behind the car to do so — a major plus. You can open or close it from the outside with the remote control, though you must be close to the car. It would be better if it worked from as far away as the door lock/unlock does, so you could operate it from inside your house when rain threatens.
Mercedes was ahead of the market with retractable hardtops, and one of its best innovations came in the previous-generation SL-Class: When the top is stowed in the trunk, a button raises the panels providing access to trunk space below. Without this provision, the roof segments close off the cargo space, trapping items underneath — unless they're small enough to squeeze through a crack.
The feature returns in the 2013. There's still a partition that must be in place so the roof has room to operate, but the space below it is reasonable and fully accessible. Despite the car's smaller exterior size, the SL's cargo volume compares to those of the 650i and XK. New to this car class, a hands-free-access feature opens or closes the powered trunk lid when you wave your foot under the rear bumper. We weren't able to try it because our test car's power trunk broke, requiring us to use the physical key in a hidden lock.
The SL has other convertible-specific provisions, including a powered mesh partition that can be raised behind the seats to decrease wind buffeting. (I didn't feel much difference with it in place.) The windshield wipers themselves spray washer fluid directly in their path so you won't shower yourself when the top is down. As an option, the SL offers an Airscarf feature that blows warm air at the back of your neck from below the head restraint. Heated seats are standard, and a ventilated function is optional.
Perhaps the car's best trick is the optional Magic Sky Control: Using technology similar to that of an auto-dimming rearview mirror, Magic Sky Control can tint the glass-panel roof at the press of a button. It seems simple enough, but this feature thrilled everyone who saw it. This is exactly the type of gee-whiz feature that can sell a car — or at least close the deal. My sole complaint is that it doesn't go completely opaque. It's a deep blue that still admits light and, it seems, some heat as well when in direct sunlight.
The 2013's additional width adds extra shoulder and elbow room. The cabin is appointed in standard leather, rich genuine wood and metal trim. One of our editors complained of brittle-feeling ventilation dials and exposed roof/pillar hardware, but otherwise the materials went uncriticized. We weren't as kind about the road noise. Hardtops used to keep sound out better than soft-tops, but now the ragtop competitors, and Mercedes' own E-Class Cabriolet, are quieter than we found the SL-Class to be.
Additional high-tech trickery includes optional Active Parking Assist, which steers the car into a parking space automatically, and the latest iteration of the Comand multimedia system, which integrates communication, entertainment and navigation systems into one display-based controller. It includes internet access with web browsing when the car is stationary.
Comand has become our favorite of the knob-based multifunction controller systems out there, with the most intuitive menu layout and generally good behavior.
Behind the Wheel
The SL550 does zero to 60 mph in about 4.5 seconds, a decrease of 0.8 second over the 2012. It pins you to your backrest with an intensity that was once unheard of in this class. In normal driving, it accelerates gently and inconspicuously. Selectable modes include E, S and M for Economy, Sport and Manual, the latter of which relies on shift paddles on the steering wheel. Sport is the quickest, though the seven-speed automatic transmission bogs down on occasion.
The quicker sprints come in part from a new 429-horsepower, twin-turbocharged 4.6-liter V-8, replacing the 382-hp, 5.5-liter V-8 in the 2012. The lighter curb weight also plays a part, though at 3,935 pounds the SL550 is still plenty heavy, and you feel it when you change direction.
An adaptive suspension is standard equipment, and a more ambitious active suspension, Active Body Control, is an option. When in Sport mode, the latter keeps the body almost flat during aggressive cornering. Still, the SL doesn't have the refinement of the best roadsters. It feels very nose-heavy going into turns, and the transitions aren't smooth when you apply more power.
The classification of a car as sport versus touring is more about feel than specifications, or even measurable acceleration and roadholding. If you look at the specs, the SL550 seems as sporty as any competitor, but I classify it as a comfortable touring car.
The SL550's EPA-rated mileage is 16/24 mpg city/highway with premium gas, up from 14/22 mpg in 2012. This gives it an advantage of 1 to 2 mpg combined over the comparable 650i and XK convertibles.
Mercedes claims to have improved mileage with a standard engine stop/start feature, which kills the engine at a sustained stop and then restarts it when you accelerate. It's quite inconspicuous, as features like this go, and you can turn it off if you don't like it.
Things get downright creepy when you consider this feature along with brake hold and the optional Distronic Plus adaptive cruise control, which uses radar to maintain a set distance from the car ahead, even bringing the SL550 to a complete stop if necessary. All you need to do is tap the gas pedal after you've stopped to get moving again. Essentially, all you have to do in this car is steer your way to work.
Like most low-volume convertibles, the SL-Class hasn't been crash-tested.
Standard airbags include the frontal pair, plus side airbags to protect both occupants' torsos and heads. As is required of all new cars since the 2012 model year, antilock brakes and an electronic stability system with traction control are standard. Active roll bars behind the seats stay out of your line of sight but deploy in the event of a rollover to create occupant-protection space.
All SLs come standard with a drowsiness detection system, which monitors driver attentiveness. The safety-conscious can select the optional Driver Assistance Package, which includes blind spot and lane-departure warning systems along with the radar-based adaptive cruise control with Pre-Safe Brake. It can warn the driver and then autonomously stop the car if a collision is imminent.
In a car this expensive, a backup camera should be standard, but the SL550's comes in an option package with the parking sensors. It doesn't work if the Comand system is turned off, so owners will have to find the radio mute button and never turn Comand off.
SL550 in the Market
With all the extras, our SL550 hit $131,305 including a $905 destination charge. With every possible option, the SL550 tops out at $133,085. The SL550 isn't cheap, and the lack of basic standard features, like a backup camera, certainly annoys. But Mercedes tends to get away with this more than most brands. The S-Class sedan, for example, leads the full-size luxury segment despite a price tag that's $10,000 to $20,000 above major competitors. As roadsters go, the SL-Class is legendary, and the new generation continues to honor the legend.
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