2017 Mercedes-Benz SL Class Review

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The Car Connection
2018
The Car Connection

The Car Connection Expert Review

Bengt Halvorson Bengt Halvorson Senior Editor, Green Vehicles
June 12, 2017

The 2017 Mercedes-Benz SL-Class isn't quite a sports car, but it's a rapid, open-air touring coupe extraordinaire.

Nearly every vehicle in the Mercedes-Benz model lineup has become a little more emphatic and expressive over the past year or two; and with the arrival of a refreshed 2017 Mercedes-Benz SL lineup, the same applies to the luxury automaker's classic two-seater.

Not quite a sports car, but a very luxurious two-seat convertible—a high-luxury roadster, some might call it—the SL functions as "the S-Class of sporty cars" by offering a whole lot of elegance and high-tech luxury conveniences to go with its seemingly effortless power and surprisingly nimble on-road manners. Today's SL is available in SL450, SL550, AMG SL63, and AMG SL65 flavors.

The portfolio has been broader in the past, but it has certainly never been better. 

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The SL aims at a wide range of models that bridge luxury and performance, including the elegant Jaguar F-Type, the Aston Martin DB9, and the Porsche 911 range, as well as the brutal Dodge Viper and thrilling Chevrolet Corvette. While the current model was launched for 2012, the 2017 model year has brought some significant changes, including a svelte new look and new 9-speed automatic transmissions.

We give the current model a 7.8 out of 10, with high marks for performance, comfort, and features. (Read more about how we rate cars.)

Mercedes SL styling and performance

The current generation of the SL was already exuberantly wide and brash on the outside. Yet for 2017 its styling has been made even a little more emphatic, with new LED headlights, a newly shaped twin-powerdome hood, and a somewhat more upright grille. Inspiration came from the legendary 300 SL Panamericana racing car with its steeply raked radiator grille. In front there's also an A-wing design that leads to a body-color splitter that evokes the old car.

We've always thought that the current generation of the SL was at a bit of a mismatch from the rear, where the tapered look and taillights seem to come from another car or another studio entirely; although for 2017 the taillights and some of the body panels have been massaged for a more athletic look. Inside, not all that much changes for the SL with its refresh. It's already a cockpit that feels executed with precision—a touring sports-car version of business-jet air travel, perhaps, with round aviation-style vents, and a big (slightly larger this year) infotainment scree. The infotainment is integrated within the dash, rather than freestanding, as in some of the brand's newer, lower-priced models. 

The vast majority of the SL lineup for 2017 gets new 9-speed automatics, although the hardly subtle top-performance AMG versions stick with a 7-speed Speedshift automatic. The 2017 SL lineup starts with the SL450, with a twin-turbocharged 3.0-liter V-6 making 362 horsepower and 369 pound-feet of torque. Above it, the SL550 offers a twin-turbo 4.7-liter V-8, now upgraded to 449 hp and 516 lb-ft. And at the top of the lineup, the Mercedes-AMG SL63 comes with twin-turbo 5.5-liter V-8 (577 hp and 664 lb-ft) while the SL65 gets a massive 6.0-liter twin-turbo V-12 engine churning out 621 hp and 738 lb-ft. We tend to think that the SL63 hits the sweet spot for performance and handling. The SL65 is the fastest, though; it can dash to 60 mph in just 4.0 seconds, or to a top speed of 186 mph.

The SL450 managed 20 mpg city, 28 highway, 23 combined, according to the EPA, which is a modest improvement over last year thanks to a new 9-speed. The thirstiest model is the SL65, which notches a predictably poor 13/22/16 mpg rating.

In any of its variants and versions, no matter how powerful, the SL feels far more like a grand-touring coupe than an all-out sports car. The base two-mode suspension, with or without the sport wheels and brakes, is actually our preference to the exotic and expensive Active Body Control upgrade. "Sport" mode with the base setup can feel a bit like "comfort," but the stock SL handles wide sweepers with grace. The electric power steering in the SL isn't engaging in any sports-car sense either. Although Mercedes-Benz has made some tuning adjustments in the 2017 SL, including the addition of the latest curve-tilting function to Active Body Control, so we'll update these impressions after revisiting the '17 model.

