2011 Mercedes-Benz SL Class Review

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The Car Connection Expert Review

Marty Padgett Marty Padgett Editorial Director
February 14, 2011

The 2011 Mercedes-Benz SL-Class can be a luxury grand tourer and a high-energy exotic, all at once, if you order properly.

The 2011 Mercedes-Benz SL is on the warning track: with a new roadster on the way and an SLS AMG gullwing already in the lineup, there's little changed to the two-seat roadster for the new model year.

Bless the built-in corporate stability control for that, because the SL is a stupendous piece, its enviable ride quality topped with huge dollops of torque and cloaked in a body that's going to look great five or fifty years down the road, as almost all Mercedes convertibles do.

While it isn't as chic as some exotics, the SL acquits itself extremely well in performance. The SL550 bridges the gap from Jaguar XK territory into Ferrari California range; the SL63 AMG is the pinnacle of the SL's ability, faster than an Aston Martin Vantage and not far off the mark set by the Porsche 911. (A Nissan GT-R will trounce it, but to be fair, it'll backhand some sport bikes, too.)

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Like only a few other cars with a similar mission, the Benz SL has a very roomy cabin. But like almost all super sportscars and roadsters, the carry-on space gets beaten by a single overhead bin on a Canadair jet.

Feel free to spend up to $200,000 on an SL65 AMG; our favorite is the relative bargain SL63 AMG, for its time-warping acceleration and its multi-contour seats and an amazingly tractable ride. No matter which you choose, there's always AIRSCARF, which deserves some kind of Nobel of its own. Anything that keeps the top down longer, and more frequently, is an inspiration all its own.

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2011 Mercedes-Benz SL Class

Styling

The 2011 Mercedes-Benz SL-Class owns cougartown; it's still pretty hot, after all these years.

Last retouched in 2009, the Mercedes-Benz SL-Class may no longer be the trophy wife it once was--but it's still the ruler of cougartown, very appealing, and about to be replaced by a newer model. 

It's an elegant design--it doesn't say "fast" like a Jaguar XK does, and it's anything but rakish, but the SL's proportions are timeless. The nose and flanks were crisped up two years ago and they're now more in step with the rest of the lineup, now that we've seen the latest E-Class and the SLS AMG. AMG versions wear deeper front air dams, a more pronounced grille, a hood with twin power bulges, and side and rear-end skirts for a distinct look. We know Mercedes is marching toward a more masculine look for the new SL coming in 2012, but we'll miss this shape for its tidy, reserved look--equally attractive with the top down, or when it's raised.

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The cabin's seen its last update, but it could carry on for years in its current form. It's a muted place to work, filled and trimmed out with wood, leather and metallic trim that's cool to the touch and warm to the eyes. There are many, many, many buttons and LCD readouts in the brightly lit gauges, and on the dash, and they disrupt the quiet mood somewhat.
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2011 Mercedes-Benz SL Class

Performance

The 2011 Mercedes-Benz SL-Class pushes near-exotic performance with well-tuned driving dynamics.

    Minus its former SL600 model, the 2011 Mercedes-Benz SL range still spans a big part of a very narrow performance niche. There's a V-8 in the least-expensive SL550, and true to its badge, it's a 5.5-liter engine that pumps out 382 horsepower through a paddle-shifted seven-speed automatic. The drivetrain's found across most of the Mercedes lineup, and it's a tart performer, with a promised 0-60 mph time of under six seconds and a top speed of 155 mph. Only in the rarified world of pro athletes and the very well-heeled, would the SL550's performance be found wanting.

    In the two AMG versions of the hardtop convertible, you'll find two very different powertrains. The SL63 AMG thunders along courtesy a 6.2-liter V-8--the AMG division's first home-brewed engine--and it howls with 518 hp, teamed to an automated-manual seven-speed transmission. AMG says this one's up for a 0-60 mph rocket ride of less than 4.8 seconds.

    At the very pinnacle of the SL universe is the MVP bauble, the Timberlake ride: the 604-hp, twin-turbo, 6.0-liter V-12 SL65 AMG. This hoary piece shovels that power and 738 pound-feet of torque out through a five-speed automatic; two fewer beefier gears means it can handle the monster acceleration and can help the SL65 AMG post 4.2-second runs to 60 mph.

    There's a distinct difference between the SL550 and the AMG SLs, though all now have the Direct Steer system that quickens the car's response as the steering wheel moves farther off-center. The AMG SLs have much tauter tuning and faster steering, and even they have an absorbent, comfortable ride. Credit for that achievement goes to Active Body Control (ABC), a suspension setup that lets drivers choose comfort, normal, and sport driving modes. It's not needlessly complex with separate selections for steering and throttle, as are some other driver-configurable systems like Audi's Drive Select.

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      2011 Mercedes-Benz SL Class

      Comfort & Quality

      Two passengers will be coddled inside the 2011 Mercedes-Benz SL-Class, but they should travel lightly.

