7

Mercedes’ ‘old-timer’ roadster is off in a sportier direction, but is it the right one?

Mercedes’ ‘W194’ endurance racer left an indelible mark on motorsport in 1952, winning Le Mans, the Nürburgring Eifelrennen and Mexico’s Carrera Panamericana, and it finished second on the Mille Miglia.

It was retired after only a season, but such was the interest it caused that Mercedes’ US importer Max Hoffman (who would later prove key in the genesis of so many Porsches) suggested Mercedes should make a production version. So it did: in 1954, there followed the ‘W198’ 300 SL ‘Gullwing’.

The new SL has one of the longest bonnets in the business. You sit a long way back from the nose in a driving position highly reminiscent of that in the AMG GT.

Six further generations of what would become known as the Mercedes SL followed, the longest-lived remaining in production for a remarkable 18 years. But over the decades, the SL has been defined very differently, swinging all the way from motorsport exile to thick-pile-carpeted, gently wafting, drop-top luxury icon.

Mercedes says it’s going back to its roots. The new R232-generation car has officially become a Mercedes-AMG SL. Designed and developed exclusively by Mercedes’ own factory tuning department, the car comes in AMG-badged forms only and features several technical departures aimed at not only cutting weight and enhancing performance, handling and driver feedback but also boosting the daily usability for which the SL has become so well known.

So has the whispering, demure, magic carpet-like Mercedes SL been fully retired and a sportier inheritor of the legend installed in its place? We turned to a full-fat Mercedes-AMG SL 63 4Matic+ to find out what the newcomer is made of.

Advertisement
Back to top

Range at a glance

MODELS POWER FROM
Mercedes-AMG SL 43 Premium 375bhp £108,165
Mercedes-AMG SL 55 4Matic+ Premium Plus 469bhp £147,715
SL 63 4Matic+ Premium Plus 577bhp £171,965

Unveiled to the world in autumn 2021, the new Mercedes-AMG SL was launched in only two derivative forms. That has since expanded to three, and it will, before long, branch out again to include a range-topping 63 S E Performance plug-in hybrid. The entry-level Mercedes-AMG SL 43 model is the only rear-driven SL, though. The rest are all four-wheel drive.

Broadly speaking, the range is split from there into Touring, Premium and Performance trim levels, with Touring models getting more chrome-rich classic exterior trim flourishes and lighter-coloured cabin materials.

DESIGN & STYLING

mercedes amg sl63 road test 2023 02 panning side

For many generations, the SL has been hitched developmentally to its contemporary S-Class limousine. The new ‘R232’ is a watershed moment in the history of this car, however, because it has been designed and developed from a clean sheet by Mercedes-AMG. And it is twinned not with a limousine but instead with Affalterbach’s next-generation AMG GT super-sports car, which is due later this year. 

The SL switches to the same kind of spaceframe construction that AMG has favoured for its sports cars for some time. It is aluminium-intensive but also contains magnesium, steel and carbonfibre composites, and it is significantly more torsionally, longitudinally and transversely rigid than the chassis of the ‘R231’ before it.

Multi-link suspension features front and rear but, for the first time in decades, it sits below steel coil springs rather than either air or hydropneumatic suspension. All SLs get adaptive dampers and four-wheel steering as standard; upper-tier SL 63s add electromechanical active anti-roll control as part of Mercedes-AMG’s Active Ride Control suspension, plus a torque-vectoring active rear differential.

Four-wheel drive is another technical departure. No previous SL has had it, but now all but the entry-level, four-cylinder, 375bhp SL 43 do. Above that are 469bhp and 577bhp turbo V8-powered versions, badged SL 55 and SL 63 respectively, with an even more potent SL 63 S E Performance due later on.

And if all of that new chassis and powertrain technology sounds heavy? Well, this SL is the first since the 1990s to junk Mercedes’ old folding steel ‘vario-roof’ for a cloth alternative, itself saving 21kg and lowering the car’s centre of gravity.

