What is it?
This is the important version of the latest, sixth-generation Mercedes SL, the model most UK buyers will choose. Instead of a 4.7 litre twin-turbo V8, this SL’s long, jutting bonnet shields a 3.5 litre V6 of 302bhp rather than 429bhp, yet despite this sizeable difference the 350 can still spear 62mph in a swift-enough-for-most 5.9sec compared to the V8’s 4.6sec.
More significant this difference will be the opportunity to enjoy the latest SL experience at a considerable price reduction compared with the £82,000est price of the V8. And that experience promises to be an impressive one, even when you’re two cylinders short of a bent-eight burble. Why? Because for the first time in six decades and five generations of SL this car really does live up to the ‘Leicht’ part of its acronym. Whether it is sporting as well as light we shall see, but the 140 kilograms shorn from the body following a switch from steel to aluminium help this latest SL350 shear 0.3 seconds from its 0-62mph time. On top of that, rigorous attention to its aerodynamics (the Cd is a clean 0.27) allow the engine’s efforts to take better effect at higher speeds. Less mass promises defter dynamics, as does the immense rigidity of this finely wrought new shell, which is claimed to be the stiffest of any two-seater drop-top road car yet made.
All this with the promise of 41.5mpg combined, a 30 per cent reduction in consumption effected by the improved efficiency of the V6, those weight and drag reductions and the auto stop-start integrated into the seven-speed automatic transmission. All this produces an important fiscal difference too, the V6’s 159g/km comparing impressively with the V8’s 212g/km.
What’s it like?
You’ll notice surprisingly sharp steering and impressively deft turn-in even if it’s a modestly attacked roundabout that is your first direction-changing experience aboard this car. That’s a sensation that any car called Sports Light ought to deliver, but one that has been disappointingly absent from most versions of most generations of this famous Mercedes, which has compensated instead with plentiful qualities in other directions.
More than that, this V6 is noticeably more agile than the heftier V8, encouraging you to drive it in the manner of – shock – a sports car. Will you miss the power shortfall compared to the V8 and its turbos? Yes, if you’ve sampled their power, which is why you’ll soon be reaching for the ‘S’ for sport button on the centre console, and stabbing the same setting for the electronic dampers while you’re at it. Sport has the transmission delaying upshifts and still more usefully, selecting lower ratios on part-throttle, quite often jumping two at a time to provide appropriately enlivened thrust.
Below 100mph that turns the 350 into a charger more than adequate for most UK-based red mist moments, even if those enjoying it on a derestricted autobahn will miss the V8’s mighty torque at three-figure speeds. Red mist moments? Yes. This is an entry-level, six cylinder SL that has shed much of its stolid demeanour, encouraging you to attack bends with commitment and the considerable speeds that it’s capable of. Hints of this new-found dynamism appear not only through the quickened steering but also via the suspension, whose momentary side-to-side roll-rock jostlings betray particularly stiff anti-roll bars that might, you find yourself thinking, provide especially accomplished cornering prowess.
And so it proves. The Benz noses into bends with zeal whatever the speed, and even if it rolls a little more than you’d expect given the above and its presumably-low centre-of-gravity, it corners with satisfyingly well-planted and neutral security. True, the steering fails to twitter sufficient topographical tweets, and if you accelerate too early mid-bend you’ll bring on momentary surges of light understeer, but you will not find yourself discouraged from the urge to drive this car hard.
And all the while you’ll enjoy the luxury of superb seats, an impressively swirl-free cockpit once the collapsible wind-stop has motored sky-wards, a finely upholstered cabin that combines an appealing cocooned sensation with plentiful space. And roof-up, this SL is as civilised as an S-Class saloon, while riding with usefully more pliancy than the sometimes coarse E-Class.
Criticisms? The styling seems overwrought and distinctly short of elegant grace to these eyes, the fine-tuning of the seat bolster support is a fiddly business and the V6, while sounding decidedly keener and more sporting than many motors of this configuration, suffers a little metallic harshness at middling to high revs. So not much in other words, the thoroughness with which Mercedes has set about engineering this first aluminium-bodied regular production SL bearing all kinds of bountiful fruit.
Should I buy one?
Undoubtedly, if it’s an agile, open-top, two-seater grand tourer that you crave. It easily eclipses the Jaguar XK as an all-rounder, the Maserati Gran Coupe besides as well as the outgoing SL. A 911 offers a more satisfying hard-charge drive, but then it always has. This new, more efficient SL plays the triple roles of svelte GT, luxury roadster and darting sports car better than any of its predecessors, and in many ways more effectively than the pricier V8.
Mercedes SL350 BlueEfficiency
Price: £72,495; Top speed: 155mph (limited); 0-62mph: 5.9sec; Economy: 41.5mpg; CO2: 159g/km; Kerb weight: 1685kg; Engine type, cc: V6, 3498cc petrol; Power: 302bhp at 5000rpm; Torque: 230lb ft at 3500rpm; Gearbox: 7-spd automatic