New & Used Mercedes-Benz SL Class: In Depth
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The Mercedes-Benz SL-Class is a hardtop roadster that, in one form or another, has served as the Benz boulevard cruiser for a half-century. In its various AMG trims, the SL adds exceptional power and improved handling. This year, a new "base" six-cylinder model joins the lineup, lowering the price of entry.
MORE: Read our 2015 Mercedes-Benz SL Class review
The Mercedes-Benz SL-Class can trace its lineage all the way back to the 1950s 300SL, which began with the original Gullwing and was later offered as a roadster. Through the 1960s, '70s, and '80s, the SL stayed roughly the same size but became heavier and more luxurious, with progressively larger and more powerful engines.
In the mid-1990s, Mercedes-Benz's nomenclature changed, with the old 320SL and 600SL becoming the SL320 and SL600. The former had a 3.2-liter in-line six-cylinder engine, while the SL600 came with a 389-horsepower, 6.0-liter V-12.
For 2003, the SL-Class was completely redesigned for the first time since 1990, and though it again maintained roughly the same exterior size, it had an edgier, sportier feel to go with its extensive luxury feature set. Most noteworthy was its new retractable hardtop—an evolution of the roof design that had previously been proven in the compact SLK-Class roadster.
From 2003, the lineup included the 302-hp SL500, 493-hp SL55 AMG, and 493-hp SL600. In 2007, the lineup was changed to the 382-hp SL550, 518-hp SL63 AMG, 510-hp SL600, and 604-hp SL65 AMG. These models were confident touring machines when covering distance, and tenacious handlers on a curvy road. With excellent seats and great suspension tuning, the SL had become an ideal pick for those—even taller drivers—who wanted a sports car capable of covering 500 miles a day or more in absolute comfort.
Mercedes gave the SL a visual update for 2009, which coincided with changes to the interior and some of the equipment. There was a new look for the previously cheap-looking instrument panel, and the steering wheel was replaced with a new version that used the same design as other new Mercedes models. The SLK's Airscarf function, which blows warm air over the occupants' necks in cool-weather top-down driving, was brought to the SL. In the 2012 model year, the SL lineup was reduced to a pair of V-8 models: the SL 550 and the SL 63 AMG.
A new 2013 Mercedes-Benz SL-Class made its debut at the 2012 Detroit Auto Show. Its new styling brought a more bluff front end to the SL, while the rear end adopted the tapered taillamps of the SLS supercar. A new twin-turbo 4.7-liter V-8 took over for the old normally aspirated V-8 in the SL 550; it's rated at 429 horsepower and 516 pound-feet of torque, and is capable of a 4.5-second 0-60 mph time.
The SL 550 is joined in this generation by the high-performance SL63 AMG and SL65 AMG roadsters. The $147,000 SL63 AMG gets a brawny 530-hp, twin-turbo AMG-built V-8 and its own suspension tuning and performance equipment, while the SL65 AMG sports a twin-turbo V-12 engine good for a massive 621 horsepower and 738 pound-feet of torque. Most SL models come with Active Body Control, a hydraulic suspension system that makes the SL corner nearly flat like a smaller, lighter car, while not flustering occupants.
Most people buy an SL to be comfortable, and this roadster doesn't disappoint in that department. The new Magic Sky Control roof is optional, allowing the occupants to choose between clear glass above when the top is up or an opaque filter to block out heat and light. The fabulous Airscarf neck-warming vents are again available, making cool-weather top-down driving supremely comfortable. A decent standard Harman/Kardon audio setup can be replaced by a Bang & Olufsen system that includes an ingeniously packaged subwoofer in the passenger footwell. The Mercedes COMAND interface is standard, controlling the infotainment setup through a console-mounted knob and a 7.0-inch display. COMAND also includes navigation with Google search capability.
A new "entry-level" model joins the SL lineup for 2015 and marks the end to a long absence of six-cylinder power in the model's U.S. range. Mercedes fits its new twin-turbocharged 3.0-liter V-6 into the SL 400; the engine produces 329 horsepower and 354 pound-feet of torque in this application and sends it to the rear wheels through a seven-speed automatic like in other SLs. The SL65 AMG switches to a seven-speed automatic for 2015, and so all SL models now feature the same number of gears.