Our test car still weighed a pretty hefty 1939kg on the scales. That is 61kg lighter than the R230-generation SL 63 we tested in 2008 but more than 120kg heavier than the ‘R231’ SL 500 tested in 2012, both of which had a folding metal roof. 

INTERIOR

mercedes amg sl63 road test 2023 16 seats front

The new SL’s cloth hood may be the first difference you notice, but this is the first SL in several generations to offer ‘+2’ second-row seating – although you certainly wouldn’t call it a proper four-seater.

Mercedes advises that those back seats are “for passengers up to 1.5 metres tall”. They have very upright backrests and aren’t easy to access or exit, even for passengers who meet that height restriction. But while the ‘+2’ seating erodes the cabin’s sense of exclusivity, they do add some practicality – even when only carrying shopping bags.

You dip low to berth the driver’s seat but will find it comfortable and widely adjustable. There is electric adjustment in just about every direction, but while much of that is automated, it’s not always done so intelligently. Open the door to get out and the seat will motor back and recline automatically to ease your egress, for example. But it will do so even when the sensors for the rear seatbelts tell the car that the chair behind is occupied – and where there was likely to have been scant leg room to begin with. The head restraints, too, have a habit of lowering themselves automatically as the hood folds up and back – but they don’t then return to their previous positions.

The hood itself is an impressive piece of design, folding and stowing quickly and quietly into a surprisingly tight space that leaves a reasonable amount of luggage room. Some testers bemoaned the route by which it is controlled, however – not by a knurled physical switch but by a dedicated screen on the car’s portrait-oriented central infotainment display. Lowering the roof in a car such as this ought to be a bit of theatre to look forward to, but here it’s a disappointingly fiddly process via a surface that, when the roof has been down, can become a bit too warm to hold a fingertip against comfortably for the required 15 seconds.

The SL’s tilting infotainment display is the central focus of a reductionist cabin design of a theme that Mercedes has dubbed ‘hyperanalogue’: the combination, supposedly, of a simplified classic-looking fascia geometry with the latest digital infotainment technology. But the sense of built-in quality around that screen, and of any really lavish sense of inherent expensiveness and heft to the cabin overall, is a little underwhelming.

It’s all pleasant enough, but there is rather too much plastic masquerading as aluminium in evidence here, along with fewer physical controls with which to engender any substantial expensive tactile feel in the first place, to put this car on a level with the most luxurious-feeling convertibles. 

Mercedes amg sl63 road test 2023 20 screen 0

Infotainment

The SL’s major development here is an 11.9in portrait-style MBUX infotainment screen that can be adjusted between 12 and 32deg of inclination from the vertical. This means you can make it less likely to reflect light in your eyes, and at the same time it brings the top edge closer, within easier reach. It’s a feature from which more Mercedes models would benefit, because having the screen slightly closer does make it easier to prod at and swipe (although the controls mounted on the steering wheel still give you an option not to, if you prefer).

Our test car had a useful head-up display, too (only bottom-rung SL 43 models miss out on it as standard), along with Mercedes’ usual choice of instrumentation display modes. It’s a more complicated array of information than many cars provide, and it does take some time to get used to the infotainment system. But overall it’s navigable enough, with practice and familiarity. The navigation system displays mapping clearly and plots routes effectively. Or, if you prefer, the car’s wireless smartphone mirroring software works reliably, too.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

mercedes amg sl63 road test 2023 010 engine

The SL 63’s 577bhp power and 590lb ft torque peaks are emphatic statements of intent. You have to go all the way to a Porsche 911 Turbo S Cabriolet, an Aston Martin V12 Vantage, a 12-cylinder Bentley Continental GTC or a Ferrari Roma Spider to get a significantly more powerful car – and few of those are quicker-accelerating on paper.

