Canyons and sports cars. Sun and sinful acceleration.
Prepare for your jealousy-meters to start hitting the red-zone, snapping off the needle entirely.
Now, as with any other car, we bring a healthy critical approach to our evaluation, and there are many things that the updated 2017 Mercedes-Benz SL-Class is not. However, it is damn near impossible to find flaws in its ability to deliver thrills and speed on the roads and destinations around Southern California.
Our journey began at the Pelican Hills Resort in Newport Beach, a destination for the well-heeled and sun-loving, nestled upon the coastal hills of Orange County, and home to a beautifully sculpted golf course and gorgeous circular pool. Greeting us was a team of Mercedes personnel and a visible reminder of Mercedes-Benz’s own roadster heritage, a pristine first-generation (1957-1962) 300 SL Roadster (W198) that surely prowled California’s iconic Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) and the canyon and mountain roads sprouting off it all along the Pacific Coast down San Diego. Alongside the 300 SL was its heir, the eighth generation to bear the SL badge (now designated R231), the 2016 SL 400 we were here to experience under the west coast sun.
For 2016, the SL receives a host of upgrades both visual, technological and in the engine bay, though it retains the same basic architecture launched in 2012. Visual updates are particularly subtle, with new grille and headlights (with a switch from bi-xenon to LED illumination for the Active Lighting System), sportier front apron, side skirts and rear diffuser. If you liked it before, chances are you will still like it now. Inside, there is a new steering wheel, instrument cluster, analogue clock in the dash and subtle new interior mood lighting improvements. There is a far more extensive list of electronic driver aid updates, and even the trunk was given some attention, with the “Automatic Trunk Separator” (Mercedes-speak for the stowed roof lifting with the trunk lid to allow easy access to cargo) now standard across the line.
After an evening spent the way one imagines SL owners would (cocktails, an incredible dinner at a classy resort), it was off to work the next day for us poor scribes. Work, in this case, consisting of viewing a brief drive-in presentation, and then motoring out of the garage and along the Pacific Coast Highway towards San Diego. Our SL experience started with that SL 400, marking the return of a six-cylinder in North America, though this one has all the motivation and oomph of a V8. At 3.0 litres in displacement, two turbos boost the V6 to 362 hp and 367 lb-ft of torque, so for a car weighing, 1,735 kg, the run to 100 km/h takes a tick less than five seconds. It is unlikely you will need to go any faster than the SL 400 can manage, especially with a new nine-speed transmission available to quickly shift into whichever gear will provide the best thrust at any speed, or to silkily slip you up to speeds that will make you blush without even realizing you were doing anything naughty.
We set off so eagerly that we failed to get our route guidance established before parting ways form our handlers, but Mercedes’ familiar COMAND interface had our routes stored, and it was a simple affair to pick out one of the saved destinations. Using the controller on the centre console, you can reach the main menus with an upwards prod, and submenus by flicking down, then scrolling through the lists by spinning the knob (clockwise to go down the list), everything clear and vivid on the seven-inch screen.
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While the interface is updated to match the latest from Mercedes, the interior itself now trails the stunning treatments available in the S-Class and E-Class. The SL sports a simple stitched leather dash with large, circular vents, and a button-intensive centre stack framed in somewhat utilitarian black plastic. Swaths of wood or metal trim and available contrasting or matching colours are available, and Mercedes Designo customization arm offers countless combination to suit your tastes.
We arrived at our lunch stop, the Ponte Winery on the outskirts of Temecula, our appetites whetted and eager to move up the power band into one of the AMG cars at our disposal. Although the V6 carried itself well and did not disappoint, it was a mere opening act for the fury and explosiveness of the Mercedes-AMG SL 63.
Harbouring a 5.5L V8 and a pair of turbos, AMG’s hand built pride and joy deliver 577 hp at 5,500 rpm and a monstrous 664 lb-ft of torque from 2,250 rpm to 3,750 rpm, so even in the hot, dry California sun, we had to cautious of throttle application lest we overwhelm the rear tires. Power reaches the rear wheels via their AMG seven-speed Speedshift MCT (Multi-Clutch Transmission, an automatic with the torque converter removed and the ability to perform multi-gear changes) and a mechanical rear-axle differential lock, which is now standard on the AMG SL lineup.
With five “Dynamic” driving modes to choose from that increase throttle response, shift characteristics and other vehicle attributes, I only ever used the aluminum paddle shifters to be able to say I did. In its most aggressive mode, the SL63 can rocket to 100 km/h in 4.1 seconds, and the V8 is absolute insanity, crackling and braking and bellowing a rumble that will bring out the absolute worst in you, and even just cruising down the strip, there is a subtle burble that taunts you with a reminder of what this car is capable of when unleashed.
