2014 Mercedes-Benz SL Class Review

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Marty Padgett Marty Padgett Editorial Director
August 18, 2014

The 2014 Mercedes-Benz SL Class feels content as a grand tourer, but it's sportier than you might expect.

The 2014 Mercedes-Benz SL isn't a sports car, in the classic sense, but a very, very luxurious two-seat convertible that manages to blend nimble on-road behavior with a level of power suitable to a car costing $100,000 and up. To quote its engineers, the SL is "the S-Class of sporty cars," providing a unique mix of attributes that distinguish it from the elegant Jaguar XKR, the Porsche 911 range, and the brutal but undeniably fast SRT Viper.

Over its 60 years on the market, the Mercedes-Benz SL has gained power, size, and a great deal of luxury. The current model was launched for 2012, and offers a driving experience that can be more intense than the previous model--but only if the owner wants it that way.

The latest 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.

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The 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.

The standard engine is now a twin-turbo V-8 of 4.7 liters that delivers oodles of torque--516 lb-ft--and snappy responsiveness from its 429 horsepower. It accelerates faster to 60 mph, cutting almost a second from the old SL 550's time and hitting the magic number in 4.5 seconds. The combination of a downsized engine, seven-speed automatic, and stop/start system also manages to earn a 20-mpg combined EPA fuel economy rating. Top speed for the U.S. is limited to 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 and seven-speed automatic transmission, 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.

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 impressive creature comforts include Airscarf neck vents and the folding hardtop, and 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.

Prices start at $106,375--and range up to the SL 65 AMG at $209,000 or so--and that's before options. That's one reason this is the "S-Class of sporty cars."

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2014 Mercedes-Benz SL Class

Styling

The front end restores some upright glory, but the latest Mercedes SL has some uneven styling passages.

The Mercedes-Benz SL has gone through so many eras of design and style, ranging from sensational gullwings and pagoda-roofs to duller, softer–yet still completely fabulous–vehicles like the Dallas-era cars and bank vaults from the early 1990s. Even so, seeing every SL in a lineup would leave you with no question of their relation, and that remains true for the 2014 model.

It rests somewhere between the most dramatically- and subtly-designed SLs of yore, in many ways mending the shortcomings of some recent models. The front end is more imposing, but not weighty–thanks largely to new European safety regulations to protect pedestrians in accidents. That leaves the SL with a larger nose, more like those of the Sixties, and the profile looks a little more formal. The oversized grille and large air dams help negate some of that front end's apparent size, and so many of those unnecessary creases in the last model have been ironed out by large, rounded headlights and the angles of LED running lights. Best from the front quarters, the SL's doors are stamped with straked C-scoops that pierce the door handles. From the rear, the SL has a lot in common with the SLK and SLS coupes and roadsters: with the top up, the slope of the roofline and teardrop-shaped taillamps are out of balance with the front end, but with the top down, they fall more smoothly into line.

Inside, the two-seat cockpit feels more technical, more masculine in its execution than the former SL. Four gimbaled vents are chrome-tipped with four-pointed stars, and they anchor the dash, split up here and there by a pair of cut-tube gauges, a large TFT screen, an optional hooded analog clock, and a band of warm polished wood--unless it's been upgraded to a lighter tone, or stained a darker color, or changed out entirely for aluminum. The leather's stitched with twin needles, the steering wheel's gone slightly flat at its bottom, there's enough metallic trim to embarrass an Audi, and most noticeably, the shifter has shrunk to a nubbin. Who needs another power totem at this price point?

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2014 Mercedes-Benz SL Class

Performance

Exceptional performance in the SL AMG reveals its mission best: an ultra-high-speed grand tourer, not a sports car.

While nimble and powerful, we wouldn't call the base SL 550 a sports car, but it's absolutely the luxurious, sporty touring roadster those SL loyalists have loved for so many years. It's essentially a Teutonic homage to the classic Thunderbird, albeit one with now-space-aged technology and comfort that older cars have never offered.

On the ride and handling front, we suggest you reread the first paragraph one more time. Then you'll understand better how a body that's stiffer and 275 pounds lighter, and how a boatload of add-on electronics, have changed and can change the driving character of the SL. Thanks to lots of aluminum, it's lighter to its core, a feeling amplified by electric power steering that's new to the luxury roadster. Engineers have set up the Direct Steer system with one programmed set of responses that depends on vehicle speed and distance off center, while transmission and suspension settings have at least two driver-selectable modes. Direct Steer lets the SL feel more stable on center, while it gets quicker responses farther off center to minimize wheel movement. But like other electric steering systems, it's given up some ground, some vital feedback, and some steering heft--some of the haptic stuff that's arguably a hallmark of Mercedes cars.

At the same time, the SL comes either with a conventional multi-link suspension with two-mode adjustable shocks or with the upgrade Active Body Control active suspension. It also has torque vectoring--inside-wheel anti-lock braking that tightens cornering. After a couple of hundred miles split among all versions (there's a sport package on base models), we grokked more to the base car's more natural feel. It's comfortably tuned without overstepping into loosely plush too often. Long, low rises can set up bounding motions in the suspension, and body roll's never far away, but the same holds true for a base Jaguar XK or Maserati GranTurismo. Good weight balance helps the SL turn in neutral feel in tight esses, and just a nudge of the throttle liberates all that torque, and pulls a wide line closer to true.