Few would be in practice, either. Aided by its effective launch control and four-wheel drive systems, and on a warm day, our test car needed just 3.5sec to hit 60mph from rest, and only 7.8sec to crack 100mph. Aston Martin’s Vantage F1 Edition was slower when we tested a coupé in 2021; Bentley’s 650bhp Continental GT Speed only a tenth or two quicker, again tested as a coupé. And what of the last SL 63 on which we did an instrumented road test, two model generations ago in 2008? It needed a yawning 2.6sec longer to get into three figures.

A former road-test editor once told me that an SL 55 would do 155mph from rest, stop and then hit top speed again within the confines of the Millbrook mile straight. I didn’t believe him – but the SL 63 did that with room to spare.

In terms of outright accelerative performance, AMG’s blank-sheet reimagining has produced some serious results. And subjectively, 577bhp feels like plenty because, even at their wildest, SLs have always been as much grand tourers as committed sports cars. Their appeal has always been bound up in the woofling, ostentatious hot-rod charm of their V8 engines, which can be enjoyed at any speed.

There’s plenty of punch here, and it’s typically smoothly provided – but there’s V8 drama, too. Lock in a higher intermediate gear from low revs and you will feel one of the first manifestations of that drama: with the tacho passing 2500rpm under maximum load, the V8’s turbos wake up to serve a hefty dose of torque to all four wheels. 

Ride out the full-throttle surge and the engine will pull harder and harder until beginning to tail off beyond 6000rpm. The high-range theatrics of other performance engines are omitted, then, but even so, there’s a lot of both performance and vocal presence to enjoy, the latter emanating from those quad tailpipes like some baritone battle cry if you select the noisiest, sportiest driving modes.

The SL’s nine-speed automatic gearbox is impressive, too. It’s fast on the paddles in its manual mode and sufficiently slick and smooth in D that you certainly wouldn’t guess that AMG had replaced the torque converter with an automated wet clutch. Automatic downshifts under deceleration on the road can come a little suddenly in S+ and Race modes, though, and nine speeds are a little too many to keep track of during interested driving – which is why most testers preferred the manual setting.

Track notes (Hill Route, Millbrook Proving Ground)

The SL 63 shows plenty of sporting purpose on track. In addition to its big accessible performance, it has considerable grip along with level and secure body control, and it is happy to be hustled along quickly.

The car’s active damping, torque-vectoring, steering and active anti-roll control systems work well to make the SL seem lighter and more agile than it might. But their combined result feels too remote to make the driver feel truly involved.

The SL 63 gets you through corners on line and under control without really letting you know how it’s doing so or inviting you to feel like a central part of the action. You’re never made aware of the lateral load building in its suspension and tyres as it corners or passing from one axle to the other as it changes direction.

Ultimately, that AMG omitted its usual Drift mode from the car’s switchable drive settings tells you quite a lot about the firm’s expectations of the SL customer’s appetite for fun.

RIDE & HANDLING

mercedes amg sl63 road test 2023 03 cornering rear

It might have been suffocating for a sports car, but 1.9 tonnes of kerb weight isn’t too much of a disadvantage compared with some of this car’s luxury convertible rivals. For a modern sporting GT, it’s a manageable burden.

The truth is, steel coil suspension, together with the new tuning priorities that Mercedes-AMG has adopted here, do deliver some significant dynamic gains. To start with, the over-assisted, gloopy-feeling steering of the old SL has gone. For better or worse, there’s also a much more connected feel about the new car’s ride than there was in its predecessors, along with more consistent body control.

Hood-up, over-shoulder visibility in cloth-top cabrios is a key bugbear of mine, but the SL’s isn’t too bad. The rear windows are a reasonable size, and the side glazing is big enough to minimise any blindspot.

At one level, the SL has certainly been made a more dynamically competitive driver’s car than its various forebears. But it’s one that feels less inclined to plough its own furrow, or play the rocket-propelled armchair, quite as idiosyncratically as the hot SLs of the past couple of decades. It has been made a firmer, noisier and more insistent-riding car, too, and potentially a less distinctively appealing one to those who liked the ‘fast yet filtered’ positioning of its antecedents.

