New & Used Mercedes-Benz SL-Class: In Depth
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The SL-Class has a lot of history for Mercedes-Benz and is currently sold only as a hardtop roadster. In one form or another, though, the SL has served as the brand's boulevard cruiser for a half-century.
The latest generation SL made its debut at the 2012 Detroit Auto Show as a 2013 model. Its new styling brought a more buff front end, 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 was originally rated at 429 horsepower and 516 pound-feet of torque, but horsepower is up to 449 this year; it is capable of a 0-60 mph run in the mid four-second range.
For 2016, all SL 550 models gain 20 horsepower for a total of 449, and Mercedes is offering a limited run of 400 Mille Miglia Edition SL 550s with special paint, upholstery, and trim pieces.
MORE: Read our 2016 Mercedes-Benz SL Class review
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 Magic Sky Control roof is optional, allowing 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 offers navigation with Google search capability.
A new "entry-level" model joined the SL lineup for 2015 and marked the end to a long absence of six-cylinder power in the model's U.S. range. This twin-turbocharged 3.0-liter V-6 is offered in the SL 400, where it produces 329 horsepower and 354 pound-feet of torque that is sent to the rear wheels through a seven-speed automatic like in other SLs. The SL65 AMG also switched to a seven-speed automatic for 2015, and so all SL models now feature the same number of gears.
The History of the SL
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, the first twelve-cylinder to grace an SL. This generation also saw the start of AMG tuning of the SL, with very limited runs of the V-12-powered SL70 and SL73 as well as the SL55 and SL60, which used V-8 power.
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.
Starting in 2003, the lineup included the 302-hp SL500, the 493-hp SL55 AMG, and the 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 new styling 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 also brought to the SL. Mercedes offered an SL AMG Black Series model for 2010, with an uprated V-12 engine, a fixed roof, and a $300,000 price tag. In the 2012 model year, the SL lineup was reduced to a pair of V-8 models: the SL 550 and SL 63 AMG.