Adding on the ABC suspension doesn't add much to the SL driving experience, in our view. It does as promised--it flattens out the SL's ride, but that raises the sporting stakes. Great in sweeping turns and lightly undulating surfaces, the quick throttle, light and nonlinear steering, torque-adjusting brakes, and constantly adjusting shocks don't work as well during hotter performance runs. Turn in sharply on an ABC-equipped car, and the quickest transitions go soft-focus, just when the brakes want to hone the corner down further, just while the suspension is still filtering off the abrupt highs and lows it's finding in the corner.

The 4.7-liter twin-turbo V-8 in the SL 550 whips out 429 horsepower, up strongly from the prior car's normally aspirated base V-8. More astonishing is the torque, which escalates from 391 pound-feet to 516 lb-ft. Power's capped at a 6300-rpm redline, but most of it is available at 1600 rpm, giving the SL 550 extremely powerful acceleration. Mercedes pegs 0-60 mph times at 4.5 seconds, almost a second quicker than last year's edition, and top speed in this model is limited to 130 mph.

A seven-speed automatic with paddle controls does its part to keep the SL's rear wheels in good graces with the massive output, and with the EPA. With manual, eco, and sport-shift modes, the gearbox has less real range in its acting portfolio than you'd think, but it's consistently a good, quick performer. No official economy numbers have been logged, but Mercedes says gas mileage should improve by as much as 30 percent; the same drivetrain in an S550 sedan netted us 25.5 mpg on a five-hour, 85-mph interstate trip just last month.

With a special AMG-built 530-horsepower twin-turbo V-8 and wet-clutch seven-speed AMG automatic transmission, the SL 63 AMG is a serious step up in performance, and at about $40k more than the SL 550, it feels a lot more exotic from behind the wheel. The SL 63 AMG gets 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--accompanied by a glorious, pulsating bark of a soundtrack that far outdoes the M6's muted whir.

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.

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2014 Mercedes-Benz SL Class

Comfort & Quality

There are only two seats and a small trunk, but the Mercedes SL suits two passengers perfectly.

Lighter than it looks, the 2014 Mercedes-Benz SL is both long and wide, and maintains its throne as the "S-Class of sporty cars."

Mercedes' shapes and textures tend toward the cool side of the styling spectrum, but the very high levels of fit and finish can be dressed up with choices of ash or burled woods, and brightly colored leather. What's more noticeable, and emotional, in this SL is the noise it makes. The powertrain's no longer a hushed, distant piece, and when the top's down, the whistle of two turbos hard at work is unmistakable, and inviting. Meanwhile, the wind and cockpit turbulence are tamed very well; at 120 mph, a baseball hat has better than even odds at staying on a head with a low mu.

The SL's seats are wide and deeply scooped, with fairly flat bottom cushions that can be extended for better comfort. They're very supportive for very long-distance cruises, but still, we'd spend for the fancy versions with Airscarf neck vents, heating and ventilation, and active bolstering that inflates and deflates as the car dives into corners.

The cabin's an inviting one, thanks to the extra room, and with the roof lowered, very easy to slide into. With the roof raised, it takes more of a mid-waist bend, but the SL's long doors feel lighter. Once in, the driver and passenger are tucked in a wood-and-leather-trimmed module glinting with softly sheened metallic trim and a glowing TFT screen at the center of the dash. A set of control pods organize basic audio controls and COMAND controls, and under a trio of upholstered flip-up lids, you'll find the USB and iPod ports and the convertible top switch. The controls are grouped logically, but aren't all marked transparently. The wide center console flares out toward inboard knees to accommodate a big pair of cupholders: score that a win for us Yanks.

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Though it's bigger and more accommodating for people, the SL's lost ground for cargo. The shallow storage area behind the seats is much smaller now, with room only for an ultrabook or two. The trunk's roughly the same size as before; with the roof raised there's room for one or maybe two roll-aboards, but when it's lowered, plan on bringing soft-sided bags--and make them gym-sized.
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2014 Mercedes-Benz SL Class

Safety

No crash-test scores are available, but the SL has heritage and loads of safety technology behind it.

Neither of the agencies that crash test cars to determine their safety ratings have assessed the current Mercedes-Benz SL, but a long list of active and passive safety features leaves it scoring well with us.

Mercedes bundles a few of the latest safety technologies together in a $2,950 package. Active cruise control integrates with the braking system to detect when a collision is imminent, and to apply brakes to limit damage or to prevent it entirely. We're mixed on the utility of this kind of cruise control, and with the lane-keeping assist that comes along with it, but the blind-spot monitors that make up the trio add a valuable measure of safety.

All SL convertibles come standard with front airbags; side airbags that extend to protect the head and thorax; knee airbags; and pop-up roll bars that activate in a rollover accident. Anti-lock brakes, stability and traction control also are standard, as are active headlamps, LED daytime running lights, active headrests, wet-arm wiper blades, and Attention Assist, which monitors the driver for drowsiness and lights a coffee-cup icon on the dash when it's time for a caffeine break. Bluetooth is also a standard feature.