SL comfort, safety, and features

The SL's interior is a proper luxury cabin, with great room and fine fittings. Seats are wide yet supportive, and they conform snugly to a surprising range of body styles, thanks to 12-way adjustments, the most useful of which may be the bottom cushion extender. This year there's a new three-spoke, flat-bottom steering wheel, and a few of the buttons have been reconfigured. Behind the seats, there's only a tight space, wide enough for a briefcase. The trunk holds a roll-on bag or two with the roof raised, or only soft-sided bags when it's lowered.

The SL remains a retractable hardtop that can be operated at speeds of up to 25 mph. A trunk button powers the stowed roof panels up and out of the way for easier cargo loading.

All SL models come with Mercedes’ COMAND infotainment system. For 2017 the infotainment screen gets slightly larger. There's Apple CarPlay smartphone integration as part of a package, and the system offers full navigation as an option. Comfort- and safety-oriented options are really the SL's strength, though; things like Airscarf neck vents and magnificent Harman Kardon or Bang & Olufsen audio make this cabin a pleasure to spend hours and days in—as does the folding hardtop with available Magic Sky Control, which turns the roof's glass panel dark like a pair of pricey sunglasses.

On the safety front, the SL is exceptional among performance cars in that it inherits a lot of the world-class active-safety features that are given to the S-Class flagship sedan. From knee airbags to adaptive cruise control, Collision Prevention Assist Plus, radar cruise control, blind-spot monitors, and active lane control, this model is very safe on paper, but no crash-test data exists.

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2017 Mercedes-Benz SL Class

Styling

The 2017 Mercedes-Benz SL gets a bolder front end that's more in sync with the brand's look, though it's a two-part design.

The Mercedes-Benz SL has gone through a number of quite distinct design generations—and from sensational gullwings and pagoda-roofed coupes, to duller, softer—yet still fabulous—vehicles like the "Dallas"-era vaults from the 1980s and early 1990s, they all have a distinct, unifying look.

That remains true for the current model, which actually gets just a little bit better aesthetically for 2017. The tapered look and taillights have always seemed a bit at odds with the rest of the car, and for 2017 the taillights and some of the body panels have been massaged for a more athletic look. We give it a 7 for styling. (Read more about how we rate cars.)

The design can be confusing. It sits somewhere between the more dramatically styled SLs and those that were more subtle, with some portions leaning one way and others at the opposite end of the spectrum. The front end is imposing—thanks largely to European safety regulations that require taller hoods to protect pedestrians in accidents—but avoids looking heavy. That leaves the SL with a large nose, more like those of the '60s models, which leads to a more formal-looking profile. The oversized grille and large air dams help negate some of the apparent size, and the large, rounded headlights team with attractive LED running lights.

The front-end tweaks are a relatively minor point in all but the full-frontal view of the SL, where it's been given just a little more of the "elegant maw" grille—a more open, more sculpted look that's at once more elegant and more aggressive. Yet this front-end appearance, while it fits well into the rest of the current M-B lineup, does give the look a more polarized, two-sided design ethos: chiseled.

Some of the most critical longtime Mercedes-Benz fans might say that the SL now has a brawny sport-sedan front end mated to a graceful touring coupe rear two-thirds. Purely from the side profile, it’s still far from the prettiest, most perfectly proportioned SL; but from the other collective angles the facelift manages to help command quite the presence.

The view is best from the front quarters, where you get a good view of the SL's doors that are stamped with straked C-scoops that pierce the door handles. With the top up, the slope of the roofline and teardrop-shaped taillights are out of balance with the front end, but with the top down, they fall more smoothly into line.

Mercedes SL interior

Inside, not all that much changes for the SL with its refresh; it's already a cockpit that feels executed with precision—a touring sports-car version of business-jet air travel, perhaps, with round aviation-style vents, and a big (slightly larger this year) infotainment scree—one that's integrated within the dash, rather than freestanding, as in some of the brand's newer, lower-priced models.

There are two rows of stitching through the leather, there's enough metallic trim to embarrass an Audi, the steering wheel's slightly flat at its bottom, and the shifter is just a nubbin on the center console. The small shifter does have the advantage of opening up the cabin and making room for other controls and storage, but we would also like a manual.

