‘Icon’. Now that’s a word that gets thrown around a lot in car circles. It’s often used to describe something as iconic as a pickle jar because, well, marketing departments; they are always so desperate to create a story and sell us a legend. Mercedes SL is but a legend. No doubt about it, and a lasting one too. So for once I don’t hate that Mercedes uses that word 20 times in the latest SL’s press release.
SL has seen many variations. The original W194 300 ‘Super Light’ arrived in 1952 and became a successful road racer. The Gullwing that followed is undeniably iconic – seen by many critics as not just a car but automotive art. The Pagoda is my favorite though, and largely because of its simplicity of design, although the clean lines of the R107 aren’t far behind it. The R129, meanwhile, was an engineering feat like no other. A car that was less than ten years old when it was launched and that represented Mercedes at its best: innovative, stylish and technology-driven. All of these models are mentioned in the SL’s press kit, but nothing is mentioned after the R129. Coincidence?
I don’t know, but for some, SL started to lose itself from the late 90s onwards. First, the quality went south and the design became more and more clunky. It’s hard to argue that the R129 was super light, even if that was due to its Panzer-like construction, and it still managed to look good with it. But the final iterations, with their shadowy overhangs and fat bottoms, looked heavy and unwieldy. So is the latest SL a return to form? Is it something to mention along with the big ones?
Well, Mercedes makes a big deal of this being a car that straddles the line between grand tourer and sports car. It’s also far from super light, with the SL 55 coming in at just under two tonnes, but from the outside it hides so well. The design is sleeker, tighter and more fluid than the previous one. In my eyes, it’s the most striking SL in a long time. It would have been even heavier if Mercedes had stuck with the folding metal roof, but that’s been ditched in favor of a soft top, and in an effort to trim as much fat as possible, the structure is a mix of steel, aluminum, magnesium and fiber composites . The bare shell weighs 270 kg, we are told. And it’s naturally stiffer, with torsional stiffness said to be improved by 18 percent.
Inside, it feels sportier than ever. You sit low, with the high dash and window lines covering you, and the sense of feeling enclosed (in a good way) is enhanced by the fat transfer tunnel that leads out to accommodate the bell housing below. By the way, it includes a wet clutch rather than a torque converter for the nine-speed MCT transmission paired with AMG’s familiar 4.0-liter V8. Anyway, it can feel on the tight side but it’s big enough to accommodate me, and I’m just legs and arms, plus the riding position is perfect. The steering wheel, seat and pedals are where you want them for comfort and convenience, and those AMG seats may be firm, but boy are they supportive.
There’s more good stuff too. Clever carbon fiber trim, leather and Alcantara all add an exclusive finish, and overall it’s bolted together like a Mercedes should be. Well, except for the light turbine vents and the seat adjustment panels on the doors, which flex when you push them. Still, it all adds up to a serious-feeling car, which is only diminished slightly when you catch sight of the gamer-style graphics on the screens. Still, it’s eye-catching, really showroom good, and the screens are ultra-high resolution. The main one for infotainment is 11.9 inches and oriented in portrait, the same way as the C-class’s, but in the SL you can change its angle to avoid glare when the roof is open. It’s running the latest version of MBUX, and after being critical of the software in EQS, this seems a lot more responsive – only the pinching and zooming for the map felt a bit sluggish.
Okay, so Mercedes has told us it’s sportier and, sure, it shows when you absorb its charms inside and out, but how does it drive? Well, Mercedes had no fear: I didn’t even drive the SL out on the road. Instead, I had a few laps around its handling circuit at Mercedes-Benz World. Given that this is a tight and cumbersome affair – which you wouldn’t think would fit a two-tonne droptop – the SL acquitted itself well. Very good, actually. Off the line, AMG’s glorious 4.0-litre V8 thunders away with its delightful martial musicality, and with 476bhp and 516lb ft to flex in AMG 55 trim, it’s truly a weapon on the straights. We’re used to that sort of caper though, which doesn’t mean it’s boring – it really isn’t – but it’s when the straight ends and the first corner comes into view that the SL shows its dynamic prowess, and the differences between the new and old SL comes into focus.
The first job is to hit the brakes hard, and the 390mm discs and six-piston calipers produce mighty stopping power. The SL slows down with ease. At the same time, it’s easy to predict what pedal pressure is required and vent it safely when you start to turn in. And the car wants to turn in. The front axle is alert and the wheelbase is shortened by the usual rear-wheel steering, which makes the car feel lively and willing to rotate. And thanks to standard AMG Ride Control, when you crank up the dampers to Sport+, you don’t have to worry about inertia as the lateral load transfers from one side to the other. Simply put, it is stable and secure.
Part of that no doubt comes from the design and setup of the suspension rather than simply increasing the damping rate. Delve into the specs and there’s clearly been some effort made here, with talk of tuning the unbolted mass using forged aluminum suspension links, tie rods and hub carriers. And the SL rides on steel springs, not airbags, and a new hardening process has also reduced the weight of these – without, we’re told, affecting performance. For the first time on a production Mercedes-AMG, there’s even a five-link front suspension to match the multi-link setup at the rear. It’s about keeping camber and track tightly controlled as lateral loads increase.
The steering isn’t animated like a 911, but it doesn’t leave you guessing. When you start turning in, there’s enough weight to tell you what’s going on, and as the load builds it’s easy to feel how much grip the front tires have. My only question was how the steering is set up. At first it’s predictable and linear, but there’s a certain point when it shifts up a gear and suddenly you’re heading for the top faster than intended. Whether that’s something you can call I don’t know, because I didn’t have enough laps to find out.
I did a couple of slower laps, just to get as much insight as possible given the lack of road miles. For example, I can say that at 70-80 mph there is quite a lot of wind noise with the roof up from the window seal next to my ear. On the plus side, when you drop the roof—which takes 15 seconds and is done from a swipe icon on the touchscreen, meaning yet another physical button has disappeared—it’s not nearly as windy. You just get a lot more blast from the engine, so that’s two big ticks. Is the journey too hard? I don’t have the foggiest. I tried the Comfort mode but since the handling isn’t representatively rough, not like a real road anyway, I’m not making any definite statements other than it felt good from what I’ve experienced so far.
And overall, that experience has left me impressed. I like the new SL for all the reasons I didn’t like the last one. It’s better looking and feels smarter inside too, and it’s nice to sit in a Mercedes that seems well put together. In that way, it’s aping the great SLs of yore, like the R107 and R129, but the way it rides – the way it feels light and smooth, really brings to mind the earlier models. I’m not quite ready to sign off with “the SL lives up to its iconic status” – I’d need a more complete road test to go that far, and that’s still coming. But from what I’ve seen and heard so far, it doesn’t seem to let the site down.
Specification | 2022 Mercedes-AMG SL 55 4Matic+ Premium Plus
Engine: 3,982 cc, V8, twin turbo
Gearbox: nine-speed auto, four-wheel drive
Power (hp): 476 at 5,500-6,500 rpm
Torque (lb ft): 516 at 2,000-4,500 rpm
0-62 mph: 3.9 seconds
Top speed: 183 mph
Weight: 1,970 kg
MPG: 21.9 (WLTP)
CO2: 292g/km (WLTP)
Award: £147,475 (£152,275 as tested)
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