      The SL-Class hardtop convertibles build in a plush, roomy interior that makes for cozy long-distance touring.

      The SL's handsome cockpit balances wood, leather, and aluminum trim in a warm way. We love the seats, whether they're the base versions or the multi-contour chairs. Both are among the finest in the class, with all manner of power adjustment, and massaging and heating functions. The adaptable seats use air bladders that inflate and deflate dynamically--tightening up when you're cornering, relaxing on the interstate.

      Its packaging gives the SL's passengers great leg and head room, even with the convertible roof raised. A six-footer will fit inside easily, with space behind the seatbacks and the trunk to spare.

      That may come in handy, since actual trunk space is marginal. The SL's folding hardtop leaves only 7.2 cubic feet of space behind when it's retracted, and the SL only has about 10 cubic feet of cargo space to start with.

      There isn't a better, tighter-fitting hardtop in the business. The SL's lid truly keeps the cabin as quiet as a hardtop could, and noises are limited to the fabulous howl from the engines at full wind-up. A spot or two of off-note materials aside, the cockpit's a spectacularly rich place for two to ride.

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      2011 Mercedes-Benz SL Class

      Safety

      With only a handful of high-tech omissions, the 2011 Mercedes-Benz SL-Class gets high marks for safety.

      Like most ultra-luxury and exotic cars, the Mercedes SL roadsters are lacking in third-party safety ratings.

      Neither the IIHS (Insurance Institute for Highway Safety) nor the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) has tested the 2011 Mercedes-Benz SL-Class for crash safety.

      However, the SL can rest comfortably on Mercedes' long history of safety innovations and performance. Each SL comes with dual front airbags and plus-sized side airbags that give a degree of head protection in a crash. A driver knee airbag is included, as is a pop-up roll bar that deploys automatically in the event of a rollover. . Anti-lock brakes, stability and traction control control are standard as well, and the AMG editions have performance-programmed stability control that allows more wheelspin in track-driving circumstances.

      More safety equipment includes adaptive cruise control and parking sensors, but a lane-departure warning system, blind-spot warning systems and a rearview camera are missing from the list.

      Mercedes' TeleAid emergency telematics, including automatic collision notification, are also standard.

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      2011 Mercedes-Benz SL Class

      Features

      The 2011 Mercedes-Benz SL-Class fairly swims in entertainment and luxury features, some more user-friendly than others.

      Three versions of the Mercedes-Benz SL-Class return for the 2011 model year, as plushly outfitted as ever, with some features that make perfect sense at first blush--and some that are a little more inscrutable. 

      With the former SL600 dropped, the SL is offered in SL550, SL63 AMG, and SL65 AMG trim. On each of them, Mercedes-Benz fits standard 18-inch wheels; leather upholstery; power seats; dual-zone climate control; a telescoping steering wheel; an AM/FM/CD/DVD changer with iPod integration, Sirius Satellite Radio and real-time traffic, Harman Kardon surround sound, and HD Radio; Bluetooth; and DVD navigation. Newly standard for 2011 are HD Radio and real-time traffic alerts.

      Leading the hit parade of electronics is Mercedes-Benz's COMAND system. Like those from Audi and BMW, the COMAND uses a knob controller, buttons and an LCD screen to direct navigation, climate and audio functions while the driver keeps eyes on the road. The flavor of COMAND baked into the SL uses a round toggle switch instead of a rotating knob, though, which makes some actions counterintuitive--on top of the multi-action clicks you'll need to make to access simple functions like radio seek. There are more buttons on the steering wheel to work the most commonly used controls. It can be overwhelming, but with practice and experience, it could eventually be safer to operate. 

      Multicontour seats are optional on some models, and they're fantastically supportive if not a little distracting; air bladders inflate and deflate as you're cornering, to provide more padding. We're smitten with the AIRSCARF system, which blows warm air at neck level when the top's lowered, too. The Benz SL's roof folds out of sight, and can be fitted with a panoramic glass panel.

      A special Night Edition for the 2011 model year gets distinctive black paint and leather trim, 19-inch wheels, silver brake calipers, and new seat stitching.

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      2011 Mercedes-Benz SL Class

      Fuel Economy

      The 2011 Mercedes-Benz SL-Class gets a fair upbraiding from the EPA; fuel economy is low even in the relatively frugal SL550.

      It's a good thing the Mercedes-Benz SL convertibles dole out high-speed, drama-free cruising by the yachtload--that way, you don't have to fret about the yachtlike fuel reserves you'll need to keep one going full steam ahead.

      The SL550 leads the EPA ratings for the model line. It's scored at 14/22 mpg--lower than you'll get in a Jaguar XK, or even a Nissan GT-R or HEMI-powered Dodge Challenger.

      Things get considerably less frugal in the AMG SLs. The SL63's V-8 engine and seven-speed automatic muster 12/19 mpg from the EPA, lower than Benz' own SLS AMG or an Audi R8 V-10 Spyder. The SL65's massive V-12 drops another highway mile per gallon for its 12/18-mpg rating.

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