The dash remains a bit different than the bold designs offered in some of Mercedes-Benz's smaller efforts, like the C-Class, and in the flagship S-Class, in that it's a little less flowing and organic and instead a little more traditional and compartmentalized. Four 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 trim, available in either warm or dark polished wood, aluminum, or carbon fiber.

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2017 Mercedes-Benz SL Class

Performance

AMG models offer a lot of excitement; yet it's clear the 2017 Mercedes-Benz SL is a touring coupe (and roadster) first.

The 2017 Mercedes-Benz SL models aren't quite sports cars—not even in top AMG guise—although they deliver astonishing straight-line performance as well as some of the touring enjoyment that those loyal to the SL badge will expect.

While nimble and powerful, the cars are every bit the luxurious, sporty touring roadster those SL loyalists have loved for so many years—now with a little more chassis technology that will help allow both you and your passenger to have a better time on curvy roads. We give the entire SL range an 8 for performance, coming down in favor of its strong AMG editions. (Read more about how we rate cars.)

SL powertrains and performance

The vast majority of the SL lineup for 2017 gets new 9-speed automatics, although the hardly subtle top-performance AMG versions stick with a 7-speed Speedshift automatic.

The 2017 SL lineup starts with the SL450, with a twin-turbocharged 3.0-liter V-6 making 362 horsepower and 369 pound-feet of torque. Above it, the SL550 offers a twin-turbo 4.7-liter V-8, now upgraded to 449 hp and 516 lb-ft. And at the top of the lineup, the Mercedes-AMG SL63 comes with twin-turbo 5.5-liter V-8 (577 hp and 664 lb-ft) while the SL65 gets a massive 6.0-liter twin-turbo V-12 engine churning out 621 hp and 738 lb-ft. We tend to think that the SL63 hits the sweet spot for performance and handling.

In a car that’s been designed with such inherent grace, the AMG SLs can feel a little forced. That said, the SL63 is a brilliant athlete, the meticulously engineered, sharply-tuned brute of the lineup. Its pulsating, bellowing, crackling high-revving V-8 (577 hp and 664 lb-ft) always feels just a little over-the-top in sounds, sensations, and actual power delivery, and the 7-speed AMG Speedshift transmission is a gem with this combination, managing to shift with delicate precision at gentle throttle openings yet bang out racing-influenced powershifts when you really need to scoot.

Seven speeds are more than enough; the awesome, responsive 7-speed AMG transmission arguably does a better job in most respects than the 9-speed in the mainline models—and it allows full manual control, holding the selected gear even with the accelerator mashed to the floor.

But across either of these transmissions, there’s no need to even use the manual mode, as the electronic shift controls feel telepathic, blipping to a lower gear with just a dab of the brakes before a corner or to control speed on a steep downhill.

We haven't driven the 621-hp, V-12-powered S65 this time, but it remains the banshee of the lineup—a car that’s technically the quickest and fastest in the lineup (0-60 in 4 seconds, 186 mph), but with enough additional weight to point back to the S63 as the superior handler.

Moving to the non-AMG versions, it’s the twin-turbo V-8 in the SL550 that best seems to fit the relaxed yet strong touring character that’s a natural with this car. It lopes along with a refined character a proper touring coupe should possess, although we noticed some uncouth behavior at lower speeds and gentle throttle with the 9-speed and this engine.

With the new, more powerful 3.0-liter twin-turbo V-6 (362-hp, 369 lb-ft), the SL450 feels nearly as quick as the V-8 in driving anywhere near legal speeds; meanwhile the sound is a little more strident, so as long as you don’t crave the character of a V-8 this engine will do just fine in flaunting your (or your spouse’s) taste in roadster style.

Ride and handling

Mercedes-Benz has made meaningful changes to the way the SL-Class rides and handles for 2017, and the new Curve Tilting feature for the available Active Body Control (ABC) makes all the difference.

ABC is a full active suspension system, controlled by hydraulics and capable of adjusting its parameters in milliseconds. It helps erase lift during hard acceleration, nosedive during hard braking, and body roll (tilting to the outside of the corner) during hard cornering.