Among the SL's safety options are at least one--a rearview camera--that should be standard at this price point. Also on offer are parking sensors and park assist, which uses those sensors and electric power steering to angle the SL into a spot, while the driver maintains control over the brake.

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2014 Mercedes-Benz SL Class

Features

Bang & Olufsen sound, exotic wood trims, leather everything--the Mercedes SL is a sybaritic lounge on wheels.

It costs more than $106,000 just to get into the 2014 Mercedes-Benz SL 550, so it comes as no surprise that virtually every feature imaginable is either standard or available on this premium roadster.

A trio of features are just nerdy enough to be cool. To keep the front glass clear, the new SL marks the debut of a new wiper system dubbed Magic Vision Control. The fascination with "magic" aside, the wiper uses special blades with channels that spray fluid ahead on the glass, in the direction of their travel, to keep the glass clear outside of the cleaning path. The system's laid out so that the fluid's warmed before it's dispensed, and aero-tuned so it doesn't fly over the windshield onto perfectly styled hair, Tabatha Coffey be praised. There's a photosensor in the bumper that triggers the small trunk to open, with a wave of a foot below--and closes it with a similar motion, too. And the SL now has electric power steering, which means it now can be had with active park assist--press a button, and it steers itself into a tight spot while you man the brakes.

Of course, the SL's hallmark feature is the power-operated top that cycles up or down in 20 seconds. Mercedes offers the top with a glass roof panel or with Magic Sky Control, which sounds like a Summer of Love warm-up act, but is actually photochromic control that dials in more or less tint, as the passengers require. It's the world's most seductive set of Foster-Grants, and a perfect tag-teamer with the standard power wind deflector, and optional Airscarf neck vents and heated and ventilated seats.

Each SL has the usual standard leather upholstery and wood trim; cruise control; 12-way power seats; 18-inch run-flat tires; Bluetooth; ambient lighting; heated windshield; power tilt/telescoping steering; integrated garage door opener; dual-zone automatic climate control; and a navigation system.

The navigation system is integrated with all the SL's infotainment features via the COMAND controller, a roller-clicker knob with some occasionally arcane motivations. Programming radio favorites is a peeve-worthy process, but once it's set up, COMAND allows you to run the GPS, phone, and audio systems with the controller or with steering-wheel control buttons. That means fingertip access to satellite radio; iPod audio; HD radio; a six-DVD changer; an SD card; and 10 speakers of Harman/Kardon surround sound.

There's a pricey Bang & Olufsen audio upgrade for $6,400, but as was the case in an S550 sedan I drove just before the SL, its thin bass response--despite "Front Bass" speaker packaging in the new roadster--doesn't justify the big-ticket upgrade.

COMAND's other, more important facet is its new connectivity features. Mercedes is ushering in mbrace2, its app-driven suite of services, with this new SL, which means in-car access to Google Local Search, Yelp, and Facebook, accessible through read-back technology.

Options we'd choose include the active multi-contour seats that inflate selectively as you corner briskly; they're in a package with Airscarf, a rearview camera, and pushbutton start. An analog clock and wood steering wheel are relatively inexpensive, as are 19-inch wheels and sport brakes, but while you're forgetting the BeoSound, consider leaving the $4,090 Active Body Control off the order sheet too, since the basic suspension is quite comfortable and well-tuned.

On the SL 63 AMG, the upgrade to get is the $9,000 Performance Package. You'll get bright red brake calipers, a Torque Vectoring Brake system that makes you more surefooted in tight corners under power, plus a bump in turbo boost from 14.2 psi up to 18.5 psi--boosting power to 557 hp and 664 pound-feet of torque, along with a top speed of 186 mph.

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2014 Mercedes-Benz SL Class

Fuel Economy

The latest SL gets its best gas-mileage ratings ever.

Given its sporty demeanor and large V-8 and V-12 engine options, it's no surprise that the SL is thirsty. However, it's also lighter-weight and more advanced than past generations, which help keep the fuel economy from being completely abysmal.

The SL 550 is rated at 18 mpg city, and very decent 25 mpg on the highway, for a combined 20-mpg rating. Step up the more powerful SL 63 AMG model, and you only lose 2 mpg in the city, while highway ratings remain the same--lowering the combined rating to 19 mpg. If you're looking at the SL 65 AMG, however, you'll only earn 14 mpg in the city and 21 mpg on the highway, but even its combined 17 mpg isn't terrible–especially for its immense power.

It's slimmer, which helps handling, and the SL's also outfitted with stop/start technology, which shuts off the engine at longer pauses like stoplights, and automatically restarts when the accelerator is pressed. Some drivers may find it annoying, but it contributes to a 30-percent improvement in gas mileage on the U.S. cycle. The feature can be disabled via an Eco button on the console, but it must be switched off each time the car is started by the driver. The SL also has an Eco driving mode, one that slows out shifts noticeably and remaps fuel delivery.

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Styling 7
Performance 8
Comfort & Quality 8
Safety 8
Features 10
Fuel Economy 6
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