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Powerful and agile, the 2013 Mercedes-Benz SL 550 isn't quite a sports car. According to its creators, it's "the S Class of sporty cars," and that's a keen distinction in a class of $100,000 two-doors that range from sleek machines like the Jaguar XKR to raging performance addicts like the Chevy Corvette Z06 and the brand-new Porsche 911.
And though it's grown more intense, and even more dynamically capable in this generation, the SL's also become more comfortable and impossibly, more luxurious. Same as it ever was, it's the epitome of the one percent, even while it's the one percent of sporty cars that declines the sportscar badge outright. What it does better than all other comers is this: traditional luxury, with a breeze at its back.
Priced from $106,375--and ranging up to the $209k SL 65 AMG (yes, that's before options)--the SL Class brings a new look that's working its way back gradually to the glory days of Mercedes two-seaters. If you never cared for the bank vaults penned by Benz in the early 1990s, the exuberantly wide, brash new SL looks crisper, and more masculine. It's emphatic from the front, charming with the top down, a bit of a mismatch from the rear where the slim rear end and taillamps seem to come from another car, another studio entirely. The cockpit? It's executed with precision, drilled with aviation-style vents and implanted with a big LCD brain.
A gutsy twin-turbocharged, 4.7-liter V-8 takes over for the old normally-aspirated base V-8, and it's a snappy, responsive, torqueaholic engine rated at 429 horsepower and 516 pound-feet of torque. It trounces the last SL 550 to 60 mph by almost a second, hitting the magic number in 4.5 seconds, and Mercedes is estimating the downsized engine, seven-speed automatic, and stop/start tech wedding them together will net a 30-percent improvement in gas mileage. Top speed's set at a relaxed 130 mph.
The SL 63 AMG is a step up from the SL 550, and it's a big step as it makes this luxury roadster feel more serious about the performance promises built into its the racy roadster bodywork. The brawny, 530-horsepower twin-turbo AMG-built V-8 and special wet-clutch seven-speed AMG automatic transmission get you to 60 mph in a scorching 4.5 seconds, and with a $9,000 Performance Package you get up to 557 hp and 664 pound-feet, with a top speed bumped to 186 mph and 0-60 lowered to 3.9 seconds. And if that's not enough, you can step up to the $209k SL 65 AMG and its twin-turbo V-12, making a mammoth 738 pound-feet of torque.
There's plenty of acceleration on hand, and what feels like more grip. Still, we're happier with the SL's base two-mode suspension, with or without the sport wheels and brakes, than with the exotic and expensive Active Body Control upgrade. A composed tourer with a "sport" mode that feels more like "comfort," the stock SL handles wide sweepers with grace, and a fair amount of body roll. The SL's electric power steering doesn't offer up much in the way of feedback, and quickens the further it moves off-center, which makes for some uneven transitions. Human brains can handle that much data, but adding on the active suspension feels like overload. The ride flattens out as promised, but adds another complex handling dimension that's not as linear or as predictable as a more conventional setup.
The SL's cabin has great room and fine fittings. The chairs are wide, and for a surprising range of body types, they can be fitted snugly, thanks to 12-way adjustments, the most useful of which may be the seat extender. There's more shoulder and elbow room, but less room now behind the seats themselves, only enough for a slim briefcase. The trunk holds a roll-on bag or two with the roof raised, or only soft-sided bags when it's lowered, though a trunk button powers the roof panels up and out of the way for slightly easier cargo loading.
As usual, neither safety agency has crashed an SL roadster, but all the latest safety tech is available, everything from Bluetooth to knee airbags to adaptive cruise control. Attention Assist--the digital coffee-cup warning--is standard, and for more than a hundy, we think the rearview camera should be as well. It's bundled in a safety option package along with parking sensors and parking assist, which dials the SL into a tight spot for you, while you manage only the brake.The new SL's other impressive creature comforts include Airscarf neck vents and the folding hardtop, and new this year, Magic Sky Control, which turns the roof's glass panel dark like a pair of pricey sunglasses. A Bang & Olufsen sound system can replace the standard Harman/Kardon setup, but we're not sold on its bass response or its huge price tag. All SL models also come with Mercedes’ COMAND infotainment system, which includes a 7-inch display screen, a DVD changer, Web browsing with Google search functionality, and navigation.