This system, which has been offered as an option for years, has been a mixed blessing, because the sensations it provides tend to feel unnatural in tight switchbacks, as the car stays flat. Yet with the Curve Tilting function, the suspension works to help the car lean into corners up to 2.65 degrees, as a motorcycle rider would, to reduce lateral Gs within the car. That fights the unnatural feeling in cars with ABC around tight corners, and it makes the SL a lot more fun to drive—and less upsetting to the passenger.

Even in base cars you get a steel-spring suspension, supplemented by a variable damper system that adjusts with the Dynamic Select modes (now Eco, Comfort, Sport, Sport Plus, and Individual)—and, to some degree, to driving style and road conditions.

Overall, the SL feels far more like a grand-touring coupe than an all-out sports car. The electric power steering in the SL isn't engaging, but it feels stable on center, and has quicker responses farther off center to minimize wheel movement.

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2017 Mercedes-Benz SL Class

Comfort & Quality

There's only space for two, but the space is lovely and as nicely trimmed as any willing convertible passenger might want.

The 2017 Mercedes-Benz SL has an inviting cabin—one that goes overboard on details, and one that feels just as lavish and comfortable, top up or top down.

We give it an 8 for comfort and quality. Yes, it only seats two and its trunk is ridiculous, but it seats those two passengers in ultimate luxury. (Read more about how we rate cars.)

The driver and passenger are tucked into 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 functions 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.

Part of the appeal is the SL's decent space, and with the roof lowered, easy access. With the roof raised, getting in requires more of a mid-waist bend, but entry and exit aren't as difficult as many sports cars. Once in, the SL's seats are wide and deeply scooped, with fairly flat bottom cushions that can be extended for better comfort.

Comfort in the SL models, no matter which one you choose, is better than what you’ll find in most prestige luxury cars costing quite a bit more. Highlights include strong cooled seats, massage seat features, and, of course, Airscarf, which blows warmed air onto your neck on cool mornings.

Cargo space, however, is tight. The shallow storage area behind the seats is quite small, with room only for an ultrabook or two. With the roof raised there's room for one or maybe two roll-aboards in the trunk, but when it's lowered, plan on bringing soft-sided bags, and make them gym-sized.

The top will raise or lower at up to 25 mph, and through some folding wizardry it leaves enough trunk space for two airline carry-on suitcases, plus a backpack or two. It’s a shallow space, but a usable one—and behind each of the front seats there’s a deep, lidded-and-hinged storage bin.

Top down, you can power up an air deflector that, with the side windows up simultaneously, is one of the most effective in any convertible made, creating a zone that lets you be relatively soft-spoken at 70 mph. Power up the top, and the SL turns back into a tight, vault-like coupe; a passenger might have no idea that this moonlights as a convertible.  

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.

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2017 Mercedes-Benz SL Class

Safety

There are loads of active-safety wizardry in the 2017 Mercedes-Benz SL, but no crash-test data.

"Vault-like" is a descriptor that you'll hear repeatedly, of Mercedes-Benz SL models spanning decades. And compared to most convertibles on the market, it's an apt way of describing how the SL feels going down the road: very secure and shudder-free.

That goes beyond perceived safety. Mercedes-Benz has a long history of over-engineering its cars for safety, and these models have a great real-world record for occupant safety—even if the SL hasn't been crashed by either of the two big national testing agencies—and likely won't be because of how relatively rare it is.

That's why we pause on giving it a safety score. (Read more about how we rate cars.)

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 headrests, wet-arm wiper blades, active headlamps, LED daytime running lights, and Attention Assist, which monitors the driver for drowsiness and lights up a coffee-cup icon on the dash when it's time for a caffeine break.

On the active-safety front, Collision Prevention Assist Plus is now a standard feature, with active brake assist. An available Driver Assistance package heaps on more, including adaptive cruise control with steering assist, an Active Brake Assist system with cross-traffic functionality, blind-spot monitors, active lane control, and Pre-Safe Brake, which will brake at up to 40 percent power, while sounding an alert, if traffic is stopped ahead. With the latter feature, the moment the driver touches the brake pedal 100 percent of braking power is delivered.

