“Ooh, Marbey-ya,” said the Madrid-native bartender at Malaga airport, after inquiring where our Mercedes-Benz group had stayed. “With za jet-sets.” Actually, the closest thing to jet-setters we spotted in this posh Spanish city was the classic SL gull-wing coupe that Mercedes brought out, which inspired similar upswinging doors in the modern SLS sports car.
Yes, that would be that other Mercedes-Benz six-figure, V-8 two-seater, which comes in either a coupe with those traffic-stopping doors, or with a traditional soft-top convertible roof. It may be tempting to presume there is some overlap between either of these SLS models and the redesigned 2013 SL hardtop convertible we came here to sample, if overlap is possible in vehicles that start about 70 grand apart in price. But having driven both SLS models previously, it’s obvious even after a minute at the wheel that the new SL is a more comfort-oriented, yet technologically advanced, frequent flier.
The first clue is in the folding aluminum roof, a trick that none of the SL’s closest rivals have yet mastered, with powered fabric tops still the norm in this class. It’s true that there is less room in the trunk with the hardtop roof folded away than a soft top may have provided, but it would still be plenty of room for two golf bags or a weekend’s worth of warm-weather gear for a couple.
Mercedes-Benz goes to great lengths to extend your sunshine hit at the wheel of the SL, whether the top is up or down. Besides the retracting roof that is quickly folded away by pressing and holding a button between the front seats, the SL offers a panoramic clear roof that gives you a taste of the outdoors in a quieter and less blustery environment. That clear roof comes with a manual sunshade, perhaps the only manual anything on this car.
To alleviate that, and for a bit more passenger wow factor, there’s a high-tech Magic Sky $1,900 roof option that uses nano particles to allow for either a totally clear roof, or if your scalp is feeling overly warmed, the roof can fade to black at the touch of a button. It takes about 10 seconds for the roof to darken, and once an electrical current properly lines up the nano particles, about 2.5 seconds for it to go clear.
With the top folded away, a power-operated rear windscreen helps keep noise down to a minimum at highway speeds, although you still won’t be whispering to your passenger. Powering the windscreen down to see if it actually worked provided a quick blast of chilly confirmation behind me, so it stayed up the rest of the day, which was bright and almost as warm as late winter in Toronto this year. For those chilly morning or evening drives, Mercedes also offers its heavenly AirScarf system, lovely vents mounted under the head restraints that can tame those nasty drafts from behind.
Combine the AirScarf system with heated and cooled seats, the latter unavailable on the SLS, as well as sunshine-reflecting leather seats with available massage and dynamic bolstering functions, and you end up with a mobile spa and tanning salon that could easily extend our top-down season significantly.
The surroundings inside the SL cockpit will also remind its owners of a luxury retreat, with fine leathers, deep burl walnut accents on the steering wheel and throughout, as well as polished aluminum accents, to match the more extensive use of the material in the new SL’s chassis. This body structure is 90 per cent aluminum or even lighter magnesium, which accounts for 140 kg less pressure on the scales than the current SL, despite packing more features inside.
To ensure the sanctity of these surroundings, Mercedes has come up with advanced new wipers that incorporate water jets directly into the wiper arm, which then sprays just on the area directly ahead of the wiper – in both directions. This avoids having any water creeping up over or around the windshield, even at high speeds, wiping the water away so quickly you almost don’t see the windshield wet at all.
The SL’s sophisticated cabin comfort does not mean that it foregoes a sporting edge. In Canada, all SLs will come standard with Active Body Control (ABC), an electronic suspension system that adjusts spring and damper rates into Comfort or Sport settings, to go along with similar transmission option controls for the seven-speed automatic, which now offers sporting shift paddles as standard. The comfort setting is well named, and the Sport setting does noticeably keep the car flatter through even the tight corners we enjoyed through the Andalusian foothills.
The Sport setting makes bumps come through a touch sharper, but still well on the cushy side of sporting. Granted, with the dynamic seats engaged to hug our torso in whatever direction we turn into, the Sport setting is enough to fool the seats into an inadvertent poke when hitting the odd bump, even while traveling in a straight line.
But mostly the SL’s athletic persona came more from one’s right foot than anything else – the 429-hp turbo V-8 scooting the roadster along in a civilized yet exhilarating manner. Official figures suggest a 0-100 km/h time of 4.6 seconds, with its mountainous 516 lb-ft of torque conjuring up immediate zoom whenever called upon. More importantly to some buyers, perhaps, this more powerful engine is also up to 30 per cent more fuel-efficient, and much better than its closest V-8 rivals, higher only than the flat-six-powered Porsche 911.
Slated to arrive in May, with a more performance-oriented AMG version soon after, the 2013 SL may look quite a bit like its still-dashing 2012 predecessor, but it offers enough style, refined performance and especially technological wizardry to impress even jaded jet-setters.
2013 Mercedes-Benz SL 550
Type: Luxury two-seat hardtop convertible
Base price: $123,900
Engine: 4.7-litre turbocharged V-8
Horsepower/torque: 429 hp/516 lb-ft
Transmission: Seven-speed paddle shift automatic
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): (estimated) 12.9 city/7.1 highway; premium gas
Alternatives: Audi R8, BMW 6 Series, Jaguar XK/XKR, Maserati GranTurismo, Porsche 911