The scenic helicopter ride from Nice airport to the Saint-Tropez Polo Club took half an hour, over occasionally turquoise and shimmering deep blue water, white sailboats lazily drifting on the edge of some of the most exclusive real estate in the world. Although our motorcycle-loving colleague had his eyes closed and head down for much of the ride, we were all fairly certain he wasn't napping, nor sick, nor tired of the serene view.
“I sleep through terror,” he confessed afterwards.
Terrorizing the serpentine roads of southern France is exactly what we planned to do in the all-new SL 63 AMG, Mercedes-Benz's latest performance toy in its rapidly expanding AMG quiver of speedy arrows. As the extreme-makeover-ed and speedier version of the sparklingly polished SL 550, we expected this hard-top convertible sports car to bring the noise, both dynamically, and literally.
The latter it did convincingly, with an edgy bark every time we stepped on the loud pedal. Both pedals were actually very sensitive, especially with the rotary AMG Drive dial down below the shifter set to Sport or Sport+, a dial that also adjusted the standard ABC suspension into increasingly stiff modes.
What was most surprising was how docile the suspension was in the default Comfort mode, some extra exhaust burble the only clue that you're behind the wheel of a serious sports car instead of the luxury-oriented SL two-seater. There were even hints of body roll in Comfort as well as remnants of such cushiness in Sport mode when pushing as hard as the twisting, narrow corners allowed.
This is a big car in Europe, and the car's quick yet precise steering were appreciated when rounding yet another blind corner when a delivery van jumps into view, and you have to instantly squeeze the wide SL 63 between the truck's flanks and the drop-offs on the other. It felt much more at home on moderately curvy highways, where cruising right around France's 130 km/h speed limit with the top down still allowed for easy conversation with no shouting.
This relatively calm highway demeanor was helped by the power wind-blocker that can be raised behind you via a button in between the seats. And basically all of the SL's other luxury interior touches are either standard or available on the 63 AMG as well: the folding hardtop roof when many rivals only offer cloth, the AirScarf system that pipes warm air to the back of your neck, the clear-to-tinted Magic Sky roof that switches over at the touch of a button, and ventilated perches that help avoid seat sweat when the top is down.
You won't find such an extensive list of unique luxury features in other performance two-seaters, and that includes the pricier but much harder-edged Mercedes SLS Roadster, a raw speed machine where saving weight was a higher priority.
No, the SL 63 adds sportiness rather than detracts luxury. Case in point: the SL 63 now offers the same AMG Performance media package that can record your acceleration times, lap times, cornering forces, braking strength and top speed, all transferable via a USB stick. The system was introduced on the SLS Roadster, and combined with other options such as carbon-ceramic brakes and the limited-slip differential, it's one of the few Benzes that wouldn't look or feel out of place on an open track day.
And we haven't even discussed the SL 63's most sporting aspect yet: the mother of a twin turbocharged 5.5-litre V-8. Adding 15 horses to the naturally aspirated 6.2-litre V-8 it replaced may not sound like much – and when you're now making 530 ponies, it isn't, in percentage terms. But the jump in low-end grunt is massive, coming courtesy of the smaller new engine's extra 125 lb-ft of thrust.
Plus that Everest-like torque mountain of 590 lb-ft is at full thrust at a mere 2,000 rpm. Our tester came with the optional performance package, which boosts the horsepower and top speed even more, to 557 and 300 km/h, the torque needing a Richter scale to register its full 664 lb-ft. Every right toe-poke gave us instant blurriness, to the point where we occasionally found it too sensitive, preferring Comfort mode's gentler throttle maps in city driving to avoid continuous neck-snapping starts.
Which comes back to the surprisingly well-rounded appeal of this latest SL 63 AMG. Yes, it's much faster, stops quicker, corners better and is louder than a regular SL, as one would expect for an extra 40 grand or so over the $124,000 SL 550. But when it arrives in July, to be followed late this year by a heavier SL 65 with AMG's massive 12-cylinder engine, the SL 63's magic lies in how little comfort one has to give up for the occasional sporting thrill.
2013 Mercedes-Benz SL 63 AMG
Type: Luxury performance two-seat convertible
Base price: (estimated) $165,000
Engine: 5.5-litre, twin-turbo, V-8
Horsepower/torque: 557 hp/664 lb-ft (with Performance Package)
Transmission: Seven-speed paddle-shift automatic
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 9.9 (overall average, NEDC); premium gas
Alternatives: Audi R8 Convertible, BMW M6 Cabriolet, Jaguar XKR-S Cabriolet, Porsche 911 Turbo S Convertible
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