Make it bigger yet lighter, more fuel-efficient, but faster. And oh yes, make it cost less. Sounds like a challenge at engineering school, one the boffins at Mercedes aced.
The 2013 Mercedes SL550 is five centimetres longer and seven cm wider than the outgoing model. It has 32 per cent more power (torque) yet uses 18 per cent less fuel. It has more equipment, but costs $6,000 less.
In a way, the sixth-generation SL is a return to its roots. The SL designation stands for Super Leicht (Super Light). That was the design brief way back in 1954 when the first one hit the streets. But time, safety equipment and consumer expectations for additional features and luxury have not been kind. The fifth generation tipped the scales at close to two tonnes when introduced a decade ago. That’s getting pretty hefty for a two-seat convertible.
Weight was a major factor in the development of the new R231 chassis developed for the 2013 SL. Instead of steel, it is made almost entirely of aluminum. Less than 10 per cent is steel, and most of that resides in the A-pillars and above the windshield for added rollover protection.
The engineers employed a number of innovative techniques. The SL is made of extruded and sheet aluminum parts joined with a variety of welding, bonding and riveting methods. The company says the firewall is the biggest single-piece of cast aluminum yet used in a production motor vehicle. Even the mechanism behind the folding roof came under scrutiny and is now made of magnesium. Despite a raft of additional equipment, the new SL weights less, yet is 20 per cent stiffer.
This shiny chassis is cloaked in new clothes. The front end is more vertical and loaded with details; the flanks sculpted and the rear rounded. The classic long hood, short deck look remains. The new SL bears a strong resemblance to the SLK, its smaller sister; in fact, it looks like an SLK on steroids. The tracks both front and rear are wider, resulting in a more aggressive and masculine look.
Engineering is a big part of any Mercedes story and prominent in the new SL. Improved efficiency begins with less weight. That was accomplished with the aluminum chassis. The next step was a smaller engine that uses less fuel. But this is a high-end Mercedes and expectations remain high and competition intense so the new 4.663-litre V-8 utilizes twin turbochargers to help produce 429 horsepower and 516 lb-ft of torque, improvements of 12 and 32 per cent respectively. Yet the new bent eight uses 18 per cent less fuel than the less powerful and larger one it replaces.
That power is delivered to the rear wheels through a seven-speed automatic transmission complete with steering-wheel-mounted shift paddles and different shift maps. Left to its own accord, this engine/transmission combination will shoot the new SL to 100 km/h in less than five seconds.
The SL comes with Active Body control that reduces lean in corners. You have a choice of comfort or sport; in either mode, the SL delivered a comfy yet controlled ride. It tended toward the brittle side on nasty frost-heaved surfaces and over potholes. Despite this, the Benz feels as though cast from a single ingot of steel.
The SL is capable of tackling the turns with verve but is more at home as a Grand Tourer.
The sound system places big 18-cm sub woofers in the foot wells instead of the door panels, freeing up space in the doors. I found the standard Harmon-Kardon audio system outperforms the optional Bang & Olufsen system, an impression shared with my driving partner, a professional musician with 25 years of experience. The power, clarity and crispness make this a convertible that sounds like a theatre.
Another interesting new feature is Magic Vision Control, a clever windshield washer system with the spray outlets integrated into either side of the heated wiper blades. The spray is directed onto the windshield ahead of the wiper motion, eliminating the chance of getting a shower when the top is down.
That hard top, incidentally, can be ordered with Magic Sky Control. Tiny particles sandwiched between two layers of glass change alignment at the touch of a button to go from clear to dark. When folded completely into the trunk, a 20-second process, there is room for two roll-aboard bags.
Don't forget to check out our gallery: In pictures: Mercedes-Benz SL-class
2013 Mercedes-Benz SL550
Type: Two-door, two-seat luxury sports convertible
Price: $128,800 as tested (including freight)
Engine: 4.7-litre, DOHC, twin-turbo V-8
Horsepower/torque: 429-hp/516 lb-ft
Transmission: Seven-speed automatic
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): Not available; premium gas
Alternatives: Audi R8, Porsche 911 Cabriolet, BMW 6-Series Cabrio