The AMG is a beast desperate to be unleashed on high-speed runs, but can also tackle a sinuous canyon road, as we saw on the roads down to San Diego by way of Julian, a quaint little gold-rush town now famous for its apples, pies, apple pies and well-preserved facades from a bygone era. But between the towns in these rural parts of California, you’ll find plenty of canyon roads snaking through the hilly, rugged terrain, perfect for seeing how well the SL 63 slices and dices.
Turns out the AMG-bred SL is perfectly capable of tucking its nose in and carving up any of the corners we saw, and well beyond posted speeds. The redesigned SL’s focus on weight savings pays off, an all-aluminum body shell reinforced by high-strength steel in the A-pillars saving over 100 kilos keeps weight in check at 1,845 kg in SL 63 trim (SL 400 is a svelte 1,735, SL 500 is 1,795 and the V12 biturbo SL 65 up to 1,950)
Still, 1,845 kg is still a lot for any tires and brakes to handle, and while the tires and brakes are superb as we set out, charging up and down Southern California’s mountains takes its toll and we could feel the tires getting a bit slick and the brake feel fading under a hot afternoon sun. For all but the most aggressive driving, though, the 360-mm front and 390-mm rear discs, ventilated steel rotors at both ends, but for track work look to Mercedes-AMG’s GT S or wait for the inevitable Black Series that will likely mark the end of this generation.
While we pushed the brakes and tires to their limits, the steering and suspension were in their element. The SL eats up rough roads without breaking a sweat, but has the poise to dive into corners as quickly as is warranted for a car this size and class. At speeds, it is steady and planted, with no twitchiness to the steering, and the steering rack feels firm and responsive. The multilink independent suspension is tuned for each car’s increasingly sporty purpose, but never strays into brutal or harsh, even in the AMG models, of which the SL 63 also features Mercedes’ Active Body Control active spring and damper system. The adaptive suspension offers two available settings, comfort and sport, for a touch of personalization to the ride quality and handling responsiveness on the fly; it’s not a drastic difference between the modes, but it takes the edge off some of the bumps in comfort mode and ssettles the SL 63 a little more firmly through the turns in sport mode. Still, the SL is always civilized and ready to tackle a winding road as well as an coastal cruise or a night on the town, the SL 63 AMG’s nav guiding us into the Hotel Del Coronado as the sun set on Coronado Island off the coast of San Diego.
Day two had us in the SL 500, also sporting a biturbo V8, and at 4.7L its 449 hp and 516 lb-ft output is still prodigious without even being within sniffing distance of the AMG. The rumble is a little more silky and subdued, but you can still feel it vibrating through your chest and reverberating off canyon walls as you blast through the gears. Like the SL 400, the 500 is equipped with a new nine-speed automatic that quietly and smoothly handles ratios.
With a little less weight than the AMG, the SL 500 is only 0.2 seconds off the AMG 63’s 0-100 km/h time, so it’s no slouch getting away from stoplights, and it is likewise eager to carve up the backroads, its capabilities greater than we could responsibly test, so there is almost no penalty for sticking with Benz-badged V8 SL over the AMG upgrade. We set out on a loop through San Diego county in the vicinity of the Mexican border, and while the roads invited some driving aggression, the sun and heat just made me want to slow back down and enjoy basking in the warmth and the coddling seats, though I wished for the cooled, ventilated seats we’re seeing in many newer cars, whether luxury or not.
After thoroughly enjoying the car and the Southern California weather, we stopped in San Diego’s quaint Gaslamp Quarter, the “Historic Heart of San Diego”, and did not miss the opportunity to take a blast in the beastly AMG SL 65, blessed with the omnipotent 6.0L bitrubo V12 making 621 hp and 737 lb-ft of torque! That’s right, SEVEN THIRTY SEVEN!!! Of course, historic downtown San Diego isn’t an ideal setting for trying to match its stated four-second-flat sprint to 100 km/h, but a quick loop through San Diego’s Balboa Park district (home to San Diego Zoo, Air & Space Museum, Museum of Natural History and a wealth of trails and attractions) and a quick burst on the highway were a fun treat for the ears and tingling spine before heading home.
The 2017 Mercedes SL is an incremental improvement on the current generation, updating a host of convenience features and offering better powertrains and amenities, but it offers the same allure of luxurious top-down motoring at various levels of sporting intent. It’s a gorgeous piece of work that now looks better and stays true to its mission of pleasing its discerning customers with more personalization and opulence while keeping its power and refinement at the very top of the this exclusive segment.