CAPE TOWN – the local launch of the new Mercedes-Benz SL coincides with the 60th anniversary of the company’s graceful line of touring roadsters. The latest car may be the most aesthetically challenging addition to the family so far, but does it conquer long stretches while entertaining like its forebears?
The old adage “reserve your judgement until you see it in the metal” may have been wheeled out more times than Clarkson’s “…in the world” line, but the new SL really is best appreciated in person. The most prominent feature has to be those headlamps – from the front they do look somewhat bug-eyed and ungainly, but a pace to the front three-quarter and suddenly the nose doesn’t look as bluff and you suddenly appreciate the manner in which the headlamps flow into the front wings. The profile is archetypal roadster, with a long bonnet, cab-back and a short rear overhang. There are plenty of references to both the classic SLs (gills on the front flanks and a more classical nose treatment) and more contemporary brethren such as the SLS and SLK (read rectangular cross-section grille and muscular haunches). You won’t fall in love with it at once (some may not do so at all), but it’s challenging, attention-grabbing and stays true to the SL formula.
Interior and tech
For a car that bristles with a wealth of technology, the SL’s cabin is refreshingly uncluttered and allows you to take in excellent levels of perceived quality. You sit low in supportive and pleasantly bolstered seats cocooned in by high doors and a fairly upright facia over which your view ahead takes in those SLS-inspired bonnet vents on a sculpted bonnet. The highlights include SLS/SLK-style eyeball air vents, stitched leather adorning the upper facia and door tops, a Porsche-style clock pod poking out from the top of the facia (a Mercedes design on the SL500 and IWC on the AMGs) and a stubby metallic gearlever capped in leather and stamped with the SL logo. Standard features include Mercedes’ Airscarf neck-level ventilation, Comand Online infotainment system with weather screen and social networking capability.
Despite all of the tech thrown at the chassis and dynamics (see section below), one of the most notable features of the new SL has to be the Magic Vision Control windscreen wiper system. It uses two rows of laser-drilled holes in the windscreen wiper that neatly distributes washer fluid over the screen while sidestepping the age-old problem of roof-down driving being spoiled by an eyeful of washer fluid jetted over the top of the screen.
Another unusual, but mention-worthy, feature is the Frontbass sound system. This Harman/Kardon-created technology basically comprises a pair of woofers in the front footwells which, through a combination of trick electrics and using the car’s structure as a sort of resonance chamber, develops clear, rich bass in all driving conditions.
Roof-down and with the optional draught stop in place, the cabin is well protected from wind buffeting and you can hold a conversation with your passenger in a civilised tone at highway speeds. Roof-up, an action that takes 20 seconds to raise or lower the magnesium-hewn item, you might as well consider yourself in a coupe – wind and road noise are brilliantly suppressed and the optional Magic Sky Control photochromatic glass panel does an admirable job of repelling the sun from your scalp. Niggles? There are just two; with the roof stowed, boot space is not overly generous and some will bemoan the use of generic switchgear in what is otherwise a beautifully crafted cabin.
Although externally the new car is roughly the same size as its predecessor, the extensive use of aluminium in its construction means it’s 125 kg lighter. Although it’s no lightweight at 1 785 kg, the SL500 feels more nimble than its size suggests. In its sport setting, the semi-active suspension damping system lends the SL a respectable amount of composure under spirited cornering but it’s in comfort where the ride really comes into its own – the manner in which the SL dismisses road imperfections is almost unparalleled in its class and the lack of any perceptible body flex makes the newcomer a consummate mile-muncher.
The electric power steering, although slightly artificial in its feel, is precise and responsive while the seven-speed transmission is scarcely perceptible in its operation.
At the heart of the SL500 lies Mercedes’s new 4,7-litre twin-turbo V8. Much like the soundtrack, which goes from near-silent at idle to a throaty growl when the throttle is stowed flat, this 320 kW/700 N.m unit has a refreshing duality in its nature that allows it to effortlessly cruise with the rev needle barely lifting from its resting place or pull like a freight train at the prod of the accelerator thanks to the maximum torque kicking in at a low 1 800 r/min. Thanks to a raft of BlueEfficiency technologies, direct injection and a start/stop system, Mercedes claims a combined fuel consumption figure of just 9,1 litres/100 km for the SL500.
Although the styling is bound to polarise opinion, there’s no getting away from the fact that the new SL is an impressive offering. It’s ability to blend a respectable amount of dynamic ability with superb comfort, whether the roof is up or down, is a real draw card and stays true to what SLs have always been about.
Model: Mercedes-Benz SL500 BlueEfficiency
Engine: 4,7-litre, twin-turbo V8 petrol
Power: 320 kW at 5 250 r/min
Torque:700 N.m at 1 800-3 500 r/min
0-100 km/h: 4,6 seconds
Fuel consumption: 9,1 L/100 km
CO2: 212 g/km
Top speed: 250 km/h
Price: R1,635 million
Other models in the SL range include the SL63 AMG at R2,12 million and SL65 AMG at R2,621 million.