Oa smooth enough surface, things start quite well. Although a little lacking in natural handling fluency, the SL is certainly a shade more agile and precise than you expect it to be as you commit to a corner. It controls its mass well both vertically and laterally and is ever stable and assured at big speeds.

But the rapidly changing profile of a typical British B-road reveals a lack of useful adaptability about this car’s dynamic character: the SL feels a little like a car trying to do too much. To be too soft in its Comfort mode, when its axles start to feel clunky and under-damped and it runs out of travel at greater speeds and lacks the support to prevent the body tumbling into compressions; and then too taut and reined in when S+ is selected, when there is a little jitteriness and brittleness to the ride as the suspension tries to work beyond the natural frequency of the chassis – with little convincing success.

Despite having plenty of outright bite and handling accuracy, then, the SL 63’s chassis never quite settles into the fast, fluent cross-country stride that its powertrain could so easily maintain. Neither does it communicate fully well enough to reveal its natural sense of balance, or to really engage you at the wheel. It’s a satisfactory device to drive keenly, but it certainly isn’t as satisfying as it ought to be.

 

Comfort & Isolation

The 21in wheels, steel coil springs, low-profile tyres and firmish axle mountings of our test car made for a much less isolating ride, and significantly poorer ride comfort over choppier surfaces, than many long-time SL devotees might expect. 

Part of this was most likely the result of the top-of-the-line performance tuning of the SL 63 car we chose to test. But without any non-AMG derivatives in the model line-up, you wonder just how much more refined and comfort-oriented than this the SL can really get.

Even in its Comfort mode, our test car never really demonstrated the potential to glide along. There was only a little filtering about its secondary ride; plenty of clunk and thwack from the axles over sharper edges and smaller inputs; a little bit of a fidget to its vertical body control; and some background noise on coarser Tarmac.

The SL is perhaps at its most comfortable on smoother motorways, where the cabin can feel particularly sheltered from the wind when the hood is down but with the wind deflector in place (although it is particularly fiddly to fit). It can cruise at 70mph without admitting much wind rustle into the cockpit, allowing a conversation between occupants without shouting, and primary seat comfort up front is very good. 

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

mercedes amg sl63 road test 2023 01 cornering front

Not by chance has Mercedes targeted the Porsche 911 Turbo Cabriolet with the price positioning of the SL 63 – and that actually makes its £170,000 base price decent relative value.

Above it sits a Turbo S Convertible and a Ferrari Roma Spider, before you get into Bentley Continental GTC territory or start sizing up bigger drop-top Astons. Considering its performance, the SL 63 offers quite a lot for the money, although it’s arguably slightly less desirable than some of those rivals. 

If you feel an SL belongs at a more affordable price point – and you want better than a 20mpg average from your luxury Merc drop-top – an SL 43 costs from £108,165, and an SL 55 from £147,715. There’s also the E Performance plug-in hybrid waiting in the wings.

VERDICT

mercedes amg sl63 road test 2023 28 static front

Mercedes has taken some recent bold decisions to redefine many well-regarded models as it moves inexorably forward without too much regard for what has made it successful in the past. And its new SL feels like a car that has had change forced upon it.

New chassis and drivetrain technology undoubtedly makes the SL 63 more effective as a sports car, and if Stuttgart’s aim was to shake off the SL’s fuddy-duddy image and attract younger buyers, that chassis makeover, combined with the comprehensive infotainment technology and the V8’s dramatic performance, might hit the target.

But a returning owner of many SLs would certainly notice key deficiencies here in terms of refinement and ride comfort. On neither is the SL 63 truly poor, but it is only averagely filtered and cosseting for a luxury GT.

Mercedes’ gamble is that the car’s keener handling will win it two new fans for every established one that the comfort trade-off may cost. It might be a risk worth taking, but the SL still has work to do to prove it’s really a better car because of it.

 

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Mercedes-AMG SL First drives