Mercedes bundles a few of the latest safety technologies together in a Driver Assistance Package. Adaptive cruise control integrates with the braking system to detect when a collision is imminent, and to apply brakes to limit damage or to prevent the crash entirely. We have mixed feelings about the utility of this kind of cruise control and the lane-keeping assist that comes with it. However, we feel the blind-spot monitors that complete the trio add a valuable measure of safety, with the ability to help steer the car back into line using directed braking.

Among the SL's safety options, the rearview camera should be standard at this price—but it's not. 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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2017 Mercedes-Benz SL Class

Features

Massaging seats and Bang & Olufsen sound upgrades are just the start; you have lots of choices.

We rate the Mercedes-Benz SL a perfect 10 in features. It's lavishly outfitted with standard equipment, offers scads of options in hardware as well as color and trim choices, and has some killer features like neck-warming air vents and its folding roof. (Read more about how we rate cars.)

Between the 2017 SL450 and SL550 models, there isn't much of a feature difference. All SL models come with Mercedes’ COMAND infotainment system.

The screen for 2017 gets slightly larger, and the interface has been upgraded to match other recent Mercedes-Benz products. There's Apple CarPlay smartphone integration as part of a package, and the system offers full navigation as an option.

Comfort- and safety-oriented options are really the SL's strength, though; things like Airscarf neck vents and magnificent Harman Kardon or Bang & Olufsen audio make this cabin a pleasure to spend hours and days in—as does the folding hardtop with available Magic Sky Control, which turns the roof's glass panel dark like a pair of pricey sunglasses.

Standard features on the SL include LED lamps, selectable driving modes, parking assist, keyless ignition, an AMG lower body-styling kit, and Harman Kardon Logic 7 surround sound.

As for the Bang & Olufsen audio upgrade, we're not convinced it's worth the upgrade, with its thin bass response and FrontBass speaker packaging.

Mercedes offers its power-folding hardtop with a glass roof panel or with Magic Sky Control (was that a Summer of Love warm-up act?) but is actually photochromic control that dials in more or less tint. It's the world's most seductive set of Foster-Grants, and a perfect match for the standard power wind deflector and optional Airscarf neck vents and heated and ventilated seats.

A trio of features are just nerdy enough to be cool. To keep the windshield, the SL offers a 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. There's also 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 third, the SL offers active park assist that steers the car into a tight spot while you work the brakes.

On the SL63 AMG, the upgrade to choose is the Performance Package. You 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—increasing power to 557 horsepower and 664 pound-feet of torque. That increases the top speed to 186 mph.

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2017 Mercedes-Benz SL Class

Fuel Economy

The 2017 Mercedes-Benz SL has powertrains that are a step more efficient than before—but the V-12 remains very thirsty.

With a new 9-speed automatic, plus a twin-turbo V-6 joining the 2017 SL lineup—Mercedes-Benz claims it's more efficient—this hardtop convertible's mileage improves across the lineup, according to the EPA.

We give it a green score of 6 for its overall gas mileage. (Read more about how we rate cars.)

The 2017 SL450 is rated by the EPA at 20 mpg city, 28 highway, 23 combined. Mileage has improved only slightly with the new 9-speed automatic. The SL550 posts a 1-mpg gain on all tests, rising to 17/25/20 mpg.

Step up to the more powerful SL63 AMG model, and it comes as no obvious mileage penalty. The 2017 ratings aren't yet in, but last year's model earned 16/25/19 mpg. If you're looking at the SL 65 AMG, however, you'll only earn 14/21/17 mpg, which is poor, but not terrible considering its immense power.

All SL models are outfitted with stop-start technology, which shuts off the engine at longer pauses like stoplights, and automatically restarts it when the accelerator is pressed. Some drivers may find it annoying, but it helps save fuel.

The feature can be disabled, but it must be switched off each time the car is started by the driver. However, in top AMG models, you might not even want to; we noticed in an early drive of 2017 models that this feature is less obtrusive in the AMG variants than in SL450 and SL550 models.

The SL also has an Eco driving mode, that grabs the next gear as soon as possible and remaps fuel delivery.

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Styling 7
Performance 8
Comfort & Quality 8
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